Thursday, 19 May 2011

James Dickson Innes: Artist of the Sacred Mountain

James Dickson Innes:Ian Strang:oil on board
The night fell heavily across the valley of the Treweryn. Apart from the odd smear of light cast by the flickering lamps in the villages of Capel Celyn and Arenig, there was nothing to lift the grey shroud from the barren rough bounds of the vast Migneint.The sprawling wilderness of lakes,mountains and moorland in north Wales. For the young artist who travelled the moor that night- Welsh born James Dickson Innes-it was something of a voyage of discovery.For years the former Slade student  had been searching for a motif which would drive his art in the same way Mont Sainte-Victoire had captured Cezanne's imagination or the Pacific islands had measured Gauguin. For the frail 22 year old whose fragile body was already wracked and broken by TB ,it proved to be both a journey's end and a new beginning.

The evening journey across the moors had washed Innes up at the isolated inn of Rhyd y Fen which was a rare refuge for the weary traveller crossing the moors twixt Bala and Trawsfyndd. Mine host at the Inn was someone described by Augustus John as- 'the playboy of north Wales'- Washington Davies, who took in the exhausted artist and after providing a supper of 'fine local mutton' washed down with home brewed 'cwrw', showed him to his sparsely furnished but comfortable room and bid him.... rest well.

The following morning, the artist dragged a chair out of the kitchen at the rear of the inn,slumped down between its polished arms and drank in the scene before him.The
morning drew the mountain of Arenig Fawr from its cradle. It's twin peaks trailing wisps of cloud between its rounded horns. The hollows and gullies frothing with rain and mist. The mountain captured Innes's imagination in all its raw elemental glory.
Later,his close friend and fellow Arenig school artist, Augustus John wrote that at that moment Innes had arrived at the heart of his mythical magic kingdom....  ' His passionate love of Wales and the mountains of Wales was the mainspring of his art....though he worked much in the south of France,mostly in the neighbourhood of Mount Cagnion, Mynydd Arenig remained ever his sacred mountain and the slopes of the Migneint his spiritual home.  Augustus further reflected poignantly in Chiaroscuro...

But this happiness was not without a morbid side for his passionate devotion to the landscape was also a way of escape from the consciousness of the malady which then was casting its shadow across his days,ignore it as he might appear to do in an effort of a sublime but foolish self deception. This it was which hastened his steps across the moor and lent his brush a greater swiftness and decision as he set down in a single sitting,view after jeweled view of the delectable mountains he loved before darkness came to hide everything except a dim but indistinguishable glow,perceived by him as the reflection of some eternal city of the West

Arenig Fawr:JD Innes:oil on board

James Dickson Innes was born in Llanelli, South Wales in 1887. After attending Carmarthan art school as a 17 year old student,his talent was rewarded by gaining a place at the prestigious Slade School of Art in London. It was at the Slade where he first met Augustus John; already his fellow Welshman- nine years his senior- had established his artistic reputation and carved out his niche as the charismatic bohemian. For the young Innes,like so many of his fellow students,he was the moth drawn inexorably towards John's radiant light. Not that JD Innes was anonymous in his manner or attire. Like Augustus, he went out of his way to affect to air of the sophisticated romantic.As John attested upon recalling their first meeting at the Slade

He himself cut an arresting figure; a Quaker hat,a coloured silk scarf and a long black overcoat,set off features of a slightly cadaverous cast,with glittering black eyes,a wide sardonic mouth,a prominent nose and a large bony forehead invaded by streaks of thin black hair.He carried an ebony cane with a gold top and spoke in a heavy English accent

Like John, he might have been considered provincial with regard to his background but like his fellow Welshman,Innes played his Wildian role to perfection. Innes was said to have descended from Catalans on his mother side of the family.This was said to explain his dark Mediterranean appearance. His father by contrast was a Scot who had business interests in the local iron works. The Innes family was completed by two elder brothers; Jack who became a naval architect and Alfred who after gaining a degree in Zurich became a chemist.
Whilst at the Slade,Innes exhibited with John and developed a small circle of friends, many of whom would eventually join the Innes/John creative unit when they settled under the massif of Arenig Fawr. An association which became  'the Arenig School'.

