George Graham: The Creation Paintings
Hastings Museum and Art Gallery will hold an exhibition devoted to George Graham’s mysterious Creation Paintings from 20 January to 7 May 2017. Alex Brattell offers a preview.
The spiritual in art is having one of its regular revivals, possibly as a reaction to uncertain times and the lack of direction of an art market pandering to the super rich with attention grabbing novelty and zombie formalisms.
2016 saw well received exhibitions of Swedish medium and painter Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) at the Serpentine Galleries, and British spiritualist Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884) at the Cortauld Institute. The current Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain brims with animism and Palmeresque eeriness. The 78 Thoth Tarot paintings by Lady Frieda Harris, made in collaboration with Aleister Crowley when he lived in Hastings in the 1940s, are being restored by The Warburg Institute (nine major arcana were showcased at the Venice Biennale in 2013).
As well as George Graham: The Creation Paintings, 2017 will see a reappraisal of English artist and occultist Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) with the release of a major monograph by independent publishers Fulgur. Leonard Rosoman (1913-2012), whose murals for Lambeth Palace offer a slight comparison to George Graham’s work, will be the subject of a new survey by the Royal Academy.
George Graham was well known as a landscape painter in oil and watercolour. Born in Leeds in 1881 he took drawing lessons at Leeds School of Art and later studied painting in London under Sir Frank Brangwyn and Sir William Nicholson. He exhibited at the Royal Academy 1908-1947, at the Royal Scottish Academy from 1916, at the New English Art Club from 1938. George Graham settled at Winchelsea Beach in the early 1920s designing and building a house in 1922 that he called Salt Dykes (he was married but had no children) and where he died in 1949.
Expert on 20th Century British art Grant Waters knew George Graham’s friends Charles Morris and near neighbour William Warden, both artists: “William Warden did tell me that Graham had been badly affected as a child of about eight when he suffered a major loss of hearing due to being hit by an object thrown at him by another child. I gained the impression that the resulting deafness had left him a somewhat withdrawn person who found it difficult to make new friendships. My own conjecture is that his interest in religion increased as he felt more isolated and combined perhaps with an interest in the work of William Blake, he found expression in his feelings through the series of Creation paintings.”
The 30 known Creation Paintings were painted in the 1930s and 1940s towards the end of Graham’s life in styles, often pointillist, and colour palettes markedly different from his usual landscape style. They swerve towards touches of Seurat, John Martin, even mad cat artist Louis Wain. With titles such as Spheres And Atoms and The Creation Of Flowers they suggest a 20th century Gnostic Biblical narrative that would not be unfamiliar to Blake. They were first exhibited in 1950 shortly after Graham’s death at the Royal Society of British Artists. Graham’s student Hugh Griffiths inherited the Creation Paintings, donating them to Hastings Museum in the 1990’s. The last time they were exhibited together was at the Museum in 1997.
The pamphlet that accompanied the 1950 exhibition “George Graham And His Creation Paintings: Appreciations And Extracts From His Letters” provided some explanation of a private and driven search for meaning and truth by an artist with a lifetime of experience as a professional painter and a deep respect for tradition, influenced by Beethoven, Turner, Milton and Shelley.
Graham’s Creation is in many ways a traditional one. Order emerges from chaos, there is conflict between good and evil, but beyond this structure the Creation Paintings are a worship of nature and divinity. He wrote to Harold Cheesman on January 20th 1937 “I love what we call nature, another word for the works of God, and as the years went on this love became boundless and the desire to express it became like a physical hurt. Nothing I could do in the old way could express all the pent-up emotions. Then came these visions which I have tried to paint, and coming from within the result is as you know it”.
It was a very private project. He wrote to Hugh Griffiths in 1944 “As for my paintings, those done during the last ten years and unknown to people, I must never allow ambition to step in and expect a worldly success. It cannot come in my lifetime”. Later, he writes “yes the skies are wonderful. I was only gradually led to my worship of the skies by sheer force of their beauty. If only I could have got on to it years earlier!”.
Many of the paintings were made over a long time, up to four years, as if making them was a meditation and devotion enabled by a lifetime of looking, the act of painting rather than the painting itself being the purpose of the Work (and he worked on many at once). They are also planned paintings, just not physical landscapes, informed by words, ideas and moments now lost, but also by the mysteries of light, form and energy that are so abundant on the coast between Hastings and Rye.
Works by George Graham in British public collections can be seen at the Art UK website.
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