There can be few British Art lovers unfamiliar with David Inshaw's painting The Badminton Game. On the eve of his 70th birthday and a major new exhibition at The Fine Art Society, Robert Upstone went to visit him in Wiltshire.
Robert Upstone: David, from what I see around us in the studio your exhibition will have some powerful landscapes; they have a very tangible intensity and
sense of connection. Do places contain emotion?
David Inshaw: They do, places do for me. Places where I have had experiences. Thomas Hardy is one of my heroes and he said: 'the beauty of association is far
superior to the beauty of aspect.' You can find beauty almost anywhere really but if you have an association with a place or a person the beauty is enhanced, the intensity increased.
The places I paint around here and in Dorset are all places I have known for a long time and where I've had experiences with a number of different people and I find a sense of identity. So it's really about people I suppose.
RU: Was it reading Hardy that made you want to explore Wessex?
DI: I first read Hardy at the age of 24, and along with other events in my life at the time, he set me in the direction as a painter that I have followed ever since. In 1967 I fell madly in love with Christina Butler, who was reading English at Reading University. She had given me Tess of the D'Urbervilles to read and, because she was extremely beautiful, the book had an enormous impact! It's an extraordinary story, of course, but it was Hardy's use of nature and landscape as a metaphor for human emotion that struck a deep chord, and gave me an insight into how I could develop my own work.
I had my first solo exhibition in 1969 at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, and by chance Furse Swann was sent to interview me about the exhibition. His very perceptive article mentioned Hardy's poem At Castle Boterel. This introduced me to Hardy's poetry, which
gave me a deeper insight into the use of symbolism and metaphor in art. It made me realise that I should aim to create pictures that were on more than one level and that would contain a whole range of implications that would continue to resonate.
Two significant but seemingly unconnected things happened at about this time - I had learned to drive and had become friends with the painter Alfred Stockham who, like me, had been searching for a direction in his work. Most weekends we would drive to Dorset from Bristol, where we were teaching at the art school, to discover Hardy's landscapes and in a way,
through familiarity, to make them our own.
RU: This is me imposing my theories on things but do you think that also when people look at your work they sense that emotional feeling or intensity that has gone into creating it?
DI: I hope so. I try and build an intensity into the paintings, and you do that by the process. It's quite easy to make an image but to build intensity into it, to make it resonate and to make it timeless, that takes time. It is something that I always try and put in to the images, that goes beyond what they are. And yet they are what they are. It's a fine line and you kind of know when you get there. Like that May Tree painting over there - I worked on that some while ago and it was finished and it looked like the place. But I have been going on with it for the last couple of weeks because it didn't have the intensity that I wanted. When you see
that May tree, it is on the corner of a junction in the Vale of Pusey, and when it is blossom it is awesome - it just takes your breath away. I wanted the picture to have that feeling, that intensity. So I just went on and on with it until I thought it had it, putting the marks on, the paint on, darkening, lightening, moving things around. It never does really [laughs].
RU: I think it does!
DI: With that tree I like the way it has been chopped off by the road works to keep the road open. It's straight down one side. It fits in with a few other tree portraits that I have done. I have four or five tree portraits, so that will be a theme in the show.
RU: When you are working and living, going through the daily rhythm of your life, does it feel like being a hermit?
DI: Well I like being on my own; I find my own company quite interesting and I also have to be alone to work. If I take a couple of days off, it takes me time to get back into it. Years ago I used to go and teach and when I came back I would pick up a brush or a pencil and carry on without any kind of gap. Now I find that it takes a couple days to find out which brush I was using and I have to, sort of, wind myself up to the situation.
RU: That feeling when you're deeply absorbed is part of
the process, but is it also the reward?
DI: The motivation? I don't know. Its funny, I have been painting for forty or fifty years and there must be some driving force but I really haven't yet worked out what it is. I just really enjoy making pictures, making sense of my experiences, that's the reward. I tend to experience things visually, rather than verbally. I collect images all the time - I am always on the look out for possibilities. What I am looking for is difficult to define; I recognize the things I'm looking for when I see them. They're always things that relate to my personality I suppose, my background and my upbringing. So that is the way it works really.
RU: One of the other things I was going to ask you about which people are always fascinated by, is really the basics of how you structure your working day. How do you approach your work, do you have a particular time of day you like to work?
DI: I get up and have breakfast, get ready and all those sort of daily routines. Then before nine if I can, I try and start. I don't know why, it's just that nine o'clock seems like a good time to start. It's best to start painting, to get it going, and then if you've got other things to do like shopping or washing or talking to people then do it during the day and then go back to the painting. So the whole day becomes involved in the work. It is not an obsessive thing - if somebody calls I will answer the phone. It is a process but I can change the process. But I usually go on late. The whole day becomes a sort of collage of activity and painting is the main driving force.
RU: You mentioned that sometimes you might put on music. Does that help you to get into it?
DI: I have the radio on sometimes and other times I have silence. I quite like the silence but if it's the radio it's always Radio 4. Radio 4 is the glue that holds this whole country together! I don't watch much television except I usually watch the news at 10 o'clock. If the cricket is on I will watch that but I don't have Sky because if there was cricket I would watch it because I am weak!
