The Exultant Strangeness of Graham Sutherland's Landscapes at Abbott Hall Gallery, Cumbria

By Richard Moss | 26 June 2013

Exhibition preview: Exultant Strangeness - Graham Sutherland Landscapes, Abbot Hall Gallery, Kendal, until September 15 2013

an abstract tree root form seen against a green backgrouond
Graham Sutherland, Green Tree Form (1940). British Council© Estate of Graham Sutherland
Located on the edge of the Lake District, Abbot Hall Gallery and its collection of landscapes from the Golden Age of British watercolour is a perfect location for this intriguing exhibition of Graham Sutherland landscapes.

The first to be shown in the North West of England, it features more than 40 paintings and works on paper and examines how Sutherland developed one of British painting’s most powerful and strange takes on landscape.

Sutherland was the unofficial leader of the neo-Romantic movement and spearheaded a vibrant and sometimes visionary interpretation of the British landscape by young British painters in the 1930s and 40s.

Today, this outpouring of talent seems equal parts a reversion to the pastoral mysticism of William Blake and Samuel Palmer and a re-acquaintance with the fabric of rural Britain after the devastation of the Second World War.

Full of elemental power, Sutherland’s version of this bucolic idyll bursts with surreal twists and imaginative leaps that often challenge our perception of what a landscape painting should be.

He became popular during the post-war period, and suffered what Andrew Lambirth, writing in the exhibition’s excellent catalogue, describes as "the Lowry Syndrome" – establishment disapproval of a painter with a genuine following. 

Today he is part of a wider re-appraisal and a thirst for art of the 1930s to the 1950s – a period which saw him produce his first series of Pembrokeshire paintings. 

an abstract landscape with black, yellow and green shapes
Graham Sutherland, Entrance to a Lane (1939)© Tate, London 2013
The exhibition also includes some of the etchings he made during the 1920s and it’s interesting to note how these early examples are full of Palmerian symbolism and mystically Blakean suns that cast their numinous rays across an idealised countryside.

But by 1929 and 1930, when he produced Wood Interior and Pastoral, Sutherland's vision of nature had become a much more twisted and labyrinthine thing – full of the “exultant strangeness” of the exhibition’s title.

The phrase was actually coined by Sutherland after his first trip to Pembrokeshire to describe the stunning scenery he encountered there. And the landscapes he created as a result of his time in south Wales became progressively more tortured – yet oddly exultant. 

But whether he was in his favoured Pembrokeshire (the 1930s period here is often thought of as his highpoint) or in Kent, the West Midlands, Derbyshire or the South of France, he would create fictions - or interpretations - derived from ideas and observations made on long walks and jaunts.

The "accidental encounter" of objects - small-scale natural forms such as tree roots, stones or foliage stumbled upon by chance - remained central to Sutherland’s approach to painting.

At the same time, he took wide, open landscapes and made them feel enclosed and self-contained as if they were a singular object. But whatever the approach he managed to create a vocabulary uniquely his own.

As well as key works from public collections, such as Entrance to a Lane, 1939 (Tate), Green Tree Form, 1940 (British Council) and Western Hills, 1938/41 (National Galleries of Scotland), the show feature a significant number of loans from private collections, many of them never or rarely exhibited before.

  • Open 10.30am-5pm (closed Sunday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @lakelandarts.

More pictures:

a panoramic landscape filled wih surreal forms and shapes
Graham Sutherland, Estuary (1946). Bequeathed to Abbot Hall Art Gallery in 1992© Estate of Graham Sutherland
a large landscape of yellow and orange with a horned structure in the foreground
Graham Sutherland, Horned Forms (1944). Tate© Estate of Graham Sutherland / © Tate, London 2013
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