‘A Different Light’ by Cloe Johnson
When Lewis Noble was selected as the winner of the Vickers Award, he was given a brief to ‘articulate a sense of place’. This would be achieved during the course of one year through residencies at four very different sites in Derbyshire: Arkwright’s Mill Cromford; Sudbury Hall, Sudbury; Chatsworth House, near Bakewell; and John Lombe’s Silk Mill, Derby.
The year began with the residency at Arkwright’s Mill, the world’s first successful water powered cotton spinning mill. Noble felt an urgent need to get to know the area. Armed with a map, he began to explore. The cartographic contours and prominent boundary markings, which represented the landscape on his map, began to appear on his canvases, superimposed onto, and scratched into, the textured surface. These lines suggest the tracks of the artist as he walked around, becoming familiar with the area and they suggest a need to gain control over the subject matter. The palette is almost monochromatic. Dense whites and neutral tones appear to echo the winter landscape. Noble’s studio practice, which involves layering and scraping the paint in order to work and re-work the subject, results in an impasto, scumbled surface. The technique is evidence of a vigorous and energetic working process, and reflects the physical challenges involved in gathering information, as well as the human power associated with Derbyshire’s industrial past.
Sudbury Hall, a National Trust property located 16 miles west of Derby, brought with it a very different set of challenges. The fact that the building was a listed property designed for supervised public visits meant that certain areas of the house were subject to restricted access. The Spring also saw the outbreak of the ‘foot and mouth’ epidemic, which closed off vast tracts of land outside the grounds. Increasingly hemmed in by rules and regulations, Noble began a series of oil paintings based on direct observation of the lake within the grounds. He maintained the neutral palette of the paintings made at Arkwright’s Mill, but dispensed with the lines and contours enclosing areas of landscape, and instead looked at an enclosed space in detail. Some of these paintings are like cross-sections, while others play on the contradiction of surface reflections concealing murky depths.
It was at Chatsworth House, home of Derbyshire Community Foundations’ patron, his Grace the Duke of Devonshire, that the two artistic approaches came together, resulting in a number of impressive landscapes in mixed media. Instead of taking inspiration from the interior of the country house (usually the chief focus of a visit to the estate), Noble decided to explore the surrounding countryside. Working outside during the summer months forced him to adapt his technique and diminish the scale of his work. Equipped with paper, pencil and paints, Noble roamed the 1,000 acre park landscaped by Capability Brown and made a large number of small sketches on paper. These works all incorporate a distinctive high view-point. They are based on direct observation, like his paintings at Sudbury, but also include the bold lines of his Cromford paintings. These lines add definition and clarity to the scene, while the broad sweeps of colour convey a sense of space. Noble selected places, such as the Duke’s Seat, a traditional vantage point from which the owner of the house could survey his land. These panoramic views, are associated with notions of control, whether it be the authority of a land-owner or the vision of a topographical artist or cartographer. While the paintings bear a resemblance to aerial photographs, the connection with mapping has become more refined. The lines, which were superimposed on the Cromford paintings, appear in these works as a underlying, skeletal structure.
As well as making these relatively small studies, the large studio space available to Noble at Chatsworth enabled him to work on a much larger scale. Working from his outdoor studies Noble created abstract and experimental pieces, in which he combined the breadth of his landscape studies with the exploration of a tiny area in minute detail. These paintings are infused with a golden hue, suggesting the sun of late summer, and perhaps, also reflecting the gilt frames and mouldings within the house itself.
The year ended back in the heart of Derbyshire industry, at John Lombe’s Silk Mill. The mill, Britain’s first factory, completed in 1721, now houses Derby Industrial Museum. Noble was fascinated by the Derwent River, which runs through the site. Using only watercolour, a medium he had rarely used exclusively, but which had become an important part of his mixed-media processes at Chatsworth, he produced a set of delicate paintings exploring depth and surface reflection. As at Sudbury Hall, Noble found the water a fascinating subject. However, unlike the calm, static lake at Sudbury Hall, which was designed to be contemplated, the water at the Silk Mill ebbed and flowed and was associated with years of toil and trade. Noble’s work culminated in a large and striking oil painting, entitled Derwent River Reflections, which reflects this social history. The painting also brings together many of the issues with which Noble had been grappling in the past months. It operates on a micro and macro scale simultaneously. Close observation of a specific part of the river is underpinned by a tight structure and a fundamental understanding of the place. It also has an energy and a sense of movement, which marks a new stage in Noble’s development as an artist.
The Vickers Award has taken Noble on a journey, both artistically and physically. The paintings in this exhibition document his progress. At each site, his attempts to pin down the essence of a place led him to areas that are frequently ignored or forgotten, but which appealed to him on a personal level. His works combine careful observation of such areas with an historical, cultural and visual understanding of the site. They encourage the viewer to look closely, both at the work and at the areas depicted. Noble hopes that this exhibition satisfies the brief, but also fulfils his own intention to ‘shed a different light on the English landscape.’
Chloe Johnson is a former assitant curator at Tate Britain.