Andrew Lambirth

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Light Structures: Halima Cassell | Francis Bacon to Paula Rego

Blackwell: The Arts and Crafts House | Abbot Hall Art Gallery Bowness-on-Windermere | Kendal, until 7 October | until 16 September

Anyone interested in art holidaying in the Lake District this summer — or indeed taking a short break in the Lakes — is in for a treat. The Lakeland Arts Trust, which administers both Blackwell and Abbot Hall, has mounted a pair of exhibitions which offers a range of painting and sculpture a good deal better than most things currently on view around the country. And many people may find that tuning into the wild beauty of Cumbria will help them to look with greater enjoyment and discernment at contemporary art.

Certainly Baillie Scott’s magnificent 1898 Arts and Crafts house, Blackwell, on the shores of Lake Windermere, is the perfect setting for Halima Cassell’s work in clay, glass, marble and porcelain. Here architecture frames and complements her sculptural explorations, as the landscape frames and contextualises Baillie Scott’s building. The total environment (nature, architecture, art) is thus to be experienced and relished both sequentially and concurrently.

Blackwell has the most marvellous views across Windermere, and to see Cassell’s sculptures installed in the ultra elegant White Drawing Room against the backdrop of mountains and water is to appreciate fully the subtle strength of their forms, which could so easily be overawed by the magnificence of the setting. Her first ever marble sculpture, ‘Folded Teardrop’, in Portuguese pink marble, carved after a residency last year at Pietrasanta in Tuscany, is like a drapery study in the form of a vertical horn or seashell. It looks particularly evocative when a yacht appears on the lake, and sail and sculpture come into long-distance conjunction. The marble sits on a plinth and takes the light, glowing inwardly more white than pink. In another part of the room, in a window embrasure, Cassell’s chunky glass ‘Amoeba Pool II’, in rhubarb lead crystal, sustains an expressive dialogue with Baillie Scott’s stained-glass flowers above.

This conversation between Cassell’s work (some pieces made specifically for Blackwell, others fitting in just as naturally) and its surroundings continues eloquently in the Main Hall, where a trio of dark terracotta pots echoes the beautiful copper light fittings. Her sculptures are everywhere, directing the eye to the existing details of the house, whether iron window-catch or wooden panel. The Dining Room is Cassell-free, but there are carved porcelain panels in the café and even a piece in red hand-carved clay called ‘Corona’ in the lavatory lobby. Upstairs are a couple of galleries of recent and older work: clay or plaster works, tiles, wallpaper samples made by Graham & Brown to her designs, and a small group of hand-carved solid porcelain sculptures which would, I think, have interested Henry Moore. Halima Cassell (born 1975) is one of our finest young sculptors, working with great inventiveness and versatility in a variety of materials, in a mode that is both stylishly geometric and organic. An artist to watch.

Meanwhile, over at Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, just a short drive away, is an exhibition of figurative painting curated by Helen Watson, director of exhibitions at the Gallery, and the artist Robert Priseman. This explores the concept of the School of London — that group of artists identified by R.B. Kitaj in the 1970s who reasserted the importance of the figure at a time when abstraction seemed to be calling all the shots — and traces its relevance among younger artists.

As a celebration of the continuing importance of painting it is very heartening, and as a collection of high-quality works by modern masters it takes some beating. Here, for instance, are fine things by Francis Bacon, including the dark greenish ‘Study for Figure VI’ (1956–7), replete with that sense of mystery and strangeness that makes his early work more compelling than so much of his later work, and an even earlier classic screaming head, from 1949. There are two studies of heads by Michael Andrews, of which the 1967 one is the most thought-provoking; potent portraits and cityscapes by Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff; and beautiful things by Kitaj, Hockney and Euan Uglow.

I particularly liked Kossoff’s moving c.1952 self-portrait and Kitaj’s little-known oil from 1967, ‘Screenplay’. Among the younger artists the Lakeland surrealist Monica Metsers is worth keeping an eye on; Carol Rhodes manages to make beauty out of industrial dross, offering lovely paintwork, precise yet loose; Gillian Carnegie, on the other hand, presents us with a densely worked thicket of black painting like bas-relief, evoking the trees on Hampstead Heath. And the show opens with a bright landscape of zinging vectors and expressive brushmarks entitled ‘Willy Lott’s House’ (2007) by Simon Carter, a bold tribute to Constable by this Essex-based artist. Plenty then to intrigue and beguile the open-minded viewer. Abbot Hall also has a very decent permanent collection, with many historical works worth a look on the ground floor, and some more modern things upstairs along with Bacon to Rego and a show of Hockney’s etchings of ‘The Rake’s Progress’. Among the choice exhibits are a beautiful William Gillies oil called ‘Haytime’ (1952), a Piper collage and an Alan Reynolds watercolour of hop-poles called ‘Winter Legend’ (1955), a study in bare uprights.

A very different, but no less valid, experience may be had over at Brantwood, Ruskin’s old home on the shores of Coniston Water. Here is another very particular environment: a remarkable natural setting containing a house well-stocked with art and artefacts from the extraordinary career of that Victorian paragon. Occasionally, contemporary artists are invited to venture into this Ruskinian preserve, and there is currently an exhibition of paintings by George Rowlett (born 1941) hanging throughout the house (until 4 September). Rowlett’s heavily impastoed paintings are on the subject of the Thames as a working river, not a theme especially dear to Ruskin, but certainly one important to Rowlett. There are some terrific pictures here, such as ‘River Traffic from Clarence Wharf Pier, July Morning’ and ‘Advancing Blue with Yellow Barges, Thames Barrier, Early Afternoon’.

The paintings have to battle with their surroundings for attention, and in the Drawing Room or the Study the fight with the wallpaper (designed by Ruskin himself) is often won by the quieter pictures such as ‘Canaletto’s View from the Isle of Dogs’, the small luscious ‘Red and White Cruisers’ or ‘Greenwich Winter evening from the Maize Silos’. Actually, ‘quiet’ is not a word to describe Rowlett’s bracingly full-blooded approach. Howard Hull, director of Brantwood, writes of Rowlett as ‘a master of explosive gestures that have an inner energy which animate his scenes’. He goes on: ‘Where Canaletto is frozen in time, Rowlett is moving in time. In the gracefulness of his handling of colour he approaches much more nearly that astonishing master of the painting of light, Turner.’ Quite a tribute, but the more one looks at Rowlett’s work, the truer this accolade rings. He deserves much wider attention than he currently receives.