Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Maxwell Doig at Messum's Gallery, Cork Street, Mayfair, October 2018

Maxwell Doig, Abandoned Farm near Marston Clough, acrylic on canvas on board

   A really good artist makes us look at the familiar in new ways; things we might once have passed by without a second glance become suddenly remarkable. Paul Nash did it with his winter landscapes and paintings of trees; Maxwell Doig does it with the gable end of an old building, a deserted farmhouse, or the clock tower of an abandoned woolen mill. What at first sight seems ordinary becomes, through his hands and eyes, extraordinary. And you can never look at those things in quite the same way again.

            It has taken years for Doig to reach this remarkable point – to be able to look, say, at the Flamborough Head lights
ouse in North Yorkshire, and paint it in a way that no-one else has quite achieved before, ‘to see it anew,’ as he says.
            His artistic journey started young. ‘I wanted to be a painter even as a little kid,’ he told me when I visited him recently at his Huddersfield home. Skipping A Levels, at sixteen he went straight to Batley Art School, already ‘dead set’ on becoming an artist. A significant early encounter came when a friend introduced him to the veteran Huddersfield painter, David Blackburn (1939-2016).  ‘I don’t know any artist to whom I can compare him,’ Sir Kenneth Clark once observed. ‘Blackburn is not a landscape artist, not an abstractionist in the ordinary sense. He is a painter of metamorphosis.’
            Doig would never quite become an abstractionist, and looking at his work today you see little direct link with Blackburn. But it was Blackburn who really taught the teenage Doig how to see, and how to draw – starting with the simple things: a still life of fruit or flowers on a table, or an allotment seen out the back of Blackburn’s modest terraced house. The seasoned artist taught the young student a valuable lesson: that he did not have to draw everything he saw in the world; you could pick out the salient points, and abstract from it.
            ‘He changed my life,’ Doig admits.
            What he learned from Blackburn helped Doig get into Manchester School of Art, and from there to the Slade School of Art in London. Artists who can draw well have always attracted him, and draughtsmanship has long been the raison d’etre of the Slade, from Henry Tonks, Augustus John and Stanley Spencer to William Coldstream and Euan Uglow. Though a graduate student specializing in printmaking, Doig spent hours in the life-class, and he also studied human anatomy at University College Hospital. By the time he left the Slade he was already selling his work, and other than a brief stint teaching part-time at Leeds Metropolitan University he has made his living ever since as a professional artist, recognized for his skill as a painter and his confident yet idiosyncratic approach to his subject matter.
            His art has not stood still, however. His post-Slade period was when he came closest to full abstraction, but he has moved from there through a close focus on the human form towards the intense yet dream-like realism captured in buildings, boats and allotments that characterizes his latest work. He has always shown a keen interest in the surface of his works. ‘In a way,’ he tells me, ‘it’s all about the surface, the texture.’ That’s why, when he draws, he uses monotype – a print medium that, as the name suggests, only produces one or – at very most – two images. He has a wonderful feel for texture, for surface, patina and palimpsest – prints and paintings alike are very tactile works; there is this almost irresistible urge to touch them, to run your fingers across their surface. His flat, featureless skies deliberately accentuate the texture of his walls, his grass, his trees – even a fall of snow.

Maxwell Doig, Gable End, acrylic on canvas

            Doig is also very much concerned with – and located in – place. Though he can travel as far afield as Dungeness in Kent to paint the boats and extraordinary seaside landscape there, most of his current work is concerned with the local landscape around him in Yorkshire, and the buildings and allotments that characterise his neighbourhood. Doig sees himself as ‘reflective, inward looking,’ a Romantic – and he enthusiastically acknowledges the power of the local landscape upon him.
            Seeing Doig as a Romantic, we might link him also with William Blake, whose most famous words come from his epic poem ‘Milton,’ better known as the lines to the hymn ‘Jerusalem,’ put to music a century ago at the height of the Great War. If Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ are to be interpreted as the new-fangled factories of the urbanising industrial revolution, then Doig in Huddersfield lives right among their decay. Whilst Blake worked at the beginning of the Romantic era, here we find Doig at the end of it, painting and carefully recording de-industrial decline and our gradual disconnection with the sublime.
            ‘These empty dwellings,’ he tells me, ‘they make people stop and look. My pictures trigger memories – forgotten emotions, perhaps?’ They are places where people have lived, loved, worked and sweated out their lives, be it on a factory floor, in a boat or in the green fields of Yorkshire. Something remains, remembered and yet half-forgotten. And Doig records – making the momentary immortal.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Paul Nash masterpiece to be auctioned at Christie's

