After much deliberation the three artists I decided to research are George Shaw, Anna Atkins and Walter Sickery.
In Drawing 1 I came across George Shaw. His focus was painting urban scenes of his childhood home on the Tile Hill Estate in Coventry.
Shaw’s paintings are semi-realist, highly detailed urban landscapes painted using Humbrol enamel paint.
I remember reading that he liked to paint on metal panels because of the reflective quality of the metal and its smooth surface. The enamel paint has such a strong pigment combined with the reflectiveness of the panel that George Shaw’s paintings, no matter how mundane the composition, have a certain warmth…an almost glow if you like.
In his exhibition ‘My Back to Nature’ Shaw created over 50 paintings and drawings in which he explored what nature is to him. In a short vimeo he spoke about how people use nature to make dens, to go for their first drink, to take their partners and as he said “God knows what happened in there”1. He remembers playing in the wood as a child and how he would always to return to the nature. Shaw dismissed the notion that nature is where you can go to ‘discover yourself’ as baloney… he maintains that You don’t find yourself, you lose yourself in nature. His paintings reflect a love of nature and a sense that others have used nature…although I might argue that they have abused nature. Nonetheless, his paintings reflect our interaction with nature. Where he grew up the woods were on his doorstep. Many of his paintings include broken pathways leading to the woods, houses on the estate with broken gates, battered lock-up garages and rubbish everywhere. No human figures in his paintings yet this man-made world has a resonance that people have been there. The artist Peter Doig creates a similar feeling where he paints buildings or boats behind thick trees to hint that life exists beyond the trees. However the feeling created in Shaws paintings is slightly eerie by comparison to Doig’s work. The observer creates a narrative about what might have happened in the woods or in the street. It isn’t too hard to paint the narrative in your head because this is the world we live in where kids play in the woods, teenagers gather there and people walk their dogs. Unsurprisingly people will leave their rubbish behind. The paintings by George Shaw reflect todays world. In the vimeo ‘My Back to Nature’ he spoke about the similarity of the woodlands painted by Titian, Poussin or even Constable where people ‘lost themselves’ or where people went to perform rituals. In a sense his paintings are really just a modern day version of the past.
Shaw spoke about the mysterious world of the woodland where mythical creatures live and where you might expect to lift something and find something from a different work when in reality all you find is rubbish. I identify with that because as a child I lived on a farm at the edge of a forest and spent much of my time there running from witches, chasing bandits and making perfume. Now, when I rummage through the woodland I find all sorts of rubbish and it makes me sad. I get what Shaw is saying that the rubbish reflects the things that has gone on in the woods bu I want it to go back to the place where there are fairy houses and mini swing-parks, albeit they too are man-made them but the woodland is a wonderful place to take your imagination. In a sense Mimei Thompson’s art shifts between reality and mythology as she paints plants, insects and everyday images in a surrealist style. I have never been ‘high’ or drunk for that matter but her work makes me think that I might see the world like that if I got drunk or high. I guess I connect more with George Shaw’s paintings probably because his world is the world I see and I share his love for nature. His sketches reflect the untainted woodland -detailed and so beautifully drawn with paths leading you to somewhere more beautiful.
I think Anna Atkins had a slightly different view of nature. She was a botanist and the first female photographer. Anna Atkins’ mother died when she was baby so she was brought up by her father, John George Children. He was a well known scientist associated with the British Museum. As a teenager Anna worked with her father to illustrate his work on shells. When the camera was invented she became interested in photography with a particular interest in the cyanotype process or sun printing as it was called.
As a botanist Anna Atkins studied the environment of plants and algae. She would classify them and record diseases that affected their growth and she used cyanotype to illustrate the plants and algae she found.
The cyanotype process involves painting paper with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide then leaving it to dry overnight in a dark room. Flowers/leaves are then laid on the paper and a glass plate placed on top. The plate is then exposed to sunlight for a short time. The flowers/leaves are removed and the paper washed and left to develop.
When the paper is developed it leaves a blueprint of the flower showing its delicate petals and stem in white against the blue background. The process is time consuming but incredibly beautiful. It is a celebration of plants…the tiny veins running through the plant, long thread-like roots, beautifully sculpted leaves and the layers of petals and leaves of each plant.
As an observer Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes give me a sense of awe and an overwhelming maternal connection to artistry of mother nature. How many poets and writers have articulated our connection to the treasures of the soil? You reap what you sew, the root of success, the root of all evil, family tree, someone is said to ‘blossom’ and the fruits of your labor are all figurative language in which we liken ourselves to nature. As a botanist using the cyanotype process to record plants and algae, I am sure that Anna Atkins did not consider the far-reaching possibilities beyond her interest in plant science and photography.
Nature is incredible when you really think about it. For example, the golden ratio appears in plants – when they start to grow a new cell is formed after a turn.
The Christian belief that Gad gave his only son so we could be saved is mirrored in the life of a plant – For a seed to bear life, it must first fall to the ground and die. It is through this process of dying that the seed gives new life and is reborn. What a beautiful thought. I know that Anna Atkins did not record any of this in her books. As she handled each plant, recorded its individuality then showed them to the world she was telling us how beautiful nature is. John Berger would say that we bring knowledge to the paintings we observe, and that knowledge gives us a different way of seeing things. My way of seeing Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes might be different to that of yours. I love the contrast in colour, the overlaps of roots and petals and variety of characteristics of each plant that is shown in her work. For this reason I love the work of Anna Atkins.
The third artist that I want to look at is Michael Landy. Probably best known for his performance piece ‘Break Down’ Michael Landy generated public interest when he destroyed all of his worldly possessions then displayed and catalogued them in an old C&A building in London. It was a clever stunt to capture the public eye. He then went on to create etchings of weeds which he displayed in his solo exhibition ‘Nourishment’.
Landy collected weeds from cracks in pavements, verges of car parks and derelict urban buildings, watered and fed them and spent hours drawing them on paper and copper plates. It took over two years to produce the series of life sized etchings and sketches.
Artists such as Albrecht Durer and Georgia O’Keeffe advocators of the beauty of weeds influenced Landy to create his delicate little etchings, sketches and paintings of weeds
The notion that such an intense study of nature could be a form of meditation would link to the work of Anna Atkins. Neither artists has created an over romantic dialogue about this process. Indeed, their work it would seem was purely botanical. However, to devote such a huge amount of time to something that is often dismissed as mundane would be a tenuous denial of love and appreciation for such flora.
My choice of artists is based on the beauty rendered by them as well as a shared interest and appreciation of nature. I love the narrative in Shaw’s work, the process and colour of the cyanotypes by Anna Atkins and the attention to detail in those delicate sketches and paintings by Landy.