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Around the galleries

Glimpses of landscape captured in Bath

— March 2012

Associated media

Kenneth Draper, Dawn of Spring (2011), Mixed media construction

Roger Berthoud explores the work of Ken Draper and Jean Macalpine, on show at the Quest Gallery, Bath

Not far from Ken Draper’s home on the island of Menorca lies a hill covered with shrubs, cacti and olive trees in whose limestone flank a series of square entrances have been hewn. They are part of an ancient disused quarry whose cathedral-like proportions and subtle tones take the breath away. Light streams in from the openings, turning the limestone’s honeyed hues almost white. Deeper in, damp has created subtle shades of green. Here and there the walls bear the markings of tools used in pre-mechanized times to extract the stone.

Menorca is an island of quarries, of amazingly coloured stone, of multitudinous lichens, of trees ravaged by the fierce tramuntana wind that bends them over, of fierce sunshine and savage storms. From this world Draper has drawn his inspiration since settling on the island with his partner, Jean Macalpine, in the mid-1990s. His work is not usually about a specific location, though he may sit in a quarry all day, studying the shifting patterns of light, absorbing the history implicit in its scarred surfaces. An individual work may be triggered by a particular visual experience. But each and every one is also a distillation of his many years of living amid so many visual and indeed emotional stimuli.  ‘If you’re an artist of place and the feelings about that place’, he says, ‘then those feelings are also being created when you’re making the work of art. I don’t want to make a construction or a drawing that reminds a viewer of a place. I want it to be the place. The event is in the picture.’

Draper comes from the borders of Yorkshire and Derbyshire. His father was a miner who was also a gifted musician and natural draughtsman, his mother’s family were prosperous Lincolnshire butchers. When Ken was a boy, he was diagnosed with a TB spine and spent some eight months in a hospital strapped to a bed, head rigidly held in a harness, his body kept still with weights. His vision was thus restricted to the ceiling and sky. Thus he became an expert in the play of light, with exceptional peripheral vision. It was an experience that bolstered his natural talent for drawing.

With the encouragement of a wonderful teacher, this took him to art colleges (Chesterfield, Kingston and the Royal College of Art), after which he first made his mark on the London scene as a (widely praised) sculptor. He had a strong sideline in pencil drawings exploring sculptural ideas set in a deep space. Then colour crept in, along with the use of pastels in what were essentially abstracted landscapes inspired by his many travels around the world. Finally, sculpture – often in the form of objets trouvés –was blended with pastels and oil pigment. There is nothing in the art world quite like Draper’s work. It is abstract, certainly; but the colours are astonishingly vibrant, the textures of great subtlety, and the sculptural elements seem to grow naturally, albeit sometimes playfully from the surface. Steel, copper, wood, resins and pastels: Draper uses them all to pay homage to the beauty and transience of the natural world. 

If I may quote my own book on Draper:

His generosity of spirit, his energy and his love of life are reflected in his work. Amid so much art that is glib, meretricious and spiritually empty, Draper is producing work that ravishes the eye and nourishes the soul.

Ken shares this Quest Gallery show with his partner Jean Macalpine. Although Jean, a Lancashire lass, studied painting and print-making at Bolton and Bristol art colleges (she met Ken at the latter, where he was teaching sculpture), she soon veered into photography. Her first significant subject matter was the landscape of Norfolk, in black and white. Before long she was emphasizing light, texture and form by ‘losing’ the horizon. She was also travelling, not least with Ken. The space in her work became even less pronounced when she started photographing rock faces and the flat, man-marked surfaces of those Menorcan quarries (from which many mainland Spanish cities were at least partly built).

But the resulting large black and white prints were not the final product. For 25 years Jean worked in her darkroom hand-toning them with generally rather subtle colour, enhancing and emphasizing their formal and spatial elements. A switch four years ago to digital photography opened up new possibilities, including the use of a much wider range of colour. ‘My overall aim’, she says:

is to capture the ‘base metal’ of marks, signs and textures from the most unlikely of surfaces, and to breathe into them the life of a new spatial existence which evokes an alchemy of memory, imagination and ambiguity.

The ‘base metal’ may be a good deal baser than the scratched or scored wall of a quarry: it could also be the surface of a disused building, a sheet of glass, even a scarred fridge door – just about anything that offers the possibility of transformation. Memories of past experience are all part of the mix. The resulting subtly toned, always ambiguous, often evocative and  sometimes Turneresque compositions can be both intriguing and ravishing. If you get a chance to see the work of these two artists, I’m sure you will be moved and delighted.


Roger Berthoud
Biographer and journalist
Roger Berthoud is the author of Transience Captured: the Life and Art of Kenneth Draper (Hart Gallery)  and the authorized biographies of Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, and his own memoirs People, Politics & Paintings.

Media credit: Copyright the artist

Editor's notes

Kenneth Draper’s exhibition ‘The Transient Landscape’ and Jean Macalpine’s‘Memories of Landscape’are both at the Quest Gallery, St Margaret’s Buildings, Bath from 10 March to 21 April 2012

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