Francis Hoyland: works on canvas, board and paper, at the Royal Drawing School (19 – 29 July 2016)

Most of the works in this exhibition are being shown for the first time. The works on paper have only just been framed and will be a first sighting for everyone. It is an opportunity to enjoy a new collection by an artisit who has been working since the end of World War II.

Francis was born in 1930 and became adult during the 1940s, not a home run for a boy from a pacifist Quaker family. After studying at Camberwell and the Slade he won the Abbey Minor travelling scholarship of the British School at Rome. This financed a trip, starting in autumn 1950, that took him to the showcase if still run-down museums of Florence, Venice and Rome by the age of twenty-one and opened his eyes to a figurative tradition very different to the nature of the Euston Road School, his main influence so far. He found the Renaissance artists open to the imagination, expansionary. Unlike many Englishmen he did not shudder at the Baroque.

Anyone’s first impression on Francis’ paintings will include energy and colour, also curvilinear composition- qualities and techniques he first saw in abundance in the works of Botticelli, Perugino, Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Michelangelo, Tintoretto in 1950/51. You can also see a preoccupation with form (volume), triggered by a wartime viewing of Masaccio Madonna and Child in the National Gallery. Later influences include C├ęzanne, Bonnard, Matisse, van Gogh – not a homogenous group – but the Renaissance imprint seems basic.

Nonetheless these artists of the past are influences not models and Francis’ practice is observation- based. In this (and not much more) he is true to the Euston Road. There is abstraction in detail and free invention in colour, space, curves, figures are simplified, but the works are not abstract compositions, they are studies of the world. Actually they are studies of the world, not crowded but inhabited by people (and animals), a kind of humanistic view.

In 1978 Francis and his wife Philippa became Roman Catholics. His faith has been an inspiration ever since. he has painted many religious scenes based on the Life of Christ, the lives of the Saints, the Old Testament. His series of prints on the life of St Francis of Assisi is in the collection of the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum and the Yale Center for British Art. In this show you can see a Transfiguration, a Crucifixion, a Deposition.There are also fantasies. Christ emerges triumphant from the tomb in front of the house in the Lot of his son and daughter-in-law, John and Hilary. In another large painting an angel floats in front of the same house while the Virgin Mary recites the Magnificat.

The religous paintings are visions. These are spirit figures, attenuated like El Greco’s (but lighter), slim, ideal by comparison with the generally chunkier treatment on everyday life. Still they are built of observations, some from unexpected places. The figure of the dead Christ in the Deposition comes from a detail, a fallen warrior, in the frieze from the temple of Athena Nike.

Classical art is another source for Francis, who for years took students to the British Museum to draw the Greek collection.

This is not the art of restraint. The marks are many and varied. there is a collection of six small acrylics painted at the house of Francis’ sister-in-law Gillian in Normandy, which are relatively simple in execution, but most of the paintings are confections.

There are short diagonal brush strokes, and longer jagged ones. There are glazes. There are washes overpainted with snaking lines. Figures and buildings may be delineated or left as juxtaposed blocks of paint. The palette is not much restricted, there are always several blues, several reds, several yellows, usually two whites (titanium ans flake) and an expensive selection of secondary colours from the tube – greens, oranges, purples. There are surprising colour combinations, a tree of lemon yellow and washy cobalt violet, a robe of cadmium orange overlaid with Prussian blue, but no painting is a chromatic free-for-all, there is always a harmonic.

Oil paint and acrylics are used, sometimes in the same painting, with pencil or charcoal marks. Every work has started as a drawn mathematical construction although the maths tends to be diluted by the process of painting as pictorial relationships come to life.

Francis’ exuberant use of paint shows how actually putting paint on the surface of the paper/canvas/board changes a design that is linear and to some extent calculated into a rich and shifting chromatic accumulation, some colours masked but not hidden by others, all held together by tonal variations, sometimes very strong ones – chiaroscuro – all of which is felt emotionally and sensually.

Nonetheless every painting is really drawing-based. In his words “Drawing is emotionally loaded geometry” but also “Drawing can seize a moment with such intensity that it reveals a vast context” but also “Drawing is not a way of showing off.” While Francis draws in a loose and vivid way not worried about finesse, he also plans his pictures in sharp technical detail based on ratios in which the golden section and root five rectangles predominate. In short composition is essential to Francis’ practice including the proportions of the rectangle containing the [painting/drawing/print.

A modified repoussoir can be seen, when he places an object or figure - or part, cut-off, figure - in the near foreground, usually at an edge or corner, which pushes back the main subject visually and expands the fictive space. An example is the Transfiguration, where, at the bottom of the picture, you can see the heads of the three Apostles who witness the transfigured Christ. A second effect of these cut-off figures is the suggestion of the (artist's) world they make outside the edge of the picture.

If there were just one criterion - there never can be - it would be space: three dimensions emerging from a flat surface.

The contemporary emphasis on art as ideas - the glass of water that is an oak tree, the intervention that is Rodin's Kiss tied up in string - has not attracted Francis Hoyland any more than abstraction. His work is not a brain-teaser. His landscapes, interiors and religious pictures are studies of familiar sights - his garden, Christian set-peices, his son's house, a friend reading - experienced every time as something utterly new. Each to his own but this has to be one of the proposals made by art - it can make others - that a striking, a beautiful image can be created from a reassessment of the observed world that is also reaffirmation - shared experience - and by the brush's touch.

The idea that the touch is the key to the painting is not a new one. This is the proposal that the connection subject-eye-hand-brush-canvas is the channel of visual creativity - or subject-eye-hand-chisel-marble and other variations - something mental and physical at the same time and altogether of the artist.

William Coldstream of the Euston Road thought in this way. We can speculate that Velazquez and Rembrant did too. Of course artists have contracted out work to others (famously the studio of Rubens) and continue to do so, some on a massive scale. However the touch is certainly essential in Francis' works - they are his own.

Dominic Pearce

July 2016