• Suburban unease in Coventry’s Herbert Gallery: the Humbrol devotionals of George Shaw, plus three mystical small-town masterworks by Carel Weight, Stanley Spencer and LS Lowry.
• Though Coventry’s human memories of World War II are fading, its once-medieval streets are still in thrall to the Blitz: there are constant reminders of things that have fallen, and worthiness risen from ruin. One such edifice, the handsomely humanist Herbert Art Gallery and Museum (1957), even displays a meteorite that once struck the benighted city – as if having thirty thousand bombs rain down wasn’t enough. So although he was only born in 1966, it’s not surprising that one of local boy George Shaw’s most gripping paintings is titled “The Fall”, and was chosen to star on posters for the Herbert’s recent survey “George Shaw: I Woz Ere”. This modest show was exceptionally moving – the humble Humbrol devotionals of a bookish lapsed Catholic, prowling his suburban subconscious to revisit childhood scenes of mortality and wonder.
Shaw paints a world of mundane migration routes, the muddy anthropology of his upbringing on the blandly benign Tile Hill estate. The unexceptional woods are as powerful to his small-town imagination as virgin forest to an explorer; the bus shelter a departure lounge, the garages hostile territory. Picture after picture shows well-trodden paths between scrubby nature and scrappy suburbia – gaunt trees shrouding quiescent dwellings, their borderlands a puddled waste of shattered lock-ups whose shadowy entries breathe faint menace. This is the dark fringe of civilisation, without a doubt: the sputtering end of all that’s welcoming and homely, as sharply delineated as the border between desert and city when observed from a high-flying plane.
All his works pick away at the difference between what such sites might suggest to a child, what they connote to an adult eye, and their lesser meaning in the grand scheme of things, just lonely blips in cosmic time. Stoically his chosen spots endure the changing seasons: stark branches piercing evergreens, autumn leaves aflame above a decaying pub. Mutely they observe each ending day: eerie foliage massing into lurid enamel skies, in Shaw’s favoured hour of gloaming. In an almost Buddhist sense, his paintings are meditations on passage and stasis; everything changes, yet everything stays the same. Such scenes evoke the folk who inhabited these hills hundreds, even thousands of years ago. They too would have marvelled, and possibly shuddered, at the same darkening skies, the same relentless changes – but in similar melancholy dusks, to what comforts did they retreat?
In Shaw’s canon, the twin poles of human reassurance seem to be books and boozers (the church rarely gets a look-in). Two early Tile Hill tableaux, shown side-by-side at the Herbert, sum it up: soot-dark evening streets punctuated only by the welcoming lights of pub and library. Both are companionable forums of juvenile aspiration and adult release, suggesting spirit and flesh, nurture and nature, wisdom and oblivion. The pub appears more enticing, its reassuring bulk softened by glowing curtained windows; less approachable is the spindly library, only reachable through a gap in a forbidding wall. But for Shaw this was the entrance that beckoned: a gateway to other visions and voices, a miraculous portal to his adult self. As he once said to the writer Sean O’Hagan of this beneficent suburb, “I haunted the place, and now it haunts me.”
The Herbert has wisely purchased Shaw’s painting of the gap in the wall that led to Tile Hill library and self-discovery, entitled “Scenes from the Passion: Wednesday Week”, 2003 (above) – which should be a pin-up for the Save Our Libraries campaign. It’s the final work in the gallery’s small but well-chosen “Art Since 1900” room, holding its own robustly against a neighbouring trio of masterly meditations on small-town unease by Carel Weight, Stanley Spencer ad LS Lowry. All three prefigure George Shaw’s oeuvre – it’s nice to imagine he may have studied them in his formative years. They are…
Carel Weight (1908-1997), “Fury (Furious Smallholder)” (1946)
Carel Weight was a Londoner of German/Swedish extraction whose rootless, fearful childhood is evident in his work. A friend of Stanley Spencer, he specialised in disturbing tableaux of violence and visitation set in a nightmare suburbia (actually somewhere between Clapham and Putney) populated with warped, ghostlike wraiths. Though George Shaw eschews figures and has a kindlier vision, there’s a shared sense of anxiety in the clutching trees and encroaching barriers – delete the people and this could almost be one of his “Scenes from the Passion” series.
Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), “Miss Ashwanden at Cookham” (1958)
Leaving aside his visionary potboilers, Spencer’s “realistic” works equal Lucian Freud in icy observation, and suggest the poems of Coventry-born Philip Larkin remade in paint. Tenderer than most of Spencer’s portraits, this shows his neighbour’s daughter, looking much older than her 17 years, swamped by a pink jumper and flowery sofa, with her back turned to the window and village life. In fact Miss Ashwanden was dying, and both artist and sitter knew it; Spencer lasted just a year longer, this being his final painting. Oblivious, the trees and houses march on beyond reach of both, with stumpy brickwork – which Spencer could easily have edited out – emerging awkwardly from Miss Ashwanden’s head. Cookham’s quaint cottages, though so much older, bear a powerful resemblance to the mid-century boxes of Shaw’s Tile Hill, their modest proportions and unremarkable trees united by the eternal English palette of moss green, brick red, and grey running damp.
LS Lowry (1887-1976), “Northern Church” (1947)
Lowry isn’t just about cloying stick-figures; he also painted some powerful unpopulated works where humanity is indicated only by its traces on the landscape. He often depicted hulking gloomy churches, notably a celebrated 1945 image of Manchester’s bombed-out St Augustine’s Church, gaping helplessly amidst heaps of its own destroyed body. This Cotswold scene was painted just two years later: a rebarbative jagged stump, black and blasted as Coventry Cathedral, recoiling from an anonymous troop of bleached-out graves. The Herbert is fortunate to have it – it’s a graphic reminder of the disturbing memories buried beneath the Midlands’ well-meaning civic temples, and the horror that mild post-war suburbs such as Tile Hill arose from. It may be a coincidence, but George Shaw’s first-ever work on the artistic trajectory he’s still pursuing, “The Little Shop” of 1996, has a distinctly Lowry-esque air – that’s it, below.