Britain’s greatest living landscape painter, George Shaw, gets his first major retrospective with a show at the Holburne Museum in Bath opening February 8 2019
George Shaw makes remarkable paintings of Tile Hill, the council estate in Coventry where he grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, revealing the latent beauty that lies within even the most mundane subject matter.
Rather like Stanley Spencer’s paintings of his home village, Cookham in Berkshire, they show an artist umbilically – not to say biblically – connected to the place where he grew up.
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But whereas in Cookham Spencer filled the bucolic landscape with locals recast as biblical figures or celestial beings, Shaw’s version of his hometown is peopleless and bleak, which makes for a fascinating and slightly unsettling journey into the dark heart of an urban estate.
Yet there is beauty in these desolate narrative episodes, which despite unfolding like the backdrop to a dystopian sci-fi film, invest the dog shit bins, boarded up shop fronts and the golden glow of winter suns setting across the tower blocks of Coventry with a splendour that matches the great British landscape painters.
Surprisingly, A Corner of a Foreign Field is the first major retrospective of Shaw’s work, and Bath’s Holburne Museum is the only European venue for the exhibition. It features 20 paintings and 50 drawings that span Shaw’s career from 1996 to the present day, including several new works never previously seen in the UK.
Shaw is famous for his use of Humbrol – the thick, quick-drying enamel paint used by model aeroplane and car enthusiasts – to create an almost photographic effect. But far from masterworks in photo-realistic technique there’s a sense of magic and mystery in these paintings.
“that sense of possibility and familiarity and possible danger lurking out there somewhere beyond”
During his teenage years, Shaw would often explore the neglected woodland around his home, strewn with abandoned rubbish. He recalls feeling “something out of the ordinary could happen at any time there, away from the supervision of adults.”
In an interview with The Guardian in 2011, he recalled of Tile Hill: “It was – there’s no other way to put it – a nice place to grow up. A post-war council estate on the edge of Coventry, with trees, grass and loads of woodland just beyond. The last built-up area before the countryside took over.
“I don’t think it has ever left me, that sense of possibility and familiarity and possible danger lurking out there somewhere beyond. I haunted the place and now it haunts me.”
And there is also a genuine sense of love in these depictions of pebbledash, brick and concrete; as his friend, the late art critic and novelist Gordon Burn, once observed Shaw paints in, “…the back room of the social club in Tile Hill with all the seriousness of Monet painting Rouen Cathedral”.
“Bath is such an historic city and Holburne Museum seems so grand that I’m quite humbled to think of my paintings being on display,” says Shaw of the retrospective, which is the Holburne’s first major focus on a solo living artist.
“It’s quite easy to lose yourself in these environments, which I suppose is very welcome at times. I hope my paintings, of a place without the weight of history, bring something of the familiar and the ordinary and a reminder that real life goes on and has its own beauty.”
A Corner of a Foreign Field is at Holburne Museum, Bath from February 8 until May 6 2019.
This jewel in Bath's crown was once the Georgian Sydney Hotel, whose glittering society Jane Austen watched from her house opposite. It displays the treasures collected by Sir William Holburne: superb English and continental silver, porcelain, maiolica, glass and Renaissance bronzes. The Picture Gallery contains works by Turner, Guardi, Stubbs…