December 23 2015
Two days to go, and I discovered a new scene in my private Advent Calendar of London: it’s the window at which the artist Patrick George painted Waterloo in the late 1940s. In a new monograph on the artist Andrew Lambirth describes how George and a set of friends from the Camberwell School of Art shared a corner house at 22a Lambeth Marsh. There were girlfriends and jiving and Lucien Freud and Victor Pasmore and W H Auden visited. It was George – dubbed ‘The Captain’, because he had steered a landing craft on to the D-Day beaches – who insisted that on Sunday mornings the stairs were scrubbed clean of stale beer.
I diverted my cycle route to work to see if it still stood. It does. And, luckily, builders are at work. Courtney, a Rastafarian, is interested enough to take me up those stairs and open window after window until we found at the very top the window sill at which he painted ‘Waterloo Station from a Window’. All that has changed in the view through a gap in houses to the iron and glass whale hump of the station roof is that the trains do not puff smoke any more. (And, yes, you can see the studio from the train). In such a part of London an unchanged view is like a secret door in a wall.
‘If I see something I like I wish to tell someone else. This, then, is why I paint’ is all that George wrote for a one-man show at Browse & Darby on Cork Street in 2007. If I like something, I like to tell people – in a way, that’s my job – and this is not just my favourite book of the year but the one which has changed how I look at gardens. For fifty years George has painted the Suffolk countryside.
George was born in 1923 and at prep school at Malvern College was spotted by a visionary art master named Maurice Field, who also taught Tony Fry and Kenneth Rowntree; at Bryanston he competed at athletics with Lucien Freud. After the war William Coldstream dominated teaching at Camberwell and then the Slade with his doctrine of measurement, remembered admiringly but mischievously by George: ‘He counted lamp posts if he was going for a walk. If he went on the underground he’s say of a passenger “I think he’s about 65”’.
Looking at the portraits painted at 22a Lambeth Marsh you can understand why George was wary of the ‘dustiness’ of Coldstream’s models, who’d been marked out on canvas too often; a sudden reaction is a ripe, buzzing, blurred portrait of a girlfriend in her parents’ orchard in Kent one Sunday morning in the summer of 1949.
In 1961 George found a cottage in Suffolk’s Stour Valley. Constable’s country, yes, but he painted it as he found it: that is, transformed by the new scale of commercial farming. He began to paint, obsessively, three arable fields. ‘Hickbush, Wooded Landscape’ in Tate took five Julys. His first one-man show was at Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury, in 1975 and he invited Mr Cracknell the farmer to open it.
Today George has mastered how to paint the same moment through changing seasons. He reads in the morning – Montaigne is his favourite – and paints only in the afternoon, on small pieces of ply-board. A masterpiece of unjudgmental observation is ‘The Gap Across the Road’ (1990 – 94) which looks across a B-road, through hawthorn, into a drab green field; it’s a place you’d only experience if your car breaks down. How many thousands of cars must have passed the old man in a ditch under a waterproof hat over four years, and wondered what there was to paint? ‘It’s very difficult to make a hole look like a hole’, replies the artist. And there’s an echo of Montaigne, who asked himself each morning ‘What do I know?’
I’ve picked this book up again in this weird non-winter of dull greens and slime browns and parks as a convergence of mud and asphalt. George also paints sheep in snow, and May leaves and June paleness and gives us a glimpse of his vegetable garden and plum trees; his work reminds us how little, but how strong, a hold a garden has on the open world. No one has ever painted better the green of November, or a gap in a wet hedge; George is to Wellington boots what Brueghel is to ice skates. This is a book to reconcile you to a Christmas in which ice rinks melt.
‘Patrick George’ by Andrew Lambirth is published by Sansom & Co., Bristol