David Inshaw will celebrate his 70th birthday on 21 March, around the time of the spring equinox. On the eve of this grand climacteric, which will be marked by an exhibition of new and old work at the Fine Art Society, I went down to Devizes to interview him. He has lived for much of his life there, with brief interludes in Bristol, London, Cambridge and Wales. In Devizes he is surrounded by the countryside that has most inspired him — the Marlborough Downs and the open stretches of Salisbury Plain, the trees and hills of his beloved Wiltshire.
Inshaw is a landscape and figure painter, known to many as a Ruralist (a group he co-founded in 1975 with his great friend Sir Peter Blake, and which he left in 1983). He is perhaps the greatest living proponent of the English Romantic tradition, a painter of nudes and lyrical landscapes very much in the tradition of William Blake, Samuel Palmer, Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash. His brand of heightened symbolic realism is intensely beguiling.
Inshaw’s studio is a converted Quaker Meeting House built in 1703, timber-framed with a brick infill, converted for him by the artists’ architect M.J. Long. ‘I bought it on my 60th birthday so I’ve been here ten years. I had a lot of work done — it’s good for another 300 years now.’ His home consists of one large room with a mezzanine library, a large bedroom upstairs, a tiny guest room and bathroom. He really lives in the big airy studio, where he works, cooks and eats. It’s impeccably tidy, otherwise, he admits, ‘I don’t know where things are’. At the moment it’s full of paintings, mostly his own, and we spend a couple of very enjoyable hours looking through them.
He also has a lovely collection of small works by other artists, an inspiration to him. Among his treasures are three Stanley Spencer drawings, a set of William Blake woodcuts for Virgil’s Eclogues, a Paul Nash drawing of his wife, a Calvert engraving called ‘The Bride’, a superb dry-point nude by Laura Knight and two paintings by Alfred Wallis, one of his heroes because of his honesty in trying to put down what he knew and felt. Among contemporaries is Alfred Stockham, whose exquisite pencil drawing ‘To Dave and his Search for England’ (1970) holds a place of honour.
Inshaw recalls: ‘He did that on the draining board of the flat we shared together in Bristol. It was so perceptive of my state of mind because then I didn’t know where I was going. He was in a similar position — he was looking for a direction himself — though we both wanted to paint. I learnt to drive and began to visit Dorset. I read Hardy for the first time. He was a key influence because he used landscape as a metaphor for human emotions, which is what I discovered I wanted to do.’ A portrait etching of Hardy by William Strang hangs in the kitchen area with the other heroes who remain important to Inshaw. ‘Stanley Spencer still inspires. I used to own a painting by him which I still regret having to sell, but he did pay for this studio.’
Inshaw makes good use of his beautifully lit studio, putting in long hours. ‘I tend to work all day and on into the evening. I quite like the solitary life, if I’m honest. I used to go to London quite a lot but I was finding it difficult to get back into the routine. Before, I could just come back to the studio and carry on where I left off; now it’s much more difficult when I break the flow. So I prefer to be here with the things that inspire me and the things that matter to me.’ Women are evidently also important to him: everywhere there are photos, large and small, often collaged together, of the girls he has known and loved down the years. ‘They’re all women that I still try to keep in touch with, though just recently I’ve become more and more hermit-like.’
His paintings, and the photographs that are his main source material, are clearly the focus of the studio. ‘I always took lots of photographs but since the advent of digital photography it’s got worse. I used to do my own black and white printing, which I enjoyed though it was very time-consuming. Now you can take photos and print them off straight away. I print off lots and clip and crop in the search for an image. Photography has taken the place of drawing. Years ago, drawing was a fundamental activity, the way I worked out a composition, but then again the information for the drawings came through photography. I used to collect bits and pieces to make a composition. It was the same process but it went into a drawing; now it goes into a painting.’ He likes to paint on square canvases, which he frames in natural wood behind non-reflective glass. Occasionally he finishes a painting quickly, but more often than not he returns to a canvas repeatedly over many months, rephrasing and re-painting, trying to improve, intensify and clarify his images.
There will be about 40 new works in the exhibition, together with a handful of older pictures, among them Inshaw’s most famous painting ‘The Badminton Game’ (1972–3), borrowed back from the Tate. Among his new subjects are the Coastguard Station at St Ives, a voluptuous nude in the river Avon with swans, a Hercules transport plane over Salisbury Plain, a couple of variations on Death and the Maiden and three immensely dramatic paintings of the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981. But by far the most alluring are his straightforward landscapes and portraits of trees. There is a feeling of celebration in these paintings, but also a sense of unease, of time passing.
May trees have become something of a feature in recent years. ‘I like painting them,’ he says. ‘They’re a sort of celebration of fecundity, the life force. And when I was a kid, we had a may tree outside our house in Biggin Hill. It was a beautiful big tree. Maybe my interest comes from that. You do look for identities — where an image comes from.’ He continues: ‘I like the way trees map out the life of the landscape, and the shape they bear is brought about by all the forces that act upon them and the situation that they’re in — their struggle against the elements to survive. They’re all different, like people. Every painting, whether a landscape or a figure, has to go beyond itself, be more than the sum of its parts. It’s got to resonate endlessly. It has to hold symbolic meaning and one’s experience of things on many levels.’
Paintings by David Inshaw will be at The Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, W1, from 17 April to 9 May.