28 October 2012

Brian Bennett


From Coombe Hill

Brian Bennett is an Old Master. At least, he is one of my old masters. For thirty years from 1957 he was Art Master (Director of Art) at Berkhamsted School, throughout which time, and beyond, he was also a great friend of my parents. Now at 88 he surely qualifies for the epithet old, but with all the veneration Old Masters deserve. 

Ivinghoe Hills, Winter 

Brian read History at Magdalen College, Oxford, but the inspiration of his English teacher at school, Peter Greenham R.A., led him to become a painter.  I paint in oils with a knife, he explains, mostly landscapes of the Chilterns, where I live, concentrating on wild flowers that grow on the chalk and on the wide panoramic views from the escarpment.  In 2001 he published A Painter's Year: 12 months in the Chilterns, which contains over 80 reproductions of his work.  He is also the author of Oil Painting with a Knife, published by Search Press, as he paints, almost exclusively with a painting knife (not a palette knife) which I modify to my own requirements….. Large and more studied work may require pencil sketches to confirm the composition, but generally I brush a few compositional marks with very dilute paint on the canvas before I begin, in earnest, with my knife.

Sowthistle and Knapweed

This knife work is clearly evident on close examination, but the overall effect is one of bright detail, sharp definition and living contrast.  His foregrounds often show the umbels of wild carrot or beaked parsley, the heads of bristly ox-tongue or knapweed, or the delicate spikes of wild orchids.  May blossom, silver birches and young beech leaves enlighten his landscapes, and distant views of church towers or farm buildings create perspective and add touches of red or white angularity. 

Ivinghoe Hills, Winter - (Detail)

The Chilterns and the Vale of Aylesbury are where he concentrates today, but his work is not limited by locality.  He has travelled throughout Europe and the British Isles, and one of my personal favourites was painted on the beach at Charmouth in 1962, showing Golden Cap.  The deft knife work captures the day, from the children paddling to the flash of gold gleaming on the peak.  A photograph could have brought home the scene, but it would have been a record of a moment, not the impression of an afternoon, with individual choice in each tiny fleck of colour and selection of detail.  

I know; I was there.  And I am still there whenever I review the picture.

Golden Cap, 62 – Private Collection

Brian has had a distinguished career as a painter.  He was elected as a Member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in 1973, was their President from 1987 – 1995, and was subsequently elected as a Fellow.  He was a Governor of the Federation of British Artists from 1990 – 1996 and has exhibited at The Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Society of Marine Painters, the New English Art Club, and the National Society as well as at the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters at the Mall Galleries in London.  In addition he held solo exhibitions for many years in Berkhamsted and now for twenty-one years he has been associated with the Hawker Gallery in Old Amersham, where his current show is on display.

Cymbelline's Mount

In 2011, Brian’s exhibition at the Hawker Gallery was inspired by the proposed High Speed 2 rail link (HS2) between London and Birmingham, which will, if it goes ahead, destroy a great swathe of the Chiltern scenery as it shaves some fifteen minutes off the journey time between the cities.  Since the government’s appalling miscalculations over the West Coast Mainline franchise it is impossible to trust their judgement over this project.  Yes, it would create jobs in construction; but that brings to mind the only thing my economics teacher ever impressed on me, which was that it would make sense to build a battleship and then immediately sink it.  Sinking a battleship in deep water, however, would not quite leave the same mark on the landscape as brutalising an entire countryside.  Yes, it might shave a few minutes off getting from outer London to outer Birmingham, but it would also shave 15 million years off our heritage.

Chiltern Landscape

Anyway, Brian’s paintings are there to celebrate and preserve the scenery in case the madness prevails, but they also demonstrate to all comers just what we would lose.  

Ashridge, Autumn

And this year’s exhibition is not, in essence, different.  Its focus is on slightly different tracts of land, but it covers the same principle, and illustrates the changing beauty of the Chilterns.  If we do not look after what we have, his paintings will become Old Masters, windows on a lost world, like Hobbema’s Avenue, or Constable’s Haywain, and if one thing is for certain, as W H Auden said, About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters…..  Brian’s paintings are a joy to behold, now, but one day they may be reminders of a certain suffering.

 Wild flowers - detail from Private Collection

As Brian explains in the brochure to his current exhibition: My underlying ambition is to paint a landscape that will convey not only my love of the Chilterns but also to create something really meaningful for the viewer.  I strongly recommend a visit so that you can see for yourselves.....

The exhibition is running until November 14th (2015) at:

The Hawker Gallery, 
The Maltings, off School Lane, 
HP7 0ET, 
tel: 01494 724850 

And this year is a celebration of the special relationship Brian has had for twenty-one years with Michael and Michele Hawker, who share his ideas and commitment to the local landscape.....

Brian and Margrit Bennett
Another Special Relationship

All pictures copyright; reproductions by kind permission of the Artist

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