What with hydrotherapy appointments [his], gym sessions [me] and Babybel mornings [both of us] there isn’t much time left in the week for longer trips out, so we took advantage of college holidays to head north to Compton Verney, to see the Wallis and Nicholson exhibition.
I fell in love with Ben Nicholson’s work when I saw one of his reliefs at Southampton Art Gallery, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Alfred Wallis piece for real before – only postcard reproductions, which don’t, I now realise, do him justice.
I also knew that they knew each other, from a rather good BBC art programme earlier in the year – but I hadn’t realised just how much Nicholson was influenced by Wallis – and how good a painter Wallis was. There is a lovely quote from Nicholson about Wallis being ‘unfettered by accuracy of description’ [my new motto!] and the exhibition shows how Nicholson strove to achieve what Wallis did naturally.
We were particularly struck by Wallis’s ability to paint the sea, especially the sea in a bad mood – and his use of a restricted palette. So many of today's amateur artists, seduced by acrylics, seem to use any colour as long as it’s bright – Wallis’s colours are muted, subtle, and often influenced by the colour of the recycled materials he was painting on. There is one image of two boats in a wintry sea, the name of which I neglected to note. It is painted on a piece of polished board, which still shows at the top, and which seems to glow in the lighting of the gallery. In another one he used some orange coloured cardboard, which becomes the sky, and works so well with the heavy green/black of the land.
Perhaps my favourite was this one, where you can just see the edge of the card on which it is painted. I found his use of recycled cardboard, cut roughly from packaging, quite exciting in the way it broke away from the conventions of a rectangular canvas – something Nicholson explored in this piece. [Also influenced by Braque/Picasso, methinks.]
There is a supporting exhibition of sailors’ wool work pictures, – obviously linked to Wallis's work, obviously of interest to an embroiderer. The works on show, mostly 19th century, are technically skilled, in beautiful, mostly unfaded colours - large, detailed and very impressive. I was amused that in several cases, someone [I suspect at the Naval Museum in Portsmouth] had been able to track down early 19th C service records and tell us a little bit about the men who made the pieces.
But for me, the stars of the show were 4 early 20th century pieces by John Craske, a Norfolk fisherman. Never heard of him? Me neither, but take a look at this. That is stitch – thickly packed, using the sheen of the silk and variations in direction for superb shading.
The scones in the cafe are pretty good too.
Great gallery – just wish it was about 90 minutes closer to home…