Sunday, 2 September 2012
The Thames: Our Only English River
My wife Makiko and I had a wonderfully sunny afternoon at John Ruskin’s Brantwood, where we had gone to see George Rowlett’s fine series of paintings entitled ‘Time and Tide: The Thames at Work’. Rowlett’s river isn’t the dark, turbid, drowned-body-ridden Thames of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, nor the redeemed, salmon-rich, holiday river of News from Nowhere, nor again the Thames of vacuous Jubilee and Olympic pageantry, of which we have seen so much this year. It is, rather, as it claims to be, a river of everyday work, of gravel barges being unloaded and so on, and the paint is applied so thickly with a palette knife that the artist’s own very palpable labour in his medium is a kind of mimesis of the work that is actually taking place on the river itself.
If you stand well off from the canvas, you can make out the representational detail well enough: London Eye, Greenwich Naval Hospital, Thames Barrier. But if you go up close, it is the drama of the paint itself that mesmerises you, as it actively writhes off the surface towards the viewer, so that the painting becomes a three-dimensional sculpture rather than a flat surface. There is then a tension between form and content here. In terms of representational content, the Thames goes about its drab, profit-orientated, capitalist business; but at the level of form, the extraordinary Expressionist dynamism of the paint at times conveys marvellous effects of sunlight breaking through, a utopian or Wordsworthian light that never was on land or sea. So where Morris in News from Nowhere could simply depict a utopian Thames, George Rowlett gives us the world of work on the river (content) and utopia (form), and he in these vivid paintings – like our own contemporary politics – cannot bring the two realms together.