Changing views
Country Life UK|November 11, 2020
Environmental art is all the rage, but, for landscape painters, it was never out of fashion. Laura Gascoigne finds out why
Laura Gascoigne

UNDER threat of climate change, contemporary artists are rediscovering Nature. Yet as meltingice sculptures grab the headlines, artists working in an older medium—paint —have gone on quietly responding to the landscapes that inspired Gainsborough, Constable, Turner and Cotman.

Not all of these artists meant to follow a traditional path. At Trent Polytechnic in the 1970s, David Tress had no intention of becoming a painter; he was far more interested in experimental media. However, on summer holidays in Wales, the Pembrokeshire landscape got under his skin. ‘At the end of the three years, I wasn’t convinced by what I’d been doing and had the scandalous thought: “I think I want to be a painter… possibly a landscape painter.”’ Since moving to Pembrokeshire 45 years ago, he has painted all over Britain (the landscapes in his new exhibition at Messum’s London range from Scottish lochs to prehistoric sites in Wiltshire), but the places that inspire him ‘are often places I know well: ordinary slabs of landscape where, just by chance, you happen to be when something happens—an event of light —that transforms something that 10 minutes later would be nothing particular’.

The New Year and a Lit Cloud, 2020 (Fig 6), records such an event in a spot Mr Tress passes all the time outside his local town of Haverfordwest. Although he carries a sketchbook to make outline drawings, the real action takes place in the studio. ‘When you’re sitting in front of something, you’re almost totally absorbed in putting down what’s there; in the studio, gut feeling, memory and imagination are poured into the painting.’

It’s a risky business. Brushed onto heavy-duty paper in a mix of media, then impulsively scored, scraped and scarred with a screwdriver, the image ‘can end up in bits so that it has to be literally rebuilt and put back together’. The distressed surfaces compress millennia like rock strata, dragging ancient landscapes into the 21st century, so that it’s no surprise to find a modern agricultural crop and road traffic sign in the foreground of Silbury Hill and Rape Fields (2020).

Chris Thomas’s landscapes are equally modern. His 5ft canvas The Meadow Mowed (Fig 3) may look like a direct descendant of Constable’s The Cornfield, but its context is solidly 21st century: it is the first in a series documenting the construction of 21 newbuild houses on a field behind his Cornish studio in St Breward. Glimpses of the field had often appeared in his earlier lanscapes, but, until it was cleared for development, it was too overgrown to enter. The Meadow Mowed was Thomas’s leave-taking of a subject that had now become the builders’ blank canvas.

Taught by Ray Atkins, a pupil of Frank Auerbach, at Reading School of Art in the 1960s, Mr Thomas—the son of artists—never doubted that he wanted to paint. The impastoed surfaces of his vigorous oil paintings, intensely worked with a combination of brushes, builders’ trowels and rags, are the definition of painterly. He works outdoors in front of the subject and he works big. Until recently, he had a studio on the moor where he could hang large canvases off the roof rack of his van; now, he has concreted posts into his garden in Trevalga to create a selection of ‘easels’ with different views. From these lookouts, he watches, as does Mr Tress, for ‘something to happen. That can be a sudden change of light—a moment that changes everything— or something that animates the landscape, like a person or an animal. And sometimes it can be something—an excitement—that happens in your own head. It’s a dialogue between the landscape and my emotions’.

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