Paul Nash, A Farm, Wytschaete (1917)

This work is to be auctioned at Christie's in London on 26 June 2017, estimate £250,000 to £300,000. I have written the following text for the catalogue.

As Tate Britain’s recent retrospective has confirmed, Paul Nash was one of our most significant twentieth century artists: experimenter, seer, surrealist, modernist. But it was his experiences in the Great War that made him. Prior to August 1914 Nash had been an imaginative English watercolourist with a penchant for poetry and trees: inspired by William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the recent dramas of Post-Impressionism, Futurism and Vorticism had largely passed him by.
            A few months in the Ypres Salient in the spring and winter of 1917 changed all that: as the Tate Director John Rothenstein accurately observed in his seminal 1950s study, Modern English Painters, ‘What [Nash] experienced in that place of desolation made him an artist as decisively as the scenes of his boyhood by the River Stour made Constable an artist … There can be little doubt that had he been destined to take his place among the unnumbered thousands who died in the Ypres Salient he would have been unremembered, but surviving the bitter desolation of the place immeasurably deepened his perceptions.’[1]
            Having volunteered with the Artists’ Rifles in September 1914, Nash was posted to the Western Front as a junior infantry officer with the Hampshire Regiment in the early months of 1917. ‘I have simply been as excited as a schoolboy,’ he wrote to his wife, Margaret, though he would soon be reflecting on ‘the nightmare of the trenches’.[2] Then, one night in May, he fell into a concealed trench, broke a rib, and was invalided home. It was a lucky accident that quite probably saved his life. A few weeks later his battalion went ‘over the top’, and as Margaret recalled in her memoir, ‘Paul’s own Company practically disappeared under an over-whelming barrage’. [3]
            Safely back in London, Nash held a well-received exhibition of watercolours he had made in France and Belgium. Its success led to his selection by the government as an official war artist; he returned to Ypres in November 1917. There he got as close to the action as he could: Margaret even records that some of his drawings ‘actually had mud spattered upon them from nearby exploding shells, which he at times worked in to help with the colour of the drawing’.[4] Witnessing the last stages of the Battle of Paschaendale, what Nash saw appalled him. ‘I am no longer an artist interested & curious,’ he wrote in a now famous letter to his wife: ‘I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.’[5]
            Fifty-six of these ‘messages’ were exhibited as ‘Void of War’ at the Leicester Galleries in May 1918. They included The Farm, Wytschaete, as well as numerous other views of destruction on the Western Front now in significant national collections, among them Broken Trees, Wytschaete (Victoria and Albert Museum), Landscape, Year of Our Lord 1917 (National Gallery of Canada) and the iconic oil painting We Are Making a New World (Imperial War Museum). ‘What you see are chiefly the actual sketches done on the spot, on brown paper for the sake of rapidity,’ the author Arnold Bennett wrote in an introductory note to the accompanying catalogue. ‘The original impression may have been intensified afterwards by a method in which body-colour, chalk, pastel, and ink are all employed; but the original impression remains, and it is authentic.’[6]
            These watercolours and drawings were, as Bennett affirmed, ‘first-hand documents,’ and they would prove to be among the most powerful works produced by any artist, anywhere, over the course of the whole war. In the opinion of the American poet Ezra Pound, writing in New Age in July 1918, ‘Void of War’ was ‘the best show of war art … that we have had.’[7] They made Nash’s name.
            ‘I know of no works of art made by any artist working there who saw the splendours and miseries of the greatest of all theatres of war so grandly,’ John Rothenstein wrote four decades later. ‘Out of infinite horror [Nash] distilled a new poetry. The best of them will take their place among the finest imaginative works of our time …’[8] Without a shadow of doubt The Farm, Wytschaete, is among the very best of them. Nash had been warned that he could not record dead British soldiers: instead, the landscape here becomes a metaphor for the horrors that he witnessed: the red gaping wound in the earth and the dismembered trees articulate what it was, perhaps, impossible to actually paint.
            The wealthy artist Charles Maresco Pearce (1874-1964) purchased The Farm, Wytschaete directly from the exhibition. A member of the New English Art Club and (from 1929) the London Group, Pearce was a great collector, owning works by (among others) Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Gauguin and Walter Sickert. Gauguin’s Harvest: Le Pouldu (1890), now in the Tate Gallery, was once part of his collection.

