The surroundings are familiar – as all the landscapes are to me – and yet this difference forces me to look anew, to regain a sense of wonder, to emphasise the mysterious in everything that surrounds us …

For me, painting is about recapturing the wonder … The strangeness of life has always preoccupied me. The unknowingness.

– Harold Mockford

This summer the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne is to launch a major exhibition of the paintings of Harold Mockford. The exhibition could not be more timely, nor in a more fitting location. For Mockford, who is eighty this year, was born in Eastbourne. Even more importantly, he is a fine lyrical painter whose visionary landscapes of East Sussex have still to be inscribed on the intricate map of British Art. This exhibition is a giant step in that direction. And, again, it is happening at the very moment when there is a huge resurgence of interest in figurative and landscape painting, when monumental exhibitions like those of David Hockney and Lucian Freud have been dramatically successful. It is as if, in the last few years, conceptual art has exhausted itself and that now the art of painting – painterly paintings on traditional canvases – has triumphantly returned to the centre.

Harold Mockford was born in 1932 and has lived in Eastbourne and Newhaven for most of his life. He left school at fourteen (often wanting to play truant), married at the age of twenty-one and, then, worked as a dental mechanic during the day and painted at night. Avoiding institutions and coteries, he slowly built up a formidable body of work. William Gear, the curator at the Towner Gallery, was quick to champion his paintings against the usual provincial antagonism, and he had the foresight to secure a number of works for the local collection. (The Towner now owns fourteen paintings.) The Government Art Collection also bought pictures to display in various embassies round the world. But Mockford’s work has never been placed in the broader context of British art and has not, thereby, received the national recognition it deserves.

At one level, Mockford’s work is a poetic celebration of the spirit of place. His paintings are an epiphany to a small patch of land, his personal habitat, what Yeats called that ‘one dear perpetual place’ where a person feels he belongs and has his being. And, no doubt, many of Mockford’s sites, like that of Butt’s Brow and Eastbourne Pier, are resonant with childhood memories. As Samuel Palmer to Shoreham, as Lowry to Salford, so Mockford to East Sussex.

Anyone familiar with the area will have no difficulty in identifying the immediate physical locations which have been the inspiration of most of Mockford’s paintings. (One could draw a fifteen mile circle around Eastbourne and circumscribe the whole terrain of the artist: Lewes would be the furthest point on the western side, Dungeness on the east.) Again and again, one recognises the geographical site: Birling Gap, Belle Tout, the Long Man of Wilmington, Firle Beacon, Seaford Head, Mount Caburn, Butt’s Brow, Newhaven Harbour, Motcombe Park, Dungeness. Significantly, one of his earliest paintings – a rather abstract painting which caused something of an uproar in the local community in 1958 – was simply called Eastbourne. However abstract the painting, what mattered was the recognition of the place. And even if one doesn’t recognise the exact location, one invariably registers the feminine undulation of the chalk hills with their characteristic features: the kissing gates, long stone walls, thin white paths, the scattered sheep, the slender church spire rising through a clump of trees, the large uninterrupted horizon.

But something else is alive and pulsing through his paintings. In some of his interviews, Mockford talks about ‘the story’ which develops as he paints; although, if the paintings are narratives of a kind, they are neither illustrative nor moral. Nor do they derive from literary works. Indeed, his canvases offer not so much stories as open dramatic metaphors. Interestingly, Mockford is fond of the word ‘unknowingness’ and talks about the process of composition as an adventure into the uncertain: I always work from memory, painting places I know. I recall the scene and then work to intensify and dramatise the image. I like the idea that there is movement and discovery all around us, that every thing is not always how or what it seems. He refers to ‘movement’ and ‘discovery’, not ‘depiction’ or ‘observation’ or ‘accurate recall’.

Belle Tout, the Towner Collection
Eastbourne, the Towner Collection
Cars at Birling Gap, 1969
When the Lights Come on, 1989 (from the Towner Collection)

Mockford also compares the art of painting to sleep-walking, as if it was close to hallucination, a matter of seeing intensely and strangely: a hypnagogic activity. And he talks about finishing the painting on a note of strangeness, as if the underlying imperative was to move from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Thus Mockford follows not a literal, but a metaphoric path, moving from memory into the dream modality. Here free indirect association becomes as important as direct representation. When the painting has reached a certain pitch of strangeness, he will leave it. Mockford himself puts it like this: I have to intensify the shape and colour until a time comes when the painting has a strangeness which feels right. The painting does not, necessarily, reach a formal perfection but, rather, a point of mystery which cannot be taken further.

In this transformation, the recognisable outer objects have become multivalent symbols, rich with inner meaning. We may recognise, with a certain pleasure, the contours of an actual location – a church, a valley, a nuclear power station – but, at the same time, we have entered another dimension of consciousness. A familiar landscape has become an unfamiliar metaphysical inscape of being.

