Andrew Lambirth

Fine Arts Special

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Over in Notting Hill, at England & Co., 216 Westbourne Grove, W11 (until 12 June), is a fascinating retrospective of that underrated painter Albert Herbert (born 1925). Herbert studied at the Royal College of Art with the Kitchen Sink painters, Bratby, Middleditch et al., but was less drawn to gritty social realism than to an art altogether more symbolic and concerned with states of mind. (‘Art is not about meanings but feelings,’ he has said.) An early dose of Surrealism was compounded by the influence of Francis Bacon, briefly a tutor at the RCA, and Herbert began to explore his own intensely personal narratives through shared stories, many of them taken from the Bible.

An intuitive painter, whose dialogue with the paint might result in an image changing radically again and again as he works on it, Herbert searches out the marvellous through favourite stories such as Jonah and the Whale or God speaking to Moses from the Burning Bush. His style of painting is direct and lyrical, with shapes often cropped and isolated in a sea of broken brushstrokes, like collaged images. Although not strictly speaking a religious painter (nor a card-carrying member of any specific Church), Herbert returns to the Bible stories again and again with renewed enthusiasm and intensity, plumbing their depths for resonance and metaphor. Recent paintings have become more autobiographical, dealing with memories of his own childhood or soldiering in the war, yet two new depictions of Mary Magdalene show that Herbert has lost none of his skill with the great archetypes.

A painter of a very different stamp is Felim Egan (born Ireland 1952), who orchestrates the subtlest accents of colour-change over vast areas of canvas into piquant suggestions of landscape, summoning up the night sky, ocean or a glimpse of light between trees. Egan is a master of texture and subtle modulation, his predominantly square and rectangular forms perfectly pitched in an equivalence of emotion recollected in tranquillity. His characteristic blue-cream-grey-pink palette has broadened out in the latest paintings (on show at Purdy Hicks, 65 Hopton Street, SE1 until 12 June) to include a drift towards warm organic tones such as mustard brown and apple green. Acrylic paint is mixed with stone dust in these shimmering cosmic images, to form surfaces of translucent and blurred beauty. The small box-like paintings, a series of a dozen ‘Preludes’, take Egan’s language of presence and dispersal further into three-dimensions. Here is an abstract painter at the height of his powers.

In Cork Street an exhibition of recent work planned as a tribute to the veteran St Ives painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham has sadly turned into a memorial since her death in January at the age of 92. A painter who divided her time between Scotland and Cornwall (St Andrews was her winter refuge), Barns-Graham was the last of the famed St Ives generation of abstract artists which included such luminaries as Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron and Terry Frost. She defined her work as ‘an enjoyment of colour, vibration and shape’, deploying to considerable effect vertical bands or bars with arcs and circles against vivid colour fields. At its best, her work has a refreshing exuberance. (On show at Art First, 9 Cork Street, W1 until 27 May.)

Annabel Gault (born 1952) is a landscape painter who goes from strength to strength. Her new work (at the Redfern Gallery, 20 Cork Street, W1 until 17 June) is remarkable for its direct and luscious paint, for its notational dash and painterly brilliance. Here is the British landscape in all its gorgeous mutability, recognisable in tone and coolness, but conveyed with a striking richness of palette. Gault works on small canvases en plein air, or on large sheets of prepared paper back in the studio. She manages to retain all the excitement and bravura of the first sketch in her finished work, laying on the paint with a bold brushiness and abstract structuring that recalls Ivon Hitchens. Light breaking over sea or through woods is a speciality.

Poles apart, except in the skilful handling of their chosen medium, is Glen Baxter, cartoonist extraordinaire. He is showing a group of large wax crayon and ink drawings which may well come as a surprise to those who know only his smaller book illustrations (Flowers Central, 21 Cork Street, W1 until 29 May). The themes are familiar Baxterian ones: the art world comes in for some gentle ribbing (by cowboys, naturally enough), with a charming flower print picture entitled ‘The Critics Spotted the Bogus Rothko Almost Immediately’. Another, captioned ‘“I’m still not entirely convinced it is a late Mondrian,” drawled Buchan’, speaks for itself. Besides being very funny, these pictures are a joy to look at, with their expertly worked surfaces and resplendent heraldic colours. Mr Baxter proves himself a dab hand with the crayon as well as the caption.

As I have had occasion to remark before in these pages, it is a good time at the moment for photography shows. At the Mayor Gallery, 22a Cork Street, W1 (until 28 May) is a handsome group of 30 vintage black-and-white prints of the East End by Nigel Henderson (1917–85). Dating from 1949 to 1953, these photographs document a particular part of London in much the same way as Bert Hardy’s do the Elephant and Castle (on view at James Hyman Fine Art, 6 Mason’s Yard, SW1 until 29 May). Yet Henderson is an artist who used photography, while Hardy was the chief photographer for Picture Post in the 1940s and 1950s. Wherein lies the difference, then, in their approach?

Hardy’s evocative photographs are story-driven, taken over a three-week period at the end of 1948 to illustrate an article by the journalist A.L. Lloyd called ‘Life in the Elephant’, which appeared in Picture Post in January 1949. Hardy depicts a London of smog and bomb sites, street markets and horse-dealers, through which a recognisable cast of characters moves: Maisie the prostitute, the pub drinker, ‘the man who dresses the Elephant’ (Levy’s the tailors), and the tallyman, selling goods on credit from door to door. Atmosphere with knobs on: people still remember policemen in the smog with flares at the crossroads lighting pedestrians safely on their way. So the past rubs shoulders with the present — Hardy photographs London’s first traffic lights set up experimentally on a street corner.

Henderson, on the other hand, is interested in different things. He tries to capture children in movement, skipping or playing hopscotch, in blurred photos that Picture Post would have looked askance at. Fascinated by textures and shapes, he takes more abstract images, whether of shopfronts or a bombed factory. Graffiti catches his eye — anything that will feed into his own work as an independent artist touched by Surrealism but not limited by it. Interestingly, Henderson sometimes worked as a photojournalist, and took ‘straight’ documentary shots which could sit easily beside Bert Hardy’s. His images of the ‘bag-wash’ have a pathos that is desolating.

Among forthcoming attractions, I would like to flag up a couple of exhibitions: the first European showing of American Alice Neel’s portraits, at the Victoria Miro Gallery, 16 Wharf Road, N1, from 1 June to 31 July. Neel (1900–84) was one of the sharpest and most original portrait painters of the last century, and I hope to write at greater length about her. The other exhibition is called Being Present, and brings together the work of eight of the most talented young representational painters working in Britain today, including Stuart Pearson Wright, Ishbel Myerscough and James Lloyd. At the Jerwood Space, 171 Union Street, SE1 until 4 July.