(a) Constable and English landscape painting + (a) Hokusai, Korin and Japanese prints + (a) Gauguin and Post-Impressionism + (b) The Lake District ÷ (c) Charles Holmes in 1911 = (d) Saddleback from the South-West.
Or, in visual form:
Each element of this equation can – and should – be explored in further detail. Hokusai and Constable, it must be noted, were artists that Holmes studied closely. After several years working in the practical side of publishing, Charles John Holmes (1868-1936) began his career as art critic in the late 1890s, writing essays on Hiroshige and Hokusai for The Dome, and two books on Constable. Both clearly influenced his work. Holmes’s sketchbooks (he was an assiduous draughtsman, filling over seventy-five sketchbooks from 1890-1936) are full of the cloud studies for which Constable was famous, whilst the composition of many of his later paintings owes a great debt to Hokusai, with whom he shared a predilection for mountains. Like both of these artists, Holmes was principally a landscape artist, who worked from on-the-spot studies, which he ‘finished’ in the studio. Unlike Constable, however, Holmes was working during a period in which artists were striving towards a pronounced pictorial simplicity, moving away from the busy brushstrokes of the Impressionists, and utilising unbroken patches of colour, often surrounded by distinct black outlines.
In so far as any term fits Holmes’s work around 1911, ‘Post-Impressionist’ would be it. Holmes (now Director of the National Portrait Gallery, a role he held from 1909 to 1916) was, in fact, listed as a member of the executive committee for Roger Fry’s 1910 exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, although his reactions to the contents of the show were mixed (he thought Cezanne inconsistent). And yet, as one contemporary critic noted, Holmes’s art could speak much louder than his words:
Unlike Mr. Roger Fry, Professor C. J. Holmes does as he preaches when he lays outside the pen to take up the brush…. Holmes, who advocates the cause of the new art with more moderation and critical reserve, shows very distinct Post-Impressionist tendencies in his pictures.
For those keen to group Holmes with the Post-Impressionist doubters, Saddleback from the South-West should come as a surprise. This is, I think, as intelligent a response (or, better still, an equivalent) to continental modernism as anything by the younger generation of British landscape artists – James Dickson Innes, Derwent Lees and Augustus John included. This is not a one-off; an artistic right-turn; ‘quick-fix’ Post-Impressionism. Saddleback from the South-West is the culmination of several years’ worth of experiments in a particular direction, and is completely consistent with other works Holmes’s was making during this period. The arrival of modern French art in London was but one inspiration for this painting, and there’s nothing to say that Holmes’s couldn’t have got to this point without seeing Gauguin. The main lessons had been learned long before the Post-Impressionists came to town.
It goes without saying that Saddleback from the South-West is a formally daring art work: a vibrantly coloured, economically designed tour-de-force of landscape painting. But this is not just a design; it is also a painting of a particular place. Post-Impressionist or not, we must not let the subject be outmuscled by other elements of the equation. Holmes was happy to simplify that which he saw before him, but not with the intention of watering-down, blurring, or smudging the subject in question. The idea was to distil the essence of the landscape; to reshape it in such a way as to bring out its qualities with a greater power than ever before. For this reason, we have to look at this painting a depiction of Blencathra (also known as ‘Saddleback’), or at least a depiction of the painter’s ‘experience’ of Blencathra.
To what extent are our own memories, or knowledge, of the subject relevant in this situation? In one contemporary critic’s opinion, they were highly significant. ‘We do not find the pink clouds in this work convincing,’ noted the frustrated writer: ‘They are pink presumably in recoil from the green hill, when naturalistically we should expect them a colder, more purple colour in recoil from the golden sky’. One might think that this critic has not been reading the signs properly. This is not a naturalistic landscape, surely? Not in itself, no, but it is trying to communicate something about a naturalistic landscape, and the colour of the clouds acts as a line of communication. If these clouds are ‘off’; if the artist has over-emphasised, or completely misrepresented this detail, then the critic may be justified in feeling that his experience of the painting has been somewhat sullied.
I am in no position to comment on the pinkness of Charles Holmes’s clouds. Nor, though I have seen the mountain in question, can I claim any special knowledge of this subject – although photographs (and much more knowledgeable friends) confirm that this represents a very specific, and immediately recognisable, view: Blencathra / Saddleback as seen from Castlerigg Stone Circle. To the right of the image we can see Sharp Edge, one of the more treacherous arêtes in the region. The slope to the left, in contrast, is smooth, rounded, and covered in warm green grass (a little too warm for my knowledgeable friend). Blencathra is well known to be one of the more moody of the Lake District mountains, creating a feeling of discomfort in many walkers – and Holmes’s depiction of the shadowed, plunging Sharp Edge certainly evokes this. The rest of the painting is, however, rather more restful, which suggests that either Holmes has misjudged the mood, or that he refused to be taken with it. His Saddleback is, ultimately, a rather gentle affair. Too French perhaps? Maybe even a little Tahitian? Too many echoes of Honshu Island? Or just an especially sunny evening in Northern Cumbria?
These questions may have to remain unanswered: art is, after all, an equation that always leaves a remainder. This is not to deny the usefulness of the mathematical approach; so long as we don’t let the ‘a’s overpower the ‘b’s, and accept that this merely a framework for opening up the picture, it remains as good a way as any of dealing with the ineffable.
Samuel Shaw, July 2013
Samuel is currently working on article exploring the art of Charles Holmes, with a particular focus on his industrial landscapes.