Category Archives: Exhibitions & Books

Peter Lanyon; Soaring Flight

Peter Lanyon was one of the St Ives group of painters and was taught by William Coldstream and Victor Pasmore at the Euston Road School.  Among others he was strongly influenced by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.  Despite all this he disliked to be classified as belonging to a particular coterie refused to draw a distinction between abstract and figurative work.  In fact, his paintings owe more to Turner than any other artist.

In the 1950s his subject was the Cornish landscape, weather and aerial perspectives when he took to painting on cliff tops and high on the moors.  One day, the story goes, he saw gliders soaring over the coastline, and knew this was the ultimate perspective he needed to express his vision.  

This was a vision of the very air, the weather, clouds, fields and coastline far below.  When he took up gliding in 1960, he tried to express  the rush of speed and the solitary quiet of gliding in his paintings.

He sometimes added the track of his glider, impending storms, weather fronts, turulence, gales, thermal currents into the mix, achieving an ethereal expression of his experiences.

I thought these big, expressive canvases exhibited at the Courtauld, quite appealing and personal.  They express one person’s experiences as he immersed himself in the land, sea and air that he clearly loved.  The title of each work is descriptive and helped me interpret what I was looking at, helped me step into the shoes of the artist a little.  As a sailor I could empathise with the way he seemed to feel the air and its currents as a complex, physical entity; its uplifts, sudden downfalls, speed, power; how he could harness the air to his own desires, but always feeling ultimately at the mercy of sudden changes.

Also I admired Lanyon’s use of paint and colour.  The paintings were built up in layers of pure, clean hues, sometimes with bold gestural lines cutting through them, resulting in complex canvases with plenty of interest  

Silent Coast, 1957

Thermal, 1960

Glide Path, 1964







Marc Quinn; Frozen Waves, Broken Sublime

I have admired Marc Quinn’s work since visiting an exhibition at Arter Gallery Istanbul – see my blog entry here there is so much variety of medium and technique – his work is timeless and at the same time incredibly transient.  I love the scale and ambition of his work, the technical accomplishment.  Each piece invites the viewer to linger and ponder, and sends you on having seen the ordinary portrayed in an extraordinary way that stays with you for a long time.


These outsize conch shells, or remnants eroded by the waves, exhibited in the fountain courtyard at the Courtauld Institute, are magnificent.  The cast stainless steel is partly polished to a mirror like finish, reflecting the sky, water and architecture around, and partly worked to a detailed realistic textural finish.  They are objects of great beauty incorporating abstraction and realism.  looking at them, we share an imaginative insight which has transformed a simple, tiny object which goes unnoticed, into a complex web of ideas about transitoriness, change, man’s effect on the natural world.

The Henry Moore Foundation

This outdoor display of some of Henry Moore’s monumental sculptures is complemented with intimate displays of his work in progress on maquettes, printing, drawing and carving in a number of studios.

The sculptures are free to approach, walk around and view from every angle undisturbed, and even touch.  They are indeed very tactile, with their mainly curved, natural forms cast out of bronze, smooth, rough and striated.  The subject is mainly the human form, simplified to essential elements and proportions, distorted but very recognisable.  In one of the studios, a guide demonstrated that Moore’s inspiration for some of his forms was taken from the interesting shapes of lumps of flint which he had found suggested some idea or resembled some human gesture. I was very surprised at this – I’d thought it must be the other way round, that he would start with a realistic representation of he figure, and gradually simplify and distort until he felt he’d reached what he wanted to express.

The result of using these natural forms, found in the landscape, is that his works appear very much at home outdoors in the landscape, part of it.  And this makes his subjects – mother and child, reclining figures – seem very grounded in the spirit of nature and earth.


The idea of taking a natural form – and abstracting from it to create a representation of a completely different form – is quite exciting…in two dimensions it’s like seeing things in the shapes of clouds, in ink blots and water stains..and making something out of those on paper or canvas.  

Sickert in Dieppe


The exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester charts the influence of the port of Dieppe on the art of Walter Sickert (1860-1942). Dieppe attracted many British writers and artists in the 19c. including Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley.   

