Archive for category Publisher: Halsgrove

Down An English Lane || Richard Thorn

Billed as “a celebration of rural England”, this utterly charming collection achieves exactly what it sets out to do.

Richard’s watercolour style is very loose and makes extensive use of washes and spattering to create an impression of a scene rather than record it in detail. With only a few exceptions, that impression is of bright sunlight and quiet calm. Figures do not appear and this is more about an idealised than a working landscape. It’s none the worse for that.

Given the subject matter and that Halsgrove is a West Country publisher, I initially assumed that these were the lanes of Devon and Cornwall. Although it’s not explicit anywhere, there are hints in the introductory material that I’m right. Some of the titles give hints to location (“Down Surrey Way” is perhaps further afield), but most don’t and that’s right. Although Richard is painting in specific places, they stand for anywhere and this is as much the creation of an idealised countryside as it is the record of a real one (though it performs the neat trick of being that too).

You’ve probably gathered that I like this a lot. It’s a joyous book that makes you smile and feel that all things are not completely wrong, even if the politics currently are. If you love the English countryside, I think – I hope – you’ll agree. If you want to paint it, there’s plenty of inspiration in Richard’s excellent work.

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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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Travelling Light || Ray Balkwill

It’s a good few years since someone told me I should check out the West Country artist Ray Balkwill and I’ve been a fan of his work ever since.

This new collection showcases an excellent variety and quantity of his paintings and even includes a chapter on methods and materials – Ray is candid about the way he works and isn’t averse to sharing. Locations include his home territory, of course, but also Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Italy and France. Ray is at home with most subjects, although it has to be said that his paintings really come alive when boats and water are involved.

Ray is often characterised as a mixed media artist, but the truth is that medium isn’t the raison d’être of how he works. He’s not a “media” painter at all, I’d contend, rather a painter who works with whatever best suits and interprets the particular part of the subject he’s working on. For a more detailed demonstration and analysis of his working methods, have a look at his DVD, Capturing Coastal Moods.

This is a beautiful book and will appeal to those who appreciate good art, lovers of landscape and waterscape and, of course, fans of Ray’s work. The quantity and quality of the illustrations will pretty much guarantee that no-one will be disappointed, or even regard the book as particularly expensive.

Travelling Light: The Sketches and Paintings of Ray Balkwill
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South West Academy – Art – People – Place || Michael Carter

When you see that something was founded “at the turn of the century”, the immediate reaction is to think, “wow, that’s quite old”. In this case, it’s the turn of the 21st century, though even that’s quite a while ago now.

The blurb tells us that the members of the South West Academy “follow in the footsteps of those celebrated groups who, while lacking formal structure, joined together for the purposes of mutual support and fellowship.” It then goes on to attempt a coupling with the Newlyn and St Ives Schools which, I would venture to suggest, had rather more of an artistic cohesion than is evident here.

I’m being more than a little unfair, as this is a nicely-produced survey of a group of more or less disparate artists who are, however, united by a geographical location.

The members of the group are certainly a varied lot – representational and abstract painters, illustrators, sculptors and photographers. Michael Carter, who has compiled the book, is one of these latter and provides the biographies and rather excellent photographic portraits.

This is a pleasant book to handle and includes a rather delightfully eclectic mix of styles and subjects. If I was a little hard on it at the beginning, that was perhaps because it (or its publisher) tries a tad too hard to present it as more of a unity than it is. To do otherwise would be a hard sell, but I’m happy just to let it run and to enjoy it for itself.

South West Academy: Art-People-Place

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John Patchett: Painting From The Heart || Adrian Hill

John Patchett is one of the country’s leading pastellists and his work is characterised by his interpretation of light, whether strong, subtle or contrasting. His treatment of shadows is particularly masterful.

Although much of his painting is now done in East Anglia, where he lives, he has worked around the world and painted both large vistas and quiet corners, where his eye for detail excels.

This celebratory book includes over a hundred paintings that represent the totality of John’s work, with an introductory essay that provides an account of his life from his time at art college to the present.

