Sam Douglas has completed the first residency in the multi-partner programme ENTWINED: Rural. Land. Lives. Art. Sam has spent ten months living and working at Highgreen and has produced an astonishing collection of over forty paintings. Sadly because of the coronavirus pandemic, his open studio was postponed. However we endeavour to show his work at Highgreen as soon as we can and his paintings will be included in the final ENTWINED exhibition. In the meantime you can watch a virtual ‘open studio’ film here and read an essay to accompany his paintings by Dr Alexander Marr.
Sam Douglas’s art is rooted in the experience of landscape. Not the plein air kind, familiar from Impressionism and favoured by Sunday painters, but something much richer, more contemplative, poetic and harder won. His paintings are images of time as much as place, worked up (and repeatedly re-worked) over a long duration in the studio. They are drawn from days and weeks spent hiking the Northumberland countryside, camping out and enduring (in his own words) “boggy ground, midges, fog, heavy rain”. It is as though these atmospheric conditions have seeped into the very fabric of his paintings, which, in their resin and varnishes, erasures, re-paintings, scratchings and rubbings, echo the experience of moving through an ever-changing terrain. And yet there is a stillness to the finished image. A quiet thoughtfulness, of the kind that only direct experience of nature, its wildness, its antiquity, can provoke. As such, Douglas is firmly in the great tradition of British landscape painting, particularly its first flowering in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—names such as Wilson, Cozens and Palmer are evoked by his work. He shares, in some respects, their sensibility: a lyrical response to the British landscape, delighting in its variety, its weathered grandeur (the Cheviot hills, for instance) as much as in its nurtured pastures.
Douglas’s conscious reference to this pictorial tradition is part of a broader aesthetic strategy that blurs time and location. His paintings are palimpsests—literally, given how he scrapes them down only to rework them densely, but also figuratively. His landscapes are in and out of time, rooted yet somehow shifting, hovering between stillness and motion, contemplation and exploration. We feel our way through his pictures, pausing to take in a vista or as we encounter a feature—a standing stone, perhaps, half-buried in bracken. In works painted during his “Entwined” residency, Douglas has returned repeatedly to the “Three Kings”, a trio of ancient monoliths erected in the middle of the Kielder forest. In one such picture, we are faced by the stone circle in a small clearing, the worn rocks feebly illuminated by a grey light filtered through the canopy of looming spruces that surround them. The rough clearing, bushes and branches intruding from all sides, gives out onto a view of thickly forested hills beyond, leading to a luminous horizon—at dawn or evening? It is hard to tell. The weight of ages is palpable. The ancient stones seem symbiotic with their surroundings, their lichen-covered faces as old as the forest, which feels positively primeval. Or so we might think. For the landscape is artificial, as fictional in some ways as Douglas’s painting itself. Kielder may remind us (intentionally? One wonders…) of the medieval forests portrayed in the sixteenth century by the likes of Altdörfer, but it was actually planted in the 1940s. With scant regard to environmental concerns, masses of narrowly spaced spruce were set into the ground, swallowing up archaeological sites, houses (now ruined), even whole villages. Douglas recovers these pockets of interest for his viewers, inviting us to dig deeply into the many layers of the landscape, pushing through decades and centuries, his panels layered and encrusted like geological strata.
In so doing, he poses intriguing questions about nature, man and change. Which is the more “natural”, the recently-planted forest or the standing stones, hewn, dragged and erected in this spot so long ago, now returning almost to the soil? And where, he asks, does beauty lie in such a scene? It is picturesque, yet artificially so, with even a hint of menace in the claustrophobic enclosure of trees. Indeed, for Douglas the stones “now stand in a disturbed landscape of tree stumps and mud—not dissimilar to a feeling of the landscape of the trenches of World War I”. His remarks invite comparison to the trench paintings by another distinguished artist of the British landscape tradition, Paul Nash. Seen through this lens, mankind’s potential to intervene brutally in the landscape is brought to the fore. The uncanny presses in, as any notion of a cosy New Age spirituality, a reconnection with the land and our ancestors, is shattered.
As we explore the environments of Douglas’s pictures, we discover the myriad ways in which man and the natural world rub up against one another. Indeed, his art as a whole is profoundly invested in the relationship between art and nature, probing the boundaries between them as he traverses a landscape dotted with real boundaries—fences, styles, drystone walls, parish limits. Though absent of people, communities—many generations of them—are a felt presence in his works. None more so than in Standing Stone near Hownam, in which a blue-grey monolith, its facets captured in quick dabs of paint, the brush marks visible, stands as gatekeeper to an extensive landscape of walled fields. With a map-maker’s care, Douglas has plotted these walls’ courses into the distant hills, reposing under a mottled sky of faint blue. It is as though the walls are an above-ground manifestation of ley lines, tracking the age-old power rushing beneath the earth. Man’s presence is more delicately felt here, a respectful homage to the genius of the place, which remains unspoilt by virtue of low-intensity population and careful land use. How different this is to other compositions based on nearby sites, in which the remnants of the Industrial Revolution emerge fitfully in fragments. On his many excursions, Douglas has encountered “bell pits from coal mining, lead mining shafts, limekilns, quarries, dismantled railways and other remains from a time when activity in the landscape was different.” Watched over by the shade of Joseph Wright of Derby, Douglas uncovers the traces of these activities, conjuring the ghosts of the men and women who worked the kilns and quarries, their past scored into the landscape like the end of a brush into the painted surface. As he explains, such remnants are sometimes revealed only “when the painting is scratched or sanded back and are often only visible as a slight relief.” Little by little, mark by mark, Douglas patiently leads his viewers through a landscape of varying sensations—from nostalgia to delight, melancholy to curiosity. Dragging his brush across the surface of the panel with an archaeologist’s care, he blends the past with the present, entwining matter and memory. Dr Alexander Marr, 2020