John Beard is an artist who has led an adventurous life, leaving Britain in the early 1980s to teach in western Australia, then settling in Sydney, while at the same time showing his work all over the world — in New York and Delhi, Madrid, Melbourne, New Zealand, London, Lisbon and St. Ives.
I first got to know him in the late 1990s, when a work of his, Wanganui Heads, was included in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Painting the Century, held to celebrate the millennium in 2000. In 2007, he won the Archibald Prize, the leading prize for portraiture in Australia and, in some ways, the world, since it is a prize of such long-established prestige, centre stage in the Australian art world in a way that the BP Portrait Award never has been. But he is not a portrait painter, any more than he is a landscape painter. He’s a painter of disappearing and sometimes ephemeral appearances — images which hover in a space somewhere between realism and abstraction, half real, half remembered, highly composed, but, at the same time, loosely brushed and ill-defined, not as seen, but touched, transmuted, as the ghost of physical appearances.
In the midst of this peripatetic and transient life, he arranged to rent a cottage in October 2020 in the heart of the Wiltshire countryside, due west of Salisbury, looking across fields and farmland towards a line of hills of the south Wiltshire Downs. Then came another COVID lockdown. He and his wife, Wendy, were trapped in Wiltshire by the epidemic, not allowed to meet people, not allowed to leave. They had only the view of the distant hills for company.
Out of this period of being stuck in the English countryside, he has produced a body of work which is intensely atmospheric and solitary, the landscape of fields and hills half seen, half absorbed into his imagination and then idealised into views of the snow and the mist, the wintry hills and the outlines of the distant trees along the horizon and the ploughed-up fields in diagonal lines stretched across the foreground, sometimes covered in a light dusting of snow.
He works in watercolour, too, as did Turner: watercolour which is such a wonderful medium for the depiction of atmosphere, because it is done at speed and cannot be over-worked. Again, you see the distant line of hills trailing off into the left-hand horizon; the evening light as the trees and fields merge, the only definition provided by the line of trees on the horizon, or, occasionally, one lone tree in the middle distance, providing an incident in an otherwise featureless landscape. Sometimes you can feel him sitting down and wanting to catch the last of the evening light in the watercolour.
Landscape is a difficult genre in the modern world, as is portraiture. It’s been too hackneyed, perverted by the ease and instantaneity of photography, so that it is hard to convey the restfulness of nothing, the subtleties of light, so ethereal, so liquid and imprecise.
Hovering, shimmering, transient. This is not conventional English landscape, but is instead both ordinary and epic at the same time; one piece of countryside, the south Wiltshire downs, seen over and over again as the months of COVID meant that there was no possibility of further exploration, only of enjoying and appreciating what is there — looking at it, thinking about it, visualising it, recording it, always the same, which for a period of time, six months, was all that he had to depict, no people to talk to, just fields and the distant line of downs.
Sir Charles Saumarez Smith CBE is a British cultural historian specialising in the history of art, design and architecture. He was the Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts from 2007 until 2018.
by Lucy Reis
When observing Antony Williams’ new still lives one hears the echoes of Italian churches and smells the faint scent of incense in the air. Akin to a fresco by Piero della Francesca suspended in eternal stillness these paintings are quietly contemplative. Like Piero della Francesca they are an infinite scene from a play behind a curtain that never goes down, however, they are the outcome of a more contemporary perspective.
Subconsciously at first, time is stretched a little by Antony Williams’ paintings. There is a stillness of times passing observed, it is not just the dawn like moment of the early renaissance painting that seems to be present. It is the method itself, the mark making one on top of the other, repeatedly, that seem to encapsulate time spent in observing. The effect on our transient viewing, whether in passing or in study is to become increasingly aware that as much as these are works of observation they are also visual odes to time.
Their unusual quality relies upon the viewers suspension of disbelief in a medium of high reality. These series of small still lifes focus on the dichotomy between organic matter and the geometry of architecture. Australian seed heads are tucked behind the doors of a Victorian dolls house and appear out of the roof, oddly disproportionate within its surroundings.
There are several points of differences here to grapple with from the geometric versus the organic to high reality versus the unexpected surreal. These studies bring architecture down to a scale where it becomes fragile, suddenly you are looking at a world that that could be destroyed by a wrong foot.
These are not simply a collection of objects but are composed in a way that conveys intensity in scale despite their size. Antony’s technique of mark-making records such a potency of information that they explode out of their dimensions.
Antony begins his day with the same ritualistic routine, that of mixing the raw pigments to create his palette. Dictated by the day’s work ahead of him Antony creates and controls the palette he needs
Known for depicting some of the world’s biggest names and art collectors, Antony is associated with unflinching depictions of people whose reputations and celebrity proceed them. In these small paintings Antony is free to become absorbed by his personal pre-occupations and the surfaces and juxtapositions that captures his imagination. They have a presence beyond their size and will be displayed with equal reverence to Antony’s full-scale portraits.
