Where the Sky Touches the Land by John Casken

Lewis Noble is an English landscape painter. That much is obvious, but to some this may make Lewis sound old-fashioned, a painter not in tune with his times. But how wrong this impression would be, when in truth here is a young artist celebrating the landscape of northern England in a vivid and dramatic way and with a personal vision very much of its time. When the world of contemporary art often favours forms of expression far removed from the concerns of the painter, it is refreshing to find an artist who draws on the traditions of landscape painting but whose style and technique belong in the modern world.

The Derbyshire Peak District is Lewis Noble’s chosen landscape and one which provides him with a rich source of material for both sketching and painting, a landscape of open spaces, rolling hills, farmland, and wild moors. It can be intensely green and the black lines of its marvellous dry-stone walls continually segment the landscape into fascinating patterns. Rocky outcrops, deep dales, cloughs, and mossy clefts are a reminder of more ancient times, with the border between Derbyshire and Staffordshire, not far from where Lewis lives, resonating with the very stuff of English myth and legend, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

It is not that Lewis simply wishes to give a painter’s impression of such scenes, but his concern is for how a landscape has been affected by time, by the traces of history, and in particular by the elements: rain, snow, wind and storm seem to be constants, and the sun is filtered through clouds to give a unique sense of light. The titles confirm as much (for example the recent Sun and Rain Together, Cloud Like a Curtain, or Wind Blown Morning), but they also serve as a diary for where Lewis was at a certain time, what was there to be captured and, most important, what feelings he had about being in the landscape (for example Looking Back at the Hill I was on Yesterday). The themes are similar, the variations endless.

Capturing something of the landscape is a peculiarly English preoccupation, be it in paint or music, poetry, prose, or photography. The landscape paintings of Constable and his magnificent skies are echoed in Lewis Noble’s fascination for large skies and their changing forms, while his free use of paint and its dissolving textures might remind us of Turner’s canvases in which winds and storms, mists and smoke seem to end up as an exploration of paint itself. The energy and physicality of Lewis’s technique of applying paint, whether with a brush or palette knife, and the importance of gesture, also brings him close to Abstract Expressionism. But the references to other artists and schools are so completely absorbed within his own work that any attempt to label him as post-this or post-that are futile.

Lewis’s landscapes are not at all picturesque, for he is in search of a more profound truth, namely the beauty of his landscape’s perennial toughness. He prefers stormy or dramatic vistas in which the horizon is always elusive, its outlines blurred by constantly letting colours merge with one another, by applying and scraping back with equal vigour, building layers and infusing the whole with a strong sense of rhythmic movement. This enhances one of the main concerns in Lewis’s work, namely that of transformation: the transformation of sky into land, and the thrusting up of land into sky with ever increasing tension. As he said in a recent conversation, “…it’s about where the land finishes and the sky starts, and how to deal with that.”

But what is Lewis capturing in these paintings? It is a landscape without buildings, people, or even precise landmarks. There are very few close-ups, and yet the distances are full of detail that can be read in many different ways. If he has caught the real essence of an area of England far removed
from his childhood surroundings of London’s east-end, it nevertheless feels as though it is a spontaneous response, caught in an instant, a fragment of something much larger that continues beyond the edge of the canvas itself. The presence of figures in these landscapes would surely be a distraction, and yet man is at the very centre of these paintings. They tell us where we are in the larger universe when confronted with the richness and turbulence of the natural world.

There is an impressive fluidity to Lewis Noble’s work, both in the formal arrangement of shapes and patterns, but also in the use of his materials. He is happy to mix watercolour and acrylic, to experiment with gesso-covered board, to randomly drip paint and to etch wild lines across his painted surfaces. The joy of working with oils never results in density for its own sake, and transparent areas can be as richly complex as more opaque ones. Blacks chase a multitude of blues, and sap green, burnt sienna and various shades of white all play their part in defining Lewis’s personal palette: the harmony of his colours working together is at once natural and yet highly personal. As the painting emerges from intense and concentrated work, it is as though the scene captured as a sketch out of doors is transformed in the studio into something new through the very act of doing, and through the slow, timely process of bringing the composition to its final stage.
The intense greens that one sees in Derbyshire are strangely absent and, often lit by low winter suns, these landscapes and their threatening shadows are no rural idyll. They are full of collisions and the sounds of nature, not of her creatures, but of the energy emanating from the elemental forces that control her. In fact, one could truly call Lewis’s paintings noisy, whether it’s a Derbyshire tempest or a rare seascape (Sea Breathing or Waves Breaking Over the Normandy Coast – a painting to which Debussy would surely have responded, having captured the same sea in his orchestral work La Mer).

Lewis Noble’s paintings are abstractions of landscapes that never quite become completely abstract: they invite us to interpret both their narrative content and their formalistic designs as compositions in form and colour. Debussy, again, preferred to put the titles of his Piano Preludes at the end of each piece, as a suggestion of what the piece may “be about”, and I wonder if our response to Lewis’s paintings would be different if the titles were withheld, or only revealed on the reverse of the canvas. Certainly they suggest many different things as we look at them, and it is clear that titles are important to Lewis as statements of the work’s identity. He loves the landscape on his doorstep and the way he chooses to portray it, emphasising its darker qualities, its more hostile moods and its daunting scale, reinforces his own emotional response to a landscape that one can never take for granted, and whose wildness must be preserved.