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Jan 12 / Simon

ARTIST PROFILE 7 Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

Out of an abstract shadow (for Yorkshire Post) 11 Dec 2018

A series of exhibitions in Yorkshire devoted to the work of, in her time, Britain’s foremost woman abstract painter is recording the importance to her work of her stay in Leeds. By Simon Tait

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham – Willie – was an inventive force within in the influential St Ives group of painters and sculptors, but who let herself remain in their shadow. It was only towards the end of her life – she died in 2004 aged 91 – that her real importance was fully recognised.

There were key points in her long life when her talent could shine, however, and one was a short two-year period in the mid-1950s when she worked and taught in Yorkshire, discussing and developing new ideas which created a vital blossoming in her own techniques.

Born in St Andrews, Scotland, in 1912 Willie went to the Edinburgh School of Art – against the wishes of her father, a patrician but unwealthy Highland landowner – graduating in 1937, just as a group of modernist Hampstead artists had decamped to Cornwall, crystalising on the fishing town of St Ives around Christopher Wood, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson.

When she graduated Willie’s principal, Hubert Wellington, advised her to join them – as much for her health, which had been poor, as for her art – and she settled there near to Gabo in Carbis Bay in 1940, where her distinctive elegant, lyrical precision developed.

Although she is most often compared with Nicholson – their geometric approach was mutually informative and their draughtsmanship was easily the best of the group – the constructivist Gabo was the greater influence on Willie through his exploration of outer form, space, and structural planes. Gabo left Cornwall in 1947, however, just as a steady flow of younger artists to St Ives began, including Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Trevor Bell, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, and the group became known as the St Ives School.

She was a progressive within the group, siding with the modernists led by Hepworth and Nicholson. Her work explored the commonplace about St Ives, such as the patterns of seaweed on the shore or the colour and shape contrasts of the contents of a rubbish dump, and in 1948 a critic on the local paper commented on a particular painting in which she “paints without compromise or fuss. She has found the foam lipped breakers, that grey light, nearly crumbling walls and rusted junk, she has found the soul of St Ives in her visionary Sleeping Town”.

In the late 1940s and early 50s her abstract painting developed, carrying her acute perceptions into new uses of space as well as form, of rocks, glaciers and landscapes, using a much freer hand. She had found, in the words of the author of the definitive biography of Willie, Lynne Green (W Barns-Graham A Studio Life, Lund Humphries, 2001, updated 2011) “the beginnings of a personalised abstract language”.

Yet she did not see herself as purely an abstractist. “I am interested in using abstract forms mainly insofar as they are derived directly from natural sources by means of simplification within the movement of the picture itself”. Her reputation began to grow through group exhibitions in Cornwall and London, one of the few female artists to be singled out by critics for special mention.

She and her husband, the poet David Lewis whom she married in 1949, began to travel, to Paris, Switzerland and Italy in particular, and when David decided on a change of career and enrolled at Leeds School of Architecture in 1956 Willie went with him, teaching life drawing and painting at the Leeds School of Art under the influential head of the school of painting Harry Thubron.

There were already strong links between the St Ives artists and Yorkshire – Leeds was in a vibrant cultural passage. The critic Herbert Read, a great champion of the St Ives group, Hepworth, Bell and Patrick Heron were all Yorkshire born. The art publisher Eric Gregory had started the Gregory Creative Fellowships in painting, sculpture, poetry and music, and Willie’s friend Frost had been the painting fellow from 1954 to 1956.

Willie loved to teach and her lessons, mostly in the evening so that she could paint during the day, are still remembered. And she exhibited – in 1957 the Yorkshire Post’s art critic W T Oliver noticed that the influence of the St Ives School was becoming evident in the work of their Yorkshire fellows. Frost and Willie were also profoundly impressed by the Yorkshire landscape, and Oliver enthused that her work “will show those who doubt the validity of abstract painting that here at least there is an abstractionist who can draw a landscape exquisitely”. In the winter dales, moors and drystone walls she found new shapes and forms, and a fresh boldness in colour use.

