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David Inshaw: 'The Greatest Living Proponent of the English Romantic Tradition'

On the eve of The Fine Art Society's major David Inshaw exhibition, Robert Upstone considers what it is that makes his work so important

On the eve of The Fine Art Society's major David Inshaw exhibition, Robert Upstone considers what it is that makes his work so important

Sitting on a shelf in David Inshaw's kitchen in his serene and ordered open-plan studio is a collage he made in 1971. It brings together images of all the people who then had ever meant something to him - those he admired, those who in one way or another had formed, or perhaps influenced his way of perceiving the world, his heroes, his family, those he loved. A photograph of Edward Elgar sits next to images of cricketers hitting sixes; there are softly innocent nude studies of Inshaw's girlfriends alongside Pop art-like lipstick prints of their lips; Samuel Palmer's intense self-portrait looks outwards and inwards with deep, questing scrutiny; John Ruskin is there, formal and bearded, the models for 'The Badminton Game', excited and young, Inshaw's great-grandparents, his mother, their family cat, his friend Alf Stockham. It is not like any of his paintings, and yet it summarises the concerns and emotions that underlie all that came after: time frozen, looking backwards and forwards, defining the present; the powerful pull of love and sex; the enduring meaning contained in the work of kindred creative composers and painters; the acceptance of family and identity. Inshaw's pictures too have a certain timelessness about them. Their subject matter concentrates upon the intangible but powerful bonds of connection that exist between nature, man and landscape; on the passing of time and renewal; and on the life-force of attraction between men and women. And in all this they touch what it feels to be human.

David Inshaw grew up in Biggin Hill and studied first at Beckenham School of Art (1959-63) and then the Royal Academy Schools (1963-6), where his tutors were William Scott and Derek Greaves. Peter Greenham, as Keeper in charge of the Schools, was someone he admired because he encouraged the students to hunt out their own identity and not just fit into particular modes of expression. Inshaw's pictures of the 1960s were initially text based Pop pieces, or incorporated photographic elements into the painting. In 1966 Inshaw took a teaching position in Bristol, and it was here he began to evolve the deep emotional engagement with the West of England that has endured ever since. A key event in forging his artistic identity was being given Tess of the D'Urbervilles by a young woman he was in love with, and reading it for the first time. 'Because Tess was her', Inshaw recalls:

it meant a lot to me and I really took the book in, and I loved the way Hardy used landscape as a way of expressing human emotion - it was a metaphor for human emotion. And that was really the key, that and Hardy's dictum "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 increased, the intensity is increased. And that is what I am saying about the intensity in the paintings - it has to have a personal key or meaning. It imbues it with more. These were the things that really got me going. Before that I was still trying to be a Pop artist - semi-Pop. The stuff I was doing as a student was all to do with what the art world was about. Reading that book and moving to Bristol and learning to drive, exploring Dorset, all those ingredients came together and formed a starting point for what I do today, still. It was the beginning. I needed that something to start me off, and that was what did. I read Tess of the D'Urbervilles two or three times at the time to get it all.

It was Hardy's method that was the catalyst as much as his subject matter, and did not make Inshaw simply 'want to go to Dorset to paint the landscape - it didn't have that effect'; instead it inspired him 'to find a way of painting my own experiences, about the things that had happened to me.'

In 1971 Inshaw moved to Devizes in Wiltshire, shuttling from there to his teaching job in Bristol. In Devizes he painted what was to be his most famous work, The Badminton Game (1972-3), a key picture that encapsulated what would be the central themes of his art. 'I had got to know the Downs and the Vale of Pewsey by visits to Avebury and Stonehenge, and Marlborough for fish and chips on many evenings', Inshaw remembers. 'I fell in love with the Downs and the Vale on my first visit. I felt as if history had been condensed to a moment by walking in the landscape about Devizes. The symbols and evidence of man, distant past all around me, gave me reassurance and confidence to develop the ideas that had just begun in me over the previous two years.' The picture has a transcendent, almost hallucinatory quality with a hint of Magritte. Inshaw was in love with both of the girls, and has recognised in retrospect that the large upright topiary behind them were unconsciously 'phallic'. The picture is painted with meticulously small, almost obsessive brushstrokes giving it a sense of intensity. Inshaw set up the nets, dressed his models in fashionable Biba dresses and shoes, and photographed them playing badminton as a tool from which to produce drawings for the final painting. 'I think my main aim was to produce a picture that held a moment in time,' Inshaw recalled, 'but unlike a photograph, which only records an event. I thought a painting could give a more universal deeper meaning to that moment, by composing one instant from a lot of different unrelated moments.' The idea for this agenda partly came from an early Italian panel Inshaw had always admired in the National Gallery, The Combat of Love and Chastity (probably 1475-97) by Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1444/5-1497). It had, Inshaw related 'the quality I was seeking to bring to my own work':

