Tuesday, August 26, 2003

This photograph shows the old school building where the Thames Society of Arts hold their exhibitions and workshops. (see yesterday's Blog)

Monday, August 25, 2003

I have a friend who is a member of the Thames Society of Arts – I should explain that this Society is based in a little town on the Coromandel Peninsular, North Island, New Zealand. They have converted an old school building which they use as a gallery and for running courses – but that is another story. Dennis went out to New Zealand in the 1950’s and the native born Kiwi’s jokingly refer to him and an ‘improved Englishman.’ In a recent letter I asked him what the winter colours were like in the North Island landscapes commenting that Rowland Hilder was the first English watercolour painter to really make extensive use of winter landscapes. The New Zealand seasons do not have the dramatic changes of those in England, plants seem to grow all year and winter simply is the season when there is more snow on the mountains. Rowland Hilder turned out to be a painter that Dennis admired and reference to him had the effect of arousing nostalgia for the Kent landscapes that he knew as a boy.

This exchange renewed my own interest in Hilder and so I turned to a copy of ‘Sketching Country’
That I bought in a second hand bookshop some years ago. Hilder’s description of his working methods makes fascinating reading. He was an artist who loved making sketches out of doors, sometimes these were simply scribbled notes and ideas for paintings following in the footsteps of Turner who left a thousand or more such drawings in sketchbooks. Ruskin – who went through Turner’s effects and arbitrarily destroyed many that he considered might undermine Turner’s artistic reputation – wrote comments on the back of some of his Petworth sketches. Ruskin clearly did not think much of them – he wrote ‘rubbish,’ ‘inferior,’ ‘worse,’ on many of them.

It is curious how taste changes, now these little Petworth colour notes are highly regarded. In Hilder’s day Turner’s sketches and Constable’s oil sketches aroused great interest and the sketch became elevated to being a work of art in it’s own right. So there developed a taste for the direct sketchy style of painting practised by Seago, Wesson, Hilder himself and currently John Yardley. It is a style of painting which has attracted many amateur watercolourists. But beware it is difficult to carry off.

However on balance I think Hilder is right when he observes that; ‘…I am a believer in banishing from a watercolour the kind of detail which I have heard visitors to mixed exhibitions applaud as being ‘true to life’. Truth, in all art, is not the same as literal description.’

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

I believe a painting benefits from having a part which is understated yet this is rarely appreciated. This year the Ludlow Art Society Summer Exhibition had a lovely watercolour in pen and wash by Maggie Humphry. She is one of the Society’s new professional members and this was the first time she had submitted work. She must have been thrilled to bits to have her watercolour awarded the Selector’s Choice.

I was admiring it when a friend who was with me said it had been frequently criticised because of an understated indefinable area which could be visually read as an area of grass or perhaps part of a farmyard or driveway. The point of the understatement was that it provided a quiet area which focussed attention on some beautifully drawn foreground plants yet afterwards led the eye past some buildings into the distance. The current preoccupation with finicky detail, a result I suspect of unimaginative use of photographs, means that artistic subtlety of this kind often goes unnoticed. A great pity because Maggie in this painting was teaching a lesson which we all ought to take to heart.

You can see more of Maggie's work on her web site at: Maggie Humphry at Pink House

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

‘The Art of Chess’ exhibition currently showing at Somerset House has attracted media attention even though chess does not have a great deal of popular interest. The exhibition displayed 19 chess sets dating from the 19th Century to the present day including some newly commissioned work by some members of the Britart school. With the exception of a set designed by Marcel Duchamp, who was himself a very good player, it would be very difficult to actually play a game with some of the sets. In one case this was the deliberate intention. Yoko Ono designed a set entirely made up of white pieces so that the combatants would become so confused that an effective battle could not be fought. So chess has been used to promote the cause of ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ A laudable objective perhaps but missing the key idea that chess is a cerebral battle not a physical one.

The Britart gang clearly had little interest in or knowledge of the game. There was a time when if an artist was given a design brief he undertook some background research to ensure that his design was appropriate for its use. Good design becomes a fusion of imagination with knowledge of materials and understanding of the artefacts function. The Britart school blindly ignores this tradition and is in danger of becoming totally irrelevant to real concerns. Not surprisingly a chess journalist commented that ‘one of the exhibits looked like the contents of a kitchen cupboard which had fallen onto the floor.’

Away from the exhibits the real Art of Chess was being demonstrated by two chess prodigies David Howell aged 12 and Sergei Karyakin aged 13 who played a demonstration game on a giant-sized chess board in the courtyard. The genuine beauty of the mind game being enacted through the moves each player made is something which none of the artists, except perhaps Duchamp, seem to have understood.