Sickert painted numerous townscapes of Dieppe, often painting the same views in different conditions of light and from different viewpoints – he has been compared to Canaletto, in the sense that he produced an almost topographical account of the town’s architecture.  His work there included drawings, etchings, prints and sketches, and record an intense interest in the shops, cafes, inhabitants, churches and streets, harbour and fishing quarter.  

Sickert was a permanent resident in Dieppe for seven years and a regular visitor for over four decades, so he had a long standing connection to Europe and contemporary French painting that set him apart from his peers in Britain.  As his years there went on he was affiliated with the impressionists (Monet, Pissarro), and forged a long-standing friendship with Degas.  Later he played host to Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman, whose visits to Dieppe played a formative role in the Camden Town Group .  He came to influence many later British artists including Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, Celia Paul.

At first (1885) he painted atmospheric scenes in the manner of his teacher, James McNeill Whistler, but as he came under the influence of Degas, his paintings started to combine the earlier vague, ethereal style with a more representational, carefully planned, strongly architectural mode.  Here are my notes on a selection of the paintings I looked at.


L’Hotel Royal, 1894 –  The facade of the hotel was a brilliant white, and yet in the painting, which seems to be set in the fading light of a sunset, it has taken on the greenish tint of the grass in front of it.  The sky meanwhile is a sort of a lilac-pink. Respectable middle class promenaders shimmer in white and dun colours, melting into the dusk.  Tricolours droop, but their colours are broken.  The effect is wholly that of the end of something – the fading of light, the fading of the era, the century and the way of life that preceded the First World War.


From 1899 Sickert painted harbour scenes, local fisherwomen, and the streets leading from the harbour.  He made many many paintings of narrow streets with hand carts, small shops and tiny houses, juxtaposed with the facade of the gothic church of Saint Jacques, which he investigated in two distinct series of work from every possible viewpoint.  Although these paintings are wonderful studies in bright light and shade, and impressionistic, they were made from working drawings in the studio, and not plein air in the manner of the Impressionists.  They look as a spontaneous response to the subject might do, but they were apparently carefully calculated and planned.


Facade of St jacques, 1902 is an ethereal treatment of a very solid, architectural subject.  The purplish sky is brushed in roughly over an under layer of luminous yellow, which is allowed to show through.  This golden yellow pervades the whole scene.  The monumental facade shimmers with it, it’s edges broken and dissolving.  The building at the vanishing point of perspective, bathed in light, is dabbed with a bright version of the same yellow.  The buildings darken in shadow nearer street level and melt into the dark tan coloured road – mixed presumably from the same purple and yellow colours.  A figure walks the pavement on the left – totally un-detailed and only discernible by the head and shoulders contrasted with the dark building behind it.



Sickert gave this advice to a colleague: “Don’t try and make too certain a painting.  Go loosely and lightly and quickly”  (exhibition notes).  I think his is advice very well worth my bearing in mind when painting townscapes and interiors especially, as the nature of the subject leads me to concentrate on precise detail to the detriment of my expressive and emotional aims.


Coin de la Rue, Sainte Catherine, Dieppe, 1900-2 The stone tracery of the rose window has a remarkable realistic 3D effect, given that the brushwork when I inspected closely is made of very sketchy brush strokes of ochre and brown, with some splashes of pure white.  The figures are devoid of detail and most blend in totally with their background – which means they don’t distract the eye from the main focus of the work, the church facade.  There, there is high contrast both in colour and tone, between the deep blue sky and the bright ochre stonework.


In 1912 Sickert moved to a countryside village 12 miles from Dieppe, and painted landscapes until 1914 when he returned to England for the war years.  In 1919 he returned there and resumed his landscape work


Dieppe Races, 1920-26  I looked at this landscape for some time, admiring the composition of a village set in a distant plain, viewed from a high ridge.  A combination of Sickert’s tendency to paint his subject as if melting into the middle ground, the gallery lighting and my short-sightedness meant I didn’t see the galloping racehorses until I read the exhibition notes!  The horses are painted in the foreground in a blur of blue-grey and a reddish-brown, and their riders, despite being dressed in colourful silks, are captured as indistinct, fleeting impressions.  Like the Hotel Royale the effect is unsettling; the lowering sky, the long shadows and the horses rushing through like ghosts gave me a feeling of time rushing by, unstoppable.