It is the moment held in time, as if you are aware of before and after, as if a film had stopped on a single frame, and you are aware, in that instant, of the emotion of all time. This is very difficult to explain. It's what I still try to do now, because I think it is everything in painting pictures, and I look for it always. To isolate in time and space things that would normally disappear under the awful impact of other values. I wanted to pin down a moment, make it go on living, I wanted to be particular and yet general. I wanted to be excessive and yet modest. I wanted the picture [The Badminton Game] to contain all my feelings and thoughts, happy thoughts as well as sad, full of waking dreams and erotic fancies. I wanted the painting to be of this world and of the world of daydreams.

The underlying theme of time - the passing and endurance of time - is one that occurs repeatedly in Inshaw's work, beginning with Our Days were a joy and our paths through flowers (1972) in which a beautiful woman in a churchyard ponders her own mortality. It is present in his paintings of ancient Bronze Age barrows, Wansdyke, the Cerne Abbas Giant and Silbury Hill; the figure in Woman and Earth Work (2012) stands upon this remnant of the ancients looking east away from the almost-set sun suggesting perhaps contemplation of the passage of the millennia, the ebb and renewal of human life. In The Path to Stinsford (2008) Inshaw depicts the path Thomas Hardy walked along to school - 'It hasn't changed much since 1850.' In the paintings of West Bay in Dorset the different events all take place against the same backdrop of the cliffs there, the carefully-rendered strata of rock representing millions of years. This heavy interpretation gives nothing of the actual lyricism and humane warmth of Inshaw's paintings, nor the joyfulness of them, their concurrent wit and humour lying alongside serious themes. If there is human extinction in the passage of time, there is also renewal in nature, in Inshaw's blossoming May Trees that make the heart sing and the timeless joyful attraction between the sexes and the endurance of love. The title of The Badminton Game was originally different, taken from a poem by Hardy, 'She, to Him' (1866), that addresses some of these themes surrounding time and changing feeling:

When you shall see me in the toils of Time,

My lauded beauties carried off from me,

My eyes no longer stars as in their prime,

My name forgot of Maiden Fair and Free;

When, in your being, heart concedes to mind,

And judgment, though you scarce its process know,

Recalls the excellencies I once enshrined,

And you are irked that they have withered so:

Remembering mine the loss is, not the blame,

That Sportsman Time but rears his brood to kill,

Knowing me in my soul the very same--

Once who would die to spare you touch of ill--

Will you not grant to old affection's claim

The hand of friendship down Life's sunless hill?

The figure has been a continuing and central subject in Inshaw's art, and in particular his treatment of the nude. His lyrical, sometimes enigmatic nudes are often also inextricably connected with the strong association of particular places, alluding to particular memories within the artist's life and they appear on beaches and in meadows. The critic Andrew Lambirth has described them as 'naughty and voluptuous, well aware of their sexuality. Provocative but decorous ... They are very much of the here and now, unidealised and prepossessing.' Inshaw himself explains how they are the intersection of many things - 'allegory, eroticism, ideal; but also reality.'

While there is the universal, there is in much of David Inshaw's work a lexicon of deeply personal symbolism and memory within his life. His bonfire and firework paintings, for instance, contain the awe and magic of our own childhood experience of Guy Fawkes' night and the deeper primal human response to the elemental sensation of fire and darkness. More formally, flames and the night are an extremely challenging subject for an artist to paint, and Inshaw successfully pulls it off with a convincing record of the impression of how such things look and feel. Yet he has also written how his first amorous experiences took place on bonfire night, so for the artist they hold a further wholly personal layer of connection.

