Spring is a sequence of more or less predictable events – buds swelling, shoots emerging, flowers appearing, from primroses to snowdrops and crocuses to tulips and daffodils. Meanwhile the canopy is unfolding, until the beeches cast the bluebells into shade. You can’t quite pace the autumn like this. While spring can be accelerated or delayed by a matter of days, its rhythm is driven underground. What tells the crocus to push its little nose in the air? Who can tell?
Autumn is driven by all-too-palpable forces. Leaves have lost their freshness and strength: their withered frames are vulnerable. Wind and rain tear at them, a frost starts to change their chemistry, their sugars retract into the shelter of the soil, or their woody structure of twigs and branches. The metabolism that grew their roots closes down and either sleeps or dies. They have formed their seed and sown it, fat apples, or grains almost too small to see, have been launched to start a new generation
The seasons are the theme of an exhibition (open till January 9) at the St Barbe Gallery in Lymington that is worth travelling a long way to see. Indeed all their exhibitions, and the little gallery itself, are worth visiting. There is a school, or tradition, of English painters of the 20th century that really lacks a label, but is perfectly recognisable. You could call it Romantic Realism, perhaps. It lives outdoors, obsessed with nature and the activities of country life. Some of its best artists dwelt on the hard labour of farming, jobs that have now disappeared but whose machinery is still vaguely familiar from the hulks of wagons, harvesters or threshing machines that hang around old farms. There are works here by Nash, Ravilious, Badmin, Sutherland, Leighton, Dunbar, Tunnicliffe, Tanner, Laura Knight, Grant, Cedric Morris, Reynolds, Minton, Hitchens and several more.
Clare Leighton’s, woodcuts of farming in the 1930s tell the story with an extraordinary muscular simplicity. Great artists internalize their subjects, then remake them in a kind of reverie, guided by their medium, whether chisel or pen or brush and dense oil or the transparency of watercolour. A poet waits for words to fall into place, then manoeuvres them; a composer, sounds. The artists in this exhibition have absorbed the sights of the seasons and processed then through their souls. The result is an almost spiritual record of the English year as it once was. I could sob at the sights we have lost.