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To those unaffected by art education, Patrick George is arguably one of the best-kept secrets of British art. Until the early 1990s, when he left the teaching studios of the Slade for the Suffolk countryside, George’s reputation as a teacher went before him. As Andrew Lambirth’s biographical survey has it, the seeds of this book are over a decade old, but it is surely a tale worth the wait, and should move a wide audience to a deeper appreciation of George’s work.
A ‘must’ for anyone who enjoys the British landscape, and especially that of East Anglia, whatever their reason for being in it, Lambirth’s excellent and absorbing study should also prove compelling for any serious student of painting and drawing who wants to learn simply and directly, by observing the work of others. Pride of place is naturally given to the images, which have been selected from periods of activity throughout George’s career, and which include a range of portraits and figure studies that create fascinating interactions with the landscape work.
George’s earliest works were undeniably associated with the Euston Road School, both through existing friendships (Lawrence Gowing (1918–91), and Jeffery Camp (b.1923)), and growing associations (William Coldstream (1908–87), Andrew Forge (1923–2002) and Anthony Eyton (b.1923), to name but three). But what one may admire about George’s work as selected by Lambirth for reproduction here may also be affected by personal taste, as well as, perhaps, one’s regard for William Coldstream.
In the immediate wake of George’s 1980 retrospective exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery, a smaller group of (mainly landscape) works went to the University of Sussex, where the limited sizes of many were more than compensated by the depth and power of the limited palette, and the refined observation: acute without the measured marks of Coldstream or Euan Uglow (1932–2000).
Much of the pleasure to be gained from George’s work, certainly from that period, to the present, lies in the fact that it is tacitly measured, and that, large or small, its notation and observation do only what is necessary. In a chapter on George’s exhibiting history, Lambirth quotes George’s colleague Tess Jaray at some length, from the catalogue essay to George’s 2013 Browse and Darby exhibition. Lambirth himself remarks on ‘George’s moral approach to painting’, but his true intention is to concur with Jaray’s observation on the exactness of his mark-making, in particular that (George) ‘seems disposed to the truth’. It is a small statement that implies much, and throughout this book examples of this trait abound: their growth to maturity is charted, and is stated and re-stated in different ways, throughout his oeuvre, and especially in more recent work, where George’s brushwork sometimes appears deceptively fragmented, sketchy, and his paint thinner. This type of armchair criticism is just one of the possibilities available to open-minded readers who will be quickly drawn into, and enormously entertained by, George’s story, and enabled to relish his work, through the book’s first-rate reproductions.
The book comprises a series of texts with different themes, and throughout Lambirth quotes George as often as possible, allowing him to speak to his audience, and interrupting only to direct the reader. He is a resourceful critic and chronicler, and, as it arrives at the near-present, he somehow achieves an easy symmetry with George’s own statements, at times to deliver an unforced ‘call-and-response’, and at others involving the reader without excessive energy, or introducing unexpected snippets of information.
Lambirth charts George’s life as a story of few parts, with few exceptions interwoven, from his education, and becoming an educator, his stop-start association with Coldstream, and the enduring power of Suffolk as preferred source material. He is the best of interviewers, and by the close George is made as real to his readers as he has been to generations of admiring students. And of course there are those reproductions, cityscapes, images of villages, of open country and scenes and studies from the back garden, full of light and air, or the figure studies executed in the enclosed electric glare of studio lighting. This is a book to relish, a real ‘source-book’ in every sense. It is beautifully designed, its reproductions are exquisite and it is worth every penny of its asking price.
Patrick George by Andrew Lambirth is published by Sansom & Company with Gallerie Boisvert. 176 pp; fully illustrated in mono and colour, £30.00 hbk. ISBN 9781908326478