As a child I was dragged round stately homes, ruins and churches. I assume that they thought they would be an enriching experience for a schoolboy. Unfortunately they were hopelessly out of context. All I saw was a ruin, a sculpture, a posh sideboard and, more often than not, an egg sandwich in a rainy car park. What I did love to do was draw and paint and I was lucky enough to have a whole succession of inspiring art teachers who got me thinking in a different way. There was the magnificent Mr Brelstaff who told us to just concentrate on the shapes within the composition not the composition as a whole. We had a superb draftsman teacher who demonstrated the art of using the pencil as a ruler and the need to check and recheck measurements. Mrs Tanner seemed to have her own pottery business going because she was throwing her own pots morning, noon and night. Finally, at Sixth Form the teachers who made us think for ourselves and take it a step further. On one occasion I remember doing a series of lessons which were about drawing and painting the same object in different ways – a lesson which stumped us all initially. We’d never even thought of drawing in a decorative style…wasn’t drawing enough?
The teachers made a big contribution to my Damascene moment. The magnificent Bowes Museum is in Barnard Castle. I’d been before of course but on this occasion there were at least two large paintings by Canaletto on display. I think they were on loan and the museum was trying to raise the funds to buy them. When I first saw them I was winded. These were the big paintings of the Doge’s Barge on the Grand Canal during festivities full of bright colours and almost “Where’s Wally”-like in detail. For the first time I started to look at paintings in a different way – trying to figure out how they were put together rather than whether I just liked them or not. Literally from then on I would happily visit any stately home and focus on the paintings on the wall. I also tried to understand a bit more about the artists – subsequently shocking a secondary school teacher who set an essay topic of “write about a person you admire” with a 12-year old’s detailed biography and assessment of Giovanni Antonio Canal which must have made its way back to the Staff Room.
I loved drawing and painting but my limitations were very obvious. I could render an accurate portrayal of a bowl of fruit or portrait of a person but I had no spark. I realised very quickly that the idea was as important as the execution and, while I was closer on the execution, I had neither. I also quickly realised that there is a difference between the price and the value of art. It shocks me how cheap original art is sold for when you consider the hours of work and levels of skill needed to create the pieces. The items which sell for millions are sold for their rarity and fashion rather than the quality in my opinion. Hence why an item’s value leaps if it can be attributed to a Master. I would never queue to see a painting and the masses surrounding the Mona Lisa in Louvre baffle and repulse me.
I still have some preferences – I don’t really relate to the mediaeval religious works with their gilt/guilt and by preference I would make a bee-line for the galleries covering the 19th Century onwards. While the big galleries are a treat I will quite happily go to the local art club or school annual shows. They can be depressing with some over-bright, badly drawn flower vases and paintings of pets from photographs but there will always be some gems too.
And so to the Ashbourne Arts Festival Summer Exhibition in the Town Hall. I suspect many people will make their way through the Market Square and would never make their way in – despite it being free. They are missing a treat. The exhibition displays paintings which are selected from artists who submit work by open invitation. By definition they will tend to be East Midlands-based amateurs or semi-professionals.
This year there was a broad selection including photography, sculpture, pottery, cabinet making as well as painting. The scope of the show was amply illustrated by the set of quite robust female nude photographs by Maria Falconer.
These paintings by Louise Plant were strangely magnetic. They illustrate perfectly my point about the idea and the execution. These are typically the kind of art that some people would superficially dismiss with “I could do that”. Really? The idea, the execution, the presentation, the choice of colour, the quality of finish? I don’t think so.
I loved this watercolour (?) but unfortunately didn’t make a note of the artist. This is a great example of decorative artwork and something I would love to have on the wall. Going back to basics – I have a thing about trees. If you want to quickly assess a village art show check out the trees – incredibly difficult to portray convincingly. I love the colours and the “illustration” feel – it has an air of being a scene that was stumbled upon but could easily be just round the corner from your house. I do like illustrative art – I like the idea of art being used as more than just something to hang on the wall and of artist as artisan in the same way we consider builders or bakers – “what’s your colour scheme and how big do you want it?” If anyone can advise on the artist please get in touch.
Close by in the exhibition was this lovely brooding collagraph by John Wilford of a winter scene near Thorpe. I confess, I had to look up what a collagraph is and even then I am not entirely sure. It seems to be a printing process which introduces other materials than just ink to add texture. The effect is striking. The creative process involved here – creating the original image, choosing the method of execution, and then interpreting how it is going to abstract the original image is intriguing. In my imagination there is a high degree of experimentation or superb judgement.
There was a display of work by cabinet-maker Chris Fleming. I can think of very few things which would give me greater satisfaction than turning out quality furniture. Beautiful wood is so tactile and the quality of finish on Chris’s work is breathtaking. I sometimes wonder with these things about whether they are more art than utility. Dare you sit on the table and chairs if you owned them and do you store your socks in the drawers? I would also love to see the preparatory drawings and Chris’s plans – art in their own right.
My favourite pieces in the exhibition were Hannah Stawell’s pen and ink drawings with colour. They are slightly distorted landscapes of urban scenes in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire with little glimpses of everyday life and flashes of bright colour. Our own Graeme Reed exhibited last year and, to the untrained eye at least, he often works in the same media. The style is very raw – the draftsmanship and the precision of the lines either work or they don’t – there is nothing hidden. The skill is then in the subject and the composition and these made me smile and marvel.
I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition this year and I hope lots of other people took the opportunity to go and have a look and perhaps buy some of the works on display. There was also a postcard sale where exhibiting artists created an unsigned work which was for sale at a more affordable price.