Chris Wadsworth
Percy Kelly - Looking East to the Ennerdale Fells
Writer and Art Consultant

18th June 2014


Many people tell me they don’t get to Dulwich Picture Gallery because it is difficult to reach. Believe me it isn’t and it is worth the effort. It is a gem of a place. Get a bus or tube to Brixton Police station (I got the 59 from Euston) then turn left round the corner to board the P4 which stops right outside the gallery. No need to be scared of Brixton these days it is slowly being gentrified! Make the effort, have an adventure.

I went along to the opening of their new exhibition Art and Life last week with some trepidation. It had been flagged up in the Saturday Telegraph a few days before and described as ‘Oddly Tedious’. This is unfair I think. The exhibition is anything but tedious. It is about friendship, generosity and exchange of ideas between artists. Showing work made during the eleven years of Ben and Winifred Nicholson’s marriage, it includes paintings by their tragic friend Christopher Wood, potter William Staite Murray and  the eccentric naive painter Alfred Wallis.

It is interesting to see their work together because their influence on each other is obvious and enriching. Not that Wallis, a retired seaman, was influenced by anyone. He just stolidly carried on painting on cardboard boxes and bits of driftwood but it is easy to see his influence on the others. Winifred and Wood picked up on the simplicity and movement in his seascapes. A friend and I had fun guessing which, In a row of 3 paintings of the same Cumbrian landscape from the same vantage point near Banks Head, their home, had been painted by Winifred, Ben or Kit Wood. We were both wrong.

An artist once came into Castlegate House looking for exhibition space. When I suggested he look round the current exhibition and ask himself whether his work would fit in he looked horrified and said he never looked at work by other artists in case he was influenced by them.  He quickly left looking neither right nor left. Hey, we all influence each other. You can’t live in a vacuum. There is a big difference between looking, learning and sharing and mere copying.

The Matisse Cut Out show at Tate Modern was full of people learning. Groups of children were sprawled about the floor cutting up bits of sticky paper. I really wanted to join them they were having so much fun. This exhibition also covers a specific period. It builds up and progresses through his commission for the chapel in Vence in 1947 to the famous SNAIL at the end of his life. It was poor health that led Matisse to develop his cut paper techniques. The past informs the present. He had already used them in planning painting and printing; cutting and manipulating until the balance was right (as did Wilhelmina Barnes Graham).  A true artist never retires. They find ways of expressing themselves to the end.

… and so to the predictable, familiar Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. I always meet people I know both on and off the wall at this annual show. Apart from Academicians who have died during the year (and this year sadly there were a few) all the work on display is by living artists and there is plenty of it.  The academy is super democratic, non elitist and open to all, with a distinguished selection committee. There are only ever 80 academicians – when they reach 75 or die they are replaced by an elected new generation.  Grayson Perry RA said ‘I love the Royal Academy. It’s like a trade union for artists – both anachronistic and extremely relevant.’ How true.

My favourite newly elected member is Thomas Heatherwick who designed the Olympic cauldron. I first saw his work at Belsay Hall in Northumberland almost 20 years ago. His hedgehog-like sit-outery has stayed with me. He is showing his design for the new garden bridge over the Thames dreamed up by Joanna Lumley. Also it was good to see works by our old friend Ken Draper RA who lives in Menorca and can’t travel for health reasons. Unable for a while last year to make his three dimensional works, he set himself the task of a small drawing every day. Entitled 40 days this is an exquisite visual diary which is hung alongside his new more familiar sculptural pieces.

 My favourite piece though is Sean Scully’s Doric Night which gave me a wobbly feeling deep inside – don’t know why - it will probably be something else among the 1200 or so exhibits that does it for you.

After all that stimulation it is good to be back among the peaceful fells though with the young lambs at the stage where they get their little horns stuck through the mesh of the fence with no going back they bleat loudly and repeatedly until rescued, baby wrens are constantly emerging excitedly from a hole in the bank of the stream, a helicopter swings low overhead looking out for idiots who might be trying to climb Skiddaw in sandals and the constant purring of quad bikes as farmers go about their summer chores means there is no silence – just a gentler more comforting background sound than the harshness of the city.



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