Country Life : Alain de Botton

Our landscape: paint it or lose it

To really appreciate the countryside, we should draw and paint it. Alain de Botton meets a champion of the art

One reason why we have been so good at destroying the countryside in the past century is that we’ve stopped trying to draw and paint it. At best, we take pictures of it on our mobile phones, but this cuts us off from one of the great side-effects of painting: the fostering of a capacity to look properly, care for and love what we see. Try to draw anything patiently, be it a flower, or a tree or light falling on a table, and you can’t help but have your respect for nature enhanced.

After spending a lot of time in offices and factories for a book about people at work last summer, I ended up in a field in Essex to observe a painter who has spent the past two years painting the very same 250-year-old oak tree in all lights and seasons. Stephen Taylor is one of a declining breed of English landscape painters, ignored by the critical establishment, an heir to Turner who won’t ever win the Turner Prize due to the quaintness and simplicity of his aim: to get people to look at trees more closely and lovingly.

Mr Taylor first came across his tree five years ago, when he was out for a walk in the
countryside following the death of his girlfriend. After stopping to rest against the fence that runs beside it, he was overpowered by a feeling that something in this very ordinary tree was crying out to be set down in paint, and that, if he could only do it justice, his life would in indistinct ways be redeemed, its hardships sublimated. Mr Taylor is tormented by a sense of responsibility for the appearance of things. He can be kept awake at night by what he sees as an injustice in the colour of wheat or an uneasy fault line between two patches of sky. His work frequently puts him in a tense, silent mood, in which he can be seen walking the streets of Colchester where he lives. Yet his concerns are difficult for others to feel sympathetic about, as few of us are primed to feel generous towards a misery caused by a pigment incorrectly applied across a piece of stretched cloth.

His progress is slow: he can spend five months on a canvas measuring 20in square.
His painstaking approach is the legacy of more than 20 years of research. It took him
three years to determine how best to render the movement of wheat in a gust of wind, and even longer to become proficient in colour. A decade ago, he would have used at least 10 shades of green to paint the tree’s foliage; he now relies on only three, and yet his leaves appear all the more luxuriously dense and mobile for this reduction in complexity.

Mr Taylor accepts the restricted nature of the challenge he has set himself. An essay
he wrote to accompany an exhibition opened with: ‘For most of my adult life, I have worked on certain observations of the physical world. In particular, for the past ten years, I have been interested in changes of light as you look towards and away from the sun’—a summation of ambition finely poised between self-deprecation and megalomania.

He sees his art as born out of, and hoping to inspire, reverence for all that is unlike us and exceeds us. He never wanted to paint the  workof people. His attention was drawn to that which, as we didn’t build it, we must make an effort of empathy to understand, to a natural environment that is uniquely unpredictable, as it is literally unforeseen.

Mr Taylor’s tree paintings are comparable to advertisements, but instead of forcing us to focus on a product, they incite us to contemplate the meaning of nature, the cycles of growth and decay, the intricacies of the egetal and animal realms, our lost connection with the earth and the redemptive powers of modest dappled things. We might define art as anything that pushes our thoughts in yet neglected directions.

The great works of art have the quality of a reminder. They fix that which is fugitive:
the cooling shadow of an oak on a windless, hot summer afternoon; the golden-brown tint of leaves in early autumn; the stoical sadness of a bare tree glimpsed from a train, outlined against a heavy, pregnant-grey sky.

We can’t all be landscape artists, but Mr Taylor’s work reminds us how much we can
learn from what such people naturally do: put themselves aside and give themselves over to a humble respect and admiration for nature.

‘Mr Taylor’s paintings incite
us to contemplate nature,
our lost connection with the
earth and the redemptive
powers of dappled things’

Country Life, March 25, 2009

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