by Jerrold Northrop Moore.
Copyright © 2009 by Graham Ovenden. Reprinted with permission.
Graham Ovenden's memories reach back more than sixty years now; and he celebrates memory as a creative resource. He recently observed to me: “Once a memory is engaged by the imagination, you can make it concrete and very vivid. Time-scale is not something which has a great deal of relevance to it.”
His first home was on the edge of the little Hampshire town of Alresford – “still one of the most beautiful English county towns,” he reckons. The house itself was a two-down, two-up end of terrace cottage, already too small for the growing family. Graham had arrived as a second child in 1943, after an elder sister. The small spaces inside the cottage encouraged outdoor adventure from the earliest:
"If you went down to the bottom of Dene Road, where we lived, it comes to a dead end at the shallows of the little River Alre. I can remember as a child being most intrigued by the beautiful clarity of the water flowing through that chalk country: every morning with the water weeds – very very beautiful forms continually ebbing and flowing. There's a physical freshness about it.Romantic because it invites visions of what might have been.
"Now I am an insomniac and suffer from headaches. When I look into those crystal clear streams, I return to a state where my head wasn't like that – when one was unfettered, unburdened, and could simply accept.
"I still do, indeed, every day I look out the window. There is much that is joyous, much that is ravishing. But the mature obverse of that is a certain degree of anguish.
"The little river flowing past the bottom of our road branched round in a large arc. It was, and still is, basically as it had been for centuries. If you walk along the bank to the right, you come to a fulling-mill, a black-and-white structure built across the water. Then it was almost derelict: that's terribly romantic."
"If you walk to the left - the adventurous rout – you eventually reach Fob Down, and then right the way round past watercress beds to the Eel House: another building crossing the river on brick arches. Here they trapped eels in season (and still do).He explored these places first in the company of a grandfather who had been a country baker. Soon Graham went alone:
"So the commerce of the country was brought home to me very very early. A child of that age doesn't understand the aesthetics. One accepts things for what they are – their beauty. At Alresford I was the child in grace, totally."
"They always talk about the 1960s and 1970s as the opening of freedoms, particularly sexual freedoms. But I can tell you that the freedoms one had as a child just after the Second World War have had no equal since. No traffic on the roads: if you went anywhere, you cycled. And I was a great cyclist from the age of six onwards. So one got around and probably saw far more than the average child does today. All they see is from a television screen."His early settings were not all pastoral. Opposite the Ovendens' cottage was the gasworks, busy but unguarded. Graham recalls:
"You could just wander in - even to where they were stoking the retorts. There was no internal lighting, only the great hell-fire glowing red retorts. To see them, and even to help pull the clinker out with the rakers, was excitement indeed to a young man of six.Later he would use these hot colours to climax his visionary landscapes.
"I look back on it and see the beginnings of my fascination with vivid reds and oranges."
The Ovendens’ cottage was itself lit by gas. It gave a warm, golden light – less searching than electric bulbs, more conducive to shadow – contrasts of every subtlety. Graham was in the last generation to know from his beginnings this special interior light.
Inside the cottage his mother, an accomplished pianist, taught music through keyboard skills to each of her children in turn. “It was,” Graham remembers, “a necessary part of one's childhood.” He enjoys it still through his own playing of Bach and Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. But when at seven he was given a set of oil paints in little round drums, he found his own expression.
"I can remember the joy of being able to manipulate a body-colour, and to do things which you couldn't do in any other medium. Oil paint was a special revelation.In 1951, when he was eight, the family moved to the northern edge of Southampton. The new home was larger, and lit by electricity. Here the boy encountered a new emotion – some loss of his own past. “I've missed Alresford, certain aspects of it, all my life.”
"I remember being told to go to bed about nine o'clock in the evening, having sat there the whole afternoon and the whole evening painting away in a state of real excitement. I was painting landscapes – the slightly romantic things that children will do."
The Southampton house lay along another unpaved road leading to industrial remains. It was an abandoned brickworks with pottery kilns. This site was vast, yet here too the children explored at will – from underground tunnels to slides down forty-foot cliffs remaining from the clay extractions.
Graham's father, an engineer who had worked for Barnes Wallis during the War, was in need of new employment to support his growing family. Taking Graham down to the Docks, they met an unforgettable sight: the last of the great four-stack transatlantic liners, the Cunard-White Star Aquatania, in her final call on the way to the breakers' yard. Here was another aspect of the past – previously unknown to Graham, yet like the country of Alresford slipping helplessly astern.
