by Jerrold Northrop Moore.
Copyright © 2009 by Graham Ovenden. Reprinted with permission.
From 1975 the Ruralists had shared their holidays. They took two or three Landmark Trust cottages in the remote hamlet of Coombe, fifty miles north of the Ovendens' extending house, and close to the Cornish coast at Morwenstow. This new place showed Ovenden a new luminosity. The softer brightness of sea air extended his painted lights again. A watercolour, Tree near Coombe (1977) evokes a rain-washed tree stem rooted amid rocks whose wetness reduces them (with a few middle-ground bushes and distant hills) to soft near-planes of colour.
He also began making camera studies of sea and land at Sharpnose point off Morwenstow. Most of his photographs there show the sea at flat calm: that affords greatest contrast with the headland's rocky profile. Flat calm water also offers a maximum reflection of light.
This formula was soon enriching Ovenden's oil paintings. A rough sea, like a thick impasto of paint, would break up and disperse the light which it is always Ovenden's goal to preserve. His only pure seascape without any land shows its flat calm water with shapes, confined to the clouds above. (Painted for a 1984 exhibition devoted to Elgar, it is called The Enigma.)
Painting land directly at the flat sea's edge, he often faced a strand equally flat. That would need something further to make a picture. And here came an unusual case of Ovenden's landscapes touched by his reading. In 1982-83 he found himself enthralled by Walter de la Mare's The Connoisseur and other Stories. One story was called “All Hallows” after a lonely cathedral rising beside a western sea. Its landward side is guarded by nearly impenetrable hills, through which a solitary walker makes his way in late afternoon. Descending, he enters to find the vast interior haunted by a single verger. In the gathering darkness the verger shows him secret places in the fane - where ruinous masonry seems to be under repair by forces not at all divine.
Ovenden painted a large All Hallows (The Sea Cathedral). Sharp angles define deadwhite surfaces with slits for windows - all deeply shadowed in blue back-light from the western sea and sky. The building's hardness elicits by its contrast some softness in the surrounding horizontal planes of nearly treeless ground at the coast. So it shows man's monstrosity imposed on nature.
A series of seaside monoliths followed. For a London show the Ruralists were to paint Biblical subjects, Ovenden chose The Tower of Babel: on a canvas four feet by six and a half, a blank windowless shaft rises on a green but barren coast (1984-85). A Sea Tower on a purple strand (1985) sharpens the building's intrusive profile to a brutal point (left). A second Tower of Babel (1986) halves the canvas dimensions of the first, but doubles its tower bulk in a shaft of stark blue and stark white. The monstrous point finds faint enlarging echo in clouds above it – hinting perhaps that the artist feels himself amid mirrors.
A better answer had already suggested itself in another de Ia Mare story from the same book. In 1984 Ovenden had painted The Residence of the Philosopher Kempe. Kempe has spent his hermit's life seeking to prove the existence of the soul. He is sought out, in his all-but-inaccessible tower behind high coastal hills, by another solitary traveller through the evening. Ovenden's painting shows Kempe's tower house not on the sea strand but amid hills above. It is thus set between the earth and sky, day and night – almost lost amid darkening hills whose far sides hold last sunset rays from an ocean sky. The painting technique is as broad as in the seaside monoliths. But now that the land has regained hegemony, dark shadowy blues and greens hold touches of red below the pale sky.
And thus the colours of light, near the centre of Ovenden's art almost from its beginning, are re-enthroned. It is the true way for this painter to integrate the sea into his landscape, because it is the true counterpoint: nature's erections, more than man's, illuminated by the flat calm sea. These years had also seen Ovenden's development of a land-theme which rooted back to his student expeditions about Dartmoor: more than one tree stem sharing a common crown. In The Communion of Trees (1980) two tree stems lean towards each other – a virtually supernatural sight. He would return to it again and again. In The Druid's Grove (1983) several trees support a single pyramid of foliage (left). The co-operative stems grow again from a single area of colour.
Was there, in all this merging, a subconscious attempt to reconcile and repair the integrity of the Ruralist group? It had partly fragmented in 1981, when Peter Blake's wife Jann Haworth had suddenly left him. Blake was so devastated that, on the edge of a nervous breakdown, he felt himself forced to return to his own roots in London. Now David lnshaw wanted to follow Blake. It left the Ovendens and Arnolds to fly the Ruralist flag.
The next years saw Ovenden's rich colours explored through later and later lights. Dartmoor, Evening (1983) travels back again over his old painting grounds to explore last panoplies in a rich red field held between foreground and middle-ground. It emerges grandly from surrounding areas of mauve, orange-browns, and greens ranging from light to dark: all but the red field seemingly back-lit from the pale sky.
