While it is true that compass needles generally point north, a magnetic compass will point slightly east of north in one part of the world and slightly west of north in another. What is more, these deviations are not constant, but will continue to shift along with the solid and molten stuff deep within the earth.
Geophysics might not seem an appropriate starting point for a discussion of Northern art, but magnetic variation has some parallels with how and why Northern artists and their work are perceived, because there still appears to be a shift in perception depending upon who is doing the reading.
First, there is the lodestone of L.S. Lowry, an important, deservedly popular artist, the significance of whose work is now confused with its status as a marketing phenomenon. Secondly, there is the fact that all too many Northern artists are still compared to Lowry, regardless of whether they have anything to do with anywhere near Manchester. Thirdly, speaking as someone who has enjoyed limited travel in the North of England, I think it must be easy to overlook just how large Yorkshire, Lancashire, and for that matter, Cumbria actually are; not to mention how much they vary in topography, culture and local character.
Liverpool and Manchester, for example differ vastly; the former having been generally more cosmopolitan, partly due to its shipping industry and associated influx of migrants. Furthermore, the cities had competing and largely irreconcilable Academies. Of course, what these cities share, along with York, are the coastal geography and/or natural resources that shaped them from before the 18th through to the late 20th Century.
Inevitably, Northern British art is associated with the industrial landscape and everything about it that is both magnificent and severe. One of the most influential Mancunian artists, Adolphe Valette, was an Impressionist whose style was specifically inspired by the city’s dense pollution. Lowry was the archetypal painter of the pre-war millscape and his “matchstick men” are alternately interpreted as sentimental and joyless. Harry Rutherford, on the other hand, a follower of Sickert, more obviously distinguished workers from their surroundings; many of his paintings actively celebrated their lives outside the factory gates. Roger Hampson and William Turner were far more unsparing in depicting the stark reality of living in a declining community, but they were also aware that if the man-made was disappearing, the people remained.
As the factories, mills and mines closed, their communities correspondingly found new magnetic centres and contemporary Northern artists are keenly aware of these shifts in energy and identity. Peter Stanaway combines postcubism with social commentary in his millscapes. Helen Clapcott uses panorama and subdued tones in her work that hint at a future beyond the viaduct. Geoffrey Key paints industrial landscapes with the fleeting eye of an urbanite and is equally, if not more, interested in the people who now make Manchester the second most populous city in Britain. Dave Hartley draws on the technique of Trevor Grimshaw and the mood of Theodore Major’s ‘apocalyptic Wiganscapes’ to make his poetic, almost allegorical vignettes. And Jake Attree’s complex impasto technique gives his paintings of both York’s medieval ruins and its commercial center a tapestry-like richness.
Finally, the shades of Turner, Palmer and Constable will always haunt any exhibition involving British landscape. But, first and foremost, Percy Kelly’s work will always be defined by his native Cumbria as much as his passion for draughtsmanship. Likewise, the works of Lilian Colbourn, Peter Hicks, Len Tabner, Margaret Shields, and Pam Poskitt were and remain inspired by the North Yorkshire Coast and Estuary and the Tees Valley. While their techniques vary widely, from Poskitt’s eclectically sourced mixed-media collages to Hicks’s action painting, Shields’s dynamic urban views to Tabner’s literally elemental plein-air work, all of these artists are creatively rooted in their native North Yorkshire, and united by their association with Joe Cole, who spent a long and generous career as drawings tutor at the Middlesbrough School of Art.
Lowry’s work and reputation will continue to exert a strong pull on the public imagination and hopefully, by association, a growing awareness of Northern artists. As always, in presenting this, our fourth exhibition of the Elemental North, our goal is to contribute to this awareness. This exhibition is not meant to represent a regional survey, but each of these Northern artists (like Lowry, who, after all did not work in a vacuum, and cited Rossetti as his greatest influence) were inspired not only by their immediate surroundings, but also the works of (among others) Breughel, Sickert, Munch and the School of Paris. Their paintings and drawings variously illustrate mills, moorlands, still lifes and city life, but above all, the sheer variety of Northern art and how it continues to be drawn in new and fascinating directions.
For their advice and expertise in preparing our research into this catalogue, we would like to sincerely thank Ian Burke, Val Fairbairn Barnes, Anthony Cosgrove, Peter Davies, David Gunning, Stephen Whittle and Gloria Wilson.
Text by Andrea Gates, Art Historian and Archivist, Messum’s Fine Art