It was in that Wakefield City Art Gallery exhibition, Modern Art in Yorkshire, that Oliver would have seen one of the most important paintings in Willie’s development, Red Painting, a Gabo-esque construction dominated by plangent and threatening reds described by the curator Douglas Hall (later founding director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) as “large, explosive” for which none of her earlier work could have prepared viewers. “Anger has seldom had so direct an expression and nothing quite like it was to reappear” he wrote.

Her two years in Leeds were marked by startling contrasts: a period of discovery and development in her work, and personal upheaval as her marriage collapsed (she was eventually divorced in 1963). Willie and other artists and teachers were trying out geometric harmonies, colour interactions and what was described as the “dynamic symmetry” exemplified in classic architecture. She found that practices in the mathematical division of space, known as the “golden section”, with which she had been experimenting were familiar to her new friends and colleagues with whom she could discuss techniques, a liberating experience for her.

After just two years in Leeds and her marriage irretrievably broken, Willie returned to St Ives and a “very tough” period, she said, in which “gradually I became a lone wolf & with my head down… got on with my work”. She inherited a house near her St Andrews birthplace and divided her year between there and Cornwall before finally moving to Scotland permanently. Here, some of the freedom she had found in colour and form in her Leeds days returned, and her reputation found its proper place. She was given an honorary doctorate in 1992 by the University of St Andrews, made an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1999, and in the year of the publication of Lynne Green’s magisterial monograph, 2001, she was made a CBE.

“In my paintings I want to express the joy and importance of colour, texture, energy and vibrancy, with an awareness of space and construction” she said towards the end of her life. “A celebration of life — taking risks so creating the unexpected.”

Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield
8 Dec 2018 – 16 March 2019
‘Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice’

108 Fine Art Harrogate
2 Feb – 23 Feb 2019
‘Earth, Ice, Rock and Sea – the art of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’

Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds
2 April – 20 July 2019
‘50/50: Fifty Women Artists 1900 – 1950’

Jan 12 / Simon

ARTIST PROFILE 6 Levan Lagidze

The infinite, happy game by Simon Tait 13 Nov 2018

The intricately interwoven elements that make up Levan Lagidze’s canvases are a kind of visual polyphony, a tumbling cascade of incidents that eventually fall obediently into place, to complete an opus. Sometimes the imagination makes them into patchwork quilts, sometimes crowded townscapes, sometimes a Joseph Gandy-type imaginary classical townscape with a different life in each doorway, and in the unabashed and meticulous detail there is a feel of traditional Russian iconography.
And polyphony is a good word, because the music of the great polyphonist, Bach, is what Lagidze listens to while he is painting. “Each measure, rhythm, accent and pause is so precise that his music is always new and unexpected,” he says. “This is the magic of universal composition. The music you can see or the painting you can listen to…”

And there it is, in oil, on canvas, giving him the title for his London show curated by Katrine Levin of Katrine Levin Galleries, Bach Exercises.

But his work is not so obviously confined to a formula: it ranges, sometimes inspired by an image – a city view, a hotel, a spring scene, even a horizon with all its promise and past – sometimes quite abstract in a post-modern way, and there are complicated arrangements of colour, layered brindle-hued impasto or with great shouts of red through a fierce grill, or sky blue lifting an ordered confusion of lowering shades. They tend to be large and infinite, bright colours craftily lurking among the shadows of darker ones. “They say that painting is the art of showing colour,” he says. “To me, however, it is the art of hiding colour. Colour needs to be hidden to entice the viewer into searching deeper.”

These pictures do not so much entice as demand exploration: each composition is somehow telling a story that remains untold, a secret that calls for the viewer’s emotional collusion rather than wasting time on cold interpretation.

