William Gear || Andrew Lambirth

William Gear was one of only two British artists to be included in the CoBrA (Copenhagen/Brussels/Amsterdam) Group, Europe’s answer to American Abstract Expressionism, itself a short-lived but explosive movement. As a result, his reputation was largely international: Scottish by birth, he spent a lot of time in Paris in the late 1940’s, but returned to the UK in 1950.

His fame increased exponentially with Autumn Landscape, a controversial piece painted for 1951’s Festival of Britain and he became one of the leading innovators of that decade. Autumn Landscape is highly abstract and caused considerable shockwaves, this not being a familiar style at the time. It is, however, heavily influenced by the dapped light he saw in the hedgerows of Buckinghamshire where he had settled. Looked at now, it is more of a piece of classic abstractionism that nevertheless retains the quintessential Englishness of what had gone before and might even be regarded as “safe”.

Andrew Lambirth’s majestic study is both a biography and an account of Gear’s art and working methods. It is thoroughly illustrated and might even qualify partly as a catalogue raisonné, although you may find the indexing hard to navigate.

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Wild Animals || Giovanni Civardi

There is, it seems, no end to the talents of this popular and capable artist and author. Best known for his books on the human figure, this isn’t his first foray into the animal world, but it continues his tradition of sensitive pencil work combined with simple, concise captions that explain exactly what he’s doing. There really is nothing not to like!

The book covers exactly what you’d expect, as is confirmed by the subtitle “How to draw elephants, tigers, lions and other animals”. Each of these is given its own section and there is also a very handy introduction that explains the basic techniques you’ll need in this particular field. The results are lifelike and characterful and definitely encourage by example.

Compared to Giovanni’s other books, there is perhaps broader coverage, meaning that each section goes into slightly less detail, which in turn means that you, the reader, have to do more of the analysis and deconstruction than is otherwise the case. For this reason, it’s a book perhaps better suited to someone with a little more experience than is usual with this author. It’s a delight and a triumph for all that, though.

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Visual Contemplations || Lillian Delevoryas

This is nothing if not specialised: “Paintings Inspired by Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘The Life of Moses’”. I turned to the back-cover blurb for enlightenment. “We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be, whether male or female, moulding ourselves to the teaching of vice or virtue.” I’m glad we cleared that up.

It is, of course, always unfair to mock something you don’t understand, not to mention unwise as you display the limits of your own ignorance. Let’s delve a little deeper. Lillian Delevoryas is in her 80’s and has a lifetime of experience, having worked in oils, Japanese-influenced woodblock prints, English floral watercolours, icons and more. This work has been exhibited internationally for more than 60 years. A new talent trying to find an identity this is not. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: a review of a life and a distillation of all those various styles, to “return to [those] subjects in order to perfect them … [with them] stripped of everything but [their] essentials”.

St Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa was a fourth century Christian best known now for his spiritual writings. His Contemplation on the Life of Moses has a theme of “perfection according to virtue” and the prophet’s life is used as analogy for the journey of the soul from slavery to freedom. The introduction tells us that Delevoryas discovered it while recuperating from two bouts of surgery, a time when many people start to re-examine themselves and their lives. Texts read then often turn out to be influential.

Enough of the background, what of the book itself, which stands or falls on its own merits? If I showed you the cover, with its antique figure sitting on the back of an ostrich, which has its head buried in the sand, you might conclude that it wasn’t entirely serious. However, it doesn’t stand alone and, within the sequence of the book, it illustrates a section called “Heading Nowhere”. Suddenly, it’s not a joke. Sure, it’s surreal and meant to be, and illustrates “the state of blind (or purely sense-based) ignorance, which refuses to let in the light of true knowledge”. Other pieces are rather more iconographic and give a much stronger sense of being an illustrated St Gregory sampler – there are quotes from a variety of his writings.

So, to sum up, this is a spiritual journey that was initiated by the artist’s own life and predicament. It is, however, much more than merely inward-looking and has much that will be of interest to anyone embarking on a similar journey themselves.

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Urban Watercolour Sketching || Felix Scheinberger

It used to be that publishing a book on townscapes was the quickest route to a tax loss for over-successful publishers. It was also something that had the hallmarks of a vanity project – look at the popularity of our list, we can do anything! Er, no you can’t.

However, hardly a batch of reviews seems to pass by these days without urban sketching turning up in one form or another and, in these straitened times, I think it’s safe to assume that publishers are looking for everything to be profitable. So, what’s changed? Maybe it’s the perceived glamour of the urban lifestyle, the rise of the metrosexual, the hipster, the cereal café. Whatever it is, there’s some serious and interesting art out there.

