John Virtue is an English artist specialising in monochrome landscapes, best described as a mix of abstraction and figuration, he succeeds in blurring the boundaries between the two. He follows Turner and Constable in many ways but also uses oriental brush techniques and has been likened to American Expressionists.
He was Associate Artist in Residence at the National Gallery in 2005, where he created works that connected to those in the gallery. He creates abstract works from real life, based on his perceptions and imagination. He worked in black and white paint before switching to pen and ink. This gives his work a more contemporary feel although it is based in art historic landscape of the likes of Constable and de Koninck. He manages to move away from mere pastiche of the Masters and to strip the landscape down to the bare essentials.
His working methods are rigorous, spending hours drawing in hundreds of sketchbooks before painting a remembered or imagined scene, to further move away from too much detail. Yet instead of working completely abstractly his work is also figurative. He studied these landscapes intensely, living in them, taking the same route everyday. His whole schedule revolves around his landscapes, recording the changes visible in the weather, season, time of day etc to an extraordinary degree of observation.
His London paintings used well known landmarks mixed with blurry backgrounds, so that although ambiguous, they are still recognisable. To Virtue the London skyline is another form of landscape, although he has also included weather for atmosphere. See Landscape No 709.
In the video from BBC Culture, he describes the process of building up sequentially the famous sights and then mixing them up, to use them for his own ends, in the way that he perceives the world. He omits ‘the noise’, so no people, planes, or buses, I suspect these would be a distraction. He admits to moving elements around, as if they were structural components, and creates his own new landscape from a familiar one.
For Virtue, colour is a distraction yet his monochrome works are full of life and drama, even though no people are present, his presence is everywhere. He describes the monochromatic way of working as ‘a way of seeing that resonates, rather than a way of seeing that is comfortable or reverential.’
In his 2014 exhibition The Sea, the sea is painted in black ink, and captures the sea in all seasons and all weather. There is an immediacy to the works, the viewer is drawn right into the thick of things, it’s wild and alive. See The Sea, No 8, and Norfolk No 2 , 2009.
His body of work is a ‘non-verbal diary’ of his existence, how he makes sense of what he perceives. Perhaps this is why his work is so appealing.
This was a happy discovery for me, learning about Virtue as I really enjoyed looking at his work. I have always enjoyed seascapes but am only now realising their importance to me. I grew up on the coast, not far from the North Sea, and had forgotten what that was like until I saw his work. I would go to sleep with the sound of the sea at night and wake up to it, it was always there in the background and I had not realised quite how much I had missed it.
On a recent holiday to the Canary Islands I took a lot of photographs of the beach, the coast and the sea as it was so beautiful, the air feels different there. There is something special about the sea and its unknown depths.
In a previous exercise I mentioned that I want to go to the coast and draw some scenes, this research exercise, and discovering the work of John Virtue, has reinforced this desire. A long part of my life I have been lucky enough to live near the coast and I probably need to appreciate that more.
I’m just going to quickly mention another artist, David Bomberg, and in particular his work St Paul’s and River, 1945. I really enjoy charcoal as a medium and I like the structural aspect of this, it’s heavy lines and soft blurred skies are strong and contrast well. St Paul’s is just about identifiable, again we see details are not as important as atmosphere.
Bomberg was ahead of his time, his earlier works quite abstract but not always well received. He later became a teacher, with students like Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.
Across the Valley, Ronda, 1954, is another work that is very expressive and quite minimal in detail. Again in charcoal with strong vertical lines and sweeping hillsides, conveying the rolling hills. Smudging and erasing with contrast to create a dramatic landscape.
He spent time in Spain, drawing the impressive Picos de Europa, in Asturias. The huge mass dominating the page in heavy, shading style. These drawings are easily overlooked but are very powerful in their simplicity.
Graham-Dixon, Andrew, John Virtue at the National Gallery, 2005
Schama, Simon, Why I Love the Painter John Virtue, 28 February 2005, The Guardian
Glover, Michael, Great Works: Landscape no 710, 2003-4 by John Virtue ,February 2003, Independent
Dorment, Richard, 23 March 2005, Spectacle in the Swirling Skies, Telegraph
Sheerin, Mark Interview with John Virtue, 27 January 2015 from http://www.ewangibbs.com/destinations/new_york/EG183_new_york.html
BBC, The Culture Show, from OCA website, https://weareoca.com/subject/fine-art/john-virtue/
Raynor, Vivienne, Art: A Neglected British Genius, 25 September 1988, NY Times