Lagidze, now 60, is one of Georgia’s best known artists, a teacher and mentor to young Georgian painters and now the owner of a gallery in Tbilisi, his home and Georgia’s capital. This autumn, the national Georgian Museum of Fine Art opened a new building with a hall dedicated to his work. There are sometimes hints and flashes of Klimt in the compositions, a whisper of Chagall in the free wielding of often sombre colours – “I am an inheritor of other painters’ artistic paths,” he says, “and for this journey to continue, that inheritance must be passed on to a future generation.

“Connecting with younger artists fills me with joy because, as I often say, I began as a ‘prominent’ artist, then I became a ‘prospective’ artist and today I am a ‘promising’ artist and it is my desire to maintain this status till the end”. Hokusai, another master who devoted himself to nurturing young painters, believed that to reach his full potential he would have to live past 110, and Lagidze may privately have a similar timescale to reach what he himself would consider complete fulfilment.

As it is, we have a complete oeuvre in his exciting and absorbing abstracts for which there is a burgeoning enthusiasm, and although it is not the first time his work has been seen in the United Kingdom, he will be finding a new audience in London.

However, he is reclusive and rarely shows outside of Georgia, but despite his avoidance of the public eye his work is sought after around the world now, and they are in private collections in a dozen countries from Norway to South Africa to the US to the UK.

He says he has avoided exhibitions of his work for the simple economic reason that he paints for a living, and mounting major exhibitions takes canvases off the market, if only temporarily. So with Katrine Levin Galleries (November 19 to December 8) he is going against his own custom and practice, thanks to the symbiotic approach to him and his work by Katrine Levin herself.

“Our relationship created such an atmosphere of mutual trust that it inspired and motivated me to direct my whole artistic and organisational resources towards making this happen,” he says. He adds that the offer to show in the intercultural atmosphere of London rather than the comparative seclusion of his home was “an opportunity to re-examine the path already travelled… a prerequisite to returning to my studio to dive deep into a new process.”

Lagidze hails from and lives in a place that has been riven with internal and external conflict in his own lifetime, but that strife is not present in his nevertheless often ferocious pictures, which have an entirely pacific nature and message. “I don’t believe that in today’s world the function of art is to shock, provoke or surprise its viewers,” he says. “Rather, it carries a mission for harmonious existence and happiness. A relationship with painting is a participation in this infinite happy game.”

Jan 12 / Simon

ARTIST PROFILES 5 Elizabeth Hannaford

Painting out of a corner by Simon Tait 15 Oct 2018

There is a popular myth about artists, that they are insular, inclined to work inside their own psyches and to be single-minded about what they expect from a finished canvas. It may be true for some, but Elizabeth Hannaford is a perfect example of an artist that puts the lie to the myth.

Her work, abstract and figurative, is a direct response to outside influences. It might well be a scene or a landscape, but just as easily a piece of music or poetry, a snippet of news, a memory, an event like climate change, a personality such as the ethnographer Mary Kingsley, or her own story. The abstracts are lyrical, blended oil paint poured on to canvas, but they are not random: there is a control that gives a form and a statement to each piece, and she says that she knows when a work is finished when it takes on a life of its own “and speaks to me”. That life begins on the floor, there is no easel in her studio, which obviates gravity as a consideration in the movement of paint.

Although images can sweep across different canvases, her use of colour seems precise, and often she paints in diptychs, tryptychs, even series of panels which should be read like a line of prose or a melody, with a beginning and an end; some will be textured by the addition of sand or grit to the painting process. And they are invariably the result of experiment, perhaps the artist’s most precious tool.

Her paintings are stamped by a confidence in her own sensory reaction which might come from sheer force of personality, but informed by years of training and practice; personality is an immediate quality in her work, and her own life experiences offer Elizabeth unique resources to call on.

When she left her first school aged ten, her art teacher told her “never forget your art, Elizabeth”, and she never has. But around that farewell remark lies a torn childhood.

An only child born into a prosperous Devon farming family, her early life was marred by her father’s alcoholism. “It was chaotic … he could be violent”. It led to a forced sale of the farm when she was five, then some years staying mainly with relatives as the money dwindled and the drinking increased. “When I was about ten my mother had had enough and they split up.” She and her mother went to live with her widowed grandmother and she never saw her father again.

This trauma has remained with her in life and work. “But at least my father finally redeemed himself, for which I’m very grateful”. She learnt at his funeral when she was about thirty that he had eventually become a respected Anglican lay priest, the head of the centre for recovering alcoholics that had helped him when he first joined the institution as a gardener.

The rest of Elizabeth’s childhood with her mother and grandmother was stable but lived in relative poverty. She had a successful grammar school education, although despite winning prizes for her drawing and painting, art was not part of the available GCE choice as a fourth subject at A-level. “I was going to have to be something professional – to have a bit of certainty and structure in my life – and a bit of money. Also to know where I was – and I never know where I am with my art, even now,” she says. She did A-level art in her spare time, attending Saturday life classes at Exeter Art College, but instead of art school went to the University of Leeds to study law.

Although she never stopped drawing and painting, she led a successful life as a property lawyer. With her husband she lived near her practice in Oxford, before their jobs brought them to London and the Crouch End house they have lived in ever since. “My training as a lawyer may not seem to fit with the life of an artist, but it’s taught me to be organised and pay attention to detail”, she says, speaking in her purpose-built studio at her home. “Running a family (there are two children, now grown), a home and a demanding job means you have to have control, and that helps to make sense of my life as an artist now”.

She could not, however, resist the call of the paintbrush, and when she was able to work part time she began a twice-weekly life class at the Camden Institute; over four years she absorbed a new discipline that still informs her work.

Then the early ‘90s recession intervened in her life when her practice downsized and Elizabeth was made redundant. She was offered the telephone advice of a careers counsellor: “I think you need permission to do what you want to do, and I don’t think it’s the law’, he said, and something went ‘ping’”. She left the law – “or it left me, really” – took her redundancy money and spent it on a post-graduate diploma in art psychotherapy at the University of Hertfordshire which she began in 1993. In order to gain the required clinical experience to apply for the course she spent a year volunteering at the Royal Free Hospital in North London working with Alzheimer’s patients, and her six-month clinical placement during the course was in the acute psychiatric department of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London.

She had held her first solo exhibition, The Moving Figure, at the Square Gallery in Highgate in 1991, and her second was at the Diorama Arts Centre Gallery by Regent’s Park in 1996. By this time she was working in her new capacity as a State Registered Art Therapist for the charity Studio Upstairs, based at the Diorama and operating a working art studio for vulnerable people in the community with mental or emotional issues. “I worked there for six years until 2000, helping in the end to run it. It was a therapeutic community based on the ideas of RD Laing. I’m not sure that my art would have taken off or flourished without that supportive experience”.

Elizabeth’s gregarious approach to both life and her art has meant that she has made friendships and associations that have led her along many unexpected paths. She has travelled the world in search of remote landscapes, painting what she sees and feels. She was taught etching by the Royal Academician Peter Freeth; through those she met in her classes she got studio space, at first in Bermondsey and then in Peckham (she moved to her own garden studio, “my sanctuary”, three years ago); another RA, Hughie O’Donoghue gave valuable advice and encouragement in the run-up to her Diorama Show; and she became fascinated by music and its associations with painting during her Camden Institute life classes where sound was introduced.

In concerts she drew performers – including Rostropovich, Marin Alsop, Jeffrey Tate, more recently Thomas Adès – but for the last two decades has also collaborated with musicians, in particular the organist and composer Christopher Bowers-Broadbent and the jazz and classical musician David Gordon, when she will paint or draw as the musicians play. Embracing new technology, she has responded on her iPhone to Gordon’s work with his jazz trio at St Martin-in-the-Fields, creating a series of “Jazz iArt Boxes”.

