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27.7.12 Day 1

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‘Is it worth going all the way to London to visit just one exhibition?’ My stamina levels since my prolonged stay in hospital had been at an all time low. Whether I could walk the required distances and last a full day out was also a big question to ask myself. Nevertheless it was a risk worth taking and all worked out well. Over the next few days my legs may have felt like I’d been preparing for another marathon, but the effort had been worth it. I knew I’d be on a winner. When ‘the boys’ are back in town, especially ‘the pioneering boys’, I was certain I’d be well rewarded.

The Royal Academy was the destination and it had already been a long walk before I’d even reached the final straight along Piccadilly. Thanks to an escalator being out of action at Warren Street my legs had turned to jelly during the long walk down to the platform. A welcome and reviving cuppa in the Friends Room however always helps to recharge the batteries.

The exhibition I was so keen to see was ‘Pioneering Painters – the Glasgow Boys 1880-1900’. Not that well known as a group, and individual names are not familiar, but like the Colourists and so many others, Scotland has a knack of producing some very fine painters.

I was hopeful, because of my physical state still undergoing a rebuild, that the exhibition wouldn’t be too busy. The main galleries were closed so the Sackler Galleries were the only space open other than the work showing in the Madjeski rooms. Unfortunately too many others had the same idea as us, that the paintings had to be seen before the show closed and although the first room could be described as busy, the last couple of exhibition spaces were a crush and the work very difficult to view. Be that as it may, high quality artwork can be appreciated even when being viewed from within the confines of a ‘madding crowd’, and there were many excellent examples to be seen.

To refer to The Glasgow Boys as a group is a convenient but inaccurate description as they weren’t Boys, they weren’t necessarily from Glasgow or even Scottish – but for a good decade they created inventive, innovative images which followed a common theme. As Vincent was known to paint some very fine sunflowers, these Glasgow Boys could paint a very fine cabbage.

Their work was bold and confident without frills and petty details. The first couple of rooms displayed subjects connected to the land, an extension of the example shown by Jean-François Millet. The paintings were as one with the elements, and a relationship forged with those who worked in it each day. From the very beginning it was plain to see that the hands and minds behind these images also knew how to draw. Paint was applied in a workmanlike manner, with daubs and strikes of brush and palette knife, surfaces appeared to have been attacked and attacked again in order for an image to evolve. No gentle caress of brushstrokes here, but marks sculpted and administered by an assured hand, ‘subjects hacked out as though using an axe’. Gradually the palette became lighter and the ochres and brown earth colouring gave way to a brighter palette, as though the sun had appeared from behind a cloud. As we moved through the exhibition sunlight began to flicker across the canvasses and the compositions moved from British to European and even Oriental subjects, the influence of European painting and of Jules Bastion-Lepage in particular became more evident as the work of the group expanded.

There were some superb paintings included in this collection and, despite the busy and sometimes inconsiderate company causing me fatigue, to be standing at arms length before them gave me much pleasure and lifted my spirits. Those that stood out for me were Arthur Melville’s ‘Peasant Girl’, James Guthrie’s ‘A Hind’s Daughter’, and George Henry’s ‘A Galloway Landscape’ and ‘Japanese Lady with a Fan’. Perhaps the best known work on show was another piece by James Guthrie, the excellent ‘To Pastures New’, or ‘The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe’ by George Henry and EA Hornel but it was a pair of smaller works that really caught my eye.

The first was ‘The Principal Street in Gretz’ by John Lavery, the second ‘Hard at it’ another fine study by James Guthrie. Both works were small, and included an isolated figure made an integral part of it’s surroundings. For me they encapsulated what was so special not only about the work of the Glasgow Boys but what excites me about painting in general, and what I am keen to achieve myself. No unnecessary detail, a composition clear and simple, painted confidently with no-nonsense slabs of pure colour. To my eyes, these small statements showed painting at it’s best.

‘Let me bring you songs from the wood/To make you feel much better than you could know
Dust you down from tip to toe/Show you how the garden grows
Hold you steady as you go
…………………Let me bring you love from the field/poppies red and roses filled with summer rain
To heal the wound and still the pain/that threatens again and again…………………Songs from the Wood/Make you feel much, much better’……..

Jethro Tull struck the right chord in 1977 with their album ‘Songs from the Wood’ – as so often with Ian Anderson lyrics, he knew how to hit the nail right on the head. We all went down to the woods from the Totem Pole today (9.11.10) and everyone was in disguise, not for a picnic but for an introduction to Forest School principles (http://www.forestschools.com/). We didn’t go alone either, our guide and instructor Mark Whelan divided the day into two clearly defined sessions; the morning spent indoors, the afternoon spent in the great outdoors engaged with forest skills and activities.

The morning began with a presentation of photographs illustrating children at play – in groups and as individuals where imagination and invention was a key and natural ingredient. Risk and danger was an integral element of play in past times but the over riding message was the sense of enjoyment and fun of being outside. The expressions of joy on the faces of individuals frozen in time was unmistakable. Comparisons were made with our own childhood as we were asked to list our personal memories of play; climbing trees, hide and seek, ball games, swimming in rivers, exploring and playing in the street being common to all. Generations of youngsters have enjoyed similar experiences and what was learned through play was character building and life enhancing – through developing friendships, teamwork, respect for safety through practical involvement – all a natural part of growing up.

The first activity Mark introduced after asking us to collect five sticks was to bind them together with a piece of string by means of a clove hitch. Simple maybe, but very awkward when trying to work with two arthritic thumbs. We completed the task and then manipulated it into a five point star – Mark quickly found out he was in for a very tough day!

The afternoon was spent in a woodland environment. Mark suggested that we divide ourselves into three groups; for shelter building, clearing and preparing an area for a fire and collecting kindling and wood for it. Safe boundaries were then identified to N, S, E and W of the Base Camp and playing out a Hide & Seek game not only brought out the inner child in us, it reiterated and reminded the group of ‘go’ and ‘no go’ areas. In my mind I recalled a short essay by Laurie Lee, ‘Eight Year Old World’ which was included in his book ‘I Can’t Stay Long’. Imaginations can run riot in places like this. We weren’t exactly singing in the rain, but calling out responses to ‘1-2-3 Where are You?’ in our individual and unique dulcet tones was pretty darn close.

The longer we spent outdoors, the more Ray Mears-like Mark became. Despite the wind and downpour, he demonstrated fire lighting efficiently and successfully – even rubbing two boy scouts together wouldn’t have created a spark in those conditions. Employing the outdoor environment as a classroom is second nature for Mark, his passion and interest for his subject was certainly infectious and illustrated how important it is to keep a contact with our natural world. There is a danger that the city based and increasingly indoor lifestyle of young people could lose touch with it completely. Todays activities were of particular interest to me, as a landscape painter my work embraces the sensations associated with being en plein air. However it doesn’t stop there, I believe that walking the landscape has helped heal me and because of this, many compositions contain symbols and subliminal messages. There’s a lot of me in there. Much more than merely ‘the view’.

Nature is available for exploration seven days a week, free of charge and age is no barrier to enjoyment – the only requirement is to be dressed appropriately for the conditions. To hear the wind whistling and singing in the tree canopy we all experienced Songs from the Wood that afternoon, whether they were related to Jethro Tull or not. Spending a few hours with nature for company was refreshment for the soul, and reminded us that there’s a treasure trove outdoors waiting to be explored, far preferable than another afternoon spent indoors with central heating in a stuffy room. As far as we were concerned, despite the rain, walking in the fresh air on a carpet of autumn leaves and spending a few hours with nature for company was, in the words of Tom Hanks in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’…………………like magic!

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