Laura Gascoigne

Solitary ambition

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Also at Ben Uri Gallery, 108a Boundary Road, London NW8, until 19 November

Four years ago, the painter Christopher P. Wood was browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Harrogate when he came across something very unusual. Opening one of a series of Victorian Magazines of Art, he discovered that the inside was full of drawings, scrawled over both the text and illustrations. They were obviously not the doodles of a child, but the work of a trained artist — albeit one who had absorbed Picasso’s lesson of relearning how to draw like his younger self. The handwriting was witty and literate, revealing a thorough knowledge of modern art.

When Wood showed the book to the art conservator and curator Andrew Stewart, Stewart went straight back to the shop for the remaining six books, which he learned were part of a lot cleared from a house in north Leeds recently vacated by an artist called Joash Woodrow. Visiting the house, he found it stacked to the rafters with a fire-damaged, pipe tobacco-stained hoard of 750 paintings and some 4,000 drawings, the accumulation of 40 years of work.

The child of Polish immigrants, Joash Woodrow had won a scholarship in 1950 to the Royal College, where he overlapped with Frank Auerbach and the Kitchen Sink Painters and was taught by Carel Weight, Ruskin Spear and Robert Buhler. Though he impressed his teachers, he made no mark on his contemporaries, and after a nervous breakdown in the mid-Fifties returned home to Leeds to paint himself into an increasingly solitary corner.

The rest is not yet, but may soon become, history with the help of a book by the art historian Nicholas Usherwood and a touring exhibition now in London at the Ben Uri Gallery and — for this week only — at the Royal College, which is accommodating the biggest paintings. For the wonder of Woodrow is not just the dedication that drove him to work for 40 years in isolation, but also the sheer scale of his artistic ambition. What does it take for an unknown artist living alone to tackle 2 million sheets of hardboard in a poky kitchen from which they have to be dragged out on to the back lawn to dry? It takes a monumental nerve, a nerve that confronts you as soon as you come into contact with his pictures. Bold in concept, bold in execution, often bold in scale, they have that elusive quality normally associated with great art that can only be described as authority.

Woodrow rarely signed or dated his paintings, but they fall roughly into ‘periods’. The smaller, softer landscapes of the Fifties and the powerful portrait heads of the Sixties — outlined in heavy black with the gentlest of touches — are followed in the Seventies by semi-abstract still lifes and figure paintings obviously indebted to Picasso. But alongside these more derivative works Woodrow developed his own brand of landscape, subjecting suburban views of local blocks of flats — with their screens of trees and allotments with their patchwork of potting sheds, coloured hoardings and white picket fences — to his peculiarly raw and painterly modernist vision.

Many people can be artists, but few need to be, and where that need is palpable it makes itself felt. The urgency of Woodrow’s creative impulse is obvious not just in the zest with which he tears into the paint surface but also in the patent impatience with which he prepares his supports. Scraps of potato sacking darned with wool are nailed to stretchers hurriedly tacked together from bits of wood, picture frame, even tree branches. The preliminaries thus complete, Woodrow goes to work with housepainters’ brushes — supplemented by sticks, mops, trowels and scrapers — in a mixture of artists’ oils, commercial house paints and powder pigment, bulked out with grit, sand, sawdust and the odd tuft of grass picked up on the picture’s passage through the garden. The result is a surface that heaves and bubbles with energy, while somehow keeping the colour alive. Woodrow’s most exciting works are built rather than painted; and, despite their dodgy construction, clearly built to last.

To the art historian, Woodrow’s work is full of echoes: Picasso, Art Brut, Cobra, Tachisme, even Sydney Nolan. He was a cultured man who kept up with artistic developments. But being exceptionally his own man, he made of them something quite distinctive — ‘a strange and deeply intriguing outcrop of a European artistic imagination’, as Usherwood puts it, in an often flat and uneventful English landscape.

Still alive but no longer painting, Joash Woodrow has not attended any of his exhibitions so far. He was always shy — one of his few friends from the RCA, Cyril Satorsky, remembers him as a loner: ‘It was something of a mystery what he did with his time.’ That mystery is now solved. What Woodrow did with his time is public knowledge, and is finally attracting the attention it deserves.