And poetry is often part of the praxis, sometimes by favourites such as T S Eliot, sometimes her own. Her poignant eight-part serial work, Sometimes like now I feel that hurt that was shown in a pre-Tate Modern Bankside exhibition in 1999, takes its title from her poem about her father, a striking re-experiencing of her childhood pain.

But a more recent haunting large diptych, Shadow (with leaf), which speaks of her fears of climate change and in part of which her own hazy shape hovers, was finished before she was inspired to write:

A studio floor, dark, grey
Messy with paint
A landscape emerges, dark
As does my shadow (busy, working)

The shadow looms. Asking questions
What are we doing to our world

A studio window, studio view
Ash trees whispering
Ash trees, dying?
Branches brushing against the panes

A lead flutters, Asking questions
What are we doing to our world?

Jan 12 / Simon


ABSENCE OF EVIDENCE by Simon Tait 5 Oct 2018

“You have to look, that’s the first thing,” said David Hockney. “It doesn’t matter how long for, a few moments or for hours, but if you don’t do it properly you’ll miss what you need”. And what you need is sometimes very subtly hidden.

He was talking recently to a group of art critics who had just presented him with the 2018 Critics’ Circle Award for a lifetime’s achievement, but it could have been Claire Benn talking to her students. She can look for days at a subject before she has what she needs.

Hockney is especially noted for his use of modern technology to help him see what he needs – his next exhibition will be based on his experiments with 3D imaging – but technology, he says, is just the tool you need for a particular job. “A paint brush is technology,” he said. Or sometimes, in Claire’s case, a needle.

Claire Benn’s art defies classification, something Hockney would heartily approve of. It is sewing at its most basic, but it also painting, it is using the character of different fabrics. She seldom if ever knows what will be the end result of a piece of work, but her art has a mystical sense, often of a kind of tranquil desolation that is always absorbing. She looks to wilderness for her inspiration, the white wastes of the Arctic and the infinite bleakness of New Mexico’s Atacama Desert.

Her chosen media are mostly textiles, thread, raw earth pigments, natural dyes, acrylic paint and thread. She loves to work with antique hempen sheets, some of them a century old, especially those with patches because of the personality they can bring to the piece (she has a source in Gloucestershire). The work therefore is abstract but complex in ideas and practice; reductive and begging touch as well as gaze. There are echoes of the etherial print works of Rebecca Salter, perhaps, or the devastation of Anselm Kieffer, but these pieces – one cannot even label them “canvases” though some hang as if they are – are uniquely invented, arriving via deep contemplation.

Claire has had no formal training for what she does – there is no training for what she does because no-one else does it. She grew up in Southampton raised by her grandmother at whose knee she learned hand-stitching – “Her stitching was nothing spectacular, but she did it all the time” – and it was a skill that never left her. She also drew and painted as a child, but at 20, having ducked out of further education – her report declared that she “has a negative attitude towards institutional discipline”- began an extremely successful career in telephone sales and then training.

After ten years rising through the ranks of Thomson, publishers of Yellow Pages, she diversified into making training videos. “What became very apparent to me was that people would buy a four hour training video but had no idea what to do with it” she recalls. “I had the skill to know that from four hour video you could get a five day programme”.

One of her bosses was the publisher James Benn; they married, and she went professionally freelance setting up her own consultancy while he pursued a career in independent publishing. There children grown and away, they now live in a 1630s converted barn in Surrey which is also her studio.

It was in the mid-90s in Canada that she rediscovered her love of textiles when she saw a collection of antique Mennonite quilts. “I was struck by the combination of form and function, something made to keep you warm but which you could just as easily hang on the wall it was so beautiful”. She bought a second-hand sewing machine, made her first quilt, did some classes, but didn’t take to traditional technique.

