BLOG Michael Tomlinson

NWR Issue 105

James Dickson Innes at MOMA, Y Tabernacl, Machynlleth, until 8 November

If you missed The National Museum’s comprehensive Landscapes by JD Innes, Beauty Most Wild earlier this year then you are in luck! Y Tabernacl in Machynlleth have mounted a small jewel of an exhibition. A mere fourteen paintings and of these only ten by James Dickson Innes himself but the whole effortlessly capturing the essence of this singular artist.

It is the centenary of James Dickson Innes’ tragically early death at the age of twenty seven from tuberculosis. We will only ever be able to speculate how his painting would have developed and whether horror of the First World War would have wounded his joyous post-Impressionist spirit or would age and experience have led him to even greater heights.

Innes was born in Llanelli in 1887 and studied art first at Camarthen and then at the Slade in London from 1906 to 1908 where he befriended the Australian, Derwent Lees. He made several trips abroad most notably to Collioure in France in 1908 and 1911 where his work took on the warm hazy Impressionist colouring of the South. This period isn’t represented in the Machynlleth show though an early oil looking down on Llanelli from the hills to the north perhaps anticipates that style and palette. At first glance this could be a study by Church in preparation for one of his monumental American wilderness landscapes with the stark sheared-off faces of the quarry suggesting the huge natural geological features of America. Then you see the town in the distance aglow with the late evening sun, notice the fence along the skyline and the scale telescoping dramatically. This images hangs at MOMA beside a lovely simple student watercolour still life of a quill and ink pot.

In 1910, inspired by reading George Borrow’s Wild Wales, Innes toured north Wales. It was the defining point of his life. So impressed was he by the beauty of Arenig Fawr, between Bala and Trawsfynydd, that he persuaded Augustus John to return there with him and Derwent Lees. The trio rented a cottage at Nant Ddu and spent the best part of the next three years there overlooking the mountain. Despite having been already diagnosed with consumption, Innes roamed the moors in all weathers and often slept outdoors. During this period he developed a simplified notational style reminiscent of the mystical intensity of Samuel Palmer. He painted largely unpeopled landscapes but later introduced primitive figures, especially after the start of his infatuation and affair with Euphemia Lamb. It was this combination of landscape and love that allowed Innes’ work to shine, for example in ‘Girl Standing by a Lake’, an unsettling masterpiece in which the woman's etiolated anatomy expresses a relationship characterized by obsession.

At times, John and Innes seemed roped together by both style and intent but it was Innes who created a distinctive mature style with Arenig Fawr as a central motif. Derwent Lees was fighting his own demons that would see him incarcerated in institutions later in life and where he would die in 1931; he seems to have tuned into Innes’ sensibility in a way that Augustus John either never attempted or didn’t manage. Innes’ paintings use the strong colouring and simplified shapes of Japanese prints. Perhaps too he was aware of developing an obsession with Arenig in the way Hokusai had with Mount Fuji. There are certain similarities too with the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler’s treatment of the Alps and it is interesting to speculate about whether he was aware of Hodler’s work. In Innes’ bright fauvist treatments, Arenig became the personification of the artist’s yearnings. Perhaps even in the subdued sunsets it is not too fanciful to see the foreshadowing of his early death from TB at the age of twenty-seven.

The portrait of Innes by Ian Strang (1886-1952) was unaccountably not included in the show in Cardiff which displayed instead a rather effete portrait by Augustus John. Strang’s magnificent portrait is imbued with a sickly knowing
intelligence and is so in tune with the sensibilities of style and colour employed by Innes that it could easily be mistaken as a self-portrait. There is also a gentle watercolour, appropriate to the medium, of the Rhiniog mountain range, from 1912. Catch this important exhibition before it ends in twelve days’ time.

Michael Tomlinson writes on art for New Welsh Review


previous blog: Welsh Short Story Network, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 15 October
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