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John Aldridge RA
7 September - 27 October 2013
This important exhibition at The Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden brings together for the first time a display of John Aldridge's work from throughout his career and across all the genres in which he worked. These include landscapes and townscapes, still lifes, studies of flowers and plants, book design and illustration, prints, wallpapers, sketches, and the small number of significant portraits he made of those he was close to. It is drawn from The Fry Art Gallery's own substantial holdings, with key loans from major galleries and private collections. The exhibition illustrates the life and work of this consistently popular 20th-century artist, whose art continues to delight new audiences.
John Aldridge is often thought of as a painter of landscapes and garden scenes that capture the essence of the countryside, and in particular of north west Essex, where he lived for 50 years. He was one of the earliest of the group of artists, led by Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, who settled in the Essex village of Great Bardfield from the early 1930s, and he lived there in The Place from 1933 until his death in 1983.
Yet Aldridge was not simply a domestic or local artist. With no formal art training, he travelled widely in Britain and Europe from a young age, absorbing a range of styles and influence, while 'teaching myself how to paint'. Rather than going to art school, he studied 'Greats' at Oxford during the heady period of the mid-1920s, when John Betjeman remembered him as one of the exotic 'Corpus Aesthetes' set. Oxford not only consolidated Aldridge's grounding in the classics, it put him in contact with a wide cultural circle of poets and writers. He developed enduring friendships with writers including Norman Cameron, John Betjeman, and Robert Graves. By 1931 he was part of a vibrant London art scene, connecting with a wide range of artists and exhibiting with the influential avant-garde 'Seven and Five' society of artists and sculptors, alongside Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Frances Hodgkins, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ivon Hitchens and Cedric Morris. However, his connection with literary figures continued throughout his life, and he later wrote: 'a painter, like a poet, selects subject matter because it seems vital to him'.
Aldridge's work in other media is less well known than his paintings. From the 1930s he designed many of the jackets for Graves' books, produced surprisingly surrealist illustrations for poems by Laura Riding, contributed to popular series of lithographs, and designed jackets for the Shell Guides to Britain. In 1938–9, infected by Bawden's enthusiasm for linocut, he embarked with him on the ambitious 'Bardfield Papers' project of high-quality wallpaper designs, although this was interrupted by the War. He became skilled in linocut technique and produced a range of his own prints.
During the War he failed, despite repeated attempts, to gain designated official war artist status, but nevertheless maintained a prolific output of drawings and watercolours during his service in the Intelligence Corps in England, North Africa and Italy. His position in the artistic establishment strengthened in peacetime, when he became one of a new intake of tutors at the Slade School of Art from 1949 under its new Professor, William Coldstream. He is remembered warmly by generations of students in the 1950s and '60s as an assiduous and supportive teacher. Elected an Associate Royal Academician in 1953, he was made a full RA in 1963, and served on Council for the two following years.
Bardfield in the post-war years flourished both as a place for art and craft production, and also as a place where the public came to experience art and life in an English village setting during the highly popular summer exhibitions there in the mid-1950s. Aldridge's ‘The Place’, with its substantial house and gardens, formed a natural starting point on the itinerary for visitors to the artists' houses. The interior, with its original 'Bardfield' wallpapers, the fabrics and rugs made by his wife Lucie, the wall paintings and Aldridge's own paintings and work for sale, all set amidst extensive gardens (and patrolled by his beloved cats), presented the image of a total artwork, or gesamtkunstwerk, which was much admired by reviewers and visitors, and was featured widely in journals of the period.
Aldridge maintained that he had two equal main interests: painting and gardening. His move to Great Bardfield in 1933 was motivated as much by the potential of the garden at ‘The Place’ as by a desire to escape the metropolitan art scene and settle down in the country. Coming from a military family, he wrote that he had 'never had the same home for more than three years' until he moved there. He maintained a network of contacts with other gardeners, some of whom - like Bawden, John Nash and Cedric Morris - were also artists who lived relatively close by. But his plantsman contacts also included the composer Gerald Finzi, the poet Ruthven Todd, and the gardener and wine writer Hugh Johnson, who remembers Aldridge's garden as a place to be explored, appreciating the individual specimens as much as the overall effect. Trees, plants and flowers feature extensively in his drawings and paintings, whether in views of the garden, in flower arrangements, or as studies of individual specimens.
Aldridge was a deeply intelligent and sensitive artist who understood the currents in continental and contemporary British art during the early part of the 20th century, but chose to pursue a resolutely representational approach. His styles ranged from freely expressionistic brushwork to finely detailed draughtsmanship. He painted still-lifes throughout his career, often exploring the stylistic possibilities of the genre. Even so, landscape was central to him, and here his aim was to capture something of sensation of being in a particular place and a particular time. He left his paintings free of human figures because, as he explained:
… landscape painting differs from any other sort of painting because a landscape is almost by definition a scene in which the spectator can imagine himself being present. Other kind of pictures are complete things in which there is no room for anything more, certainly no room for the spectator to squeeze in: a landscape should be complete in itself – not just a bit of a place but a little world of its own – but it still invites the spectator to enter it.
See Jenny Kingsley's article, 'The Fry Gallery, the pearl of Essex' in Cassone June 2013.
The Fry Art Gallery