After leaving the Slade,Innes left these shores and travelled through Europe with fellow Slade student, John Fothergill. Taking in Caudebec, Bozouls and Collioure. It was said that John Fothergill  was 'possessively homosexual' towards Innes although it is not known if their relationship was based on mutual interest or was more an infatuation on Fothergills' part. Nevertheless,it was Fothergill who first offered a biography of sorts after Innes death although it is considered tempered by their falling out and coloured by Fothergill's frustration and disillusionment with his object of affection. Fothergill lamented that  " Derwent Lees tells me strange things about Innes....He was wounded in the head in a back street in Chelsea along with John in a fight.What stupidities some people allow themselves to indulge in because they call themselves artists...And the company he kept! Bohemians,drunkards,practical jokers,known eccentrics.No wonder his mother cancelled his allowance.'

For the prim and proper Fothergill with his desire to manipulate and control a free spirit like Innes,little wonder then that their relationship fell apart. Despite the question mark over Innes sexuality,there is no doubt that like his friend Augustus John,he was strongly attracted to women. Even Fothergill acknowledges that he enjoyed 'several wild romances' during his short life. Like John he appears to have been strongly attracted to traditional Romany women; once buying and restoring a dilapidated Gypsy vardo to 'receive a ravishing gypsy girl'. Sadly,when she arrived,she directed Innes to the village pub and the Vardo was left to rot where it stood. As Augustus John tells the story,it was in fact a would be starlet who was the object of Innes's desires and the Vardo in fact got as far as Penmachno before the romance withered on the vine- literally!-and the caravan was abandoned in the inn yard.

Innes the artist

As an artist Innes was influenced by traditional artists like Coteman and Turner although later on,he fell under the influence of Japanese art,However, his work which began with watercolours essentially became primarily an oil based medium. His colourful post impressionist style marks him out as an early and almost uniquely British 'Fauvist'..literally 'Wild beast' . A term originally used and applied in an art context to Matisse.

The art history guide explains Fauvism as....

 The first of the major avant-garde movement in European twentieth century art. Fauvism is characterized by intensely vivid, unnatural paintings which utilize bright colors to convey a mood. The fauvist style grew out of the Pointillism movement and is characterized by its primitive style, and less natural forms. Artists such as Gauguin and van Gogh played a large part in influencing the movement. Fauvism is quite similar to expressionism in that forms are distorted and colors are used in order to create an intense mood. The fauvist movement was first recognized around 1905 when they had their first exhibition in Paris, led by the artist Henri Matisse. The fauvist movement was named by a critic who proclaimed that the painters were “wild beasts” or “less fauves” in French, thus giving the movement its name. The fauvist movement was short lived but represented the first break from artistic traditions; it was the first high-impact art movement of the 20th century. 

Craig Hyrddod from Rhyd y Fen:JD Innes-watercolour

For a British artist who was born in the late period of The Pre Raphealite Brotherhood and the earnest yet uninspiring post Landseer school of landscape painting, Innes's embracing of a revolutionary continental school displays an acute understanding of where art was heading in the twentieth century.More prosaically,it can also be explained as an example of his technical weakness .In truth Innes was a poor draughtsman. Unlike Augustus John who could work wonders with charcoal and pencil, Innes' drawings could best be described as naive and primitive.

This would explain his emergence as an artist who used paint to both delineate, detail and texture a work without a drawn framework.  It would also explain his preference for landscape work over portrait or life studies. Most of his work was executed on small panels or canvas. He appears never to have had any desire to create large canvases or triptychs like John.

The Arenig School.

And so we arrive once again on the tumbling jumbled north east fringes of the sprawling massif of Arenig Fawr. It is 1910 and Innes having travelled extensively since leaving the Slade has in modern parlance 'found his mojo'. He arrives with his head full of ideas and influences which will coalesce as a painting style which today is instantly recognizable. After his Rhyd y Fen epiphany,Innes invites Augustus John to join him at Rhyd y Fen and share with him a landscape John would later describe as 'the finest I have ever seen'.. Writing of their first meeting under the mountain,John wrote in 'Chiaroscuro'...

" Our meeting at Arenig was cordial,and yet I seemed to detect a certain reserve on his part: He was experiencing,I fancy,the scruples of a lover on introducing a friend to his best girl-in this case the mountain before us which he regarded-with good reason-as his spiritual property. Had he not been the first to discover and surmount it?'