In his final years in Dieppe, Sickert returned to figure painting and interiors, working from live models in his studio, and painting circus troupes, cabaret, casino and restaurant scenes.  The theme was pretence and play-acting.  As a sometime ex-pat, looking at the selection of these paintings, I can sense that he struggled to feel that he belonged to his adopted home.  In the words of Joni Mitchell “Oh it gets so lonely – when you’re walking and the streets are full of strangers”.  His subjects frequently had their backs turned to him.  They were immersed in a culture he could only look at as an outsider.  His deep-down home was Britain, and he cut his ties with Dieppe and returned to London in 1922. 

Baccarat – The Fur Cape, 1920  has an extraordinary composition, worthy of Degas.  How can a painting of someone’s back be a good idea?  But the carved chair, red hat and tiger-skin cape are bursting with interest in form, line and colour, they are a feast for the eyes – and their abstract ness is balanced by the interest of the scene going on across the table, and the complementary touch of green in the lady on the right’s hat.  It goes to show a bold, abstract approach to composition can be very successful.  


Victor Lecour, 1922-24 Was a restaurant proprietor in Dieppe.  Sickert has posed him standing proudly, his prosperity emphasised by his magnificent girth and luxurious surroundings.  


This painting appeals to me for its use of colour and light and the handling of paint.  The colours, as in all of Sickert’s oeuvre, are muted, but this painting is very colourful – there are reds, yellows, blues and violets, greens.  There is daylight from the window falling on the figure’s left side, and electric light on his right. The two are handled completely differently; the daylight is subtle and graduated; the electric light is hard edged and bright, almost daubed on thickly with a freely used brush. The patterns, textures and colourfulness of the interior reminded me of Matisse with his highly decorated interiors.

The exhibition notes cite Degas’ Diego Martelli as a precedent for this, and also a similarity to the plush surroundings of Matisse’s Odalisque series – both are shown below.  Matisse’s interiors also often had a seafront balcony as a prominent feature, as has this painting.  I like the light striking M. Lecourt, describing the solid round dome of his head, the light, transparent texture of his beard and then, roughly highlighting his entire right side in the same ochre, which seems to suggest another light source, perhaps artificial.



My impression of Sickert’s painting before I saw this exhibition and later reflected on it, was of an overall somber, brown, crumbling darkness.  Where I wondered were the bright colours of Degas and the Impressionists by whom he was supposedly influenced?  But as Celia Paul writes, “it seemed to me false, too, to imitate the pure colours of Cezanne, who, after all, painted in the south of France, whereas here we were in dark and rainy London [substitute Dieppe] where the predominant colours are luminous grey and brown.  If bright colours are seen, then they appear all the more intensely against the darkness, but not as in the fusion of light that pervades all the colours of a late Cezanne painting”. 


The Red Shop (The October Sun), 1888 has a palette of brown, with warm golds and ochres; the bright contrast of the vermillion gives the impression of the setting sun striking the facade

The Square at Night, 1902 appeared nowhere near so bright in the gallery where it was displayed behind glass from which the lighting reflected.

When I saw the painting in digital format (shown above) the colours were a revelation, and I guess closer to the actual painting if seen in good light and without glass.

The colours are flat, quickly painted areas, drawn with the brush on top of a grey-mauve underpainting which shows through in many places and gives the whole composition a unity.  The complementary yellow touches shine out by contrast.  Once more, the figures are comprised of simple blocks of colour, with little detail, even in the foreground, but they are clearly a throng of people, adding liveliness, and making us think about what they are watching, what street show is going on in front of them.  The complementary contrast of the green windows and the red of the gendarmerie trousers draws us in.  


