Welsh roots

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Eleri Evans looks at an artist who drew on the countryside to create mystery.

Graham Sutherland visited Wales for the first time in spring 1934. He was immediately attracted to the landscape and coastline of Pembrokeshire. In a letter from 1934 he writes: "It was in this country that I began to learn painting." His favourite places included St Davids, St Ishmael, Monk Haven and the Cleddau Estuary. His paintings reflected his interest in the organic and natural forms that he saw walking through the countryside.

His sketchbooks, photos and found objects, which he collected while exploring the countryside, tell us about his process of working. His studio was full of items such as twisted wood, rusty old chains and rocks from the Welsh coastline. Quick sketches, ink studies and more detailed drawings of twisted root forms, sand patterns and gorse thorns informed and inspired many of his oil paintings.

In these oil paintings he often removed the individual items from their natural context to place them in some kind of imagined and mysterious world. "It seemed impossible here for me to sit down and make finished paintings 'from nature'. Indeed, there were no 'ready-made' subjects to paint. At first I tried to make pictures on the spot. But soon I gave this up. It became my habit to walk through, and soak myself in the country. At times I would make small sketches of ideas on the backs of envelopes and in a small sketchbook, or I would make drawings from nature of forms which interested me and which I might otherwise forget," he said.

Sutherland was a regular visitor to Wales until 1946. For the next 20 years he concentrated on the landscape of the south of France and Italy, only returning to Wales in 1967 to make a documentary about his life. It was a stunning reminder: "I thought I had exhausted what the countryside had to offer, both as 'vocabulary' and as inspiration. I was sadly mistaken; and in the last 10 years I have made up for it, continuing my visits in order to make my studies and to soak myself in the curiously charged atmosphere."

He started to produce paintings based on studies he had made back in the 1930s and 1940s and continued to visit areas around Sandy Haven and Picton Castle every year until his death in 1980.

Is this painting inspired by the Pembrokeshire landscape? It dates from the period when Sutherland rediscovered the Welsh landscape; the title "Trees with G-shaped form" immediately gives us a clue about the subject of the work. Asking questions leads us in. Is it a landscape? Why? If not, why not? What is recognisable? With your students, describe the colours, textures, shapes. Where do the ideas for the painting come from? There is a photo of Sutherland drawing the tree in this painting. Taken in 1970, it shows him sitting on a chair facing the tree, on a beach at Benton Castle.

In the painting, the tree forms look both formal and monumental. Is he trying to give the humble tree this higher status by showing them as these towering forms? The composition is framed by strong horizontal and vertical lines, which contrast sharply with the sweeping curved shape within the centre. Since Sutherland was fascinated by natural forms, could the tree roots he had seen overhanging and breaking through the wall at Picton have inspired the knotted shape in the centre of this painting?

When asked "what can you see here?", pupils will often see all kinds of weird and wonderful objects. Colours, textures and shapes take on the look of human faces and animals, leaves become faces and stone walls become animals. It is impossible to know whether this was Sutherland's intention.

Looking closer, you will see a grid drawn underneath the oil paint, revealing Sutherland's method of transferring information from small drawings and photographs. Many of his drawings and photos also have small grids drawn over them. As well as exploring painterly technique, there is much to engage in this work. Shape, texture and colour are three elements of landscape to focus on; the dark, mysterious canvas can help elicit visual language from pupils. Imaginative writing in response to art features in the national curriculum in England and in Wales, where one of the requirements of the curriculum Cymreig, is for all pupils to study the work of local and Welsh artists.

* Postcards are available from the shop at the National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff Tel: 029 2057 3477 Education enquiries and school visits Tel: 029 2057 3240 www.artcyclopedia.com

wwar.commastersssutherland-graham.html www.nmgw.ac.uk

Eleri Evans is education officer at the National Museums and Galleries of Wales

GRAHAM SUTHERLAND

1903-1980

Sutherland was born in London and studied art at Goldsmiths College, before working as a print-maker. After the Wall Street crash of 1929 destroyed the American market for fine prints, he designed posters, postage stamps, tapestries and wallpaper. In 1940 he was appointed official war artist and worked in Swansea and Cardiff recording bomb damage. As well as landscapes, he also painted portraits. His most famous was that of Winston Churchill, which Clementine Churchill destroyed because her husband disliked it so much.

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