Available Works: Banks, Birdy
Across the generations, the varied and vibrant beauty of the English landscape has fascinated artists and collectors alike. As the modern world bustles and changes around us, the downs and dales of rural Britain provide an image of constancy, changing only according to the timeless rhythm of the seasons. Captured in the fleeting patches of light and shade which characterise the paintings of Birdy Banks, nature has also become a map of our emotions, which fact explains the undiminished appeal of landscape greats such as Cotman and J.M.W. Turner.
The sway that the British landscape tradition landscape painting holds over the imagination also gives it staying power in the art market. Collectors’ interest is such that 19th century figures such as Constable and Turner continue to break sales records well into the 21st century. Their work is considered so important to the nation’s cultural heritage that on the rare occasion that they come to private auction, often accompanied by temporary export bans, the results can be astounding. In 2010, Turner’s masterpiece Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino was offered for sale. Having originally been purchased by Hannah Rothschild when on honeymoon with future Prime Minister Archibald Primrose, the 5th Earl of Rosebery, the iridescent twilight view was sold for $44 million at Sothebys, setting a new record for sales of the English Romantic’s work.
While such sales demonstrate the lasting importance of the landscape tradition, it is equally important that the tradition continue to grow and evolve. Birdy Banks’ art speaks of the painter’s profound commitment to walking the countryside, developing intimate relationships with the places he captures on canvas. Indeed, by adopting the name “Birdy,” Banks reminds us of how essential the freedom and space of the fresh air is to his identity as an artist. In this, he is continuing a long British tradition of walking and painting. Indeed, history tells us that the landscape tradition of which Banks is part developed in very much in tandem with the idea of the ‘tour’. From the 17th century onwards, landscape was believed to have a profoundly moral and educational effect on the souls of these young nobleman; a Grand European Tour was believed to be a vital part of their education. John Constable was one amongst many seminal talents who undertook the rite of passage. But with controversial figures such as Lord Byron on the loose, the Grand Tour was also a departure from social norms, when romantic foibles were indulged and a lot of money was lost on cards.
Walking was also crucial to those artists who stayed at home. The poet John Clare, for instance, produced some of the most powerful testaments to the natural world and rural change in existence, showing a knowledge that was the fruit of his continual walking around his native Northamptonshire countryside. Banks is yet another artist whose personal dedication to roaming the countryside allows him to produce personal and exquisite renderings of landscape, which through their sensitive craft take on an appeal beyond the confines of the strictly local.
The educated classes’ love of touring produced a wealth of travel writing and aesthetic theorising, having a profound effect on British painting. For early theorists, the art of viewing landscape was a matter of discipline and of “choosing the most perfect of nature’s works”. The formal properties of a ‘prospect’ were viewed as allegories of the higher virtues of discipline and equilibrium of the soul. The appreciation of such archetypal spaces came to denote the ability to produce abstract thought, and therefore became a sign that one was capable of wielding political power. Thus, as critic John Barrell has argued, questions of taste became a means of establishing fitness for political authority.
But the personal nature of many of the travel records, with titles such as Picturesque Excursions in Devonshire and Cornwall, soon placed an increased emphasis on the experience of the individual, and on the emotions that landscape was capable of producing. Many of these documents were produced or read by the important collectors who patronised young artists. One of the most influential theorists of the 19th century was Edward Dayes, mentor to Turner and his brilliant contemporary the watercolourist Thomas Girtin.
As the 19th century progressed, the effects of the introspective Romantic movement began to be felt. The touring and walking continued, but the morally instructive ideal forms began to be replaced with the aesthetics of the sublime. Following on from philosopher Immanuel Kant’s theory that the truly beautiful was only ever to be experienced at the very limits of human perception, landscape painters such as John Martin and Samuel Palmer began to evoke a grander sense of scale, more luminous effects of light, and a sense that, far for something familiar and comforting, the landscape is a panoramic vista which evokes awe, even terror. The paintings of Banks share with those Palmer produced later in his career a subtle toying with light: the tone of sunlight as it strikes fields of wheat or long grass are exaggerated, not so much as to break the illusion of reality, but just enough to suggest the sense of anticipation and awe produced by such panoramic views. Martin’s visionary landscapes took this tendency a step further, using effects of light and scale to evoke scenes of spiritual struggle and damnation which saw him dismissed during his lifetime as a showy populist painter.
Banks’ paintings are much more rooted in the concrete realities of the walker than this, yet the glowing late afternoon colours of his surfaces generate the tension which comes from sensing that the landscape is one whose limits and details will never be completely knowable. As in many of the works of John Martin, or John Robert Cozens, the viewer is positioned at a high point in the landscape, creating a vertiginous sense of being suspended above a shimmering space whose exact proportions are too vast to apprehend. The work opens the way into plunging panoramas which feel cinematic, and yet remain rooted in the real. While the rich shadows and geographies of undulating hills and plains are rendered in finely-balanced bands of colour, Banks’ skies are full of gesture and movement, his broader strokes of the brush evidencing the same daring embrace of the elementary we see in Turner’s famous skyscapes. The compositions are orientated around shafts of light which unite earth and sky, the airily-evoked clouds out of which they emerge create the sense that the sun will soon disappear. In this way, Birdy Banks’ paintings suggest the contradictory beauty of nature: ever constant, yet constantly changing.
Through his sensitive engagement with these traditions Birdy Banks has perfected a rich and emotive visual language which draws viewers into the vibrant landscapes he knows and loves so well. Whereas the oil medium is often associated with the dense and painterly marks of a Van Gogh or Frank Auerbach, Banks is alive to its power when treated delicately; his subtle build-up of translucent layers of colour and tone makes the paintings shine with the nuances of light and shade, creating a cinematic sense of scale. We as viewers cannot help but be alive to the grandeur and depth of the English landscape as captured in this emotive and uncompromising vision. As evidenced by the recent blockbuster Apocalypse exhibition of paintings by the John Martin, the landscape tradition continues to have the power to inspire, to terrify, and to fascinate, qualities displayed in abundance at Birdy Banks’ new exhibition at Meller Merceux.
Written by Dr. Thomas Slingsby