Antony’s still-lives will be on view as part of his 2021 exhibition at Messums London. Sign up to find out more
by Lucy Reis
Sometime in the 1600’s, somewhere in the Netherlands, silver platters are teetering on a darkly lit oak table. Bunches of peaches and plumbs spill over the silverware onto the satin cloths. A dead pheasant gazes forlornly into the middle distance and a lobster looks slightly bored as it’s antennae prods a peeled orange. A wicker basket overloads with grapes and a dead butterfly is glued to a fig.
Around four hundred years later in a dingy pub that smells strongly of beer and sticky carpets, football plays on a large screen as someone orders a ‘surf and turf’ that will inevitably taste of de-frosted plastic.
Better than the Dutch masters, more gluttonous than the upper classes of the 1600’s and as ironic as the pub classic, the namesake of his new work, Elliot Walker draws up a seat at the proverbial feast and assuredly becomes the loudest voice in the room.
In a medium commonly associated with daintiness and refined decorative fragility Walker clears this table with confidence. It suits him that his latest narrative in glass is one of excess, sensory gluttony, and, in terms of technique, a challenge that throws down the gauntlet to the glass blowing world.
Back at our feast, frozen in time in the sixteenth century, one could reach through the ornate gold picture frame and touch the soft flesh of the peaches and feel the cool goblets, the wine looks so intoxicating it fills the twentieth century nostril. Walker’s Surf ’n’ Turf offering invites a warier feaster to the table. More artifice than natural this feast will never rot, there are no flies on this table. There is nothing soft about this abandoned dinner party.
Away from the glinting light refracting off these extraordinary objects there is an underside of darkness. Walker points out that ‘the vitrification of materials is a common occurrence at sites of great calamity’. There is a sense of abandonment at this particular dinner party. A vitrification, or fossilisation, moments before a disaster of grand scale, the guests running for cover as molten pumice and ash rain down, freezing a scene of apparent serenity forever. In a dark parody of the Dutch still life this display nods to the perpetual scene of bountiful life and flips it on its head.
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An essay by Philip Marsden
A February gale had just gone through when James and Catherine Dodds came to visit. The gale had broken the mooring of my little Cornish coble and left it on a beach some way upstream. The boat was undamaged but I’d just been down at the creek, fumbling in the low-water gloop to fix a new length of ground chain to the block.
‘I won’t shake your hand,’ I held up my own to greet them. It was covered in mud, as were my boots and trousers, my coat – probably also my face and hair.
‘That’, said Catherine, ‘is how James looks much of the time at home. Mud is his habitat.’
James smiled, nodding.
The Fal in Cornwall, the Colne in Essex. Two short rivers flowing into different seas, each with their fine silt banks, their accumulated sediment, each with a world of maritime history packed into its brief estuary. On the Colne, where Dodds has his studio, five thousand ships have been built in the last couple of centuries, fishing boats and freighters and some of the fastest schooners ever to sail the sea. It is as if the mud itself spawned these creatures, which took shape and grew from its slimy flats, to slide off into the tide and fly across the ocean.
Down at Falmouth, tucked in behind Pendennis Castle, is a pool where ships have been sheltering since prehistory, where they’ve been assembled, victualled, re-sparred and repaired, where superyachts are now designed and built. It is a natural harbour that has been as busy with boats as any along the Atlantic seaboard. The National Maritime Museum Cornwall now stands there, on partially-reclaimed land, and in its timber-and-glass gallery was hanging, at the time, this same collection of James Dodds’s paintings and prints. Hence the visit.
I’d been to the gallery the week before. It was my first sight of his pictures in the flesh. His boats filled the space around them with a physicality that took me aback. They were impossible to ignore. In other hands, reality like this might be merely literal or photographic. But not here. Through the vessels’ grainy textures and meticulous forms, bare of any context, James Dodds persuades us to dwell on a simple notion: what a strange and wonderful thing is a boat.
Among the paintings, prominence is given to a group of workboats – Falmouth quay punts, oyster-dredgers, shrimpers and luggers, gigs and tenders and dinghies. Most are painted bow-on, and in their anonymous background they look suspended. These are the foot-soldiers of the maritime army, the inshore corps of jobbing craft. They are not embellished like old ships-of-the-line, nor made sleek like a yacht. They are built for labour, for day fishing, for fetching and carrying – yet each one glows with a nobility that goes far beyond its function.
Joseph Conrad believed that ‘the love that is given to ships is profoundly different from the love men feel for every other work of their hands’. That difference lies at the heart of boat-building, a tradition as old as the first migrations of homo sapiens. Shaping wood for the alien forces of the water requires problem-solving and techniques that equate to little on land. Together they have produced an object that now, after many thousands of years, looks like nothing else. Boats have grown and evolved with us, a companion species like the
Dodds manages to place his boats in that enigmatic space between the animate and the inanimate. They are taut with muscularity, power and strength at rest. It takes little to picture them driving into steep seas, or muled up with supplies or a good haul of fish, or dashing towards a ship to win the pilotage. But they are the work of human hands, designed by an individual’s eye and judgement, nothing more than an inert assemblage of dead timber and metal fastenings.
