David Inshaw — as Interviewed by Catherine Milner
David Inshaw, ‘The Badminton Game’, 1972-3, Oil on Canvas, H152.4 x W183.5cm
David Inshaw quoted one of his favourite writers, Thomas Hardy, an author whose work is especially relevant to the theme of Messums Wiltshire’s latest exhibition ‘A Wessex Scene’. ‘Beauty of emotion is far greater than the beauty of aspect’ Inshaw recited, highlighting a theme which runs throughout his own paintings, as he uses landscape as a metaphor for human emotion, pathetic fallacy come to life. It is this very emotion which is so pertinent to art, creating an environment of empathy in these rather ‘troubled times’: connecting us on this little fair isle to the rest of the world.
The interview began, of course, with the image that Inshaw is best known for — ‘The Badminton Game’ — a painting which established his reputation as one of the most eminent landscape artists when it was bought by the Tate in 1981. The image contains recurring motifs of Inshaw’s, namely topiary and sex, imbuing innocent landscapes with a dark, sensual melancholy; an enchanting wickedness. It is because of this, Catherine Milner, interviewer and curator of the exhibition, suggested that Inshaw is able to ‘sail above categorisation’ yet be rooted in supposed quintessential Englishness and naivety.
‘I didn’t start off like this’ Inshaw hurried to add, making his way in the world as a graphic design and painter in Kent. He later attended the Royal Academy in London, when at the time the art world was only concerned with American Expressionism, as well as Pop Art, both from ‘across the pond’. Peter Blake and David Hockney were the British artists all the rage. Inshaw saw these trends as somewhat directionless, and questioned whether there could be another possibility for art. He began constructing ‘semi pop-art’, painting with words; focusing on construction; coming to the climax of an unknown ‘YES YES’ piece.
In 1964 Inshaw was awarded a scholarship to paint in Paris. He professed most of his Romanticism must have originated at this time, as it felt like Paris had gone unchanged since the 1900s. When he returned to England he was to take up a job at Bristol, choosing to live in between that city and London in the ‘backwater’ of Devizes, Wiltshire. At once he fell in love with the wonderful area and all of its ancient history, steeped in myth and legend.
He started to paint landscapes, in the hyper-defined, quasi-Surrealist style of ‘The Badminton Game’. This morning scene was not painted from real life but from Inshaw’s imagination, made up of composite parts. The very phallic trees were in fact viewed from a pair of binoculars; the house was an old girlfriend’s; he had had relationships which both of the women in the image. The woman on the far side is a student, with her friend on the other side, closest to the viewer. Inshaw painted in this slightly manufactured look, as though it has been made by a machine, for ‘himself only’, and was to do so over the next ten years.
Terrible stomach pains made him realise that he needed to stand and paint more freely. He had obsessions with certain Wiltshire motifs such as Silbury Hill, admired by Inshaw as it reminded him of the ever-changing passing of time. Another trope was the Cerne Abbas Man, once muddy and dirty, now white-lined by the National Trust, ‘almost glowing or neon’ Inshaw observed. He declared his appreciation for this work, on such a large scale, citing the anonymous artist(s) as a genius. All of Inshaw’s paintings are much larger than their slide-show reproductions, he pointed out, noting the importance of the original canvas’ surface and quality of paint used.
He met Peter Blake at a dinner party and founded the Brotherhood of Ruralists in 1975, wanting to be the antidote to American Colour Field and Pop Art painting. It was a venture which was to last five to six years, a not uncommon amount of time for a British artistic group. Inshaw has also painted for well-known collectors and personalities, including two works for the veteran broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough. Inshaw has contributed two paintings to ‘A Wessex Scene’: ‘Banished’ and ‘Cloud Study, Rainbow’. ‘Banished’ or ‘F*** Off and Don’t Come Back’ as it is affectionately known, evidences Inshaw’s casting of Wiltshire as a kind of Eden — dwelling in eroticism and the source of creation — with Adam and Eve’s departure from which as inevitable as our departure from life itself. Both of Inshaw’s paintings can be viewed in the Long Gallery until 31 December 2017.