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A feast of visual delight

There are just 26 drawings and watercolours in the magnificent exhibition at Lowell Libson, but they are all of such quality and interest that the show is a feast of connoisseurship and visual delight.

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

There are just 26 drawings and watercolours in the magnificent exhibition at Lowell Libson, but they are all of such quality and interest that the show is a feast of connoisseurship and visual delight. Selected by Libson and Christopher Baker from the National Gallery of Scotland, the range of work gives a distinct flavour of the museum’s holdings, from major watercolours made for exhibition to more informal studies. Here are the big names (Turner, Constable, Blake) and the lesser-known (William Callow, John Webber). Most deal with travel or landscape, but there are figure studies and visions, too. The variety within such a small compass is impressive. For pure pleasure, this show is hard to beat.

In the first viewing room is a large and airy landscape by William Turner of Oxford, depicting Halnaker Windmill, near Chichester. This substantial work, with its poignant use of distant blue and its mastery of space, made me want to look more at a painter I had rather discounted; meanwhile the words of Belloc’s famous poem in Ivor Gurney’s setting echoed through my mind. Next to it hangs Girtin’s ‘Stepping Stones on the Wharfe, Yorkshire’, composed of seemingly prim olive greens and dun browns, but as if illuminated from within. In the centre of the adjacent wall hangs a marvellous, almost monochrome watercolour, in limpid blue-greys and yellow-greys. This is ‘The Colosseum from the north’ by John Robert Cozens, like a vision or a pale silhouette, shimmering on the point of dissolving back into light like a mirage. A mountain scene by Cozens is next and then an evocative pencil drawing by Constable of boats overhung with trees and drawn up on the bank of the River Severn at Worcester.

A typically salacious Rowlandson, inscribed ‘Caricature of Dr Johnson’, depicts a gentleman (surely not Dictionary Johnson?) making a grab at a cross-looking but comely chambermaid. Next to that amusing excursion is a splendid Romney brown ink study for ‘Elizabeth Warren as Hebe’, all brilliantly gathered masses, in which the large areas of ink carry as much emotional weight as the more descriptive lines. Blake’s ‘God writing upon the Tables of the Covenant’ flows upward in imperious aspiring tongues of energy, like flame. Two Gainsborough drawings follow: a rather come-hither black chalk study of a girl out walking, for which it appears the artist’s wife posed; and a convincingly solid, accomplished portrait of a prosperous burgher, perhaps a Dutch sea captain.

One of the several surprises of the show is a fabulous four-sheet exhibition watercolour of Chudleigh in Devon by John White Abbott. As I first looked at it, I was reminded of Francis Towne (who taught him), for the pen drawing betrays his influence, but the whole has something very much of its own mood and temper. It seems slightly more claustrophobic than Towne, the space more compressed and intriguingly collapsed, but a first-rate painting by this artist. Nearby is a bracingly wild drawing by Richard Dadd, called ‘Dancing jester with imps’. But are the imps tormenting him or collaborating with him? The jester brandishes a flute and the imps are playing other instruments (violins, kettle drum), so this might in fact be a mad orchestra.

In the second room we find ourselves further afield with foreign scenes by J.F. Lewis and John Webber (note the tribal carvings inside a house in Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island), and an enchanting watercolour over pencil of Venice by William Callow. In this room are three Turners: two watercolour vignettes, of which ‘On Camp Hill, near Hastings’ offers a gloriously impassioned sunset sky, together with an unusual gouache of Caley Hall, Yorkshire. This untypically descriptive portrait of the home of John Raistrick, steward of Turner’s great friend and patron Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, is a compelling study full of unexpected details. Note the beehives and roller on the left, and observe the contrast between cultivated foreground garden and the wilderness of Caley Craggs at upper right. I particularly liked the way Turner had painted the creepers on the front of the house.

Next to the Turner is an exemplary Cotman entitled ‘A pool on the River Greta near Rokeby’, the design exquisitely balanced and quartered through flat areas of colour and tonal patterning. There’s a fine, delicate Bonington, and a tough de Wint over the fireplace, a difficult subject rigorously structured in dark and light. Christopher Baker’s brilliant new catalogue of English Drawings & Watercolours 1600–1900 from the National Gallery of Scotland is available until 31 July for £95 (a saving of £30), and engagingly dispenses much useful context and comment. Book and exhibition together demonstrate just how exciting looking at drawings can be. Lowell Libson’s gallery may not be easy to find — it’s on the second floor of a block that stands on the northern corner of Old Burlington Street and Clifford Street, with its entrance actually on Old Burlington Street — but the search is well worth it. This is a deeply rewarding exhibition.

At Pyms Gallery is a show of new work by the Irish artist Rita Duffy (born 1959), known for her powerful political paintings of uncompromising realism. The oils and watercolours in this show were inspired by a residency at Tromsø, Norway’s largest settlement within the Arctic Circle, at the end of last year. That experience, of very few hours of daylight and long, long nights, threw the artist back on her resources and sparked not only a prolonged period of reflection but also an interest in the folk traditions of the polar region. This in turn has resulted in a powerful group of images that invite comparison with the myth-inflected work of Balthus, Paula Rego and Ken Kiff. But in case that suggests too closely a certain type of imagery, it should be noted that Duffy is more wide-ranging than that: other points of reference include Goya and William Orpen.

We are at once in a realm beyond reality, where imagination makes the rules and ordinary logic and reason hold no sway. Although the mode of painting is essentially realistic, the images are more to do with allegory and symbolism, and the age-old truths enshrined in fairy stories or folk tales. A team of faceless skiers tow a miniature homestead, a woman rides a pig, another woman is caught in a man-trap, a third carries an axe and a severed head. A cage of little people is suspended in a wood of slim straight leafless trunks. But there is nothing fey here, the images are raw and intractable. Crows plot in a red-limbed tree, a giant snow bunting flies over a woman asleep in a glade, a bear appears at a fireside. More women wrestle reindeer. Even the three versions of ‘Cold Night in Tromsø’, ostensibly descriptive, even topographical, have an apparitional, haunted quality.

Yet even the atrocities don’t horrify so much as intrigue and provoke thought. In ‘Hanging Out to Dry’, body parts are raised on a washing line. The immediate response is not to look for a serial killer but to question the meaning of this compelling image with its overtones of Goya and Grimm. Just as, gazing at ‘Footprints in Tromsø’, we search our minds for memories of similar sights and feelings of home or loneliness. The writer Polly Devlin contributes an introduction to the show’s catalogue and observes of Duffy that: ‘Spiritually and passionately she is linked to what she is doing. She really faces down reality and in so doing she can bring a quite frightening edge and sometimes almost a brutality to her work.’ Duffy is a potent image-maker, and her pictures stay in the mind.

A small commercial exhibition of Cec
ily Brown’s recent work at Gagosian shows her extending her territory through the inspiration of Old Masters such as Bosch, Brueghel and Ensor, and more modern forebears such as Gorky and Guston. Brown (born 1969) likes to reinterpret and rework great narratives such as ‘The Temptation of St Anthony’ or Struwwelpeter’s ‘Story of Fidgety Phil’ in her own distinctive all-inclusive style, which is a bit like watching imagery put through a tumble-drier. At its best, this can be very effective, but on a large scale the intensity is often lost along with the focus. As a consequence, the smaller oils (such as ‘The Fox and Geese’) and the works on paper are the best things here. Brown is showing gouaches and watercolours for the first time along with her oils, and they look remarkably assured and often strangely seductive. It’s always interesting to watch the development of an artist of real talent who has achieved early success: the next 30 years will be more crucial than the heights already scaled.

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