Great Works: Landscape No 710, 2003-4, by John Virtue

 

Man settles beside a river, that source of life, commerce. He creates built structures, for shelter, and then, as they grow and cluster about him, for slightly different reasons: pomp, power, prestige. London was and is such a place. Here we see her in the near present, in all her messy, creeping sprawl, smudgy, looming, enormous, mighty. Majestic even. This city is everything that man, cumulatively, has wanted her to be. Here is both all her vital and upward-thrusting nowness, together with all the untidy remnants of everything that she once was or has laid claim to be. A mighty, awe-inspiringly ramshackle palimpsest then.

Virtue deals only in black and white –he regards colour as superfluous to his needs – and so this is a very particular rendering, both broad-brush and finically calligraphic, the two held in a careful tension. There is a fineness of line in combination with a splashy, fumy grandiosity. That colour, black, is profoundly so, like gritty, fresh-mined coal, the medium a mixture of (black) ink, acrylic and shellac. It is a solemn, broody, expansive vision, a million miles away from the quick, airy delicacy and lightsomeness of some of those artists who were painting London's riverscape at the turn of the 20th century in all her quick and colourful, small-boat-bobbing gaiety –André Derain, Raoul Dufy and others.

There is nothing here but light and darkness, light being engulfed by darkness on the one hand, and light heroically fighting back against the threat of darkness; and that inclines us towards the opinion that this is a moralising vision of place, and therefore companionable to Blake's vision of London in both his prose and his poetry. This is a city of light, achievement, success, exaltation. It is also a city of entrapment, misery, aimless wandering and rootlessness. Does this not feel like a choking maze of a place? Yes, but only to an extent.

There is the promise of light breaking out too, along that slow river's turn – this is the only hint of Whistler to be found – and then in the sky, which seems to crack apart with a clap of God's hands rather in the way that the 19th-century apocalyptic painter John Martin used to cause his skies to spill open with all the promise of light's redeeming flood.

Rather surprisingly, and in spite of the fact that the totality of this image seems to be wrested with some difficulty from the lure of abstract patterning, there is much here that we can very quickly, and very readily, identify: the Gherkin, the NatWest tower, St Paul's Cathedral, all pent within the near-vanished walls of the old Roman city. What exactly is the vantage point here? We know that Virtue has favoured two during the ongoing making of this series of London paintings (all of which, curiously, are numbered but not named), the Oxo Tower and Somerset House. Is this a view from Somerset House then? Is that not the Victoria Embankment we can see underneath its walls? But could you achieve quite so broad and compendious a view from the topmost vantage point of Somerset House? Or does this painting merely take that vantage point as its starting point, and then range – spread its shoulders – more fancifully?

This painting appears to be about atmosphere, the war between what we see and the elemental cloud – or smog – or fog-smudge that conceals so much. In that respect, it puts us in mind of Turner, whose paintings were often charged by elemental drama. It seems to be playing into some half-remembered notion of a Victorian London that those who do not know her and have never visited her, and are only conversant with her through, say, the novels of Charles Dickens, often believe her perhaps still to be, that her character has been shaped – and is continuing to be shaped – by all that which smoke-wreathingly oppresses her, and reduces her, visually, to a dangerously threatening and enthralling half-visible mystery, with thieves and card sharps stuffed into every back alley.

There is a river here, but she is certainly not T S Eliot's sullen, brown god. This river seems to exist in discontinuous plaques of light, flattened sheets, interrupted by moments of turbulence. The buildings rise up, one by one, in smoke-wreathed, smoke-smudged flurries. Much is not quite knowable, except as ill-defined shapes sculpted into being by smudgings of grey-to-black. Note also the size of this painting. It is of some considerable magnitude. In fact, it rather feels as if it would quite like to lay itself directly on top of that which it is striving so hard to visualise, imaginatively, in order to judge for itself quite how well it might measure up. In short, it feels as if it has a titanic urge to engulf its subject matter.

About the artist: John Virtue

John Virtue was born in Accrington, Lancashire, in 1947, and he specialises in the painting of monochromatic landscapes, often on a huge scale. Black is his colour. As William Blake once remarked, "black is a force", and we find the forcefulness of black re-imagined throughout Virtue's work, its powerful sense of a grounding presence, the weight of unpompous solemnity it carries along with it.

Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital