Colin Wiggins: Paintings that capture the buried spirit of London

From a lecture given at the National Gallery by the curator of the exhibition 'John Virtue: London Paintings'
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The Independent Online

John Virtue is the sixth National Gallery Associate Artist. This exhibition marks the culmination of his two-year appointment. Virtue rides a fine line between abstraction and figuration. His paintings are executed on canvas, solely in black and white. The work has affinities with oriental brush-painting and American Abstract Expressionism, but above all, it relates closely to the great English landscape painters, Turner and Constable, both of whom he admires tremendously.

John Virtue is the sixth National Gallery Associate Artist. This exhibition marks the culmination of his two-year appointment. Virtue rides a fine line between abstraction and figuration. His paintings are executed on canvas, solely in black and white. The work has affinities with oriental brush-painting and American Abstract Expressionism, but above all, it relates closely to the great English landscape painters, Turner and Constable, both of whom he admires tremendously.

Virtue works from the landscape of where he happens to be living. Before he moved to London, he had been living in Exeter, using the Exe estuary as his subject. He began the paintings for his National Gallery exhibition by choosing two sites alongside the Thames. One was on the south bank, in front of the Oxo Tower and the other on the north bank, on the roof of Somerset House. From these vantage points, looking eastward towards the City of London, Virtue made drawings almost every day, from which he would then work in the studio.

The finished paintings, like London itself, are built layer upon layer, with previous images buried but occasionally revealing themselves through the subsequent layers. Although Virtue claims that he is not consciously dealing with the history of a place and its peoples, a symbolic connection with the history of the city is unavoidable.

The city has been burnt and rebuilt, blitzed and rebuilt, with the only constant feature being the River Thames. It was alongside that river that the first human inhabitants of what was to become London chose to make their settlements, thereby beginning the countless generations who have contributed to its development and evolution. Virtue's paintings record that evolution and, at the same time, become part of it.

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