OBITUARY : Michael Andrews

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The Independent Online
When the last picture Michael Andrews completed, Thames Painting: The Estuary, went on view last month in Edinburgh, raised high above a dado in the impressive group exhibition "From London", it assumed the status of a finale, even an apotheosis.

The viewer's eye ascended the gritty steps to the water's edge where old-fashioned suited figures fished, and then fell back into the abstract skirt of spray and sand. One read into the realisation metaphors for departure in the manner of Robert Louis Stevenson or Romantic landscape. But the picture's inclusion in the exhibition should not be taken as a literal demonstration of Andrews's affinity to the city nor to the School of London, at least when used as a term of reference to painting based principally on observation. In his case the subject was always one element of a personal synthesis.

As a student, Andrews was already producing paintings that belong to a highly cohesive oeuvre. A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over (1952) was about someone "having his equilibrium suddenly upset by circumstances beyond his control". It had the awkwardness of a provincial, something familiar to the artist who had reached the Slade from Norfolk and the Army still quite innocent, and there encountered the astringent intelligence of the Professor, William Coldstream. Along with his student friends Euan Uglow and Paula Rego, Andrews adopted a careful brushstroke, "envious" (his word) of the experimentation coming from Royal College graduates like Auerbach and even more of what Francis Bacon could carry off in the name of accident.

Throughout 1962, preoccupied with the large version of The Colony Room, a group portrait in the perilous drinking milieu of Soho, Andrews felt dismayed that he had to achieve what he described as a painstaking overpainted effect, like "callouses", before the painting felt complete. Trying a new method for The Deer Park, taking on images from Velasquez to Mailer, he completed the picture in six weeks and exhibited it at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London in January 1963, his second one-man show. The party pictures that followed amalgamated cinema images, photographs from the mass media and references to admired artists such as the Giacomettis on the Tate's private-view card that was adapted for the heads on stalks in the triptych Good and Bad at Games (1964-68).

With hindsight these social subjects seem preparatory to a succession of masterworks begun in the artist's forties. The "Lights" series took its title from Rimbaud's "Illuminations". The first large painting, from 1970, made the most direct use of a newspaper photograph of a balloon over Gloucestershire and was entitled in full Light I: Out of Doors; "the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin". Acrylic spray controlled by templates made mirage-like scenes. The design for The Spa (1974), for example, joined the Scarborough coastline with new York's Triboro Bridge. The immaculate execution on unprimed canvas contributed a sense of distancing as the balloon searched for an Elysian resting-place, in its final descent becoming a shadow.

This attachment to a place alluded to the sacred, especially when transferred to Ayers Rock in Australia, which the artist visited in 1983. The pictures acknowledged the Aboriginal's spiritual ownership. Yet, when the first five were shown at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery in 1986, the show was entitled "Rock of Ages Cleft for Me". Andrews offered up the strength of his own Methodist upbringing, and his increasing fascination with the concept of belonging in a religious sense, in stressing the second line, "Let me hide myself in Thee".

Andrews and his spirited wife June had moved to East Anglia in 1977, partly to raise their daughter Melanie in the country. Conventional oil- paintings of the village green in Saxlingham Nethergate shared the studio with the "Australian" works of such formidable scale. When all nine of these were shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1991, the viewer experienced a sense of stepping into a dream, the erotic rendering of the rock formations as compelling as Degas' small landscape pastels but the radiance and granular application creating the effect of a film projection recording a grand constructed scene.

In spite of the fact that this exhibition toured to Paris and New York, Andrews's international reputation was never substantial. It was impeded by lack of output, made worse by the artist's lengthening struggles to resolve large works to his standards, and additionally by the dry qualities of the paintings seen in reproduction which concealed their reckless, pantheistic origins and radical beauty.

Over two years were spent on a panoramic view of the hills behind Glenartney in Perthshire, A View from Uamh Mhor (1990-92). In front of the vast motif, equipped with binoculars and sketches, he explained to friends the calculated circular geometry of the composition and later laboured over inserting roads in their authentic place while manoeuvring the by now thin oil washes, rivulets giving a desired sense of release. The 3.5-metre-wide canvas rightly deserved its designation as picture of the year in the Royal Academy's 1992 Summer Exhibition.

Andrews was briefly and uncomfortably a trustee of the National Gallery and a Royal Academician. Especially in the Nineties he was courted by the Establishment and his enjoyment of this regard was tempered by his own enduring, boyish lack of pretension and a return after indulgence to the punishing routine of staying with a complex picture. He practised this endeavour in his last studio in Chelsea, wholly engaged in the Thames series even while seriously ill.

Catherine Lampert

Michael James Andrews, artist: born Norwich 30 October 1928; married June Keeley (one daughter); died London 19 July 1995.