David Boyd Haycock

[1] John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, Sickert to Moore (London: Eyre & Spotiswood, 1957), p. 343.
[2] Paul Nash to Margaret Nash 21 March 1917 and 26 April 1917, in Paul Nash Outline: An Autobiography, a New Edition edited by David Boyd Haycock (London: Lund Humphries, 2017), pp. 168 and 174
[3] Ibid. p. 194.
[4] Ibid. p. 195.
[5] Paul Nash to Margaret Nash 13 November 1917, ibid. p. 187.
[6]Introductory note’ by Arnold Bennett to ‘Void of War’: An Exhibition of Pictures by Lieut. Paul Nash (London: Leicester Galleries, 1918).
[7] Ezra Pound (writing under the pseudonym B.H. Dias), New Age, 18 July 1918.
[8] John Rothenstein, op cit., p. 347.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

British Watercolours at the British Museum

The Official War Artists scheme that was launched by the British government in 1916 would go on to commission work from some of the most significant artists of the century: William Orpen, Augustus John, Percy Wyndham Lewis and John Singer Sargent from the older generation, and from among ‘les jeunes’ (as Roger Fry dubbed them), William Roberts, Stanley Spencer, C.R.W. Nevinson, David Bomberg and Paul Nash, to name just a few. An early idea was that a great ‘War Museum’ would be purpose built to house this work: Charles Holden’s surviving sketch suggests an immense temple that would have been filled with paintings and sculptures, with Sargent’s Gassed and Nash’s Menin Road as two of its centrepieces. Hardly surprisingly the government did not have the money to invest in such a grand project after almost bankrupting itself in the defeat of Germany – it was impressive enough that it was willing to spare thousands of pounds and release young officers like Nash from active service to paint pictures.

But wouldn’t it have been a wonderful centenary project to have built that temple of war art, instead of leaving those paintings to languish in upstairs rooms at the back of the Imperial War Museum? Perhaps we will be able to afford it in time for the centenary of the Second World War instead – when the government again invested precious time and money in the production of art.

Another grand project close to my heart is a gallery that would celebrate another great British achievement – the humble watercolour, rightly or wrongly so widely and often acknowledged as a particularly British medium. Right now there is a step in that direction at the British Museum: ‘Places of the Mind: British Watercolour Landscapes, 1850-1950,’ curated by Kim Sloan. When I visited, the galleries – also located slightly off the beaten track at the back and upstairs in the BM – were pretty crowded, and Dr Sloan told me that the show was enjoying a high footfall. This deserved success clearly illustrates the public appetite for this medium and subject matter.

