»Flint & Straw«

Although Jonathan Gibbs has lived and worked in Scotland for a number of years, he acknowledges the importance of the »churches, fields, shorelines and elements of landscape from East Norfolk, where my family comes from«. At first sight, his paintings and engravings evoke a mid-twentieth-century mood, suggestive of territory between Ben Nicholson and Eric Ravilious — fastidious, linear, and deeply sensitive to place.

When the art historian Nikolaus Pevsner summarised »the Englishness of English art« for the Reith Lectures in 1955, he chose Hogarth, Reynolds, Perpendicular architecture, William Blake, John Constable and the picturesque movement to exemplify different aspects of national character. It is possible to use Pevsner’s categories as a way of reading Jonathan’s work. The Hogarth lecture ends in an account of architectural »dressing up« in different styles, which could correspond to Jonathan’s facility for evoking an earlier period. »Reynolds and Detachment« is the title of the second lecture, indicating a coolness and restraint. Perpendicular is more a visual category, in which straight lines structure an ornamental and constructional language with light pouring in. We might think of those Norfolk churches and their delicate linearity.

Pevsner characterises Blake with »flaming line«. As a painter and engraver alike, Gibbs is certainly a man of line, and like Blake, he keeps shapes and objects afloat in space in his work. Constable and the Picturesque I will lump together. Here we are talking about sensitive provincialism of the kind that ploughs a furrow on the same relatively narrow patch, from which a universal sensitivity grows visible.

Is all this stuff about national character divisive rubbish, or is it one of several litmus papers that we can dip into art in order to begin to understand it? Treat it if you like as a game that we can play with Jonathan’s delightful and resilient work, as his work plays with our memories of places and other works of art.

by Alan Powers