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St Ives: The Story of Porthmeor Studios || Marion Whybrow

This was a hard book to get an angle on because it’s basically a list of people, both those who have used the studio and those who live in the area. It’s certainly the first book I’ve reviewed that has quite so many (well, in truth, any) biographies of fishermen. I’ve spent a long time with it, trying to get my fingers under the surface of what seems to be a perfect sphere. I can see what it is and I can see how it’s done, but the matter of the title keeps slipping from my grasp.

And then I got it. What, after all, is a studio, other than a building – and one with no specific architectural or vernacular merit at that? Of course – it’s the people. Doh! We all know the artistic history of St Ives, from the Colony to the Tate. We also know that the town was (still is, just about) a fishing port. But what brings it all together? Exactly.

Getting the angle to tell the story of a place that’s defined in this way must have been as hard as finding a way into the finished result, but Marion has hit on the perfect way. Don’t come here looking for reproductions of artworks, though there’s an Alfred Wallis and several Barbara Hepworths. Rather, read the story of the people who worked in and around Porthmeor Studios and follow the subtle build-up of the story of a community that’s more interlinked than you might think.

It’s a tale worth telling and one well-told.

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Cecil Rice: The Colour of Light

This is an intriguing title that points directly to the meat of Cecil Rice’s work. I’ve never come across anyone who paints light so exclusively as a subject. Every painting, of course, is informed by light but here it’s the main subject matter. The physical forms are merely an adjunct that allow it to manifest itself and they are often reduced to almost abstract shapes.

To be honest, in a book that features over 120 illustrations, this can be a bit exhausting. This is a showcase of Cecil’s work and, if it was an exhibition, it would be a substantial one which, I can’t help feeling, would leave you bewildered and maybe not sure what you might want to buy. It’s a case where less is most definitely more. However, this is a book and you can pick it up and put it down at will, and you should. If you’re an admirer of the artist, you’ll be overjoyed to find such an amount of his work in your hand for such a modest price (forty quid’s a lot for a book, but not a lot for 120 good illustrations).

Coming at this from the perspective of this blog, which is aimed at the practising artist, the lack of explanatory captions is noticeable. It’s not a fair criticism, as it’s not the main intention of the book, but it’s worth knowing. You can learn a great deal by looking at the many, many variations and qualities of light that Cecil paints, but you have to work it out for yourself. The introductory text is short and the section on working methods tells us little beyond “I have to have a clear idea of the underlying structure … behind a painting” and that he strives to maintain tonal logic throughout each work. You’d certainly hope so though, to be fair, Cecil didn’t write it, although the blurb does quote author Zoe Cooper as saying “I am always fascinated to learn what makes an artist tick”. Let’s just say that here, she had to pack a lot into a short space.

If you want to learn about painting with light, repeated perusal will provide plenty of examples and inspiration, and you could also have a look at Cecil’s DVD.

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The Road Less Travelled – exploring the paintings of Michael Morgan RI

A road or trackway is a constant, indeed almost a universal theme in the works of Michael Morgan, leading into, around and sometimes out of the composition. Both literally and figuratively, it is also a journey and hints at something beyond what is presented as the image within the frame.

The starting point for this book was a series of long-forgotten slides and photographs of early “lost” works that became the jumping-off point for a survey of the output of several decades. At the same time, it became a reflection of the paths that Michael’s life has taken, a retrospective not just of a working life, but of a method of working too.

Given that artists’ records often consist of poorly-exposed and chemically unstable transparencies – or worse, prints – it’s a relief to be able to report that the quality of reproduction is up to Halsgrove’s usual standards. There are no genuine duds here and those images which clearly won’t stand enlargement to the full page have sensibly been left smaller.

Michael Morgan is clear that he doesn’t want his books to be instructional, so there’s no technical information. However, that’s not the point: his work is always about the image and, if you really wanted to create something similar, it would probably be possible to see how the results were obtained. I suspect, however, that Michael’s work is so unique that the nearest it would be sensible to get would be to emulate his way of thinking, and you can spend the whole of this book working out what that is.

