Evolution of a master

Davey’s selection has given us a deeper understanding of the value and practice of drawing

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The publication of a second book on Anthony Whishaw within four years is both a delight and an important event. In Works On Paper Richard Davey uses his interviews with the artist to create a poetic and graceful narrative, complemented by good illustrations. The excellent colour and layout reveal Beam Editions to be one of the best publishing houses in England.

Anthony Whishaw: Works on Paper By Richard Davey Beam Editions £28

The book’s focus is not on Whishaw’s large canvas oil paintings, but on the evolution of his technique in draughtsmanship, of his themes, and of his working practice on paper, in ink, wash and watercolour. We learn that in his youth he had a serious head injury similar to that of Augustus John. For them both, the result seems to have stimulated and accelerated artistic growth.

Davey also elicits from Whishaw details of his early art school training and of his time as a teacher. I had the good fortune to be one of his students in the life drawing class at Chelsea School of Art, and to study there before the catastrophic effect of the Coldstream Report (1960) on British art schools permeated this school as it did others.

The curriculum still included drawing, as it had for centuries: learning to draw was considered the foundation stone of everything that was to follow. It was the central skill, the crucial tool which any potential artist, in any medium, had to master. Architecture, too, demanded it. It gave artists the confidence and freedom to choose the path they eventually wished to follow.

Whishaw taught us to make three drawings from the life model, each from a different viewpoint. The fourth drawing would be a synthesis of what we had memorised. For him this was a means of bringing life and movement to the static space of the drawing. He introduced us to Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs and showed us how they capture human and animal movement.

We saw no conflict between Whishaw’s demanding tuition and that of the meticulous Euan Uglow, both of whom stand out as two of the most important British figurative artists of the late twentieth century. Uglow died at the age of 68; Whishaw is still working in his ninetieth year.

Every line in his drawings reveals deep emotion and psychological insight

Not always in chronological sequence, the book covers the evolution of Whishaw’s art in a huge range of drawings. Early on in his life, he became absorbed in religious images: a nine-foot Crucifixion drawing, an etching of The Last Supper, images of old age and death, and portrait heads of old men. Every line in his drawings reveals deep emotion and psychological insight.

Quite soon, he sheds the hatching and shading of his art-school days, and starts to explore new territory, in ink, watercolour, pastels and crayons. He masters acrylic and collage, ash and metal, and sprays sand onto the paper. In what he calls mixed-media, once-solid figures become blurred and more liquid, individuals merge into groups and become more abstract, and the lines turn quicksilver, volatile and subtle. He becomes gripped by their limitless potential.

As well as this intense and serious work, Whishaw produces what he called “maverick paintings” on paper — wry, witty, and with written quips, they are gently mocking but not cruel. Then there are landscapes, more abstract than traditional, painted from memory. In Spanish scenes, dreamlike half-conventional images with hints of sea and sky float across the paint-spattered paper, and dappled patches of light and shadow shimmer and dance in the air. In his English landscapes, Whishaw’s movement of lines is a synthesis of fields and fences, flowers and stars.

He painted his delicate-coloured Small Flower Piece, all reds, blacks, oranges and pale blue-greys, after walking through forests and dense English woodland. Later paintings capture the flight of birds: a mass of angled lines gives a sense of rushing energy and the beating of wings.

Even if this book is but a fraction of Whishaw’s work on paper, Davey’s selection has given us a deeper understanding of the value and practice of drawing. He is still working in the same mews house in a Kensington cul-de-sac which he discovered in 1949. An art teacher had set up an “animal studio” where artists could come and draw live dogs and horses. If you were to risk interrupting Whishaw at work today, you will find that heavy beams and iron rings for tethering horses are still there.

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