Andrew Lambirth

Altered images | 30 June 2012

Altered images | 30 June 2012
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Derek Hyatt; Meetings on the Moor: The Bishopdale Paintings|Frank Dobson Sculptor 1886-1963

Art Space Gallery, 84 St Peter's Street, N1|Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, W1, Until 27 July|Until 7 July

An important part of the critic’s role is to search out artists, living or dead, whose work has disappeared from general view, and to attempt some kind of reassessment of their value. The trouble with most coverage of the visual arts today is that the same few artists are constantly written about because their work is currently fashionable. Editors seem not to encourage their critics to be wide-ranging. Meanwhile, museums and galleries are not readily inspired to put on exhibitions of less well-known painting and sculpture because they’re primarily concerned with high visitor attendance and sales. As a result, the public is not best served — and neither are the artists. In an attempt to buck the trend, this review focuses on a painter and a sculptor who both deserve serious scrutiny.

Derek Hyatt was born in Ilkley in 1931, and has lived most of his painting life in Yorkshire where he still works. After an early training at Leeds and Norwich art schools, he came to London’s Royal College of Art (1954–8), and soon began to exhibit his work professionally. He showed with Waddington’s in the 1970s, and then briefly with Austin/Desmond, and although he’s had 50 one-man shows since 1958, he hasn’t exhibited in London for nearly 20 years, so his work is no longer familiar to the capital’s gallery-going public. Inevitably he’s better known and appreciated in the north of England, but it’s about time his remarkable paintings were made more widely available. Art Space Gallery’s new show is thus highly opportune.

Hyatt paints on board, rather than canvas, so he can keep altering the image, rubbing back and restating his intentions. He likes to quote the Italian historian Giambattista Vico’s definition of imagination as ‘the memory rearranged’, and this is his own approach to painting the landscape that he loves. All is change, until the final image is discovered through the process of painting. As he says, ‘Landscape itself is about substances changing in weather, lit by changing light.’

Hyatt aims to convey to the viewer a sense of the reality of change against the solid backdrop of stone and moor. Painting for him is not a record of appearances but an investigation into the mysterious heart of things. His understanding of history and myth enriches his approach to landscape and endows his imagery with signs and portents, whether taken from the natural world and the cycle of the seasons, or from the impacted trace of man’s own history etched into the rock.

The group of small paintings (very affordably priced at around £1,500 each) that forms the core of this magical exhibition lies at the very centre of Hyatt’s endeavour over the past 30 years. Most have never before been exhibited, and together with some impressive larger paintings, they offer a substantial account of Hyatt’s artistic preoccupations. The first thing to notice is the telling disposition of strong and exciting colour; the second is the frequent juxtaposition of linearity and transparency; the third is the sheer variety of mark and texture. The beautiful small paintings tend to be more direct and declarative, while the larger panels are often distilled into something altogether more allegorical and complex. Extraordinary formal invention makes its distinctive appeal through all these paintings, although some images need more decoding than others. Hyatt is a master of shape-music and colour-combination, also of metaphor and meaning, reserving a fluidity of style through which to generate his visions. With this exhibition he emerges as a major force in contemporary landscape painting: very highly recommended.

Every so often there’s a brave attempt to revive the flagging fortunes of Frank Dobson, one of England’s first modernist sculptors, who enjoyed considerable acclaim in the post-first world war years, and then went out of fashion. His language was a contemporary classicism, with strong Jazz Age impulses and a marked sophistication of form. His preferred subject was the female nude, which he rendered with appreciative attention and inventiveness. The last Dobson show of any magnitude was at the Courtauld in 1995, which sadly did little to put him back on the map. In recent years, he has been doing somewhat better in the auction rooms, and his sculptures, paintings and drawings have begun to feature again in mixed exhibitions in museums and commercial galleries. If ever there was an artist ripe for reassessment, it’s Frank Dobson.

The present show at the Fine Art Society, in association with Gillian Jason who has for many years represented the Dobson Estate, offers a useful introduction to his work. (The handsome accompanying catalogue, with essays by Robert Upstone and Neville Jason, is also very welcome.) The earliest sculpture on show is a polished bronze from 1919, on loan from a private collection, entitled ‘Dancers’. A dynamic, almost Vorticist piece, it reminds us why Wyndham Lewis admired Dobson and wanted to claim him for the post-war avant-garde. Perhaps Dobson’s most famous work of these years is the portrait head of Sir Osbert Sitwell (1922), also in polished bronze. Now in the Tate, it was originally owned by T.E. Lawrence, who described it as ‘the finest portrait bust of modern times ...as loud as the massed band of the Guards’. A new edition was cast in 1994, so examples of this masterly sculpture may still be purchased.

Portraiture was an important source of income for Dobson, and he was very good at it, as can be seen here from the plaster child’s head of E.Q. Myers (who became E.Q. Nicholson when she married) and the 1923 bronze of the American author and friend of Hemingway Robert McAlmon. A later but differently captivating portrait is the plaster of Admiral Sir William Milbourne James KCB (1941), grandson of John Everett Millais to whom he sat as the model for ‘Bubbles’; rather a contrasting facet of the admiral’s personality.  

Given Dobson’s predilection, there are a number of nude female figures, in terracotta, plaster and bronze. In these, the rhythmic relation of simplified forms can be seen, as the sculptor reassembles the known parts of a body into a new harmony, with a newly realised emotional truth. Among my favourites are the grey terracotta ‘Seated Torso (Study for Ham Hill Torso I)’ of 1928, and the small bronze ‘Bather’ of 1943. Awareness of European sculptors such as Picasso and Maillol is evident in Dobson’s work, but without compromising his originality. However, fate conspired against him, and in 1933 an accident to his left arm made carving virtually impossible. After that, almost all his work was modelled.  

Although Dobson was eclipsed and superseded by Henry Moore, it’s clear from stylistic analysis that both Moore and Barbara Hepworth were aware of Dobson’s pioneering efforts, and in later years Moore remained a supporter of Dobson’s achievement. Now that we have the chance to look at him afresh, Frank Dobson re-emerges as a sculptor of very real distinction, while the handful of his two-dimensional works here show him to have been a powerful and evocative draughtsman.