Andrew Lambirth

Visual enlightenment

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Leonard McComb (born Glasgow 1930, of Irish parents) is a figurative painter of rare particularity and achievement. He is also a sculptor and his work spans a broad range of utterance: polished bronze, oil on canvas, pastel, pencil and gold leaf on paper (in his affectionate portrait of fellow painter and friend, the late Carel Weight, for instance), meticulous line drawing and etching. He is represented in the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery, is an acclaimed teacher (he was Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, 1995–8), and has shown regularly in mixed exhibitions since the mid-1970s. He doubted much of the work he did before that, and destroyed a great deal of it in a dramatic bonfire. He is something of a perfectionist and exhibits only rarely in commercial galleries; in fact his last dealer show was 12 years ago. As a consequence, although he is a favourite at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the breadth of his work is not generally known to the public. A fine introductory show of what he does (it was at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh last October to December) has just opened in Ipswich. I went to view the work in his south London studio before it was packed up for its trip to Suffolk.

One of the most striking images is a relatively small portrait-format oil on canvas of poplars called ‘Autumn Trees, Provence’ (2002). It simply presents five silvery trunks and their upper branches against a mesmeric blue sky. As a painting it is as much about intervals as a musical composition, and the main problem in making it real for McComb lay in rendering the trees convincingly sculptural. I asked him what colour he used for this vision of eternity. He is, as one might imagine, very particular about paints. He uses Old Holland classic colours ground in linseed, the pigment suspended in a vehicle of pure turps mixed with stand oil. The actual colour here is a combination of cobalt blue and French ultramarine, de-saturated with burnt sienna. It is handled with such skill (and love) that it sings. The ‘Poplars’ blue is many-layered to achieve such a pitch of resonance. In general, underpainting tends to be carried out in a similar blue (a large several-figure portrait commission was on the go in the studio when I visited), though the final result may not at once bear the evidence of it.

McComb’s particularity is the keynote of his approach. This is a man who designs his own catalogues and takes an active interest in typefaces — how could he not be concerned with the nuances of line and form? He is an artist finely attuned to the reverberations of things, who considers the light that enhaloes objects or people to be a spiritual vibration. As he says, ‘I like to try to make the forms not just as if lit up, but generating light from within.’ His distinctive mark-making emphasises this: he is adept at tracking and plotting an aura, and his pulse notations trap light rather than conceal it. Take a look at his black and white etchings: the fine mesh of strokes which captures and delineates a cat or a camellia does not obscure the whiteness of the paper, which still shines through. A large landscape — like the immensely impressive ‘Church of St Vincent sur Jabron, Alpes Hautes de Provence’ (2003) — is not only light-filled, but emanating light, despite its closely packed linear structures and volumetric complexity. Look at the repetition of circles and curves against the cut limestone blocks of the hillside. This is an artist communicating his experience of nature without compromise, but with all his knowledge and love of past art, from Blake to Cézanne via the Book of Kells, visible as inspiration and example.

As McComb freely admits, he travels to the south for the light, whether it be France or Cyprus, but he can still kindle a glow in London. The vivid presence of a vase of white tulips could be measured in candle-power. And not only do the two-dimensional works emanate light, so do the sculptures, for McComb makes telling use of polished bronze and gold leaf. A new cast of his controversial nude statue (it was famously removed from an exhibition in Lincoln Cathedral in 1990 in case it caused offence), ‘Portrait of a Young Man Standing’, is in the show. It is made of polished bronze and offers an image of luminous innocence. Another sculpture, the Jamesian ‘Golden Bowl’, employs gold leaf on its exterior in contrast to the polished bronze inside, to obtain that interplay of reflective and matt surfaces McComb finds so satisfying.

For an artist involved so intensively with particularity, everything is a portrait. His ink or pencil drawings of people attempt to reveal the light of personality, whilst effortlessly capturing ‘likeness’. In the last analysis, it’s all to do with thoughtful and sensitive scrutiny. As he has said recently, ‘I’m doing my best work now. I’m slower than I was, but I see more.’ His arresting and hieratic portrait of Doris Lessing, which was to be in this show (on loan from the NPG), is not available, rumoured to be in demand in other Corridors of Power. But his remarkable depiction of Alfie Howard, town crier of Lambeth, set against the embankment and the Thames, which was excluded from the Edinburgh hang (undoubtedly for chauvinist reasons), will light up Christchurch Mansion like a beacon. Ninety-four-year-old Alfie is quite a character. One of 13 children, he was injured twice in the second world war and used to get invited regularly to lunch with the Queen Mother to instruct her about cockney slang. He is an embodiment of the individuality that McComb himself embraces as his artistic credo.

Since art school McComb has set his face against the seductions of existential angst. He doesn’t require his art to be confessional, to speak indulgently or even cathartically of his troubles, but rather to bring consolation and courage, and sheer visual enlightenment (in the true sense of shedding light) to beleaguered humanity. He once rather rashly went into print saying: ‘If one person smiles when they see my paintings it is enough, my life has had a meaning and a shape.’ This modesty — though refreshing — is too radical. Thankfully, his work is reaching an increasingly wide audience, and has an equally affirmative effect. If McComb’s dedicated celebration of beauty is currently unfashionable, this can only reflect badly on the state of our society and culture. Surely, if we bring back beauty, we will bring with it some measure of sanity.