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.

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