“Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—“
— from “The Dry Salvages” – in Four Quartets, T.S.Eliot
By the mid 1970s, I knew that I wanted to draw and paint, but without any prevision as to what, how or why. Not singing from any hymn book, ancient or modern, I began working directly from the subject. At about the same time I noticed Lucian Freud’s views from his studio windows, which showed a similar absence of stylistic preconception, and a seeming independence from the history of art or the art world in general.
Myself in 1972 >
In Freud’s pictures the urban back gardens are hardly visions of Earthly Paradise. Unlike Stanley Spenser and Samuel Palmer, Freud offers a secular view of life and nature, inseparable from change and mortality.
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Stanley Spencer was more than a painter of sepulchres and shrouds. His second wife, Patricia Preece, not only encouraged Stanley to paint numerous landscapes and gardens in and around Cookham, to help pay the bills, she also posed for some extraordinary ‘in your face’ nude portraits. It’s hard to believe Lucian Freud hadn’t seen any of these, but Freud, who seldom gave interviews, nevertheless flatly denied any similarity, citing Spencer’s sentimentality and inability to observe (Geordie Greig, 2013 ‘Breakfast With Lucian’). But maybe Freud was stimulated, not to imitate but to emulate Spencer. In these works Spencer obviously worked at least partly from observation. Like any other painter, he transmuted raw sensory data in his own way. Rather than formulaic or mannerist, some would see even his observational landscape paintings as original and visionary. And, to me, his early self-portrait is very reminiscent of Palmer’s.
In 1974 & 1975 I made a series of quite large paintings in rural settings, perhaps in search of subject-matter which already looked somewhat abstract. I found myself increasingly fascinated by long grass and the interplay of light with foliage. While I see these as key works in my œuvre, they were each completed in no more than a few days. In 1980, I commenced a painting specifically to enter for the G.L.C. ‘Spirit of London’ prize, and now found myself working on location seven hours daily, for at least a month – as intensely as I could, to keep pace with plant growth and changes of light as the season advanced.
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A painting that suggests some synchronicity between my approach and Lucian Freud’s at this time is his ‘Two Plants’, purchased by the Tate in 1980. Begun in 1977, the painting took three years. It appears that Freud began this work towards the upper central region of the canvas, where the tiny leaves of the creeper are still green. The leaves have faded to a desiccated pallor during the time he gradually worked away from the initial point, so that the time spent on the painting has become part of its subject. Freud said “I wanted to have a really biological feeling of things growing and fading and leaves coming up and others dying.” https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/freud-two-plants-t03105
Lucian Freud is now more known for his so-called ‘naked portraits’. These too were works of extended scrutiny in which Freud’s demands on the sitter must have been considerable. But, though, as I understand, he wanted the poses to be natural, he could control his sitters in a way he could not control growing vegetation, so that the emphasis is somewhat different.
Portraiture has always been an informal aspect of my painting, but in 1982 I wanted to enter for the new John Player Portrait award. At the time entrants had to be 40 or under, so it was my last chance. I had recently met the Australian Guru Barry Long, a man with a warm but formidable persona. Since his teaching was about stillness, I reckoned he’d be a good sitter and I could spend a long time on the work. The painting was indeed shortlisted for the prize and exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in 1983. Some commentators thought I was influenced by Freud, but any similarity of approach has arisen independently.
Besides ‘Blackberries in August, Muswell Hill’ the 1980 ‘Spirit of London’ exhibition included another work, ‘Gardens, Whitehall Park’, which I painted in 1979, and which was the first of many works I was to paint in the semi-wild garden of my friend Clement Griffith. Originally I wanted to include Clement in the picture but, after he had posed in the garden for rather long periods, I realised that the figure wouldn’t work because the artificial stillness imposed on the figure was at variance with the timescale of natural change that I felt in the garden. I therefore painted over the figure, but, because the painting is acrylic, Clement is still there, hidden under the grass and roses.
This painting was subsequently bought from me by a dealer and collector Michael Dickens (1942 – 2020), who considered the painting was in a contemporary manner not unrelated to Stanley Spencer’s. He was also intrigued by the story of the hidden presence of Clement. Despite some contrarian opinions, Michael had considerable discernment as well as charm. He had been brought up in Bourne End near Cookham, the home of Stanley Spencer, where he became a friend of the painter Nancy Carline as well as an authority, not only on Stanley Spencer, but also on Stanley’s first wife, the painter Hilda Carline, his second wife Patricia Preece, and Preece’s close friend, the artist Dorothy Hepworth.
