Graham Sutherland at Abbot Hall


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.

Graham Sutherland OM, ‘Pecken Wood’ 1925

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

Graham Sutherland, Narrow Road between Hedges, 1938-9

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

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

Graham Sutherland, Small Boulder, 1940

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.

John Piper at the Whitworth

John Piper, Rocks at Capel Curig. c.1950. © The John Piper Estate

John Piper, Rocks at Capel Curig. c.1950. © The John Piper Estate. Source: Whitworth website

The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester are currently showing the exhibition of pictures by John Piper of landscapes in North Wales that I saw last year at the National Museum of Art in Cardiff.  John Piper: The Mountains of Wales – Paintings and Drawings from a Private Collection features a large number of paintings of Snowdonia that the artist had produced while visiting the region during the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Having enjoyed looking at the paintings last year, I was keen to have another look and wasn’t disappointed. Many of them are almost abstract, but the well known features such as “the Devil’s Kitchen”, Snowdon and Cader Idris were clearly recognisable. As I commented in the report from my previous visit in Cardiff, I think that Piper successfully captured the rugged beauty and the atmosphere of the wild landscape of Snowdonia.

In the gallery next door to the Piper exhibition the Whitworth is showing exhibition of drawings and watercolours from its own collection of watercolours  of the Welsh landscape. Sublime: Watercolours of the Welsh Landscape. For me, these much more realistic depictions of the landscape were less inspiring than Piper’s dramatic paintings, but were still worth a look.

It was interesting to compare George Fennel Robson’s watercolour of the “Devil’s Kitchen”,

 The Devil's Kitchen, Llyn Idwal, Caernarvonshire, Wales

George Fennel Robson’s The Devil’s Kitchen, Llyn Idwal, Caernarvonshire, Wales Source: Whitworth website

with Piper’s ink and watercolour painting from more or less the same viewpoint.

Cwm Idal, 1949,  John Piper

Cwm Idwal, 1949 by John Piper Source National Museum of Wales website

The exhibition also included a display of rocks and minerals from Manchester Museum (both the Whitworth and the Museum are affiliated to Manchester University) that I found quite interesting in themselves.

The Piper exhibition closes on 7 April, which is a pity, as I’d like to go back for another look. But I may have the chance sometime over the Easter break.