Estuary (1946) Gouache and crayon on paper Bequeathed to Abbot Hall Art Gallery in 1992 © Estate of Graham Sutherland
The latest exhibition at the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal is devoted to the work of the British artist, Graham Sutherland (1903-1980). His work included abstract landscapes, still life, figure pieces, religious subjects and portraits – including a notorious portrait of Winston Churchill which the former Prime Minister’s hated so much that it was destroyed by his widow.
As title of the exhibition, Exultant Strangeness: Graham Sutherland Landscapes, indicates, it’s devoted to one aspect of his work. But it’s a comprehensive survey, covering the whole of his career. I’m reasonably familiar with his work, especially after seeing a good selection of his paintings on display in St David’s, Pembrokeshire, a few years ago. Although I like abstract works, there is something about his style, with the strange, surrealistic shapes and the muddy colours, that just doesn’t appeal to me. But I went to the Abbot Hall with an open mind.
During the early part of his career, in the early 1920s, Sutherland specialised in producing etchings and the first room was devoted to this aspect of his work. According to the information panel in this room, he turned to painting after the bottom dropped out of the etchings market in the USA at the tie of the Wall Street Crash. The prints displayed were very different ot his later works. They were realistic, figurative pictures, influenced by the likes of Samuel Palmer. And they show that Sutherland was a talented draftsman and skilled print-maker.
I’m not sure that the following was in the exhibition, but it gives a good impression of this aspect of his work.
Pecken Wood 1925 Picture source Tate website
Turning to painting his work became abstract and he was clearly influenced by the surrealists – he participated in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936.
This is an example of his work from this period
Narrow Road between Hedges (1938-9) Oil on canvas
© Estate of Graham Sutherland
Looking at it the last thing that came to mind was a road between hedges. It looked more like a couple of slugs, or prawns on a plate. And I found the colours horrible and muddy.
There were some paintings I liked, though. This one especially.
Graham Sutherland Limestone Quarry, Working at the Cliff Face (1943)
Gouache and wax crayon on cardboard © Estate of Graham Sutherland
It was created during his time as a war artist. The overall style was very reminiscent of the works of John Piper from this period, particularly the Welsh landscapes I’d seen in Cardiff and Manchester. And the figures were very similar to those drawn by Henry Moore of miners and people sheltering in the London Underground during the war.
I also quite liked his painting of some hills in Pembrokeshire – ‘Western Hills’ (1938-41) – although I wasn’t sure about the shape of the hills – and this small painting of a small boulder
Small Boulder (1940) Watercolour The Radev Collection © Estate of Graham Sutherland
I found that I generally preferred his watercolours and drawings to his oil paintings.
The last room concentrated on later works. I wasn’t taken with them. They were particularly muddy and I wasn’t particularly impressed by his composition and draftsmanship.
Leaving the exhibition, my overall view of Sutherland’s work hadn’t changed. However it was worthwhile visiting as I learned more about him and his work. I found his etchings interesting and the picture of the limestone quarry showed a different aspect of his work which I’ll probably investigate further.