Michael later promoted and curated innovative exhibitions of Dorothy Hepworth’s paintings at the Bloomsbury Workshop, The Court Gallery and The National Theatre in London, revealing ‘A remarkable deception … in her lifetime, Dorothy Hepworth had allowed her paintings and drawings to be sold as the work of her lifelong partner Patricia Preece who “masqueraded” as the artist. The two women deceived the Bloomsbury artists but also other notables in the art world such as Augustus John’ (exhibition note by Michael Dickens, Bloomsbury Workshop, 2000).
Michael was a music lover and great ballet fan, occasionally assisting backstage at the Royal ballet, and becoming friends with Fonteyn and Nureyev. However his early career was as a medical researcher and electron microscopist, eventually working at King’s College, London with Maurice Wilkins, whose work was instrumental in the discovery and modelling of D.N.A. Michael felt that his hours in the laboratory had helped him develop the analytic eye he later brought to paintings.
Michael also introduced me to Stanley’s daughter, Unity Spencer (1930 – 2017), a distinctive painter in her own right. Michael’s confidence in my work was very encouraging, and he gave practical support in allowing me to work from his house in Rigarda in the Pyrénées-Orientales, and in arranging commissions such as my painting ‘Joan in the Garden’ of Joan Foa, and the portrait of his friend, the actor David Bedard. Unlike the ‘Clement’ picture, ‘Joan in the Garden’ was to include the human figure – and cat.
By the mid 1980s my paintings of urban gardens were becoming much more extended plein-air studies, so they often include evidence of seasonal change. Begun in April 1986, it was initially the grove of dandelions growing in the lush grass of an untended lawn which attracted me to paint ‘Clement’s Garden’, but by the time I had moved on to the foreground of burgeoning chestnut leaves, the dandelion flowers had mostly become clocks. The painting was exhibited in the 1987 R.A. Summer Exhibition, and in Tate Britain’s 2004 ‘Art of the Garden’ exhibition, in the somewhat awesome presence of works by Samuel Palmer, Lucian Freud, Stanly Spencer and others.
In the same year as the Tate garden exhibition there was a small exhibition, Dürer and The Virgin in the Garden, at the National Gallery, London. Dürer’s 1503 watercolour, Das große Rasenstück, which was its centrepiece, shows a chunk of local May meadow that has been dug up, brought indoors and placed at eye level for close-up study. Out of the sunlight, the dandelion flowers have closed up, as they do, and the unpainted vellum background suggests an overcast sky. As with Freud’s ‘Two Plants’ (also painted indoors), not to mention the dandelions in ‘Clement’s Garden’, the painting implies the time and circumstances which the painter shared with the subject of his painting. Intended as source material for religious pictures, the common weeds depicted might well have been chosen for their symbolic message. Even so, the selection was evidently intended to look like unedited reality, and quite possibly was. Albrecht Dürer’s botanical watercolours are comparable with this genre in any era, but ‘The Great Spadeful’ is rare in representing a living fragment of plant ecology.
In 1988, following the acceptance in the R. A. Summer Exhibition of a further Clement’s Garden painting, I was offered a contract by John Davies Gallery, and I tried to augment my time-consuming plein-air output by working indoors or even at night. This coincided with my reading of Gombrich’s Art & Illusion (1960), particularly the chapters “Ambiguities of the Third Dimension” and “The analysis of Vision in Art”. Gombrich quotes Leonardo da Vinci: “perspective is nothing else than seeing a place behind a pane of glass, quite transparent, on the surface of which objects behind the glass are to be drawn”. Dürer, and possibly many others, constructed drawing devices along these lines, and I too devised a simple ‘peering aid’. My idea was to explore strange, or at least non-axial, perspectives, but another aspect was that it speeded up the drawing process because one always accepted an initial mark, rather than continually questioning it. The main challenge was painting the drawing, and again, uncertainty was restricted when working in unchanging artificial light, though I also did some in daylight.
In the 1990s I was using three different painting locations – two friends’ gardens, Clement’s and Jackie’s, each extensive, and interesting to me both in the lie of the land and their state of semi-cultivation. They felt like marginal areas between nature and so-called ‘civilisation’. The human world was never absent, but my focus was on the untended, or simply unintended, aspects. A further development, in my search for outdoor working space, led my wife and I to acquire a neglected property in Normandy, from which I began to paint the margins of wildness and agriculture in more remote settings.
