by Jerrold Northrop Moore.
Copyright © 2009 by Graham Ovenden. Reprinted with permission.
Graham Ovenden’s formal education began at an old fashioned Dame School in Alresford, followed by large schools in Southampton. There was no art instruction until his parents accepted his destiny as an artist and allowed him to enter Southampton College of Art at seventeen in 1960. His most valued teacher there was the head of print making, James Sellars (1927-2000). Sellars was also a considerable painter in tempera, pastel and gouache. His teaching bore directly on the landscape side of things. Ovenden recalls:
Like all artists of true substance, James Sellars held to his inner visions. His intellect was well honed both in writing and in teaching, yet there was no dry formality. The richly and intensely observed “portraits” of his Test Valley temperas are as seen and felt as any in English landscape. (Below right.)
He always did his own work with us, so you became part and parcel. Quite stern: that was something I thrived on, because I was always a hard worker. But he would also listen to criticism - for I didn't stand shoulder to shoulder with him in certain areas like Matisse, which he deeply loved.One Sellars enthusiasm struck deep in the young Ovenden: the art of Samuel Palmer. (Years later Ovenden was able to return the favour by securing a commission for Sellars to write the first full-length biography of Palmer to appear in modern times.)
Ovenden's first surviving oil paintings reach back to his time with Sellars at the Southampton College of Art. Their subjects already occupy the ground his landscapes have held ever since: hills and valleys, trees and fields, skies and horizons entirely lonely. From the first (and in marked contrast to much Sellars's work), Ovenden's places are glowingly coloured - as if they would relight the golden glow of gas-lighting in the first house at Alresford.
Two small oils from around 1960 hold reflections of Sellars's bicycle expeditions with his pupils westwards into Dorset and the moorlands of the Purbeck peninsula about Swanage.
Both are hotly coloured, to catch the brilliant sunlight near the coast: yellows concentrate towards orange, thence moving into reds and light purples. The estuary picture shows a presence hardly ever to reappear in Ovenden's mature landscapes - the sails of a tourist boat. Both pictures follow the broad brush work of Sellars's art. But the mound in the estuary picture reaches towards the “stumpwork embroidery” textures of the early Samuel Palmer.
Several tiny landscape studies in oil, around 1962, extend experiments in finer brushwork. One uses colours in very soft focus to shadow forth larger forms. Others contrast Sellars's long brush-strokes through foreground grasses with middle-ground trees and bushes rendered in Palmerish dappling; while Ovenden’s softest focus is kept for distant hills, horizons and skies. A Landscape with Moon of 1963 (the year before he left Southampton College) moves more deliberately towards Palmer's contrasted areas of worked textures.
Ovenden spent 1964-65 as an enforced gap year while waiting for a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London. He supported himself by employment with a builder's merchant. The head of a section there was a man of some sophistication, who introduced his wife and daughter Lorraine. The 10-year old Lorraine, with her parents' consent in that less guilty era, became Ovenden’s model for a new series of formal nude camera studies.
Such photographs, as well as his pencil drawings of girls, celebrated discoveries in smooth tones and textures. To bring them to his landscapes, in the same year Ovenden began a series of monochrome studies of Dorset moorlands in pen, conte and wash. Looking at these drawings one could, if so inclined, read a mons veneris breaking one horizon, a penis head dominating the hills of another. The mature artist retains no memory of any deliberate sexual presentations in these drawings: but the artist who drew them was twenty-one.
To expand his landscape for vision, Ovenden turned westwards to Dartmoor. Putting his bicycle in the train to Plymouth, he headed out of the city to stay with his mother's aunt and uncle in their large house on the southern edge of the moor. Its reaches of secret valley and distant tor opened new chances to extend his landscape towards the female figure - this time in maturity. Graham's visits to Dartmoor, for a month or six weeks each summer, were to continue until the end of his time at the Royal College of Art in 1968. Several tor-studies around 1964 - 65 take his brushwork back in rougher directions- beyond Palmer's 'stumpwork' to the threshold of Van Gogh. Aggressive brush work was much in fashion. But it could nullify a quality which Ovenden was coming to value above all others: luminosity, in the reflection of light through colours.
