Circles and Tangents: British painters and Cranborne Chase at Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum

By Mark Sheerin | 07 June 2012
Oil painting of an English landscape
EQ Nicholson, Boveridge (circa 1942). Oil on canvas© Artist Estate of E.Q. Nicholson
Exhibition: Circles and Tangents – Art in the Shadow of Cranborne Chase, Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, Salisbury, until September 29 2012

Cranborne Chase is not London or New York or Paris. The largest nearby towns keep their distance from this landscape and so, given the social nature of art, you might expect artists to do the same.

But for one reason or another British artists have spent time here en masse. This makes for a reunion of 20th century British art here, with appearances by the Nicholson family, Stanley Spencer, Augustus John, John Craxton, Henry Lamb and even Lucian Freud.

The “bare boned" beauty of one of England’s most isolated landscapes can therefore lay claim to be one of the most painted. Following the experience of war, it must have been a green and pleasant land indeed.

Lamb and Spencer came here to recover from the trauma of World War I. EQ Nicholson came to escape bombing raids during WWII. And it is tempting to think all of the creative spirits who came in the wake of these three artists were on the retreat from something or other.

A pencil and watercolour made by Lamb while on service in the Middle East could not offer greater contrast with the Wiltshire landscape. You can feel the dry heat emanate off the paper and sense the discomfort of the men with their pack horses.

Some years later he is painting Bathers in the River Ebble. Two young male nudes wade into the oily blue waters of a life giving waterway. Spencer’s sombre Dorset Landscape suggests he may still have been brooding on the aftermath of conflict.

Either way, you can rely on English painters to bring our landscapes to life, even to a spooky degree. EQ Nicholson paints an animistic view of Boveridge. Her shadows have legs, her trees resemble cats, and her cross country track an electromagnetic pull.

Oil painting of still life with flowers in a vase
John Craxton, Flowers in a Jug (circa 1942). Indian Ink and coloured inks on paper© Estate of John Craxton 2010. All rights reserved DACS
This wild nature finds its way indoors in a nearby work by John Craxton. Flowers in a Jug are twisting their way out of that eponymous vessel. His muted palette does nothing to calm the sinuous forms of the local blooms.

It makes you feel that Cranborne Chase and a certain type of painter were made for one another. And yet even abstraction found a footing in this part of the world. A fine Ben Nicholson is furnished with two split discs which, given their colours in this rural context, look much like the earth and the sun.

Portrait also features in the show, with strong works by Augustus John and Katharine Church. But Lucian Freud is represented by a scratchy landscape and not one of his many figurative works, even if, at the time of visiting, the museum was waiting on two more Freuds to complete this show.

Visitors will, however, find more than enough to complete their trip to the Museum. The work spills out into a corridor where, in circular and tangential fashion, you can loop around into the rest of the building and take in the fascinating archaeological displays.

Cranborne Chase appears to have been once a very busy landscape. So, a neolithic New York, London or Paris, perhaps.

  • Open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm (12pm-5pm Sunday). Admission £5.40/£1.80.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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