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Essay by David
Boyd Haycock

Essay by David
Boyd Haycock


In the Studio


Messum's Catalogue Forward 2018

A really good artist makes us look at the familiar in a new way; things we might once have passed by without a second glance become suddenly remarkable. Paul Nash did it with his winter landscapes and paintings of trees; Maxwell Doig does it with the gable end of an old building, a deserted farmhouse, or the clock tower of an abandoned woolen mill. What at first sight seems ordinary becomes, through his hands and eyes, extraordinary. And you can never look at those things in quite the same way again.

It has taken years for Doig to reach this remarkable point – to be able to look, say, at the Flamborough Head lighthouse in North Yorkshire, and paint it in a way that no-one else has quite achieved before, ‘to see it anew,’ as he says.

His artistic journey started young. ‘I wanted to be a painter even as a little kid,’ he told me when I visited him recently at his Huddersfield home. Skipping A Levels, at sixteen he went straight to Batley Art School, already ‘dead set’ on becoming an artist. A significant early encounter came when a girlfriend introduced him to a friend of her dad’s – the veteran Huddersfield painter, David Blackburn (1939-2016).  ‘I don’t know any artist to whom I can compare him,’ Sir Kenneth Clark once observed. ‘Blackburn is not a landscape artist, not an abstractionist in the ordinary sense. He is a painter of metamorphosis.’

Doig would never quite become an abstractionist, and looking at his work today you see little direct link with Blackburn. But it was Blackburn who really taught the teenage Doig how to see, and how to draw – starting with the simple things: a still life of fruit or flowers on a table, or an allotment seen out the back of Blackburn’s modest terraced house. The seasoned artist taught the young student a valuable lesson: that he did not have to draw everything he saw in the world; you could pick out the salient points, and abstract from it.
‘He changed my life,’ Doig admits.

What he learned from Blackburn helped Doig get into Manchester School of Art, and from there to the Slade School of Art in London. Artists who can draw well have always attracted him, and draughtsmanship had long been the raison d’etre of the Slade, from Henry Tonks, Augustus John and Stanley Spencer to William Coldstream and Euan Uglow. Though a graduate student specializing in printmaking, Doig would spend hours in the life-class, and he also studied human anatomy at University College Hospital. By the time he left the Slade he was already selling his work, and other than a brief stint teaching part-time at Leeds Metropolitan University he has made his living ever since as a professional artist, recognized for his skill as a painter and his confident yet idiosyncratic approach to his subject matter.

His art has not stood still, however. His post-Slade period was when he came closest to full abstraction, but he has moved from there through a focus on the female figure towards the intense yet dream-like realism captured in buildings that characterizes his latest work. He has always shown a keen interest in the surface of his works. ‘In a way,’ he tells me, ‘it’s all about the surface, the texture.’ That’s why, when he draws, he uses monotype – a print medium that, as the name suggests, only produces one or – at very most – two images. He has a wonderful feel for texture, for surface, patina and palimpsest – prints and paintings alike are very tactile works; there is this almost irresistible urge to touch them, to run your fingers across their surface. His flat, featureless skies deliberately accentuate the texture of his walls, his grass, his trees – even a fall of snow.

Doig is also very much concerned about – and located in – place. Though he sometimes travels as far afield as Dungeness in Kent to paint the boats and extraordinary seaside landscape there, most of his current work is concerned with the local landscape around him in Yorkshire, the buildings and allotments that characterise his neighbourhood. In his studio he has copied out and pinned up a line from one of John Constable’s letters, in which Constable reflects on the early influence upon him of Suffolk and the Stour valley: ‘the sound of water escaping from mill-dams, &c., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things … As long as I do paint, I shall never cease to paint such places. They have always been my delight.’ One thinks too of Stanley Spencer, and the significance to him of his home at Cookham, in Berkshire. Like Spencer, who could lose himself for hours in the careful rendering of a brick wall, Doig sees himself as ‘reflective, inward looking,’ a Romantic – and he enthusiastically acknowledges the power of the local landscape upon him.

Seeing Doig as a Romantic, we might link him also with William Blake, whose most famous words come from his epic poem ‘Milton,’ better known as the lines to the hymn ‘Jerusalem,’ put to music a century ago at the height of the Great War. If Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ are to be interpreted as the new-fangled factories of the urbanising industrial revolution, then Doig in Huddersfield lives right among their decay. Whilst Blake worked at the beginning of the Romantic era, here we find Doig at the end of it, painting and carefully recording de-industrial decline and our gradual disconnection with the sublime.

‘These empty dwellings,’ he tells me, ‘they make people stop and look. My pictures trigger memories – forgotten emotions, perhaps?’ They are places where people have lived, loved, worked and sweated out their lives, be it on a factory floor, in a boat or in the green fields of Yorkshire. Something remains, remembered and yet half-forgotten. And Doig records – making the momentary immortal.

David Boyd Haycock, 2018
Author and Curator