After settling into the inn at Rhyd y Fen, Innes and John set off to explore the district which impressed itself on John. Determined to find a base in the area,after finding several ruinous dwellings they eventually happened upon a little cottage- Nant Ddu which looked out upon the north east face of the mountain.( Note...the original cottage was demolished by the landowners in the 1980's)
Innes and John set about furnishing the hovel and were soon joined by a movable feast of fellow artist,friends and family,local Romanies. Indeed,anyone deemed 'interesting' and capable of enlivening the long evenings.

During this time,their main Arenig co-creatives were the Australian artist Derwent Lees and Ian Strang. Like Innes,both Lees and Strang suffered from physical and mental infirmities. In truth,the damp,cold north Wales climate is not exactly the ideal environment for someone suffering from TB like Innes or depression in the case of Strang. However, for Innes and John,the unique setting in the cwm folded between the hulking twin peaked Arenig Fawr and Moel Llyfnant proved an intoxicating creative setting. Taking advantage of any fine weather,the artists would usually set out on the individual courses with their brushes paints and easel rolled in a sack and strung across their backs. Seeking the perfect vantage point to capture the mountain and moors in its fleeting moods.

In this part of north Wales,the light and colours can change in an instant. Little wonder that Innes and John had developed a style of painting which could be described as 'studied freneticism'. The capturing of that fleeting moment of illumination driving and emboldening their actions.
It was a fertile period both in terms of paintings and drawings completed. As the driving force of the group,it was Innes who produced the greatest amount of work,although John painted some remarkable landscapes in this period and when he was joined by his lover and muse,Dorelia,he featured her in several outstanding paintings where she is revealed against the wild Welsh mountains in all her colourful bohemian glory. However, a life in the wild back of beyond quickly palled for Dorelia and she soon returned to civilisation without a backward glance.

For two years Innes,John and their eclectic group of fellow artists continued their Arenig campaign. Occasionally returning to London or on occasion,venturing abroad to recharge their creative batteries after,inevitably,being worn down by the long periods of grey wet weather which can depress even the most optimistic soul.

If Dorelia was the creative spark which ignited Augustus John's work,then for Innes,it was a woman called Euphemia Lamb with whom he had travelled extensively though Southern France and who Innes craved would join their happy throng at Nant Ddu. However, Euphemia was always her own woman and she flittered in and out of his life as she desired. Although she did stay with the Arenig ensemble from time to time,like Dorelia,she appears to have found the primitive conditions and the wilderness experience not to her liking and her visits were few and far between. Rather romantically,it is said that Innes,in the throes of failing health and tormented by unrequited love,carried a silver casket containing 'certain correspondence' regarding Euphemia and buried it beneath the summit cairn on Arenig Fawr although this has never been found.

Euphemia: Augustus John

The Arenig School in truth was a short lived affair. The artists Nant Ddu sojourn lasting just two years between 1911 and 1913 . It was Augustus John who made the break first. He moved his north Wales camp 20 miles to the north and took on a rented cottage at Tany Griseau in the Moelwyn mountains and close to the growing mining town of Blaneau Ffestioniog. He invited Innes to join him at his new creative base but Innes's roots in the Arenig soil ran deep and he remained there for several months longer. Mostly on his own but occasionally joined by artists like Lees and Strang. Eventually,Innes deteriorating health forced him out of what is an incredibly damp environment.Just about the worst conditions for someone dying with consumption.

His final year was spent travelling to Provence with John and taking in Tenerife and Morocco before returning to Britain and spending his last days at Swanley, South England. The year was 1913 and paintings by the Arenig School artists were exhibited together for the first time at the legendary Armory Show in New York.

James Dickson Innes died in August 1914 with Euphemia by his side, in Swanley aged just 26.
Augustus John his great friend and creative equal once said of Innes after his death...

In his short lifetime,though handicapped and tortured by a remorseless disease which finally put an end to him,he managed by heroic effort to make a name for himself as one of the foremost figures of his time in the art of landscape painting.He cannot be said to complete himself completely; he died too young for his powers to have reached their full maturity-and for that matter does not everyone? But by the intensity of his vision and his passionately romantic outlook,his work will live on when that of many happier and healthier men will have grown,with the passing years, cold,chill and lifeless.

One of Innes' last paintings.Innes,John and Lees under Arenig ?
John Appleby: 2011