With his friend Peter Blake, in 1975 Inshaw was one of the co-founders of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, the group of seven artists who rejected city life in favour of the countryside, and who devoted themselves to painting subjects drawn from nature and English mythology and literature. There was never a formal manifesto, but in 1976 Peter Blake hung them together in that year's Royal Academy Summer Exhibition under a banner proclaiming the group's name. The following summer the group were given a Festival exhibition at The Fine Art Society's gallery in Edinburgh, where Inshaw's The Badminton Game was exhibited. In part the Ruralists were inspired by another group of seven, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and like them they held a canon of those who inspired them and wanted to paint subjects that were eternal. In 1978 Peter Blake explained:

Simply our aims are the continuation of a certain kind of English painting; we admire Samuel Palmer, Stanley Spencer, Thomas Hardy, Elgar, cricket, English landscape, the Pre-Raphaelites etc ... Our aims are to paint about love, beauty, joy, sentiment and magic. We still believe in painting with oil paint on canvas, putting the picture into a frame and, hopefully, that someone will like it, buy it and hang it on their wall to enjoy it.

Such a declaration at this date was in fact a radical one, and so too was the group's rejection of an urban, mass market, consumerist society, echoing fringe political activism of the mid-Seventies. Their list of heroes were far from fashionable at this date, and the art world was dominated by abstraction and a wave of conceptualism that abandoned tradition and was out of sympathy with any belief in 'oil paint on canvas'.

While Peter Blake summarised many of Inshaw's existing heroes, to be more complete among those that would need to be added would be William Blake, Paul Nash, Gustave Courbet, Piero della Francesca and the early Italian painters. Samuel Palmer had been an interest since childhood, when his mother had made him aware of him as an artist when they had gone on family picnics along the River Darent near Shoreham. Biggin Hill where Inshaw grew up was only about eight or nine miles from Shoreham and still, in the period immediately after the War, had some same sense of untouched rurality that had attracted Palmer to Shoreham and the magical potential of enchantment that such sense of place could bring, mysterious and visionary. 'The thing I liked about Palmer's paintings', Inshaw has explained, 'was that although they were very tiny they had an immense intensity - they were like black holes of energy, of spirit.' Like Palmer, Inshaw's pictures treat every part of the composition with equal attention and value, a practice also followed by the Pre-Raphaelites. Palmer's residence in Shoreham was in the period just after he had become close to William Blake, and he sought to discover there his own personal version of Blake's transcendent vision in the English landscape. Among Blake's works Palmer most admired were some of the least typical of his art, the small intense woodblock illustrations he produced for Robert John Thornton's Pastorals of Virgil (1821/c.1830). Palmer later wrote of them: 'They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry ... There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the innermost soul, and gives complete and unreserved delight'.# Blake's Pastorals are also a source of delight to Inshaw, and a group of them stand on his kitchen shelf alongside his other objects of admiration. Blake's plate A Rolling Stone is ever Bare of Moss depicting a naked Michelangelesque figure pulling a lawn roller finds witty but appropriate quotation in Inshaw's etching of a cricket pitch being rolled, and drawing a thread of connection between Blake, Palmer and the English game about which Inshaw is so passionate.

David Inshaw has recently been described in 'The Spectator' as 'perhaps the greatest living proponent of the English Romantic tradition'. This is undoubtedly true, and Inshaw's work divines the great line of relation we share both with the native landscape and the inheritance of its past. At the heart of Inshaw's painting is his attachment to the landscape of Wiltshire, and about which he has written:

"I don't know of anywhere like this vast downland with its lush river valleys to bring such exhilaration to the senses or such a feeling of stillness. I have gone away to Cambridge, Wales and London to live and love, but I have always been drawn back ... The colours, the smells and sounds of the chalk downland create a strange elusive sensation that draws me to it. There are perhaps more dramatic and beautiful landscapes, but none that I have found more compulsive, everlasting or rewarding to belong to."

Paintings by David Inshaw (17th April-9th May 2013)

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