The transposition of literal colour into imaginative colour, the movement from the brighter to the darker palette, is indicative. In a Mockford painting the English sky can hang down in veils of red and orange, the ploughed fields stretch across the canvas in an unfamiliar dark ochre, the sheep and horses stand out in unapologetic blue, while the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters can rise up into a surreal cloudy green. But the colour is not arbitrary; it is neither haphazard, nor sensational. It is part of an entire transposition of natural perception into another key. As in the paintings of Chagall, a poetic logic is at work, an imaginative alchemy. The outcome is a subtle form of magical realism: a purple path curves and disappears between a clump of trees; a ferry, illuminated by a strange light, floats out into the ocean; a pink swan flies up from a deserted park in Eastbourne.

Working from memory, Mockford consistently dramatises his original perceptions. Often in his work there is a sense of impending drama, as if one stood at the edge of an imminent apocalypse or some moment of spiritual revelation or, simply, near a small gate which, if opened, might lead into a childhood paradise where everything is complete and the smallest object infinitely precious. In the paintings the free-standing country gate – both taking us into and cutting us off from the ground on the other side – is often a key. Standing alone, a characteristic Mockford emblem, it is a fine example of how an ordinary object is converted into a symbol of the human spirit suggesting a narrative that is left unresolved. An invitation. An opening.

Take Waiting to Go painted in 1994. The more we look at the painting, the more we feel caught up in a dramatic moment. The colours vibrate with expectancy. The sky shifts through three colours – dark rust, orange, pale ochre. This part of the painting is not unlike a Rothko, except that at the centre float two naive clouds, taking us away from pure abstraction and putting us in a magical figurative world. Mockford, somewhat in the spirit of his predecessor John Piper, while not hostile to abstraction, is always keen to keep the viewer in a world of representation, even if it is a world of alchemical re-description, rather than literal reference.

Under the clouds, and to the left, we notice the ferry boat returning to Newhaven from Dieppe. As our eyes drop to the foreground of the painting, we notice the parked cars, brown fences and buildings above which, on sagging telegraph wires, swallows gather ready to migrate. Then, beneath these congregating birds we see three tiny figures standing at a gate, which would appear to open straight into the sea. Two of the figures stand close to each other, a man and a woman; the third figure, a woman, stands slightly apart. Here are the elements of a human drama over which the sky stands like a biblical revelation. The whole canvas represents not a story so much as a dramatic metaphor of existence: a moment of being for the imagination to ponder.

Not all of Mockford’s paintings conform to the pattern of magical realism. There are a number of figurative autobiographical paintings which stand to

one side. One of these was bought and then, after a short interval, returned to the artist. The owner confessed that he had found it too uncomfortable to live with, far too disturbing. Yet these paintings, like some of the intimate work of Edward Munch, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud are courageous existential explorations of inner unease and dislocation. Some are located in hospitals and depict scenes of wrenching separation. No doubt, they represent the darker side of the artist’s epiphanic consciousness. Poignant paintings, they testify to an anguished awareness of illness, contingency and mortality.

In one of these autobiographical paintings, The Ancestors (1993), the artist is depicted in the foreground. The frame cuts off his head as he stares away from the viewer as well as from his father, who sits almost grinning in a menacing slate-coloured suite on the other side. Behind the father on the wall is an image of the artist’s grandparents. Three generations are brought together in the small crimson-coloured room. The father and grandparents stand close together, comfortable and at ease with the inherited continuity; but the painter stands apart, staring across the flow of time and connection, his neck bathed in the colour of blood. The artist stands to attention, outwardly compliant, inwardly desperate. The mirror over the black stove, which physically divides the son from the father and grandparents, is blank. A dark square, it reflects nothing. This powerful brooding painting offers an image of the starkest alienation. It is the very antithesis of the celebrations of landscape and visionary connection.

But Mockford is not a solitary painter. He belongs, consciously and modestly, to a tradition. He may be self-taught, but his awareness of visual art is as intense as it is encompassing. As he himself claims: My influences have been many; it is difficult to single out any particular artist. I regard all those artists in the past and contemporary artists trying to give shape to experience as my role models inspiring me to try. One can see in his work the oblique influences of innumerable antecedents: from William Blake to David Hockney, from Van Gogh to Mark Rothko, from Pierre Bonnard to Carel Weight.

More specifically, Mockford belongs to a British landscape tradition running from Palmer and Turner in the nineteenth century into neo- Romantics (or Romantic Moderns, as they have been recently named) of the twentieth century. Most tangibly, Mockford is part of a tradition carved out by such artists as Paul Nash, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Ivon Hitchens and Eric Ravilious. The similarities are there for all to see. These painters have painted the very same places. Ravilious painted the Long Man of Wilmington, Piper the beach at Seaford and Dungeness, Paul Nash the lonely clumps of trees on the Downs – and so has Mockford. Yet one can also identify marked differences of psychological disposition and artistic idiom. Mockford, for example, is more metaphysical than Piper, more densely textured than Ravilious, more magical and varied than Hitchens.

And it is precisely this analysis of comparisons and differences which confirms the power and tenacity of one vital tradition in British painting, still very much alive, the tradition of the embodied image based on figure and landscape. The place of Harold Mockford in this continuum can now hardly be questioned. The exhibition at Eastbourne this summer will honour a national painter and, in so doing, bring out all the animating connections and fierce continuities.

Harold Mockford is at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne: 14 July-30 September 2012.

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