I confess I’m something of a pedant when it comes to boat pictures. I have an annoying tendency to look first at the lines and if they are not quite right, find it hard to look again. But Dodds knows boats, not only as someone who has been on and around them all his life, who lives by the rhythm of the tides, whose habitats include estuary mud – but as a man who trained and worked as a shipwright. He understands the anatomy of boats, the processes that go into creating them – the lofting-out and the half-models and moulds, the string-lines and battens, the framing and scarphing and caulking. And he knows that particular frisson of sea-fear, and the deep trust that every sea-goer places in their vessel.
Among his pictures in Falmouth, I realised for the first time the reasons for my pedantry. I saw why it is so hard to look past an unboat-like shape, why any degree of abstraction of wooden craft feels wrong. It is because a boat’s shape is already an abstraction. In its build – the bend and sheer of the hull, the rise of the stem, the ogee or lute of the transom – the form of a waterborne vessel is far removed from the familiar. It is as weird as any work of art, and as true. To alter or distort the lines would be to diminish it. What James Dodds does is less interpretation than homage.
We were sitting in the kitchen, talking boats. We spoke about my other boat, a 31-foot wooden sloop, now winter-covered in a creek to the south, and built over fifty years ago near Dodds’s home in Essex. We spoke about the oak frames and fittings and its character at sea, my recent navigation up the west coast of Ireland. We spoke about the various boats he had had, and about his print-making and his proofing press and how he prepared for the paintings – the laying out, the scaling-up and the intricate geometry of the sketching. ‘I tend to approach the painting of a boat as if I was building it.’
One thing that struck me about the boat images was their texture. The hulls’ surfaces have a quality that is far from real, yet appears completely authentic. Dodds builds up the paint from a dark ground, adding pigment layer by layer and then scraping it back with a curved skinning knife. The colours too are slight enhancements – stronger, brighter than anything you might see used in a boatshed. But rather than deviations, they help to emphasize the principal intent: to present the beauty and mystery of the boats’ form.
‘Look at the angle,’ we were leafing through a catalogue, Dodds pointing out the aspect of many of the images. ‘I like to position the boats so that a part of the interior is hidden, and there’s a slight glow from inside, from the space you cannot see.’
There’s an absence in these paintings. It’s not clear at first, but spend a few minutes with them and you become aware of what’s missing: the hand that shaped the boats, that planned and constructed them, the town beaches they lay on, the crews that heaved them into the water. For all their paint-craft and shipwrights’ method, these pictures tell a human story. ‘I often think of particular people as I paint. My father, for instance – he’s there in the grey boat.’
In his omission, Dodds only makes the boats more miraculous. What might be ignored on the strand, an old hulk rotting in the mud, or a clinker-built dinghy well-worked and retired, is displayed here in all its original purity and grace. The story of these craft is pared-back, the role of the characters all the stronger for being elsewhere.
In 1856, John Ruskin made an extraordinary confession. This high Victorian aesthete, more at home among the vaulted cloisters of a Gothic cathedral or the masters of Renaissance painting, wrote in middle age:
‘Of all things, living or lifeless, upon this strange earth, there is but one which, having reached the mid-term of appointed human endurance on it, I still regard with unmitigated amazement… Flowers open, and stars rise, and it seems to me they could have done no less… But one object there is still, which I never pass without the renewed wonder of childhood, and that is the bow of a Boat.’
Like Dodds, Ruskin recognized the perfection of a boat’s shape, the life-giving union of form and function. He saw its apogee in the front end – the bringing-in of planks at the stem. In that detail is the core of the task: the diverting of natural materials into curves and containment. The bow must be sharp to cut through the water, but the boards must spread back from it, filling out to create volume, and they must do so in such a way that copes with the ever-shifting bumps and thrusts of the water. If it looks beautiful, that is only a measure of its rightness.
But a boat’s bow is more than just shape. ‘No other work of human hands,’ continued Ruskin, ‘ever gained so much.’ Over the centuries, boats have acted as the engine of human endeavour, hidden away beneath the bottom-boards of history. Look around you – how much has been brought by sea? On island Britain, boat-building always meant connecting – or re-connecting – with the world and its peoples. While some vessels put to sea to do ill – carrying slaves, subjugating nations or making war – a great many more were involved in the intermingling of people, in the fertile exchange of goods and ideas, in the invigorating flow of migration and emigration. ‘The nails that fasten together the boat’s bow,’ Ruskin concluded, ‘are the rivets of the fellowship of the world.’
Boats reveal the best of us. Every one carries the ingenuity of those who designed and constructed it, the courage of those who worked it, and each carries too the efforts of all those previous generations for whom the barrier of the sea was no impediment, whose restless souls drove them to leave the comforts of the shore to seek bounty beyond. Boats reveal the best of us, and James Dodds’s boats are the best of them.