Rural Dreamer: Tristan Pollard meets David Inshaw
From Art Magazine, Winter 2010
David Inshaw’s home, a converted 18th century Quaker meeting house, is a haven of airy calm. Carefully placed paintings and drawings rest on the floor or are ranged in neat rows along shelves with his own collection of artworks while tidy stacks of photographs, sketches and other reference material cover most flat surfaces. His studio space is equally tidy, with tubes of paint lined up, a palette of oils waiting, a large canvas sitting on an easel. Elgar, Tallis and Mozart CDs lie close to his stereo, while a large model Spitfire, the envy of any schoolboy, sits on the shelf close by.
One of this country’s leading painters, Inshaw has work in private and public collections including the RWA, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, the Department of the Environment, and the Tate Collection; work often seen to embody a quintessential Englishness, a distillation of all that is great about this country.
Born in Wednesfield, Staffordshire, in 1943, Inshaw never thought he would become an artist. “When I was at school I stuttered badly, so I occupied myself by drawing rather than talking. In my fourth year a new, dynamic teacher asked three of us if we had thought of going to art school. We said we never knew there was such a thing, so he said ‘I’ll take you down to have a look’. When we went in it was full of beatniks: men with beards, sandals and jeans, and women with fishnet tights and high-heeled shoes; a den of iniquity, and we said ‘our parents will never let us come here’.” Fortunately Inshaw’s teacher was as persuasive as he was dynamic, and following a meeting at the school parents’ evening, Inshaw was permitted to attend art college.
“The first person I can remember, as a painter, was Samuel Palmer, because we lived at Biggin Hill, not far from Shoreham where he used to paint. Another early influence came from a visit to the Tate as a schoolboy, seeing Stanley Spencer’s Christ Carrying the Cross. People lean from a window, curtains billowing out like angel’s wings behind them. A fantastic painting; one of my earliest influences.”
Although Inshaw found the training at Beckenham Art School invaluable, acceptance by the Royal Academy and exposure to the work of American artists such as Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and the Pop Artists made him question the style he had been taught. “I spent the next three years trying to find a way of producing pictures that had the kind of immediacy I felt the art world needed.”
In 1966, soon after he’d taken up a post in Bristol teaching printmaking, he met Christine Butler who gave him a copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a gift which was to have a considerable influence on his future painting. “The thing I liked about Hardy was the way he used landscape as a metaphor for human emotion, describing the way people felt. I thought that was a fantastic clue to what I wanted.”
At the same time, Inshaw was sharing a flat with Alf Stockham, who was also undergoing a transitional phase in style. Together they would drive to Dorset searching for Hardy country and immersing themselves in the dramatic scenery: “Not to paint, but just to seek a new beginning, to find the end of the peice of string which had eluded us.” From then on Inshaw’s work became a celebration of the power of nature, with his landscapes encapsulating the various moods of the Wilshire and Dorset countryside: brilliant blue skies and golden sunshine; dark and brooding thunderheads; darkening skies rent by lightening.
An impressive example of Inshaw’s Romantic sytle can be seen at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, in All our days were a Joy. A young woman wearing a long dark dress stands alone in a country graveyard. The grass around the graves is well maintained, the greenery growing over the graves is rampant and unkempt, trees surround the graveyard, silent sentinels. Towards the right of the painting, a large, dark tree appears to be encroaching upon the cemetery, Nature regaining her foothold. Every blade of grass and leaf is painted in precise detail. This work encompasses many of the themes that were to become Inshaw’s own: the woman is alone, but could be waiting for someone, or turning as she hears a sound; dark clouds reveal a narrow strip of blue sky, a hint, perhaps, that hope is on the horizon.
Inshaw is careful not to analyse his work too much. “Things do happen and I’m aware of them happening, but I don’t try to make a plan of how they should happen. It’s a question of moments: I’m always looking out for things, aware that at any moment something could happen that might be useful.”
Although certain landmarks, such as Silbury Hill and the cliffs of West Bay, remain favourite subjects, Inshaw’s work often branches out into more whimsical and humorous territory, with images of fairies, mermaids and Felix the Cat making their appearance. The emergence of a lighter side to his work partly came about as the intensity of working on complicated, large works began to take its toll, physically and artistically. “After about ten years of doing carefully constructed paintings, it became a mannerism. It was just a process which had lost its point. I had to find a new way of working, while retaining that intensity.
“I would suffer terrible stomach aches from just sitting and painting. Then I stood up to paint, walked backwards and forwards to the painting – that made a lot of difference. It created a whole new brush mark which developed as gradually the images became simpler. I stopped telling constructed stories.
“I became interested in other things and incorporated them into my work. I like painting figures. On the beach at West Bay you see all sorts of things so I just made them into fantasies.”
Felix the Cat was a favourite childhood cartoon character and Inshaw always identified with the anxious creature who “seemed to be striving to work out the meaning of life”. Eventually the character made his way into a painting as a figure on a rucksack, from then on appearing in several paintings. However, not happy with having his childhood hero stuck as a luggage logo, Inshaw decided to emancipate Felix by painting out the rucksack. “He was gone, free to express himself”, laughs Inshaw. “That’s what happens when you’re painting; you can think whimsically. I like humour in painting, a sort of slight, wry humour. It’s to do with the fact that we’re not here forever; the transitory nature of things. We might as well have a laugh.”
The transitory nature of man is another of Inshaw’s recurring themes: Nature dominates to such an extent that, at times, it seems to overwhelm the canvas. In The Cricket Game at Little Bredy, the landscape appears to envelop the cricketers, the human figures dwarfed by the massive trees and rolling hills, while in The Raven, a girl, sitting in a chair, apparently waiting for someone or something, is surrounded by looming, sculptured trees that have the solidity of rocks and mountains.
“Nature always has the upper hand, coating mane’s endeavours, layer upon layer. For example, one of my favourite places, Cornwall, has been raped and pillaged by man of the centuries and you can see evidence of that, but you can always see that Nature does eventually take over again, and I quite like that idea.”
Despite a difficult year, new themes are beginning to appear in the unfinished canvases that line his studio space. “I felt that I’d lost direction, come up against a brick wall and didn’t know how to get through it, but I’m gradually beginning to find a way. I’m interested in tents and trees and hill figures and WWII pill-boxes, but how you pull that lot together, God knows.” He grins mischievously. “I think the only ingredient that pulls it all together is sex. That’s the only thing that matters.” We laugh, but his observation isn’t entirely without truth. Many of his paintings contain elements ranging from restrained eroticism through to open sexuality, from the voyeuristic to the dreamlike surrealism of the West Bay paintings.
“I do try to give a sensuous feeling when I paint a picture. I like to convey a sensuality, which I don’t think much art does today. I think painters are voyeuristic; it goes with the job. You’re always waiting for something to happen, that connection to be made, so you’re always looking in a way in which most people aren’t”. He smiles, apologetically. “I’m always daydreaming. At school, my best subject was daydreaming.”
David Inshaw RWA is one of the 80 artists who have designed Gromits for the Gromit Unleashed trail. You can see David’s Gromit at the RWA from 1 July – 8 September 2013.