A New Eden – The Long Read

An essay by Catherine Milner


‘The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes,’ said Marcel Proust and at the moment, the effects of that thought can be seen as not just philosophical but also practical.

In the absence of ready and immediate travel many of us have started to enjoy what we see around us; discovering a new Eden in what we have already before our eyes.

Years of metropolitan culture; going to nightclubs, restaurants, shops, galleries and increasingly arcane coffee shops seem to have been exchanged in the blink of an eye by such prosaic activities as walking and gardening.

The landscape, so long seen as a backdrop to our lives, has taken centre stage; Nature and its wonders, objects of curiosity increasingly demanding our attention and being talked about.

So, it is no surprise that a new school of landscape painters has emerged. In truth it has always been there but, obscured by the noise surrounding the industrial and technological advances we have made, we did not much hear its quiet beat.

Britain’s landscape painting tradition – much like the landscape itself – is one of the best preserved in the world.

It has emerged and disappeared as a genre every few decades since the 18th century when painters like JMW Turner or Thomas Gainsborough first began to celebrate it.

The Pre-Raphaelites; the Newlyn School, to some extent the Bloomsberries, the Nash brothers, the St Ives Group and latterly artists like David Inshaw and Michael Andrews have all sought to express the charm of our island, often following or coinciding with a period of intense industrialisation or war; William Morris’ wallpaper designs featuring banks of peonies or John Nash’s pre-war paintings of bucolic haystooks are just some examples of many escapes into arcadia.

And although landscape painting has been out of the mainstream for years there have been signs even before the onset of this pandemic, with technology was riding high and society increasingly atomised, that the embers of our love affair with landscape had begun to smoulder anew.

Leading painters, Hurvin Anderson, Peter Doig and Luc Tuymans have made landscape a central feature in their work for decades but often at a distance, in a slightly alienated way.

Now, as our roster of new exhibitions show, the landscape is seen as welcoming – not bleached of its colour, inpenetrable or fenced off but drawing us in, reminding us that we are at one with it.

Messums’ exhibitions this winter give us many new perspectives on the landscape; all through the medium of paint, that – much like landscape – comes in and out of fashion but in the end, scotches all rivals.

Richard Hoare’s pictures of Wiltshire and Dorset speak of the light behind all we see; the light that leads to photosynthesis, creating leaves on the trees and fostering all life. He depicts a world in constant motion – fluttering with life – capturing the abundance and fruitfulness of the southwest of England.

Constable once said that the sky sets the tone for any landscape painting and this is the striking feature of paintings by Hannah Mooney; her rich peat-coloured, crepuscular paintings of the lakes of County Mayo and the West of Ireland have a dark romanticism and contrast with the diaphanous, gossamer-thin watercolours of northern Italy by another of our rising stars, Francesco Poiana.

Situated in a 13th century medieval wooden barn constructed from vast trunks of elm and oak Messums Wiltshire can sometimes feel akin to being in a big forest. This year the paintings, more than ever, feel as if they are the lights.


Image 2. Detail of ‘Trees by Lake at Night – Fonthill’, Monotype Drawing by Richard Hoare