REVIEW by João Morais

NWR Issue 104

Graham Sutherland – From Darkness Into Light

by Paul Gough, Sally Moss, Tehmina Goskar

It’s about time more books were written about Graham Sutherland. Despite him being one of the most influential British landscape and portrait artists of the twentieth century, most people think of Hockney, Bacon and Freud when it comes to this period of art history. This is reflected in the number of titles available for the general reader: through a not very scientific (but nonetheless indicative) search on Amazon, it appears that there’s been a healthy stream of publications about the latter three artists, but only a sporadic publishing history on Sutherland. So any new book about this important artist is always going to be welcome.

From Darkness Into Light captures a time when Sutherland was commissioned as a war artist – partly to keep a leading painter out of the war, and partly to document a way of life that the authorities believed would disappear with the imminent threat of a Wehrmacht invasion. This book is comprised of three essays interweaved with pictures detailing Sutherland’s wartime activities, mainly around south Wales and Cornwall. He entered mines and steelworks to sketch the workers for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), a government agency instructed to compile an artistic history of Britain at war. What the artists didn’t know, according to the book, was that they were also recording ‘A Britain That Might Actually Be Lost’. Much space is dedicated to his time at the tin mines at Geevor – and his fascination with the men working underground there. Seeing the miners at work, ‘as if they were a different species’, changed Sutherland’s output to a more figurative one in future years. The figures appear comfortable and noble underground, drawn in powerfully emotive lines rather than in work clothes.

While this is all very interesting, it’s important to remember one thing: this isn’t Sutherland’s best work (indeed the works illustrated here were from the artist's own private collection and many have never been published or even viewed before). The pictures in this book could never compare with, say, his Coventry Cathedral tapestry. It’s not that his WAAC paintings weren’t an accomplished body of work, but in my opinion there aren’t many pictures in this book that would make your jaw hit the floor. This might be partly because Sutherland was working on commission in a landscape and working environment very different to that for which he is famous.

The essays themselves are informative, and give a great overview of Sutherland’s time travelling around the south west of England and Wales, and also of his time seeing the war devastation in France. It is after all Wales, and Pembrokeshire in particular, that Sutherland turned to, time and time again: he holidayed below the Landsker Line many times a year for most of his life, and seems to feel an eternal gratitude towards the place for its influence on his art, stating that ‘It was in this country that I began to learn painting.’

But I have to question the order in which these essays appear. The first two put Sutherland in context, detailing his time before the war and during his time working for the WAAC. But the third essay has little to do with Sutherland, being about the links between the metalworking industries in Cornwall and south Wales. We are given a lot of context within each essay anyway so it feels superfluous. It might have made more sense if it was sandwiched between the other two essays, rather than tacked on at the end. The book does give a good picture of the man and his working environment. It would have been an even better reading experience had these essays been properly linked.

João Morais writes for New Welsh Review print and online. HIs new novel, written for his PhD at Cardiff University, is with Mulcahy Associates agency.

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