Of Landscape and the Distances Between

The plein-air paintings of Patrick George.

plein-air Patrick George
Patrick George, Hickbush Landscape, early 1970s, oil on canvas, 16 x 48 in.

I’d never heard of the English artist Patrick George (1923–2016) until a colleague made mention of him a few years ago. He was, I happily discovered, landscape painting’s version of Euan Uglow. And no wonder, since the two were close friends and fellow students of William Coldstream. From Coldstream they learned a meticulous approach that required measuring what lay before them, whereby a scene is observed as if on a curved plane, with the viewer’s eye at the center point. Like Uglow, George shook the umber dust off Coldstream’s example and painted with a crisp, cool palette. George made fine figure studies, a genre which he came to associate with life in London, but mostly he painted en plein air in the Suffolk countryside where he lived. Unlike the model on the stand, trees could not be marked with tape to maintain a reliable constancy; they move with the breeze and gain or shed their leaves with the seasons. But the space between them can be ascertained, and George possessed an eye for calibration. His personality was not that of the stereotypical plein-air painter, who excels at the rapid pochade. He told one of the best stories I’ve ever read about painting outside, that of working while seated in a farmer’s field, when a cow came over and placed its head on his knee. Looking over the animal’s head, he continued painting. He noted the tedium and conditions beyond his control, but was nevertheless drawn to the pursuit. 

“Outside, I am exposed to the same elements as my subject…
the wind that shakes the twig shakes my outstretched arm…
we both get wet or scorched by the sun.
Outside there is no cool appraisal,
you just have to get on with it as best you can.”

plein-air Patrick George
Patrick George, Yellow, Red, Green, and Blue, 2009, oil on board, 38 x 48 in.

One reads this with some amusement, for if George’s painting doesn’t indicate “cool appraisal,” it is an understatement to say that it suggests a consistency of temperament. He painted in all weather, though one would hardly know it; he studiously avoided the ecstasy and violence of sunshine, abiding instead in a flat English half-light. “I like the landscape,” he wrote in 2003, “when it is all there to be seen in its own right, not disguised by shadows or fancy sunlight.”

The discipline George imposed on his content was based on an austere taste, both of design and color. In a shared love for the native landscape, he expressed admiration for Gainsborough and Constable, but George’s work was too engaged in formal issues to draw an easy line from those influences. The determination to get proportions right tends to remove sentimentality from the equation. Beginning with his move to Suffolk in 1961, George saw the Stour Valley through modern eyes. There is in the Tate a large canvas, Hickbush, Wooded Landscape, painted in characteristically thin washes, that is gorgeous in its graphic masses as well as for its evocation of agrarian serenity. Often the design tilted toward the antiseptic, as in Hickbush Landscape, where the composition, its shapes so hard-edged they could have been cut and pasted, trumps nature. At other times one almost imagines George was challenging himself to see how many shades of acid-washed green could be delivered in a single view. Perhaps no plein-air painter ever used less yellow. That color often lagged behind drawing in his work was as he intended; even when the foliage is bleached and the paint is applied as if in defiance of visceral pleasure, the draftsmanship is savory.

Of Landscape and the Distances Between
Patrick George, House and Sycamore, 2010–13, oil on board, 35 x 60⅛ in.

After moving to Great Saxham in the 1990s, George began to change his thinking. “I suddenly realized that I was looking at measure instead of looking at the thing. Instead of giving you an answer, I was actually obscuring the view. So I dropped it.” A recent memorial exhibition at Browse & Darby in London focused on the late work; in the last decade of George’s life, a relative looseness crept into the painting, and with it came a bump in color. This is evident in a painting like Yellow, Red, Green & Blue, where the local color of a shoulder season dictates a more chromatic environment, but it’s also noticeable in summer paintings such as House and Sycamore and Large Ash Tree and Sycamore. As he neared his ninetieth year, George allowed fecund greens to burst forth as he hadn’t before. An oft restrained optical sensuality was released, and for the first time one can imagine the influence of Bonnard behind the smoldering color. A new willingness to engage nature was also reflected in paintings like Greengage Trees I, wherein George set up amid the very tangles of foliage he’d spent decades observing from afar. The canvas works as representation and abstraction, and the nuanced foliage, with its beautifully drawn patterns of warm and cool leaves, is delightful.

plein-air Patrick George
Patrick George, Greengage Trees I, 2009, oil on board, 26¼ x 32½ in.

I confess a suspicion of an artist who paints from life outdoors and avoids “fancy sunlight.” Andrew Wyeth and Wilhelm Hammershøi suffered a similar distrust of chromatic tone, as if to admit of joyfulness in the presence of nature would be vulgar. The popularity of Impressionism probably makes such reactions inevitable, but ceding both color and the satisfyingly tangible qualities of paint is too steep a price to pay for insisting on one’s seriousness. George’s blanched hillocks and tenderly mapped branches are redeemed by his dry visual wit. With a stringent palette and relentless attention to topographical landmarks as well as the distances between them, he imposed an intimate order on the pastoral landscape. For the balance of his long life he painted in the English countryside and enjoyed a final blossoming at a very late date. We all should be so lucky.

Patrick George: Memorial Exhibition was on view at Browse & Darby (London, UK), from February 8–March 2, 2017.


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