Paul Nash, The Wanderer, or Path through Trees (1911) British Museum

 With 125 works in watercolour, pastel and pen and ink celebrating these media in the hundred years following Turner’s death, Paul Nash’s hauntingly enigmatic 1911 painting The Wanderer, or, Path through Trees, is the opening work. It sets the tone for the whole show, and graces both the poster and the accompanying catalogue. Nash was a master at this type of work – you don’t have to look too closely at his pictures to discover how what is ostensibly a watercolour can often actually also include chalk or pen-and-ink highlights. The many other artists include James Whistler, Graham Sutherland, Ambrose McEvoy, Hercules Brabazon, Philip Wilson Steer, Henry Moore, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson and John Craxton (from among my more modern favourites) as well a whole gamut of earlier Victorian practitioners: John William North, Samuel Palmer, Edward Lear, George Clausen, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen Allingham – all of them drawn from the Museum’s extensive Prints and Drawing Room collections. Also squeezed in are a couple of works by Francis Towne and John Sell Cotman which, whilst breaking the strict chronology of the exhibition, draw it further back into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They are worthy historical inclusions: Cotman’s Greta Bridge, for example, was a favourite of Eric Ravilious’s, who is also represented here with the very early watercolour, Wannock Dew Pond, so unlike the works of the 1930s that would make him famous.

John Sell Cotman, Greta Bridge (c.1806-7), British Museum

It’s a great show, and one that does hopefully mark another little step on the road to a permanent gallery, somewhere in England, devoted entirely to the medium and its long and distinguished history.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of E.R. Hughes, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Spending one’s days studying the avant-garde of the early twentieth century, it’s sometimes none too easy to stop and think about what those artists were actually reacting against. What were most gallery-goers actually looking at and admiring when David Bomberg, for example, was painting his extraordinary abstracts in the years immediately prior to the First World War? Edward Robert Hughes – Ted Hughes to his friends – was one of them: his ‘blue phantasies’ at the Royal Watercolour Society’s annual summer shows were among the crowd pleasers – curious visions of fairyland and mystical interpretations of Victorian poems. 

E.R. Hughes, Oh, What’s That in the Hollow? (1893)
Hughes was born to be an artist. His uncle was the painter Arthur Hughes, a painter with closes link to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in its earliest days, who numbered Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Ruskin among his friends. So, literally from the cradle, Hughes lived among artists and critics. He entered the Royal Academy Schools aged 16, and was something of a star pupil. Though he worked in oil, it was in watercolour that he would make his name. The early work is very different in style and technique from the later works – though it can be equally haunting. ‘Mrs Peveril Turnbull and her daughter Monica’ feels like an illustration to an M.R. James short story, even before you discover that Monica and her sister were later to die together in a house fire.

This show lines up many other artists along side Hughes, but he often comes off looking second best to the likes of Henri Fantin-Latour or Fernand Khnopff (sadly in reproduction only). Hughes is certainly the lesser painter, but nonetheless a work such as ‘Oh, What’s That in the Hollow? (1893) and ‘Night With her Train of Stars’, are really something special. I can’t imagine the Bloomsbury Group caring for any of this – and the Futurists certainly did not when they visited London: it was exactly this sort of painting that seemed to the Italians to say nothing of the ‘Workshop of the World’, let alone of London, the Futurist city 'par excellence'. Indeed, they thought paintings like this ought to be carried out into Trafalgar Square and burnt, making way for a modern art of a modern world. But Hughes's paintings carry me back to the days of my youth when I first discovered the delights of the Pre-Raphaelites. And I know - unlikely as it may seem - that it was just this sort of painting that inspired the likes of Augustus John, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer and helped set them out on the road to becoming artists. 

E.R. Hughes, Night With her Train of Stars and Her Great Gift of Sleep (1912)
And besides, in a way there's nothing wrong with fairyland, when it's taking you away from the miseries of what industrial Britain must have been like. It is quite easy to see the appeal of these medieval fantasies for a smoke-filled world, stalked by slow or sudden death and opium dreams. (Hughes' fiancee died a lingering, youthful death from tuberculosis, such a killer in that era, even among the wealthier classes; and night with her stars in tow drops poppy petals - and does the baby in her arm sleep the sleep of night, or that of death?.) The best of these Victorian artists are always worth revisiting, and even as a critic of the avant grade, I can linger profitably in a world at a cross roads, where the nineteenth century meets the twentieth.