A mixed exhibition of paintings, drawings and prints devoted to the subject of the tree might sound an unexciting event, filled with what Johnny Cash memorably described as ‘hopeful stars of flickering magnitude’, but actually in this case the reverse is true. The show has been divided into two halves, the first of which deals with a historical survey of the tree in past art, the section which is herewith under review. The sequel, focusing on the tree in contemporary art, will be at the museum from 12 October – 23 November. Readers who have to travel any distance, and may thus be limited to a single visit, should choose with care which portion of the show they think they’d most like to see. The historical art currently on display is so well selected that those who live nearer may well be tempted back for further viewings.
The show in this resourceful little museum begins with a lovely etching by S.R. Badmin of a heavily pollarded old ash, hung above Samuel Palmer’s first etching (rather low on the wall for me), ‘Willow’. At once a standard of quiet excellence is established, which is maintained throughout the display. A watercolour of Richmond Park presents another side of John Martin from the eschatological prophet of thunderbolts and lightning enjoyed by so many of us, while a large Ivon Hitchens oil, ‘Oak Tree in Purple Woods’, suggests a very different way of evoking woodland — through emotional colour, gesture and interval. Although I felt there was possibly too much 19th-century work (I could have done without Frank Richards’s ‘Cornish Orchard’, though it will probably be popular with visitors), it was oddly rewarding to be introduced to the extraordinary and rather hallucinatory ‘Oak, Holly and other Trees’ by Albert Durer Lucas, and such lesser-knowns as Heywood Sumner.
One of the finest things in the first room is Paul Nash’s ‘Landscape of the Malvern Distance’ (1943), a magnificent oil of trees articulating the landscape, composing it and framing it, in effect populating it. The lovely palette of pink, blue and buff confers on the farther trees the numinous presence of standing stones. There’s a strong John Craxton gouache of fallen branches and distressed trunk, an especially minatory Burra of a blasted oak painted in wartime, and a beguiling group of churches in trees — by James Bateman, Palmer again and Eric Ravilious. The second room contains a number of splendid pictures, chief among which is ‘The Plantation’ by Robert Bevan, an exciting piece of patterned meaning to go with Julian Trevelyan’s ‘Forest’ and Constable’s exquisite pencil study of ash trees. James Hayllar (1829–1920), best known as a portrait and genre painter, is here represented by an atmospheric small oil, ‘Old Fir Trees’, the kind of unexpected picture to be regularly encountered in this invigorating selection.
This is a very handsome and stimulatingly hung show. Nearly everything is worth careful attention (by no means always the case in such a collection), and the display is extremely enjoyable and informative. Particularly effective juxtapositions include romantic-with-modernist Clausen, Laura Knight and McKnight Kauffer; neo-romantic Ayrton and Sutherland; and the strong Camden Town line-up of Gilman, Bevan, Drummond and Ginner. Beyond the second room is a further group of etchings and wood engravings in the antechamber of the main museum: Robin Tanner, Clare Leighton and Graham Sutherland. The wide range of prints on view is one of the many strengths of the show.
Part II includes work by David Inshaw, Ffiona Lewis, Mick Moon and David Nash. The exhibition is organised by St Barbe in partnership with Southampton City Art Gallery and boasts a trio of curators: Anne Anderson, Tim Craven (also one of the exhibiting artists) and Steve Marshall. Inevitably there are names missing from this selection that I would have liked to see included. For instance, in the historical survey, Algernon Newton, master of the surrealist frisson in the dramatically lit field, and, among contemporary artists, Trevor Felcey (born 1945) who has been painting oaks in Richmond Park and Devon since 1979, with masterly understanding and deep affection. The accompanying paperback (Sansom & Co, £25) is exceptionally handsome and carries essays by two of the three curators, further pieces by Delia Hooke and Ian Massey, and a foreword by Richard Mabey. It deserves a shelf-life beyond the exhibition and should prove invaluable for anyone interested in our landscape and the art it inspires.
Back in London are two exhibitions by veteran abstractionists that offer very different but comparably high-quality pleasures. At the Fine Art Society (148 New Bond Street, W1, until 26 September) is a superb group of predominantly 1980s paintings by John McLean (born 1939). Called Another Light: Prairie Journey, the exhibition features paintings made during repeated visits to Canada, beginning with a stint as guest artist at the Emma Lake workshop in Saskatchewan in 1981. The paintings have been stored since their making in Canada, so emerge here fresh upon the eye in all their lyrical munificence. McLean is a colourist of rare invention and his planar arrangements of beams and strobes of colour, great airy bands of pigment, are radiant and light-filled. He plays around with deceptively simple arrangements of near-horizontal, near-vertical, near-diagonal events against a plangent ground. As Tim Hilton writes in the catalogue, ‘McLean’s paintings soar above derivation and have an aerial quality. That may be linked to the artist’s love of music, and particularly the airs of a single voice elevated in song.’
Meanwhile, at Osborne Samuel (23a Bruton Street, W1, until 28 September), John Blackburn offers A Decade of Evolution. Although a remarkable poet of black and white, Blackburn (born 1932) frequently introduces both sharp and subtle contrasts of colour into his images, which can be particularly enjoyed in the fine series of works on paper in this show. But note also the perfectly judged use of pink in a larger painting such as ‘Three Forms with Two Crosses’, or the intriguing tonal gradation of ‘Matter Moving Right’. Blackburn loves texture and is ready to incorporate anything into his thickly built-up surfaces, from metal strapping to discarded pill sachets, but succeeds in transforming such apparent intruders and effortlessly binding them into his highly personal language of form. In their intensely individual ways, both Blackburn and McLean are very much on song in these new exhibitions.