Then James treated her to a trip to the needlework mecca Paducah, Kentucky, and the biggest annual quilting exhibition in the States where she saw hand-dyed fabric for the first time. She signed up at a dyeing school run by Lesley Morgan near to where she now lives and works, and learned how to turn dyes into paint using natural tinctures, how to make a paste with sodium alginate, a seaweed product, dissolved with dye, and a new creative world opened up before her. Quilting was left behind, and with Lesley she started Committed to Cloth in 2001 which teaches working with textiles and encourages students to develop their creative ideas. Claire stood down three years ago, but still teaches for the company.

Then in about 2012 she rediscovered her love of hand-stitching, through the holistic healing system ayurveda, “a kind of science of life”, to which Claire and her husband are adherents (they also practice yoga and meditation). James had been advised to spend a month of quiet introspection at a retreat near Mumbai, and Claire went with him. “We knew that once there we were on a controlled diet – no alcohol, no caffeine, no tobacco – and even reading was discouraged, so I asked if I could hand-stitch. No problem”. She tacked together two pieces of grey linen a metre and a half square and with a roll of neutral-coloured hemp thread spent five to six hours a day for 28 days stitching. “I just fell back in love with the process, the slowness, the meditative quality, on the table or on my lap, and I don’t what I think about. I’m just in a floating mind kind of place”.

She had also discovered the work of Agnes Martin, the American painter known for her reductive process that pares down her images to find a kind of transcendental state, with an emphasis, if there is any emphasis, on line and subtle colour. “I watched videos of her working, read her writings, and became really tough trying to make my work simpler – I was quite frightened by what I was trying to do”. She will often reverse a process on a piece, undoing the labour of weeks, so that some of her works can take months to complete.

She thinks of the aphorism “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” in reference to her work, how colour seems to insinuate itself through the underpainting, contriving her pieces through stitch, pigment, fabric, to bring the viewer’s imagination to full bore as they contemplate the ensemble and see what may or may not be there. She looks at a large mostly white and black piece with tiny red stitching barely visible on which she has been working: “Definitely an absence of evidence there” she murmurs with satisfaction.

To find her subject matter she seeks out wasteland, in Scotland at first and then in Africa, New Zealand – she loves the Otago Grassland there – Canada, the Middle East. Each year she and James go on what they call their “desolation trips”, and one was to the Arctic Circle on Norway’s Russian border where the grandeur of the Northern Lights was, for Claire, dwarfed by the splendour of the tundra landscape under a full moon, “the most astonishing thing”.

If she could choose her favourite place, though, it would be New Mexico and the Atacama Desert where she and James were last year. “It is magical, and I want to work with the dirt, white dirt, red dirt, to make my pigments and maybe bind them with acrylics – I like acrylic because it gives a literal feel to the surface”.

Claire teaches in the UK, the United States, Germany and Italy, though not in formal education because she has no qualification. Almost all her pupils are female and middle-aged, and because of her free style they frequently point her to a new twist in technique for a particular effect.

“The joy and beauty of what I do is that there is always something new to find if you look the right way,” she says, “and nothing is ruled out”.

Jan 12 / Simon

ARTIST PROFILE 3 Alain du Pontavice

Witness to my inner self by Simon Tait 31 May 2018

Alain du Pontavice’s ethereal, multi-layered paintings defy categories. Are they Surreal? Symbolist? Abstract? Form? Yes, all of those things, but none of the labels cover the complexity of the work. “When you see a painting exhibition you should just be open to the impressions, don’t rush to reduce it to a category,” he says. “It’s limiting”.

He was born and bred in Paris, and an early childhood influence was Alexandre Iacovleff, the Russian Francophile painter who had travelled to China on the “Yellow Cruise” from Lebanon as the official artist of the commercial expedition in the 1930s. Alain’s great-grandmother had been a friend and her home in the Languedoc, where Alain spent much of his childhood, was full of Iacovleff’s Chinese etchings and paintings. China and Chinese culture fascinated the boy.

In Paris he went to the independent art academy, La Grande Chaumeuse, in the heart of the home of Impressionism, Cubism and then Surrealism, Montmartre, where his companions were mostly sculptors, and he spent hours with them sketching their work.