RU: Thinking of other artists who've inspired you, I know you're very interested in Stanley Spencer. When did you first see his pictures?
DI: Well in the Tate I suppose, in the Sixties. But I must have known about him when I was growing up because when I was in the Scouts we canoed the length of the Thames, and when we got to Cookham we decided to go and see him. We found out where he lived and went and knocked on the door, but he was out. Retrospectively he'd have had a bit of a shock to open up the door to eight boy scouts in their uniforms - it would have been quite funny. But Spencer is someone that I have always identified with - the narrative of his paintings, the mystery of the narrative, that really excites me.
RU: Because they are quite mysterious?
DI: Well they are, because they're his observations, and he had a quirky way of looking at things. And the way he painted, those early paintings, I think they're tremendous, there's a toughness about the way he paints them. The later ones, the way they're sort of knitted, or thinly painted, I don't find so satisfying. That said, I went to Cookham not long ago and saw the Port Glasgow pictures, and they are really strong paintings. The compositions are strong, everything about them. But the Resurrections Spencer he did around that time I find really difficult ... they're thin, they're sort of not convincing, whereas I think he was very convinced about the workmen in the shipyards. But the earliest painter I was interested in was Samuel Palmer. When I was young we lived at Biggin Hill and we used to go for picnics along the River Darent at Shoreham, so I knew about Samuel Palmer from a very early age. My mum told me about him - I don't know why my mum would have known that, but she did. So he was a hero. I went to the Ashmolean Museum and they let me hold his self-portrait in my hands, and the connection with it was so strong and immediate, you know, as if he'd just done it. I thought that was wonderful.
RU: I think there's something very special about being able to experience things in that way.
DI: Oh yes, I feel like that about Spencer's drawings - I have a few and when I look at them and think 'he did that, he actually did that', it's always very thrilling.
RU: Well it's the touch of the artist, and through that touch you feel something, something is communicated.
DI: Spencer was a very personal artist, he painted about his life - it's all there like a diary, his experiences, and he translates that all very easily. I like art that's like that.
RU: Well it's funny because when I was being taught art history there was a sort of bias against the biographical, an idea that you shouldn't translate biography into artists' work. On one level there is truth in that but then Spencer is a prime example of an artist whose work is predominantly autobiographical.
DI: Yes. For the same reason another artist I've always admired is Bonnard. Bonnard said that art's all about personality, that personality matters - it's fundamental, it's the beginning. That you communicate your personality through what you do. And he did, Bonnard did.
RU: There are several photo-collages in your studio but one I can see from here is a collage of small portraits, who's in that? I can see Ruskin ...
DI: There's my great grandfather and great grandmother at the top. Cricket. Christine Butler and her sister Jane. Julie Coulson in the nude. Elgar, Ruskin, another student Caroline Smith, my friend Alf next, then my Dad, my grandparents, then topiary(because I was painting topiary at the time), then Gillian who was one of the players in The Badminton Game, and then girlfriends, then me and my Mum, and our cat, and then Hardy. They're all the people who mattered to me in 1971 when I did it and they still do.
RU: You mentioned The Badminton Game, which is in the Tate but we're borrowing it for The Fine Art Society exhibition. It's such an iconic work, how did it come about?
DI: Well I was doing drawings of gardens and trees, and I'd finished the drawing for the badminton painting but I didn't know that it would feature badminton. The trees were all from around here - they were all trees that I'd encountered, or that I could see from my studio with binoculars. I looked through the binoculars and then painted them. So I'd done the drawing, and I felt there should be something going on in this painting, some movement. Around that time I was at a dinner party in Bath - in fact it was at the dinner party that I first met Peter Blake in the early 70s - and I was sitting next to a girl, telling her what I was doing, and she said that she'd been sorting out her parents' house that day and had found some old badminton equipment. I suddenly thought that maybe I could incorporate that in the painting. I asked her if I could borrow the equipment and days later we rigged up the badminton net and some friends and I played in their garden.
RU: The other thing that always strikes me about that painting is the strangeness that the tall topiary gives?
DI: Its phallic. I didn't know it was phallic at the time. No, it was only later on when I'd done it that I thought "Oh, its rude." Obviously it was an expression of desire for the two girls - very basic!
RU: Just now we were just talking about Francis Bacon and the way he worked, and his identity as a painter ...
DI: I think that his paintings became mannered towards the end of his life - he worked out a way of doing it and he did it. When he started painting he was searching; I think that is the key really to the whole business, you've got to keep searching. In the early ones you can see that search, that desire to find an identity for yourself in paint.
RU: It is probably also the secret of life - finding something new that excites and interests you everyday, continually. When you meet very elderly people in their nineties the ones that are best preserved are those with a genuine hunger for what's going on and there is none of the disenchantment.
DI: It's keeping that kind of freshness. You can manufacture it. I obviously don't have the freshness I had when I did The Badminton Game. You can see it in the photographs of the girls playing badminton, that kind of celebration. It is not easy after 40 years to keep that kind of freshness. I was wondering whether I use other people to give me that freshness. Where does it come from, how do you acquire it, is it within? I know I do get a lot from other people. Life: the longer you do it, the more exciting it becomes somehow.
Paintings by David Inshaw will run from 2-26th April
2013 at The Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, London W1S 2JT