For the landscape artist the impact of seasonal change provides renewed and stimulating subject matter as the months pass. As lockdown brought many of us closer to the natural rhythms of the seasons, the filter of another artist’s vision and imagination can help us to appreciate the small wonders of the turning year and look more closely at the world that surrounds us. As well as the changes to trees, plants and wildlife, which are conspicuous at different times of year, the agricultural calendar has a dramatic effect on the appearance of the rural landscape. The work that unfolded there as the seasons progressed was also appealing to many artists before mechanisation changed the face of British farming. Many of the artworks made in response to these ideas are explored in The Seasons: Art of the Unfolding Year, a new exhibition that I have co-curated with Gill Clarke at St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery.
Winter is a season of short days and darkness, when nature appears dormant or even dead, so it has traditionally been a time for seeking comfort and company around the warmth of the hearth. Visually it is often depicted as a season of snow and ice and the transformation of landscapes under snow has long been a popular subject with artists. Joseph Farquharson’s snowbound sheep are the stuff of countless Christmas cards. For an artist like Adrian Allinson, whose work was marked by a fondness for dramatic lighting effects, snow created a sparkling child’s wonderland.
His contemporary John Nash was more interested in subtle modulations of colour and tone he experienced on overcast days when snow carpeting the ground would complement grey skies, tree trunks and pallid grass. Nash spent the winter painting his garden and exploring the surrounding Essex countryside, he was particularly drawn to bodies of water so a frozen pond or flooded lane might bring new interest to a familiar scene. Stripped of their leaves, the individually unique forms of deciduous trees are revealed.
Artists have enjoyed tracing their intricate structures, using them to punctuate wider landscapes or in dramatic individual tree portraits. The bare tree lends itself to bleak and eerie effects as seen in the etchings of Graham Sutherland or some of Edward Burra’s late watercolours. The wartime angst that darkened the Neo-Romantics’ visions of the 1940s resulted in the tortured limbs and spiky branches seen in the watercolours of Johns Minton and Craxton. More recently Kurt Jackson’s atmospheric plein air painting has conjured works like Bird Song, Lymington River, Winter Woodland, Feb. 2005 with its weak winter sun reflected on the surface of a river shrouded by dense, twisted branches of overhanging vegetation. The absence of colour can make winter landscapes appear drab, but the season does have its blooms as spring approaches and snowdrops, crocuses and gorse flowers appear.
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