But China had never released its grasp. He studied Chinese martial arts, including Tai-Chi; for his Baccalaureat he took Chinese, and had to do it by correspondence course because nowhere in France taught it; and he did an MA in the Chinese language.

“’Martial art’ has the term art, and it can be quite subtle in terms of internal energy,” he says. “There is a thread, a sensitivity, that I needed to understand and let it emerge. Martial arts mediation allowed that until I got better at drawing and calligraphy and painting.”

At 24 he went to China for three months, staying in a youth hostel in the countryside in a very politically correct regime. He met an ancient calligrapher who was not allowed to practice in the Cultural Revolution. “He had a 400-year wooden old house and was able to keep it because he had a bust of Chairman Mao in the window,” Alain recalls. “I used to go to his house at night and we would do calligraphy together in secret – on newspaper, because we couldn’t afford rice paper”. He sometimes still paints on the floor in the style of the traditional calligraphists, with the confidence of sweeping large brush strokes.

In the early 90s he was back in China with a textile company, in Shanghai which was to be his base for 15 years. He travelled widely, to Japan monthly where he was enchanted by a culture that encompassed gardening and the tea ceremony as well as textiles, and to Yunnan with its borders on Tibet and Thailand, to Mongolia and to Manchuria.

Textiles introduced him to a world of colour as well as texture, elements that were to be layers for his own praxis to come. “I was working with different materials, printing and dyeing, beautiful processes that take time to learn,” he says. “It really exposed me to colour, and the ease that I had with colours afterwards came from that. I was surrounded by colour.”
But also from his Parisian youth, when the children of South American ex-patriate families were his playmates, came a curiosity about the magic of the Andes that had stayed with him. Already a Spanish speaker, he moved to Chile drawn by the mountains’ energy and light – “At 4.30 in the morning, the light is amazing”.

He met the influential artist Felix Lazo and in no more than five sessions Alain was introduced to oil painting and the technique known as automatic drawing, whereby one draws without conscious thought what comes to mind and develops art from what appears.

“Felix and I had many things in common, including the practice of meditation which is part of my daily life still,” Alain says. “It helps you to open the sub-conscious, and automatic drawing allows you to go through layers of your mind. The very first drawing is whatever comes, and the you get stages of symbolism and maybe into surrealism – you enter another world, and every morning I draw and it just comes. I might make 15 or 20 drawings in an hour, all different”. Lazo calls it “creative fluidity”.

Not all of Alain du Pontavice’s paintings are sourced in this way, and he takes influences from Monet for some of the misty landscapes that emerge on his canvases, and from Paul Klee whose abstract shapes inform some of the features of his large paintings. But often those features come from automatic drawings.

On a drive through Patagonia he came across a hidden valley, a grotto where he saw mysterious two-thousand-year-old paintings of discs, early cosmic representations, which took his breath away. Those orbs are still with him, and appear frequently in his painting now, often very textures with added sand or scratched with household implements. He can spend days and weeks working up the texture of a background without knowing what the eventual subject will be. “You have to let it come, to recognise it”.

Four years ago he came to London, partly to help with his children’s university careers, and has stayed. “I long for nature sometimes, the sun and freedom of the Andes, and we’re shut in by the weather here, but in London I have everything else I need”.

However, his London studio is tiny compared with the large canvases he likes to make, and this year he is to open a new studio in the rural south of France which will give him the space he needs – “I have to be able to work on eight easels at the same time” – and will spend half his year there.

A deeply contemplative man, Alain du Pontavice’s pictures are almost a conveying of things deep inside that cannot always surface when bidden – one painting he began in San Tiago in 2006 was a much built up background which was only completed last year when the final feature was added.

“It takes time to come, sometimes, but painting is a witness to the richness within all of us,” he says. “It doesn’t belong to me, I am just witness to it.”

Simon Tait is the editor of Arts Industry magazine, a former arts correspondent for The Times, a critic for the London Magazine and a former president of the Critics’ Circle.