Anthony Garratt’s expressionistic canvases capture the sense of what a landscape feels, sounds and smells like. Mary Miers braves a storm to watch him at work
The artist Anthony Garratt has taken en plein air painting to a new extreme. happiest when the weather is wild, he regards the unpredictable effects of the elements as central to his work and is unperturbed when a sudden squall dissolves his latest composition into runnels of coloured water. ‘My pictures are about the raw weather: its impact both on the landscape and my own experience of being physically immersed in it,’ he says, glancing up at the bank of black cloud rolling in towards us over a stormy sea.
We’re on Selsey beach south of Chichester in West Sussex, me scribbling frantically as the ink blotches and runs, Anthony whistling as he wrestles with a large canvas that he’s anchored onto the shingle with a PVA glue bottle.
The sea turns grey-green as the wind picks up and Pagham recedes into a faint blur beneath a smudge of grey-green light. Shoulder into the weather, I watch as Anthony applies and then reapplies his initial layers, splattering, scraping and scoring. First, he sloshes on some magenta, then marks out a loose perspective in black using an old kitchen knife—‘it belonged to my granddad; if I forget it I’m lost’—before sweeping Payne’s Grey over the sky with a wide brush. he tilts the saturated canvas and everything trickles down, then scratches the line of staithes back in and adds some yellow. More scorings, then some surface texture in charcoal.
Outdoors, he uses a combination of water-soluble oils and acrylics for a loose, spontaneous brush- stroke and ease of drying. In better weather, he can complete a painting in situ, but, today, drying is impossible and he’ll rework it in his studio. No matter that the original daubings will mostly have been rinsed off; the fact that it began outdoors is the key: ‘Just being out there, absorbing the abundance of sensory information, is part of the whole process; the layers are there, even if they’re not visible.’ each painting done outdoors prompts a series of more abstract studies made later from memory.
A graduate of Chelsea and Falmouth Colleges of Art, Anthony trained and worked in design before moving to Bristol in 2005. At first, he was part of an artists’ collective at the Jamaica Street Studios; now, he’s a full-time painter with a studio barn in the woods near Backwell in Somerset and also teaches experimental landscape courses at Newlyn School of Art.
Perhaps best known are his installations, which challenge orthodox notions of how landscape paintings are viewed. ‘Whereas sculpture is displayed in many different settings, paintings tend to be restricted to galleries and rarely seen in the environment that inspired them,’ he observes. ‘Showing large-scale works outdoors makes them accessible to a wider demographic, as well as helping people feel part of the landscape in an age when so many have lost the ability to connect physically to the natural world.’
Youtube videos show Anthony at work in the wilds—barefooted on the Cat’s Back, wind-sheeted in the heart of Snowdonia, flinging a handful of earth onto a canvas and mixing it with water, splashing, smearing and flicking with abandon. His ‘Alfresco’ project on Tresco (2014) involved leaving four massive canvases in situ for more than a year at the sites where they were painted.
Worked in a mix of acrylic, oil, radiator paint and varnish, these pictures remained stable, but could be experienced in different ways as the light and atmosphere changed around them. ‘That would never happen in a gallery. Stumbling upon something like this unexpectedly is very different to making a conscious decision to go and see it; your mindset is different.’ Another installation, High and
Low (2016), involved suspending a 5m (161 ⁄2ft) canvas in a disused Welsh slate cavern, where it’s still decomposing, the iron and copper dust applied to its surface slowly oxidising into rust. Its pair, also inspired by the region’s mining heritage, was painted on the remote shore of Llyn Llydaw, then floated out and anchored in the lake for seven months.
Meanwhile, a body of recent paintings inspired by the West Sussex landscape can be seen at the Moncrieff-bray Gallery in a joint exhibition with John Hitchens, who first introduced Anthony to Selsey several years ago. John still uses the beach hut built by his father, Ivon Hitchens, and has been painting this stretch of coast for decades—four examples, from the 1970s, are in the show.
There can be few places that look as desolate in February as the English seaboard south of Bognor, with its deserted resorts and concrete breakwaters, bedraggled palm trees and dead buddleia and those strange, semi-derelict gardens with their totemic arrangements of driftwood, pebbles and shells. Everything is wind-and-salt-scorched; the trees burnt umber and sculpted into haunting forms.
‘I love the challenge of making something beautiful out of something so bleak,’ Anthony enthuses. ‘Nobody can build on the saltmarsh or control it, it’s a landscape that can still make humans feel vulnerable—and that appeals to me.’
‘Exploring the Land: two ways of seeing—works by John Hitchens and Anthony Garratt’ is at Moncrieffbray Gallery, Woodruffs Farm, Egdean, Petworth, West Sussex, until June 17 (www.moncrieff-bray.com; 07867 978414). Anthony’s biannual solo show will be at the Thackeray Gallery, 18, Thackeray Street, London W8, from October 10 to 27 (www.thackeraygallery.com; 020–7937 5883)
Next week: ‘Gilded Interiors’ at the Wallace Collection