At £40, this is not cheap. Look through it though and you’ll see that it’s some of the best value around.

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Borlase Smart – St Ives Artist, Man of Vision || Marion Whybrow

It’s weird, because I was only thinking about the West Country Artist Borlase Smart a couple of days before the announcement of this book came through. His book, The Technique of Seascape Painting was still in demand when I started selling art books some 30 years ago.

Little was previously known about Smart. He has no Wikipedia entry and even the Borlase Smart-John Wells Trust has scant information (at least on its website).

Marion Whybrow has collected an impressive amount of Smart’s work, all of it superbly reproduced, as well as a wealth of information about his life. This turns out to have been a simple process: his family had it all the time. This is not to say, though, that the way she has approached both her subject and the archive is anything other than a masterclass in biographical presentation.

The strapline “man of vision” is apt. Although seascapes make up the bulk of the works illustrated, it is also clear that Smart was capable of turning his hand to almost any subject, including landscapes, buildings and people, often in a slightly expressionist style that was typical of his time (the first half of the twentieth century). He also had a keen eye for design and his town map of St Ives and some of his posters for the Great Western Railway are included here.

St Ives produced or collected a great number of superb artists and it is perhaps inevitable that it is only the really big names that are regularly remembered today. However, it is clear from this book that, if anyone was going to be rescued from obscurity, it should be Borlase Smart. Memories are short, artefacts get dispersed, and I can’t help thinking that, if Marion Whybrow hadn’t come along now, it might have been too late.

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The South Hams Coast || Gerry Miles

I’m rather partial to guide books that are illustrated with paintings or drawings rather than photographs, but I haven’t seen one for a long time. They somehow manage to have a much more subjective quality about them and to be de- rather than pre-scriptive.

This one concentrates on the area of Devon between the Dart in the east and the Yealm in the west, taking in Slapton Sands, Start Point, Kingsbridge, Salcombe and Burgh Island. If you were going to choose an area because of its suitability for the approach rather than any other reason, it’s ideal, providing a wide variety of scenery, landscapes and features.

Topographically, the book is divided into ten sections, each one a set of circular walks and moving progressively round the coast. So far, so conventional. It’s the paintings, however, that make the book what it is and I can’t help feeling that the author has hung the guide on them, rather than the other way round, and it’s for this that it has found its way here.

Taken on their own, I’m not sure that the paintings are the greatest in the world. The problem probably comes down to the panoramic format Gerry has given himself: it’s just a little too far from edge to edge and a centre of interest never quite seems to establish itself. Seen in the abstract (so to speak), they’re not things I’d choose to hang on my wall, but they’re admirably suited to their place in the book. Gerry Miles is a skilled painter who has a pleasing way with light that makes every prospect delightful and something you’d want to visit. The very first one, Dartmouth Royal Regatta, is a case in point. It’s a view of the estuary from above the town with small boats and a couple of warships sailing towards the sea. Subject-wise, it’s really not remarkable. The town is the town and warships, in the middle distance and not in the context of a book about ships, are grey shapes. And yet it’s still inviting; in its context it does its job, which I mean as high, not faint, praise.

Smaller features seen on the walks are illustrated by sensitive pencil drawings, something which, again in this context, gives the book a timeless quality. In fact, that’s why I like guide books illustrated by paintings rather than photographs. A photograph will always be of its time. There’ll be details you can’t edit, issues of image quality and so on that will always tell you roughly when they were taken. A painting doesn’t have to do that. People can be reduced to representative figures that give scale and life; the style of their clothes can be fudged and ceases to matter, an intrusive parked car can be omitted – indeed should be omitted.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I don’t just like artistic guide books, I like this one. The author has understood perfectly what’s required. There’s plenty of written and graphical information to allow you to cover the ground yourself – maps, aerial photographs and descriptive text, but to get the sense of why you should be doing this, well, that’s the job of the artist and Gerry Miles does it supremely well.

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