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Art & artists

James Dickson Innes: 'He loved all things where beauty is most wild’

— July 2014

Article read level: Art lover

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James Dickson Innes, Mountain Pool, 1911. JDI 245. Oil on canvas, 35.6 x 25.4 cm. Image © Steve Gorton.

This new book celebrates the work of an unjustly neglected artist

James Dickson Innes 1887–1914 by John Hoole and Margaret Simons

Llanelli-born painter James Dickson Innes (1887–1914) had a tragically short life and his work has been sadly overlooked for a long time.  Innes died of tuberculosis at the age of 27 in 1914, when cataclysmic world events contributed to the subsequent neglect that this book and exhibition seek to redress.

One thing that is emphasized in both the book reviewed here and the current exhibition on Innes’ work is the effect of his travels on his artistic development, starting with journeys to school in Brecon and college in Carmarthen, where he would have observed the Welsh landscape, and then to the Slade School in London.  There he came into contact with artists who offered the teaching, mentoring and friendship that were to have a profound effect on his life and work.  His travels, often with one of these friends as travelling companion, had a huge impact on how his style developed. Much of the exhibition takes the visitor on the same journeys by way of a rich array of landscapes as well as a few portraits of the artist and of some of the people who meant a lot to him. 

Two sections of the exhibition can exemplify this. First, ‘From Llanelli to Collioure’ traces the impact of Innes’ visits to the coastal town in the south of France that was closely associated with early-20th-century avant-gardes. The products of this, in Innes’ case, were brightly coloured paintings such as The Town of Collioure, of 1908 and Fishing Boats, Collioure, c.1911.  Another key section is that displaying a number of paintings of Arenig in North Wales, which demonstrates the significance of Innes’ friendship with Augustus John.  John also supported and promoted Innes’ work both during his lifetime and after his death, later mythologizing Arenig as Innes’ ‘sacred mountain’. 

The large oil on panel Arenig, North Wales of 1913, now in the Tate collection, has a prominent place in the exhibition display, and is also used as the cover for the book.  Towards the end of their book, Hoole and Simons reproduce the poem written by Innes’ friend Horace de Vere Cole as a eulogy at Innes’ funeral, which include the line that gives the exhibition its title: ‘He loved all things where beauty is most wild’.

The exhibited works and many more are included in James Dickson Innes, 1887–1914, which brings together an extremely detailed and meticulously researched biography and family history, 175 full-colour illustrations and a catalogue of Innes’ work. As Hoole points out, the last of these cannot ‘yet claim to be definitive’ since ‘more undocumented works by him are likely to appear from private collections … and additional “lost” or misattributed pictures may come to light’. 

The exhibition at the National Museum Wales, Landscapes by J.D. Innes: Beauty Most Wild, continues until 20 July 2014, overlapping for two weeks with a major exhibition of the work of the 18th-century Welsh painter Richard Wilson: ‘Richard Wilson (1714–1782) and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting’. As seems to be the case with a number of museums this summer, we are being offered a feast of landscape painting in Cardiff.  If you are unable to get there in time for the James Dickson Innes show, the detailed catalogue of his work in Hoole and Simons’ book will provide the details you need to track down and enjoy his vibrant and very personal landscapes in future.

James Dickson Innes 1887–1914  by John Hoole and Margaret Simons is published by Lund Humphries 2013. £45.00  ISBN 978-1-84822-139-0


Veronica Davies
The Open University, UK
Art historian

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