Magazine article The Spectator

At Full Throttle

Magazine article The Spectator

At Full Throttle

Article excerpt

On a warm but dampish day a month ago, I set off for the wilds of south Wales to explore the Llanthony Valley in the Black Mountains. The train takes the visitor as far as Abergavenny, after which you're somewhat reliant on a car, unless you favour pony-trekking or have the leisure for hill walking. The darker green on the hillsides in July was bracken, the distinctive red earth slipping here and there into red mud after the cloudbursts of the day before. The narrow, twisty lanes climbed hills and traversed vales embowered with dank herbage, but the views when the hedges opened up were glorious. This article is as much about a place, a tract of country, as it is about art. It is also by way of being a preview of an exhibition -- George Rowlett in Wales: Capel-y-ffin Paintings 2005 -- rather than the usual review, for although I saw the paintings which make up the show, I also went to Wales specifically to see the dramatic landscape which is their subject. I was not disappointed.

The Llanthony Valley is already famous in art circles for being the one-time home of the sculptor Eric Gill (1882-1940). Gill lived and worked at Capel-y-ffin in the mid-1920s, having moved there from Ditchling in Sussex purportedly to escape the publicity surrounding the unorthodox craft-and-religion community he'd set up. David Jones (1895-1974), who had been an apprentice of Gill and an on-off member of the community, found his own artistic voice at Capel in depictions of the countryside, picking up especially on the strong rhythms of the hills and the bright counter-rhythms of the little brooks. As Gill's biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, writes of Jones: 'His days at Capel gave him that perception of his Welshness which emerges after that time in his painting and poetry.' George Rowlett (born 1941) is one of our leading landscape painters, whose chosen territory is London River and the coastal plains of east Kent. He paints the river at Rotherhithe or the Thames Barrier, registering the play of weather on water, the river traffic and bankside activity, the changing face of London. In Kent he paints the corn and rape fields, the cows at pasture, a sunlit beach, breakers in winter. Rowlett is a thick painter, of the fraternity of Auerbach and Kossoff, employing great tongues and spreads of pigment, laying it on with energy and brio. He also applies paint with impressive delicacy and due attention to detail.

He is an artist at the height of his powers, whose subtle understanding of landscape seems only to deepen with each new group of paintings. Brought up in Scotland, what would he make of the Welsh landscape?

I had visited him several years ago when he was on a similar painting jaunt in Northern Ireland, and the results had been impressive. Would the Black Mountains exert a similar charm? Rowlett is represented by Michael Richardson of Art Space Gallery in London, and it was through his good offices that this exhibition was arranged. The idea for the artist to stay for a short period in the Llanthony Valley, on a sort of working residency, was put forward by Pauline Griffiths of The Art Shop, and a reconnaisance trip was booked.

Rowlett responds well to a commission or a new project, and although initially unsure whether he could get to grips with the landscape on short acquaintance ('I was very wary, not believing in holiday painting, any landscape demands more'), he was soon convinced that he had no choice but to try to paint its beauty. The moment of truth occurred in the Gospel Pass, so named because in rough weather you needed to call on all the strength and belief of the Gospels to survive your passage through it. …

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