And so to an exploration of darkness and moonlight. A nocturne of 1982, Sentinels of Silbury, showed its moonlight behind clouds. The next year brought a direct confrontation in Full Moon, superbly luminous below a canopy of trees. Finely painted though it is, several distant fields and the top of the foreground tree canopy remain too highly coloured for nature in the fullest moonlight.
A dozen years later, the problem was memorably solved - by applying the formula seen in many of Ovenden daylight pictures. Orchard Moon – now recognised as an iconic image of Ruralist painting – keeps its distances in softest blues, gradually increasing colour intensities and contrasts as we come forwards. Foreground colours may still exceed what the eye would see in actual moonlight. But the formula is true, and therefore powerful.
Ovenden's moonlight reached farther, to touch the surreal. A small Red Moon (1999) shines supernaturally just above seaside hills. This moon's harvest red illuminates a distant solitary tree in gold which also touches another hill top farther off. Here is no hint of Pop art (which this picture could so easily have projected) but the lights of earth momentarily transcending diurnal experience.
The Philosopher Kempe landscape led Ovenden to another superb series, painted over many years, of distant sea lights illuminating coastal headlands. Gloaming towards the Cornish Coast (2000) recomposes his late evening, Morwenstow photograph of 1997 with colours of astonishing subtlety. It was dubbed by one too-casual observer 'The Black Picture'- until Ovenden pointed out that there is not a stroke of black anywhere. Close examination reveals minutely variegated glazes of shadowy blues, deep greens fringed with light as the eye moves back and back to pursue the light's source. It comes from a low sun hidden behind the nearest hill, yet still enriching the visible sea as it bathes a distant headland opposite and the sky in glazes of ivory, lemon yellow and faintest orange, pink and purple.
Soon after of The Red Moon and Gloaming towards the Cornish Coast were finished, the writer was lucky enough to witness the kindling moment of another vision. In April 2001 the Ovenden's visited me at Broadway, on the edge of the Cotswolds. Late one afternoon our car emerged on a short stretch of road crossing a high hill. To our right, between trees, opened a vast prospect westwards over the Vale of Evesham. Yet our attention was taken by a colour of sky I had never seen (and have not seen since): an unbroken sheet of grey cloud turned pink by a sinking sun behind – whose lower edge just emerged in dull gold.
We stopped to look, and I said to Graham: “There is an Ovenden vision if ever I saw one. What a pity we haven't a camera with us.” He answered: “Let's just look at it for a couple of minutes.” After perhaps ninety or a hundred seconds he said: “That's all right. We can go on. I have it here,” pointing to his forehead.
I saw none of the painting's progress. The finished picture appeared in a Ruralist exhibition that September as The Evening Fall. The foreground trees and distant hills are of Cornwall. But the grey-pink sky with its lower edge of sun are exactly as we saw them above Broadway. The artist's memory had held that unique colour – to recreate it perfectly for us to enjoy again and again - and to share with those who never saw the sight in nature.
Later years have brought excursions less physical than spiritual. One is seen in broad strokes of rain against rain-soaked moorland and sky in Receding Rain: Bodmin Moor (2002), refining a small oil study of forty years earlier. Another lies in plenary developments of deliberately limited colours. Barley Splatt Pond, Early Morning (2006) reveals a breathtaking range of blues through morning mist backing crisp trees of gold (actually orange-yellow-green) in image and reflection (below).
It is not for an observer to sum up a career still evolving. Final thoughts are best left to the artist himself. In a recently recorded conversation he speaks of the kinship of vision to technique:
I'm an old-fashioned craftsman, and I believe that the doing is all-important: doing as well as it's humanly possible to do it. In a beautiful piece of cabinet-making this is an immense pleasure. When you reach the levels of Rembrandt and Michelangelo, there you meet a very very potent alchemy of technical virtuosity with human communication.So Graham Ovenden has played and continues to play on his perceptions and experiences, and his memories of them, to create the visions which infuse his landscape painting.
It's no coincidence that the great works of the world are also consummate works of technical virtuosity. If we were able to listen to Mozart playing his own music, or Chopin playing his, I'm certain we would feel the same thing.
Music of all the arts has the greatest perspective. I'm talking not only about Claudean visual perspectives in landscape, but spiritual perspectives. People sometimes talk about playing music to death: but I think you play it to life.
Jerrold Northrop Moore is the author of Green Fuse: The Pastoral Vision in English Art,1820-2000 (Antique Collectors' Club Ltd, 2006). The book analyzes the lineage of English pastoral art from Samuel Palmer to the Brotherhood of Ruralists.
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