Looking afresh at Chatsworth

PUBLISHED: 00:52 02 February 2012 | UPDATED: 20:59 20 February 2013

Looking afresh at Chatsworth

Looking afresh at Chatsworth

Mike Smith meets artist Julian Bray

Paying tribute to the inexhaustible charms of our capital city, Dr Samuel Johnson said, When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. The same could be said of Chatsworth. Regardless of how often we travel through the estate, so carefully fashioned from the sweeping Derbyshire landscape by Joseph Paxton and Capability Brown, and no matter how frequently we stare across at the great house, sitting centre-stage on the banks of the Derwent, Chatsworth never fails to exercise its mesmeric effect. The grounds are beautiful in every season and the stone of the house has a chameleon-like quality, seemingly changing in tone and detail in response to the light and the weather.

For visitors approaching the estate from the south, heightened anticipation of the grandeur to come begins at Rowsley, at the point where the road to Chatsworth leaves the A6. In the closing weeks of 2011, that expectation was reflected in the window of Gallery Top, a showcase for contemporary art which is located at this very junction. The large window of the gallery was the perfect frame for a painting of the west front of Chatsworth by Julian Bray, an artist who fully understands the changing moods of the great house and its never-ending appeal. Almost the entire canvas in this striking picture is occupied by a depiction of the central portion of the faade and the stonework of the house is painted as if it were emitting its own light.

Gallery Top has been run as a successful business for the past seven years by the husband and wife team of Keith Logan and Gill Wilson. Both are successful artists in their own right: Gill works with plant fibre pulps to create works that reflect the geometry of the natural world and Keith produces paintings that are a psychological response to the landscape. He has also worked as a studio artist for Ladybird Books and he spent several years as Head of Art at Mansfield College, where one of his colleagues was
Julian Bray.

Keith is delighted to have Julian as one of his regularly featured artists and to market his work at all times of the year, but he was especially pleased to invite his former colleague to display a selection of his latest pictures in the gallerys Christmas exhibition. The artist responded by producing a dozen large paintings of Chatsworth and its estate. When I met Julian at Gallery Top, he told me: Having spent some years documenting the Welbeck estate for an exhibition at the Harley Gallery in 2007, I was keen to take on Chatsworth its iconic architecture and sweeping parkland are perfect subjects.

Another artist who was drawn to grand country houses as a subject was John Piper, a painter who has been an inspiration for Julian over many years. Explaining his admiration for Piper, he said: He would often use wild, abstracted forms in his pictures, but he would usually combine them with elegantly drawn and recognizable details, which provide a focus and reassure the viewer of the artists intent.

Julians pictures are characterized by similar combinations. In part they consist of urgent marks and gestural flicks, but they also contain meticulously painted depictions of buildings and monuments. His use of colour is equally contradictory. In one part of a painting he will use colour to illustrate precisely what he sees but in another section of the same picture he will employ colour that bears no relationship to what is actually present in the scene he is painting. Summing up his approach he says: I try to use shape and colour to encourage the viewer to see their surroundings in a new way.

An almost surreal use of colour is to be found in two of Julians paintings
of the gardens at Chatsworth. In Magical Garden, he uses bright red to give his picture an enchanting quality and he cleverly employs depictions of columns to create a sense of recession, which draws the viewer right into the heart of the painting. His choice of colour in Maze Garden is even more startling. The middle background is a great block of brilliant blue, which gives the picture an almost celestial feel. Explaining his decision to add this bold splash of blue, Julian said, I love how the blocky shapes in this part of the estate contrast with the delicacy of the exuberant blooms, and I wanted to celebrate this in a colourful picture.

The contrast between delicate blooms and monumental architecture is a feature of Julians superb painting of Chatsworths magnificent baroque riding stables. The heavy rustication and bold pilasters of this building can look quite overpowering, but the flowers in the foreground of his picture take away any feeling of intimidation and the dark sky contrasts so strongly with the colour of the stonework that the architectural detailing is allowed to shine out from a building that is made to look much lighter and more delicate than it is in reality.

Julian also makes use of a dark, dramatic sky in Chatsworth Magnificence, a composition that includes the river, the entire house, the cascade and the hunting lodge. Recalling the day on which he saw this panorama, Julian said: I was riding through the estate on a motorbike when I looked down and became aware of the incredible scale of the house. I also recall walking up to the hunting lodge on that particular day, which I remember as being very hot, and I have tried to evoke this memory by tracing on the painting a notional path that jinxes its way uphill.

The evocation of a particular moment is a strong feature of Julians paintings and he will often change his technique to capture the memory. For example, in Chatsworth Park, he paints the tangled vegetation of the foreground in sharp detail but depicts the background in soft focus to recreate the moment when a view of the parkland suddenly opened up as he reached a clearing in the woods. Soft focus is also employed in his woodland paintings, which capture a particular time of day to great effect.

A greater emphasis on detail is evident in paintings such as Cavendo Tutus, The Statues Looked On and Cascade. As well as celebrating the splendid architecture of Chatsworth, these pictures treat the architectural features as a stage set and the statues as actors. Julian says, When I painted these pictures, I imagined that the statues were engaged in conversation and I wanted the viewer to think about what their dialogue might be.

As we walked round to the outside of the gallery, Julian filled me in with some details about his life. He trained at Wolverhampton Polytechnic: he lives in Mansfield and is married to Kyra Cane, a highly original ceramicist the couple have two teenage children. As well as working on self-directed projects, such as his Chatsworth series, he teaches part-time at art college and works as a commercial artist on commissions ranging from artwork for a Rolls-Royce accessory catalogue to dcor for a Greek yacht.

We ended our conversation in front of the gallerys window, where we exchanged thoughts about that striking painting of Chatsworths west front. When I asked why he had added an incongruous single white pilaster to his composition, he said: I like to introduce a little bit of subversion it encourages people to look afresh at what they are seeing.

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