“At the age of eight, nine, ten, this is where me begins to come to terms with art.” The first of these terms was a dawning understanding that art was more than simple transcripts of experience. It began when his father brought home a book rescued as war-salvage from a bombed-out rectory. German Romantic Artists contained black-and-white reproductions, among which Graham picked out the pictures of Caspar David Friedrich. Handling the book now, he sees first hints of his own hill and moorland visions:
"Friedrich is the great master of painting mountain landscapes. I'm quite amazed that I can look at them and be inspired and awed in the way that I am when I look into Palmer's 'Valley of Vision.' (It's a different vision, but he has a personal identification with that sort of terrain.)In 1954, when he was eleven, Graham painted a fully-fledged landscape – and sold it. (It is reproduced here at left, lent back for the purpose by the son of the original purchaser).
"Friedrich still has an identification with that time in my life: the great mystery – the great seeing beyond the horizon – the edge of the sea. All of Friedrich's finest paintings have that very poetic quality."
The eleven-year-old's picture shows fully for the first time an influence that was to dominate his painting for the next half dozen years, and that is with him still - the art of Claude Lorraine. Here is Claude's formula of foreground trees, with a space opening between them.
In this very early work, the distant goal is perhaps less hidden than unresolved. Nonetheless, the young artist's pathway stands open, and his painting technique is fully up to rendering the multifarious tree forms, their lights and shadows.
The mature artist reflects:
"Claude is one of the most seminal figures in landscape painting. His paintings are profoundly wonderful experiences. There is the image of the Golden Age, the Garden of Eden, held and made concrete - almost as if one's most ecstatic dreams were caught and held.With pocket money from delivering newspapers on his cycle, he found his way into second-hand shops with stacks of old gramophone records. He was so electrified with Bach performances by the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, that at twelve, in 1955, he built from scratch his own harpsichord. Its lid and case he decorated with ideal landscapes painted with some accomplishment in the manner of Claude Lorraine.
"From childhood I was aware that painting had this quality about it. Though Friedrich was closer to my own physical ideals of painting, Claude had the more potent influence on me. He taught me that painting is not just about picture-making – that there are other levels lying within the painting which you could express.
"I think that's a point of departure for any artist. Roger Fry and the whole of his philosophy doesn't really do that. It stops at the marks you make on the canvas – rather than the marks becoming an entrance, a gate opening into the great paradise..."
He began to ask where Claude Lorrain's inspiration had come from, and who had preceded him. Looking back, Ovenden observes:
"There are certain precedents to Claude. One of them is Leonardo. Leonardo paints the most amazing landscape - an artist whose sense of eye and understanding of structure in nature was second to none."He cites The Annunciation, thought to be mostly an early work by Leonardo: “both figures and landscape painted with great delicacy, precision and refinement.”
"Though it's a very formal landscape, I feel one of the most breathtaking passages in the whole of Western art. It's a profoundly moving, mysterious landscape, where the veil of atmosphere lies.If art meant more than transcribing nature, it also meant more than copying the work of predecessors. The year of the painted harpsichord, 1955, saw Ovenden beginning to glimpse a goal for himself. A smaller square painting of 1955 (left) shows new unity and strength. It comes through more assured brushwork, leading away from tight classical formulas through bolder contrasts of light and shadow for the first time to a new dynamic composition which he still identifies as his own.
"I love the formalisation of it. It's the sort of thing you get in Flemish painting - where the Garden of Eden has been organised, if you like. One feels very safe in those paintings. (In the art and the world we live in now, there's so much static going on: so much news – bad news usually). Safety in that sense is a very difficult quality to achieve."
Around this time the budding artist was taken to visit a cousin in the East End of London. Here terraces of ruined dwellings and warehouses still showed the War's bomb damage. Yet against those wrecks of the past came lively girls playing - from toddlers to adolescents like himself, with knowledge beyond their years:
"They seemed to be the logical foil for those vast and monumental works of man in the East End.I couldn't have been less interested in the great buildings of the West End. It was the back streets, the perspectives of long-terraced houses intermingled with factories and strange derelict back yards. The child fleetingly passes in front of it all: the melodic line against the great architectural structure of the music."The fourteen-year-old in 1956 felt an irresistible wish to take his camera there. He was earning enough from his newspaper rounds to find the return fare (and to pay a friend to do the weekend rounds):
"I used to catch the early train on a Saturday. I would sleep rough over Saturday night – factory vents are valuable places to sleep because of the warm air coming out – and come back by the last train Sunday. I went at all seasons – probably twenty to twenty-five weekends a year."(The photographing weekends were to go on for eight years – until his admission to the Royal College of Art made living in London obligatory and “negated the mystery of visiting it.”)