 L’armoire à glace, 1924. The reds, yellows and oranges seen in the mirror appear intensely against the overall darkness in this scene.  I notice Sickert often uses near-black to delineate architectural and interior features, but in such a way that (unlike me!) he avoids any hint of attempting precise technical drawing.  I think he does this by making his lines very variable, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes vague, often thick, coarse, wavering, and usually meaningful, by which I mean he’s not just drawing artificial lines that don’t exist, but lines he observed, denoting an edge, a change of plane, a cast shadow etc.
References (websites accessed 17-18/09/2015)
Sickert in Dieppe, ed Anna Zeuner, Pallant House Gallery
Wiki art

Museo Reina Sofia

The horrible thing about my visit to Reina Sofia is that I can hardly remember a single thing in it, although – perhaps because – I tried to look at everything.

This is an article on the subject of visiting galleries.  Tracy Chevalier’s (author of Girl With a Pearl Earring) advice in his TED Talk is to select only one or a couple of pieces of artwork – to look slowly, and to look for a meaningful personal response to it. If you have visited with others, you can then gather to talk about  your observations and perceptions.

This is the basic tenet of the Slow Art Movement and I’m definitely going to try this approach when I next visit a blockbuster gallery.



Raoul Dufy at Thyssen-Bornemisza

What I find so appealing about Raoul Dufy’s paintings is his use of bright, abstract colour, pattern, and the way he uses the brush to draw in his work.  His is a world of imagination and play, an escape from rendering reality literally.  He seems to express visual pleasure, the scene before him merely being his initial point of departure.


His paintings are popular – colourful, decorative, hedonistic – but the exhibition aimed to show a more reflective side of his work, and how his artistic expression gradually developed. He wanted to go further than Impressionism would allow, and so he embraced Fauvism – choosing colour, line and shape as suited his composition, even if unrelated to reality.  He abandoned  the individual brushstroke in favour of large areas of bright, arbitrary colour.


In Provence he painted space and light in landscapes using colours in an abstract way, based on their relationships to each other.  Following his experiments with textile design he made the colour of figures and objects independent of their outline.  He drew with the brush – sometimes blocking out an area with opaque paint, then drawing in or over it.  His work as a result became even more ornamental and colour-saturated than before.


Dufy didn’t render reality literally – he created his own interpretation, blending contemporary subjects with ones from a nostalgic view of the past.  Exterior landscapes and townscapes, often painted from a high bird’s-eye viewpoint, and interior scenes came together in his many views through windows and balconies.


Notes on some of the paintings. 


Detail from Boardwalk, 1906



An early painting, showing his imagination at play in line and colour.  The individual small dabs of the brush in bottom right corner merge in the eye to give an impression of earth colour. Figures, shapes and objects are outlined heavily in black.  Complementary colours are juxtaposed to give an overall brilliance to the scene. Not only that, but high tonal contrasts are everywhere, adding to the sense of strong sunlight. 


Large Bather, 1914



Recalls Cezanne’s bathers.  Use of hatching, also note background scenery reduced to squares, triangles, rectangles.  Warm colours  again the use of white to give the eye respite from the crowded colours.


Open Window, Nice 1928



The colour contrasts here are relatively low key for Dufy. The heavily saturated blue block of sea and sky give way to bright reds and greens modified by pattern and line.  The furniture to the right is left white – giving an airiness to the composition, which is otherwise fairly dark.  Black pen and ink outlines of objects don’t entirely correspond to the objects’ colours. What I see in a real life interior is often drab, dreary and uninspiring – Dufy lets imagination free to create his own colourful and lively interpretation of reality. 


The Wheatfield, 1929



The horses are a good example of Dufy’s colouring being independent of the object’s outline; and also of his colours being independent of reality!  This painting looks as though it was started with large areas of colour, chosen to create depth and light; and then with drawing added (pen and ink?)  to create the objects and textures of the scene, and to support its perspective.


Port With Sailing Ship, Hommage to Claude Lorrain, 1935



Again with drawing (brush) over colour, and use of white areas to give the eye resting space.  The colours in several places are muddy as he uses similar colours (blues with greens, reds with pinks and purples) to create a murky sunset.


Still Life With Violin, Hommage to Bach, 1952