I discovered that if you use impasto - thick, three-dimensional application of oil paints - to any great extent, then when light falls on the picture, it is broken up by falling on the various angles of the impasto surface. That reduces colour values. The impasto painters then try to remedy the loss of colour by increasing crudity.Ovenden wanted unimpeded colour through unimpeded light. It is the luminosity which meets the eye when looking at the sky - the source of light. Here his teacher was Turner:
Turner's impasto in his oils was never hugely thick, and so his oils achieve luminosity. His oil painting really comes from watercolour techniques: probably subconsciously, his watercolour techniques guided his oil painting. Ovenden's first written paper at the Royal College of Art was on Turner's watercolours.He sought the same luminosity in his paintings and drawings of figures: “To draw a girl child, you have to be able to draw almost like Holbein.” The goal of such drawing had been defined by the young Samuel Palmer in a sequence of contrasts noted in his sketchbook:
1st, the firm enamel of a beautiful young face, withPalmer's note met Ovenden's eye only later. Yet it encapsulates something his art had recognised from at least the time when the boy had begun to photograph East End children. “Light and luminosity,” he observes today, “are the symbols of our spirituality.” Spirituality has always about it the hint of innocence. Allowing any insistent technique to overtake light stands for Ovenden as an ultimate perversion - equivalent to harnessing innocence to the demands of mature sexuality.
2nd, going down from the forehead smooth and unbroken over the shoulders, Hair, wondrous sleek, and silkily melting...into
3rd, a background of the crisp mosaic of various leaved young trees thinnishly inlaid on the smooth sky. Everything in this sequence springs from the bright skin of youth.
The entire ensemble of Ovenden's mature techniques is directed to the service of light and luminosity. He applies his oil colours straight from the tube. For the past thirty years and more, his whole “palette”' has consisted of five tubes of permanent colours: cadmium red, cadmium lemon, titanium white, viridian, cobalt blue (with occasional use of cyrillian blue). Having laid in his design in watercolours, the best translucence and reflective power lies in applying each mixed hue as a thin glaze. That is allowed to dry thoroughly before he applies any further hue (also thinly) over the first.
Some of this understanding was already his when the twenty-two-year-old Ovenden entered the Royal College of Art in 1965.There he found opposite counsels prevailing. He had no wish to trowel thicknesses of premixed colours in the fashion demanded by nearly all the College teachers then. Several of them were quite ready to use Ovenden's paintings of girls to bolster their discomfort with his unconventional techniques - and their disapproval of his insistence on subject matter before aggressive technique. Standing against the prevailing winds turned Ovenden into a fighter when necessary. It sharpened self-reliance and self-knowledge side by side.
The outstanding exception to nay-saying among the Royal College teaching staff was Peter Blake (b.1932). Blake's own painting was influenced by Pop art: that gave prominence to subject matter in his work unusual among the College teachers. Beyond this, Blake's soft deep voice and his quiet presence exuded strength and gentle judgment. Soon he began to play a vital part in helping Ovenden to hold onto what he had already achieved – in the face of most persistent cross-questionings aimed at denigrating his ideals.
Blake was certainly interested in the girls of Ovenden's subject matter. But it was Ovenden's landscape painting that began to turn teacher-pupil formality almost inside out - as Blake looked over Ovenden’s shoulder saying: “I have to keep coming and looking at the way you paint landscapes.”
Altogether, Ovenden remembers, Peter Blake gave him the courage not to be afraid of being precise. It was less any specific technical training than a reassurance that subject matter remains at the centre of visual expression. The human presence - whether shown in landscape or rendered only in the high finish of the artist's work - is a traditional English formula. Blake's interest throughout Ovenden's three years at the Royal College served as a constant reminder of the tradition.
Less than a year out of the Royal College, in March 1969, Ovenden married the artist Ann Gilmore. Soon they started a family. By 1973 they judged that he had gained sufficient presence with the London dealers to be able to move to the country. “I'd wanted to get back to the country ever since I'd stepped out of it,” he recalls: “I need to be surrounded by nature.” The choice fell on Cornwall, at the edge of Bodmin Moor. It extended the inspiration of Dartmoor.
In the upper reaches of a small valley with its own stream, Ovenden set about building his dream house. Much as he valued the chances his parents had given him, there were to be no more cramped quarters. The new house would be a mansion – the only major Gothic Revival house raised in England since the Second World War. Much of “Barley Splatt” (the traditional name of the property) was built over the next decade from Ovenden's plans – a lot of it with his own hands.
