John Spurling

Charcoal mastery

In his foreword to the catalogue of John Hubbard’s Spirit of Trees, Duncan Robinson, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, invokes John Constable. Indeed if Constable were alive today he might be John Hubbard. Although Hubbard is American, he has lived in Dorset for 45 years and although his paintings are far more abstract than Constable’s and have been inspired by foreign places as well as British — the Atlas Mountains, Spanish gardens, the Vaucluse in France — they approach nature in a similar way, with romantic feelings but a pragmatic eye. They express the artist’s deep passion for and curiosity about elusive nature, almost as a force or idea, but never lose sight of its more mundane reality — its branches in your face, its hard and uneven surfaces, its absolute determination to grow.

Hubbard is himself a gardener as well as an artist. The garden of his house in Dorset is well known to connoisseurs and has often been written about as well as filmed for TV. Again like Constable, he mostly prefers to paint and draw nature as it has been trimmed and ordered by man, but is constantly aware of its innate wildness, its capacity, if man relaxes his control, to smother and swallow the gardener, the farmer, the landscapist and all their works. Hubbard’s large charcoal drawings are perhaps the best way to approach his art, for they are themselves — some of them made directly in front of the motif, some developed and abstracted in the studio from pencil sketches — approaches to his paintings. ‘I draw to sharpen my eye,’ he says, ‘to fix an image on my unconscious mind…’ and ‘I adore drawing outside, it’s the most enjoyable aspect of my working life.’

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