As is de rigueur in books of this type, everything is sketched, including the illustrations of materials. The style is loose, rough even, and Felix paints pretty much everything that comes within his purview, so expect buildings, constructions, figures, faces, random ideas, all in a more than slightly cartoon style that’s as vigorous as city life itself. The pages are practically noisy, it’s that street.

If you detect an equivocation here, you’d be right. I’m fascinated by the whole thing, drawn in and yet also slightly repelled by its grossness. I’m not a city dweller, but I have the need for the occasional fix and I get the same rush from these pages as I do from a day in the big smoke. It’s all a bit of a ragbag, bright, loud, confusing and yet also heady. If you’re a city dwelling artist, I think you’d probably love it.

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Tim Shaw || Indra Khanna, Don Jordan & Mark Hudson

Tim Shaw, says Mark Hudson in his introductory essay to this lavish survey of the artist’s work, is one of the great storytellers of British art. His pieces are certainly unsettling, questioning and often uncomfortable. It’s perhaps inevitable that the hooded Abu Ghraib figure of Casting A Dark Democracy features largely in it, maybe even to the extent that it appears to be what the book is about, rather than the many other figurative pieces with their distorted bodies and featureless faces. If it does, this is a shame, as Shaw’s work is more varied, both in style and location, than a rather heavily political piece implies.

The majority of the book is taken up with generously-sized and excellent quality photographs of Shaw’s pieces. These are often not just single images, but include close-ups as well as wider, contextualising shots – even when that context is an otherwise empty space. This helps to give a sense both of scale and impact – how sculpture occupies its location can be as important as where it occupies it, to the extent that it can be part of the work itself.

The text includes essays as well as an interview by the independent curator, Indra Khanna, with Tim Shaw that, while relatively short, examines some of his thought processes and creative intentions.

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The Watercolor Course You’ve Always Wanted || Leslie Frontz

As if you couldn’t resist the promise of the title, this has the strapline “Guided lessons for beginners and experienced artists”. Wow, something for all the family!

It’s more than a little unfair to make fun of book titles – after all, they only want you to buy the thing and you can’t begrudge them that. This does, however, offer much and it’s only reasonable to ask at the outset: does it live up to its claims?

Well, there’s certainly plenty of variety and Leslie Frontz seems to have no particular preconceptions or prejudices of the kind that can dog all-encompassing guides. They often omit people, or water, or major just a little too much on flowers. Here, though, there’s no preponderance and, if you were wanting to get started with watercolour but were unsure of what your favourite subjects might be, this will allow you to practise everything and find out where your abilities lie. If you have some previous experience, it may still be worth revisiting old haunts from new perspectives.

There’s plenty of advice as you go along, from colour to composition, materials to perspective as well as the choice of surface and subject. You’ll have spotted from the spelling that this is an American book, but neither the style nor the subject matter should be a major stumbling block this side of the Atlantic. My only reservation is that some of the illustrations seem a little muddy. On occasions, this might be down to the use of tinted paper, but I think that some of it is simply poor reproduction, possibly from dodgy photographs. This is mainly a minor cavil though, and you’ll probably find that the author’s enthusiasm and clear explanations more than carry you through.

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The Railway Paintings of Wrenford J Thatcher

It’s funny how early versions of mechanical transport have such an emotional appeal. I’m not talking about the first attempts, but rather the point at which they gained traction (pun intended) and became something more than just than a curiosity. Sure, there were practical railways well before the end of the nineteenth century, but there’s something about the locomotives of the 1920s and 30s that stirs the soul. It’s the same with the cars. Park me beside Mallard or the Napier Railton and I just sit there in awe, even though I’m far too young to have seen them in everyday action. These are refined creations, and yet they owe more to the skill of the blacksmith than to fine-scale engineering (though they’re that too).
In a way that defies explanation, they have soul that even a modern Ferrari or a Eurostar locomotive doesn’t.

This, then, is a recreation of the dying embers of a golden age. Created largely from photographs and the imagination, it’s seen through at least slightly rose-tinted spectacles. These are not the dirty little tramp steamers of mundane mundanity, but rather the magnificent beasts carving their way through some of the more picturesque countryside, or at least the more interesting parts of towns. The representations are realistic enough without being rivet-perfect and you get the sense of action throughout. If I have a reservation (when do I not?) it’s that Wrenford Thatcher, a railwayman himself, perhaps uses a little too much black, giving some images a rather hard outline. I also spotted a couple of instances when the perspective was a tad suspect and one loco, coming round a curve, that appears to be leaning over on its chassis. Nevertheless, this is a fine and enjoyable evocation of what I think we might call an ethos that creates a sense of currency that a photograph can never quite attain.

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