In 1997, I rediscovered a fellow Hornsey alumnus, Gerry Keon. Gerry had been a leading light at Hornsey, charming, rebellious and talented, and, above all convinced of his painterly identity. Meeting him again, I was impressed by the way he had remained true to his vocation. After many years subsidising his abstract painting with various employments, he had found a steady job in a London parks department. In his evenings at home he found his drawings becoming unexpectedly figurative, reflecting his fellow city-dwellers and their world, though he sometimes gave them mythic titles. A friend suggested he should show them to a gallery, and this eventually led to a series of impressive exhibitions in the Francis Kyle Gallery, Mayfair. He found that people and settings were emerging in his drawings, seemingly under their own volition. Gerry writes: ” The confusions appearing on the canvas both stimulate and frustrate ideas that are emerging simultaneously and with equal confusion in my mind or imagination…. I don’t know what I’m doing, but when it happens I recognise it.“
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Despite both of us having active, inquiring minds, Gerry being well-read and unusually aware of art History, we both approach painting with a willing suspension of any thought-processes other than a practical logic and a heightened alertness. Although our paintings look very unlike, we share a respect for the imperatives that arise from the process itself, which can be lengthy:
“Paintings are long and complicated enterprises. The form, which appears to exist within the materials, has to be discovered through a journey, a sequence of events neither linear nor simple. The result cannot be cajoled or forced.” (G.K. 2011)
Gerry Keon showed some of my work to Francis Kyle, who, in 1998 became my main artistic agent, continuing so until the closure of his gallery in 2014. As well as solo shows, Francis curated a number of group exhibitions with literary themes. The first of these in which I participated was ‘The Art of Memory’ on the subject of Marcel Proust. In connection with Francis’ themed exhibitions I researched Lampedusa’s The Leopard, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and a range of First World War literature, as well as making related trips to Sicily, The Somme, or Little Gidding, all intrinsically rewarding.
I am not a ‘literary’ painter, and certainly not an illustrator. However, I read all seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, or rather ‘In Search of Lost Time’, and for Kyle’s exhibition ‘The Art of Memory’ in 2000 I contributed six canvases, all painted in vicinities related to the book. These were, coincidentally, not far from our place in Normandy in the pays de Coutances. The railway, about which Marcel fantasises in book one, and by which he travels to the fictional seaside town of Balbec in book two, is based on the single track which traverses Les Bouillons estate in a deep cutting, very near the scene of ‘Herbe folle’. (For more notes on the significance of Les Bouillons click here: ACROSS THE FIELDS. )
< My first Solo exhibition at The Francis Kyle Gallery. Francis Kyle with Eleanor Pearce >
Despite Francis Kyle’s liking for literary subjects, I felt increasingly that, besides a feeling of, what I can only call, the present passage of time, any subtexts to my paintings, particularly the all-important subject of photosynthesis, were scientific, ecological, and topically relevant to climate-change.
I continued to paint in Jackie’s garden, which backs on to the Alexandra Park, in North London, and also in locations in France, including Normandy and the Eastern Pyrenees.
At one of Gerry Keon’s private views at Francis Kyle’s Gallery, I met up with some more former fellow students, and was, once again, impressed at the stubborn survival of their creativity across the decades.
This led me to curate the ‘Old Contemporaries’ exhibition at the Islington Arts Factory in 2011. All the contributing artists had impressed me one way or another, and in some cases I was bringing to light works never before publicly exhibited, such as Clement Griffith’s 4’x6′ pencil drawing ‘Going North’, or Tim Wilson’s series of self-portraits. Clement’s drawing, like Gerry’s works, had emerged, as it were, under its own impetus from imagination and memory, whereas Tim’s auto-portraits were the product of intense but dispassionate observation.
Click on these links for more about the artists in this exhibition: https://oldcontemporaries.com/2019/01/22/old-contemporaries/ https://oldcontemporaries.com/confreres-and-consoeurs/
One of my most recent paintings of Jackie’s garden was ‘The Path Half Lost’, otherwise simply called ‘The Path’. I painted it for another themed exhibition at the Francis Kyle Gallery, ‘This Twittering World’ on the subject of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Even though worked from direct observation on site, and therefore a record of a very particular experience, the painting, like Eliot’s poetry, has many resonances, ranging from my involvement with the hidden pathways of Cabala to the vivid glow of childhood recollections, set against the sombre aftermath of the Second World War.
As a child I played at the edges of my father’s allotment, or on the bomb sites which nature had regenerated with such a reassuring biodiversity. There may be few parallels in poetry to T. S. Eliot’s tone of meditative soliloquy in Four Quartets, but painting surely follows a similar quest for the intersection of time and the timeless.