The mystery may have had its roots at home in his own childhood. When Graham was six, his next younger sister Lesley had died of pneumonia. Asked whether his fleeting impressions of her could have touched off his interest in photographing little girls, the mature Ovenden answers:
"It's not something I have ever sat down and analysed. As a very young child, one doesn't understand the nature of death: children appear, and then they go away. But I think, with the sense of loss as one grows away from the state of innocence and 'grace', it could well be. It could well be."Lesley had not followed him and the younger Ovendens as they moved through childhood and towards maturity. The half-ruined East End neighbourhoods where the little girls still played sharpened the edge of innocence.
"I think probably from the earliest age I was partly aware of ghosts. I don't mean ghosts in the sense of gothic horror-haunt: but the fact that life was a passing, fleeting moment."As he became expert at anticipating momentary compositions of the East End girls in constant animation, the adolescent photographer found himself more and more attracted to the smaller figures. They were the girls farthest from his own age: so they might revive in his camera an innocence already appealing to the adolescent artist as belonging to his own past.
"Every landscape and every environment in which I find myself is haunted in that sense. I am aware of the presence of past individuals – not specifically, but as a whole. When I'm in a landscape, one is aware not only of the physical perspective, but the perspective of the time. And also the timelessness."
"Nobody ever said to me 'You're too young to be doing this.' There was none of this stupid political nonsense that goes on now - that behind every dark shadow is a paedophile. It’s one the great corruptions of the last two hundred years."The mature Ovenden identifies the real guilt “not in him who takes the fig-leaf off to reveal nature's truth, but in him who puts the fig-leaf on to conceal it.”
"This passion for girls in their season of spring begins very very early. I think I can understand the sort of imagery Dickens had of women – the angel child."Soon his photography of the East End girls led him back to his first medium:
"I suddenly realised it was possible to expand the instant of time to something other. By the age of fourteen or fifteen I started seriously drawing them.Laying side by side the two themes in his art – landscape and the figure – the young man began to explore their interconnections within himself. The mature Ovenden reflects:
"I had to work hard at drawing the human figure. I still had no formal instruction. I simply sat down and worked away at it, throwing acres of paper away in the process. It's the way I've done everything: if there was a problem to be solved, there was only one person to solve it.
"As an artist, one becomes quite excited when one is sufficiently accomplished actually to be able to put down one's thoughts and responses in pencil and paint. So the photography and painting were growing side by side."
"One's art is bound to change formally as one gets older: but in essences, no. Not one iota changed since the days of tiddler-fishing in the shallows of the Alre.So the fascination of other childhoods deepened the landscape of his own life's beginning at Alresford. The innocence of earliest consciousness, lost in gathering experience, could be recaptured through memory and imagination. In their expression, past and present – innocence and experience – might rejoin each other as two halves of the apple. Why reconstitute the apple? To see life whole from its beginning.
"One of the reasons I draw and paint little girls is that I love long hair and its rhythms. The parallel to that is looking into those wonderful trout streams which you get in chalk country. The water is clear as a bell: looking at the weeds in it, one sees the continual ebbing and flowing rhythms. And as I say that, immediately the child running down the road with its hair flowing behind it comes to mind."
Ovenden's upbringing included regular church attendance (twice on Sundays), with frequent chances to ring the bells. But his art from earliest times was and is about earthly life. In his Garden, life touches full maturity only when remembered innocence finds its place within growing experience. It is not the “fortunate fall” of Milton's Paradise Lost – nor any unfortunate fall either. There is no fall in Ovenden's art, because there is no guilt. It is a diptych where either panel matures understanding of the other.
Here is an English understanding older than Milton. Graham Ovenden's art revives in secular terms an apposition seen in the contrasting panels of the fourteenth-century Wilton Diptych. Innocence is there on the right, taking form in the Virgin Mother and Holy Child surrounded by angels and attendants (one of whom holds a standard bearing the Banner Cross of St. George). The Child looks and gestures left – towards his mature form as Christ, opposite.
On the left panel the mature Christ presents - to the image of his own innocence opposite – the kneeling figure of the King of England in the person of Richard II. The King is supported by the English royal saints: Edward the ring-giver to St John the Baptist in front, Edmund the martyr behind.
So innocence and experience face and explicate each other. It is the achievement of Graham Ovenden's art to have renewed this old ideal for our time.
(End of part 1.)