Messums Tithe Barn Gallery and Arts Centre, Tisbury
Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one’s sensations. (Paul Cezanne)
The medieval Tithe Barn at Messums Gallery and Arts Centre in Tisbury is reputed to be the largest of its type in England. This impressive building is now open as an Arts Centre and cultural institution for the South West of England. Originally built as a storage barn for the Abbess of Shaftesbury and owned by Shaftesbury Abbey until the Dissolution, in recent years the barn, set in the beautiful landscape of Fonthill Estate, has been extensively restored to its former glory.
Incongruously, it was a dark, raid-sodden morning when I visited Richard Hoare’s exhibition entitled an ‘The Alchemy of Light’; but despite the dank weather outside, golden light emanated from his paintings. His main focus is the Fonthill landscape, with its central lake surrounded by a myriad of caves and bridged by a weir. The bewitching effects of light on these is beautifully captured by Richard at different times of day and year: the lime greens of Spring contrast with the rich browns and ochres of Autumn; tumultuous skies roll with huge, powerful grey clouds while tantalising glimpses of blue pierce through the trees. Other paintings in this exhibition include the hills and woody thickets of Berwick St John, Dinton Park, East Knoyle and Horse Hill – an Iron Age tumulus hill near Shaftesbury.
I started by asking Richard about the origins of the exhibition’s title ‘The Alchemy of Light’. He sees alchemy as the dance of matter and energy from one state into a higher form – a seemingly magical process of transformation. It is also an explanation for the mystery of how paint can be transformed in a light filled picture.
“The way I work is intuitive. All the work in the exhibition has been generated from a spark. When I see something I’m drawn to – usually it is trees, the lake, an island or mountain – an archetypal subject or perhaps just one tree in the landscape – I feel a tug at the heart and I respond to this through the ‘gesture’ of painting. My work is the response to that initial impact witnessed in and from nature.”
Richard went on to explain how he communes with nature to capture her essence by feeling a calmness in the presence of the beauty of the place. Rather than paint literally the appearance of the landscape, he tries to paint what he sees behind the surface, and that is something which cannot be described in words. “I’m painting the tree as it resonates with life in that moment, not what it just looks like. The painting comes from that moment of being as completely present as possible.”
“All good journeys contain some revelation about oneself, or the place one visits. A pilgrimage or journey from looking to seeing is a good allegory in my experience, for this life as a painter.” Richard’s two-year residency in Japan, his stay in Ireland and his walks along the pilgrim routes of England, France, Spain and Turkey have amplified his love of nature and his work is always moving forward and evolving to reflect this journey both inner and outer. “The constant behind everything is the Sun and the light it emits. The pursuit of this light has of course been the destination and inspiration for many painters”.
A book, The Way of the Watercourse by Alan Watts has been an inspiration too. Watts demonstrates how the ancient and timeless Chinese wisdom of Tao promotes the idea of following a life lived according to the natural world and goes against our goal-oriented ideas by allowing time to quiet our minds and observe the world rather than imposing ourselves on it.
Richard explained that his mentor at Canterbury College of Art, Dennis Creffield, was also hugely influential in his journey as an artist and those intense classes are experiences to which he still refers.
We carried on our conversation with a discussion about the inspiration Richard draws from nature.
“What is the heartbeat, where does the spark come from? My working life is guided on the law of three: time, energy and inspiration. Time is a fixed quantity. Then there is the energy we have…I’m energised through my work. The energy as a quantity is more elastic than time. I don’t believe that inspiration is just by chance. There is a way of creating and working where inspiration will be there and this third element is unlimited by any dimension. If I orchestrate the time and the energy elements correctly, inspiration always arrives. But at the same time this process must never be taken for granted. I am energised through my work and that has sustained me and made things possible. Over the years where things have been tough whenever I go back to my easel, nature rushes towards me with its generosity. This working relationship between the three parts is beyond understanding but it can be experienced. My work is born out of this experience and maintaining of the gaze on to the natural world. I have found that love, light and inspiration are interchangeable words for the same thing. The fulcrum of that is the experience of painting or the journey as a painter, as a pilgrim in the broadest sense.”
Richard constantly strives to reach the light through his painting. He moves with the work from the landscape and then back to his studio many times before the work is finished. He captures the mesmerising effects water at different times of day and season. “When you look at water on the surface you can look through all the layers to another reality that is as present as the subject reflected. This fascinates me. I love painting in winter because it is pregnant with all the colour of Summer. My experience of light is often its healing, curative quality.”
As for the future, Richard is planning to spend some days walking and drawing at Knepp Castle Estate, the pioneering rewilding project in West Sussex, where free-roaming grazing animals have created new habitats for wildlife and are documented in Isabella Tree’s fascinating book Wilding….. another Pilgrimage.
‘Alchemy of Light’ exhibition