Graham Sutherland, Dark Hill – Landscape with Hedges and Fields, 1940 (watercolour, gouache on paper), 48.9 cm x 69.8 cm. Swindon Museum and Art Gallery © Estate of Graham Sutherland
In Coventry Graham Sutherland is forever known for the huge tapestry he designed, Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph, for the new Coventry Cathedral.
George Shaw is currently best known in Coventry for being born in the city, for immortalising Tile Hill in his paintings and being a Turner Prize nominee.
Now their names are linked in An Unfinished World, an exhibition of Graham Sutherland works on paper on show at Modern Art Oxford, which George has curated.
The exhibition’s private view was just five nights after the Turner Prize announcement, won by Martin Boyce. On December 5, after the ceremony in Gateshead, George took his mum back to her hotel, had a cup of tea with her and then went to the pub. He was soon back in Oxford for the opening of the Sutherland exhibition. The story of the exhibition began some time ago.
George and the Director of Modern Art Oxford, Michael Stanley, had known each other since George’s show at the Ikon in Birmingham in 2003. Michael said they’d talked about how Graham Sutherland’s work was shown in the cathedral in George’s home town, and John Piper’s in Liverpool, where Michael is from.
George remembers visiting Coventry Cathedral as a child, but having been brought up as a Catholic wasn’t that interested in it – “all I thought was why are we here, these are our enemies” – but through looking at Sutherland’s studies for it in The Herbert he became more interested in the artist’s other works and found similarities in how they worked as artists.
Gradually the idea for this exhibition evolved and has been 15 months in the creation.
George has had a hugely busy year, with his show at the Baltic early on, then the current exhibition at The Herbert, plus doing paintings for the Turner exhibition, as well as curating the Sutherland exhibition.
He admitted: “Being asked to curate something was something I never thought I’d do. I thought it was quite an easy job until I did it! I thought I’d just look through some books and pick some out but books don’t say where they are so you have to engage with the real world and that’s when it became a detective job.
“I never liked his paintings but I’d see the study for the painting and I’d like it and it became clear if we were going to do this it wouldn’t be paintings, it would be works on paper.”
Although the majority of the works on show are landscapes, George said Sutherland would go out, make a quick sketch then go back and finish the piece in the studio, using pen and ink, pastels, watercolours, chalks, crayons or some mixture. You can see where there is a connection, with George working in the studio from photos he has taken of the outdoors. The majority of Sutherland’s works also don’t feature people, the same as George.
Like in George’s paintings of different views in Tile Hill, some of the same sites reoccur in the 1930s works – such as a standing stone painted in three different landscapes from different vantage points. Despite being Pembrokeshire, the sea doesn’t put in an appearance, and there are many studies of more abstract, gnarled and twisted roots.
On the outbreak of the Second World War Sutherland was made a war artist – on the instructions of Kenneth Clarke the director of the National Gallery at the time, said George, as he wanted to make sure none of his artist friends got killed. There are works from Wales, London and elsewhere, in some the twisted girders like the roots he had depicted before. T
here are also lots showing pits and quarries, including one purely underground of a red tin mine, showing a shadowy figure in the distance at the end of a long chain – which George sees as possibly representing a womb and foetus – but he said he censored himself so that’s not in the catalogue for the show. Lots more is in the catalogue essay though, which reads perfectly as an introduction to these often dark and mysterious works.
The 1940s works from Pembrokeshire are brighter in colour, more spiky and more abstract, showing signs of some of the forms which surround Christ in the Coventry Cathedral tapestry.
It’s an excellent exhibition which has brought together works from all over the country, selected and grouped intelligently by someone who it seems can now also develop his career as a curator.The exhibition, plus a short film featuring interviews with George, is free and on until March 18.
The Setting Sun, 1944 (gouache and watercolour on paper), 23 cm x 28.3 cm by Sutherland, Graham (1903-80) courtesy of the British Council © Estate of Graham Sutherland