The revival of British painting continues apace with a new show by this innovative landscape artistby / November 5, 2013 / Leave a comment
A few weeks ago I wrote here that British Painting was back. Of course, it never went away: it carried on quietly and purposefully while the spotlight was trained elsewhere. One of the places it has been flourishing is a small venue at the end of a quiet residential street in Islington. The Art Space Gallery was founded in 1986 by husband and wife duo, Michael and Oya Richardson. Both former architects with a passion for art, their clear-sighted purpose was to show “the more robust and imaginative varieties of figurative painting being carried out by established or emerging British artists.”
I learned about it from The Spectator’s Art Critic, Andrew Lambirth, who has long championed both the gallery and the artists it shows. These are modernist painters with an innate understanding of their cultural inheritance. Anthony Wishaw’s meditative contemplations of nature teeter on the brink of pure abstraction, while tapping into a strain of British Sylvan Romanticism going back to Samuel Palmer and beyond. Jeffrey Camp is 90-years-old but still has a fresh, youthful vision of the British landscape. There are echoes of the Second World War painter Eric Ravillious, but mystery too, with Arcadian nudes and mythical beings providing hints of Chagall, or even Poussin.
What took me there recently was a new show by George Rowlett, one of the gallery’s more regular exhibitors. Born in Scotland in 1941, he attended Grimsby School of Art and then both Camberwell and the Royal Academy Schools. He was taught by Frank Auerbach and Euan Uglow who famously painted a nude portrait of a young Cherie Blair, but his earliest influence was Van Gogh, and it still shows. The way the paint has been moulded on the picture surface is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s restless brushwork. The association is most obvious in Rowlett’s flower paintings, but it’s also there in his series of Canaletto’s Views of Greenwich, where sky, buildings and river flow into each other in swirls and ripples, reflecting and echoing each other.
Rowlett applies paint with what looks like a wallpaper scraper, as well as his hands, and yet he is able to achieve great delicacy using tiny flicks and filigree strands. There is minutely observed detail: a stalk of straw or the curled edge of a poppy seems as fragile and beautiful as the original in nature. And the presence of insects and bits of vegetation embedded in the paint surface are a reminder of his dedication to painting from, and within, the landscape.
Rowlett says that he finds; “The fall of light from the sky is just one of the most glorious things. A daily gift.” In his Greenwich paintings, differences in light and weather conditions are palpable. The rise and fall of the river, the passage of clouds and sunlight, the squally interventions of wind and rain are acutely rendered in skilful variegations of colour and texture. Seldom deterred by the weather, he sets out most days on an ancient bicycle, laden with wood panels, tools, palette and 12-and-a-half litres of paint—just white and the three primaries. He responds to the place and the conditions as they evolve around him, and describes his paintings as “layers of experience,” some conscious, others accidental.
Like that other English landscape specialist David Tress, Rowlett’s work is as much a physical experience as it is a representation. Andrew Lambirth told me he’d like to curate a joint show of these two painters. I hope he succeeds. It would be a rare treat to enjoy the work of these two great, original interpreters of the British landscape side by side.
George Rowlett: East Kent and the River Thames continues until 15th November at the Art Space Gallery, 84 St.Peter’s Street, London N1 8JS. Gallery hours: 11 am to 6 pm Tuesday–Saturday