The Brotherhood of Ruralists: A Celebration Jerrold Northrop Moore Laurie Lee Peter Nahum Ruralist Fine Art Ltd., 2003
The Brotherhood of Ruralists is a little-known group of English artists who first joined forces in 1975 to produce art inspired by the English landscape, in the tradition of Turner, Constable, Samuel Palmer and Paul Nash. You might think that you have never encountered their work, but if you have ever picked up any of the Arden Shakespeare paperback series, with their consciously naive, oddly atmospheric cover paintings of Shakespeare characters--one of the Ruralists' biggest communal projects—then you have seen Ruralist artworks. These covers are only a small part of their oeuvre, however. Over the past thirty or so years, they have produced landscape paintings of tremendous power, characterised by rich, sensual colours and a dreamlike quality. Although they have also painted still-lifes and portraits, and human figures do occasionally appear in their landscape studies, it is indisputably the countryside that dominates their work.
The group first formed in 1975 through the influence of David Inshaw and Peter Blake, who eventually, however, left the Brotherhood. Some of the works that Inshaw produced just before or during his Ruralist period are among his best-known, including The Badminton Game (1972-73), a now famous picture of two women playing badminton in a stylised, slightly unreal rural setting, and the extraordinary The Cricket Match (1976). (Inshaw seems to derive more meaning from sporting themes than do most artists.) In this painting, the long evening shadows of the trees reach over the solid green roundness of the hills and threaten to engulf the tiny, white-flannelled players. Nature's monumental permanence both comforts and menaces the human being, in a masterpiece that is as much about human transience as tradition. Inshaw's mastery of three-dimensional form, his ability to endow landscape features with solid personality and presence, reminds the viewer of John Nash's iconic and defiantly individual corn sheaves. However, the timeless quality of many of Inshaw's landscape paintings is more than a little eerie, suggesting petrifaction rather than continuity. This atmosphere of unease becomes marked in his more surrealistic works, such as The River Bank (Ophelia) (1980), a modern interpretation of the death of Shakespeare's tragic heroine, and the well-known The Raven, which is omitted from this book.
The Ruralists in general capture English light and haze perfectly, making the edges of trees vague with mist, and evoking the sparkle of sun on water and leaves. In many of their paintings, there is a palpable sense of that deep calm only attainable in certain parts of the countryside. They pay great attention to the details of nature, particularly Annie Ovenden, whose precision produces a hallucinatory, hyper-realistic effect in her best works, such as What a Wonderful Dream it hadBeen (1990), in which each flower or blade of grass is distinct and clear, or Beginning of the Pool of Tears (1992), both based on the story of Alice in Wonderland. A peculiarly English, whimsical but romantic sensibility pervades the Ruralists' work, and they draw self-consciously on English culture for their themes. Like Alice, Shakespeare is a favourite subject (all of them, not just Inshaw, have created works based on the character and fate of Ophelia).
In a recent project, illustrations for a book entitled The Child of Dreams, they also focus on themes from Elgar's biography, particularly the way in which his work, like theirs, derives its inspiration from the countryside. Ann Arnold's treatment of the Elgar theme captures the sunny, pastoral quality of some of his music in pictures such as Introduction and Allegro and Chestnuts, 'the trees are singing my music.' Her exploration of the Alice motif is also striking, as well as mischievous: in one picture, entitled The Red Queen (1990), Alice is clearly visible, but we search and search until we catch a glimpse of red on a shadowy figure emerging from a dense wood. The watercolours of animals that Ann Arnold has produced throughout her career are entirely delightful, capturing the playfulness of spring hares, the dogged determination of a glossy brown mole, and the dignity of a badger surprised, on emerging from its lair, by the human gaze. Her studies of cottages, like Hawkers Cottage, can be extremely atmospheric. The Secret Garden (1980) is her masterpiece, however. Here, a creature that may be intended as a water spirit, but looks rather like a newborn baby, emerges from a pond against a background of encircling bushes and trees. This painting fuses garden and womb imagery to create a powerfully mystical, almost Blakeian image of rural peace and tranquillity; the idea of Mother Earth takes on material form. Her earlier picture of a tiny girl gazing out of a lamp-lit window in the midst of a darkened, tree-filled landscape, Rebecca Dreaming at Coombe (1976), has the same combination of mystery and tenderness.
Graham Arnold's paintings, often in mixed media, such as Last Poems (Homage to A. E. Housman), disorient the viewer by mixing the familiar and the strange: flowers, butterflies and Stonehenge could all conceivably have some connection with Housman's pastoral Englishness, but figures from ancient Egyptian art, and a group of what appear to be Native American tents in a field, are there to baffle us. Arnold's works present us with puzzles that may or may not be solvable, and many, such as The Annunciation, have the same disquieting atmosphere that gives Inshaw's works their tension.
The Ruralists often tap the same elemental rural consciousness of Akenfield or Cider with Rosie, and it is certainly no accident that this volume of their paintings contains an essay about them by Laurie Lee ("Their work shows an acute recognition of that mysterious world that still holds its kingdom a few yards from the motorways, a world of spirits, shapes and ancient voices that reverberate back to the caves"). There is nevertheless an unmistakeably modern edge of alienation to some of their work. While certain paintings evoke an ineffably English, timeless landscape, some, with their use of bright reds and Mediterranean blues, do not suggest any recognisable place at all, leaving the viewer feeling adrift and disconnected. Overall, however, Ruralist paintings are usually identifiable with distinct places, and expressive of a particular kind of English genius loci.
This compendium of Ruralist work opens up a rich visual world that most outside the specialised corridors of English art history will never have had the chance to encounter. It is a valuable record of what, as Jerrold Northrop Moore remarks in his essay, may well be the last English school of art with its roots firmly in native art traditions. --Isabel Taylor