Tracks: Walking the ancient landscapes of Britain, Philip Hughes, Thames and Hudson.
Drawing can, like painting, can be preoccupied with shading, but in its most hurried form, it aims for that spectacular and rather eerie feat – prodding the mind to complete a picture of reality by laying down the most basic of visual framework. It is often more approximation and suggestion than reproduction. Like contour mapping, it is something of a subjective means of dividing visual space.
Philip Hughes is a British painter and drawer of landscapes, and in his art the two – painting and drawing – merge. His way of representing the landscape primarily with lines, and only secondarily with colour blocks, is clearly influenced by maps, some of which are reproduced in this lovely edition of some of his works. In many cases it is as if the vertical view of a contour map has been tipped to the horizontal. He is not a hasty, impressionist drawer, but his lines are carefully and finely applied. Lines represent intervals in the fine gradient of topography and the façades of rocks. Blocks of colour between the lines sometimes fill the pictures, sometimes they occupy only one part, doing the job of watercolour wash or just pointing the mind in a particular direction. And because of this it is hard to say exactly whether they are paintings with the pencil lines left in, or drawings with a bit of colour. Sometimes it depends on the piece. In all cases it doesn’t really matter – they are all examples of a fine sensibility. The fact that these boundaries are blurred is a cause for celebration.
Hughes’ work has resonance with other twentieth century British landscape painters, such as John Nash, or even Hockney, whose paintings tend towards a mythic simplification of the landscape. At times he even tends towards the early Mondrian, meaning that he blurs the line between abstract and landscape. And his colours recall O’Keeffe, another artist who was forensic in her view, but whose style lent itself to confusing representation and abstraction.
Hughes is not just preoccupied with landscapes – he is interested in the archaeological in the landscape. So many of the works here concern themselves with Neolithic sites – Stonehenge, Avebury, Skara Brae. Also, Hadrian’s Wall and the stone walls of Yorkshire. And again, there is a blurring of the categories – the natural landscape and the man-made, which seems very British. There is a sense in which British landscape is usually moderated by humans, but, at least until recent times, the moderations have settled softly into the landscape.