REVIEW by Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 105

When the Roads Meet

by Dan Llewelyn Hall

When the Roads Meet exhibition catalogue published by Sladers Yard Ltd, 2014

In 2013, Cardiff-born Dan Llewelyn Hall was the youngest artist to ever be commissioned to paint the Queen – a painting that proved as controversial as his later depiction of Prince William in 2014. After graduating from the University of Westminster in 2003, Llewelyn Hall won the Sunday Times Young Artist of the Year, gaining added acclaim in 2009 when his portrait of the war veteran Harry Patch was chosen as the promotional image for the BP Portrait Award. Llewelyn Hall has twice been shortlisted for the Welsh Artist of the Year.

Dan Llewelyn Hall ‘Tai Chi on Tenerife’, 2014

Paintings need to be seen in the flesh. Only then can one get a full measure of their colour, surface quality, scale and impact. A catalogue, like the one for Dan Llewelyn Hall’s current exhibition When the Roads Meet at Slader’s Yard, though useful as a record or a means of attracting pre-show sales, is always one step removed from the artist’s true intention.

In her foreword to the catalogue The Times, art critic Rachel Campbell Johnston details Llewelyn Hall’s working methods – how he prefers to work outdoors, how he applies the pigment and the speed with which he completes a painting. She conjures up a sense of urgency, of largesse and almost religious fervour, endorsed by her reference to the Romantics and her use of words such as passion, visionary, immanence and seer. One imagines still-wet canvases of monumental proportions, luminous of hue and positively reeking of turpentine and linseed oil. Yet the catalogue informs us the largest, Blue Lagoon, 2013, is a mere 122 x 122 cm.

Campbell Johnston makes grandiose claims for this still young painter, listing his artistic lineage as William Turner, John Constable, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash. By the next paragraph, she is allying him to Chaim Soutine and Henri Matisse. It is all too much, too burdensome a legacy and rather undermined by her description of his painting technique in terms of swipes and blobs. There is no doubt that Llewelyn Hall knows his art history and one can clearly see the influence of all the artists that Campbell Johnston mentions and even more besides (‘Another Night Café’, 2014, is an unashamed revisiting of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘The Café Terrace at Night’, 1888, while ‘Retreating Glacier’, 2008, and ‘Wistful Track’, 2013, bare remarkable allegiances to later work of Pierre Bonnard). However, among all these hallowed associations it is a struggle to find Llewelyn Hall himself.

‘Llewelyn Hall paints a world haunted by his own memories’, writes Campbell Johnston. In his particular lexicon, place comes to represent the experience. The event, such as the launching of a gig in ‘Camaraderie at Water’s Edge’, 2013, and the beings creating it merge into the landscape, becoming virtually indivisible. Without the titles, the images would remain oblique, an amorphous array of colourful, sometimes exquisite mark-making. But there is just too much imitation. The borrowed post-war apocalyptic starkness of Nash and Sutherland in ‘La Défense’, 2009, and ‘Raising the Cross’, 2005, seems overblown and inappropriate from one who has not had their experiences as war artists.

Copying from the Masters is a long-held tradition within art schools, and one that undoubtedly, as in Llewelyn Hall’s case, promotes an understanding of composition, colour and a skilful handling of paint. However, it takes confidence and, indeed, self-knowledge to know when to break free from the constraints of replication and find one’s own true expression. For all the negative press response to Llewelyn Hall’s portraits of the Queen and Prince William, his series of what, on his website, he calls ‘People’ are true, spirited and original (his image of Harry Patch is particularly remarkable). However, When the Roads Meet is a deftly produced series of works that reflects a bountiful history of great painting but fails to communicate an authentic, genuinely felt, vision.

When the Roads Meet exhibition of work by Dan Llewelyn Hall was at Sladers Yard, Dorset, until September 2014

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.


previous review: Short Days, Long Shadows
next review: Half Plus Seven


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