Within a year of the move to Cornwall, he began to paint pictures of a kind new in his art. A double portrait of their friend Jenny Dyke and her six-year-old daughter Sophie is dated 1974. Smooth skin framed with long hair is matched by a long-lined Cornish landscape behind them – all worked in clear luminosities. Two or three solid blocks of colour about them nod towards Cubism. Ovenden observes now:
If you look at my figure painting, you'll notice there's a lot of structure - verticals, horizontals and that type of geometry goes in. As often as not, the figures will stand into the geometry. The geometry is also there in the landscape, but more subtly.These hints of abstraction opened ways between Ovenden's figures and his landscapes. Yet no mere formula could challenge his subject matter. Cubism recedes into a dark hedge (end-stopped by a gatepost) in the most famous of his early ensembles of girls in rich landscapes. The Old Garden (1974, 1976-1978) juxtaposes its excluding hedge-front with wild moorland grasses (across a shadowy stream (right). About the stream two girls raise their own contrasts of expression, dress and undress, fingering their melodies as finely as any Lewis Carroll photograph. (Alice in Wonderland has proved a theme of lifelong fascination for Ovenden.)
The most celebrated Ovenden portrait-in-landscape was shown at the Royal Academy in 1976. Behind that exhibition lay a remarkable story. The subjects in his double portrait are Peter Blake and his daughter Juliette. Blake had moved with his wife, the sculptor Jann Haworth, and their young family to Wiltshire. There he had been welcomed with exhibitions in Bath and Bristol. For a mixed show of “Peter Blake's Choice,” he sought out other artists in the area including David lnshaw, Graham and Ann Arnold. Those three shared the wish to paint country subjects with fine techniques, and they often used thin glazes. It was so contrary to prevailing fashions that lnshaw and the Arnolds had formed a tiny “Brotherhood.” Blake's mind instantly went to Graham and Annie Ovenden in Cornwall. In March 1975 they all met at Blake’s house, and that day formed “The Brotherhood of Ruralists” (a word chosen by their friend, Laurie Lee).
Peter Blake, recently made a Royal Academician, was to hang the Academy Summer Exhibition for 1976. He half-promised the “Ruralists” a wall of their own work, if each would paint a picture to show his feelings for the group. Graham Ovenden so valued this extension of his own ideals that he made his Academy picture a double portrait of Blake and his daughter – in their Wiltshire garden before an old brick wall overgrown with plants and weeds and flowers.
In all of Ovenden's portraits-in-landscape, both elements are rendered with equal richness. Yet the balance could not be kept. His landscapes were more and more made from diverse impressions, remembered and reshaped toward new syntheses. The girls in his art, by contrast, remained mostly prepubescent or on the cusp. So their ideal, in the nature of things, steadily opened a distance from the artist's accumulating years and experience. Thus pressure mounted for Ovenden to separate his figure-paintings from his landscapes. Since the later 1970s he has painted only the very occasional girl in an elaborated landscape. The majority of his paintings are firmly one or the other.
Still human anatomy lent its lines and volumes to Ovenden landscapes. In The Burning Bush (a small intense oil-with-chalk of 1975), one of the main roots extends an astonishing likeness of human leg or even full-length figure towards the rich stalks of a Samuel Palmerish harvest.
Palmer had been especially forward in using paper itself as a base of luminosity in his watercolours. Paper provides Ovenden with an equally effective luminosity through the thin glazes of his oils. The Burning Bush shows secret lights everywhere. They appear in the upper corner of blue sky and fleecy cloud merging to softest horizon. Increasing definition leads the eye downwards and forwards to a climax in the brilliant yellow of the bush.
Sometimes an Ovenden landscape half fills with a single colour (thus far reminiscent of the solid colour blocks in some of his portraits). Such an area appears in The Obelisk (1979, the first of several paintings inspired by an obelisk on Bodmin Moor). Here richest yellow spreads up, in soft buttock-like shapes, through nearly two-thirds of the picture. The yellow is so powerful that it calls out purples in the middle ground to mediate back to the greens of trees and blues of farthest hills and sky. Atop the last horizon the needle-like obelisk rises as if to mark a point for new definition.
(End of Part 2.)