In the January 2024 Art Diary, Revd Jonathan Evens looks at the work of Emrys Williams and Richard Kenton Webb and his links to Milton, William Blake, Markéta Luskačová and Oksana Kondratyeva.
Luminous: light – colour – imagination’ is an exhibition of works by Richard Kenton Webb and Emrys Williams at Benjamin Rhodes Arts. The exhibition’s title expresses the experience Rhodes has had of being with the work of these two artists who separately and differently explore their place in culture and humanity.
Kenton Webb writes that both “share a passion for light, colour, and imagination”. Rhodes has been their link – believing in them both as young artists in their twenties. As students at the Slade, they “shared respect for artist and writer Sir Lawrence Gowing”; these days, they “are bound by the natural world and a fixation on the sea and colour”.
Williams writes that his bather paintings “are about longing and are an emotional space, with an element of what … Gowing termed ‘wish fulfilment’, a phrase I remember he often used in his Slade lectures”. His larger paintings, such as ‘City Dwelling’ and ‘Studio by the Sea’ “depict a collection of objects incorporating spatial displacement and ambiguous juxtapositions; they are like private allegories concerning my own studio spaces, the idea of home and the city at night”. For his method, he uses “a process of addition and revision, balancing figurative elements with a more abstract play with colour and mark making, exploring different paint qualities from impasto to staining in a gradual search for painterly meaning”. His imagery has a variety of sources and he uses “bits and pieces” “constructed with a collage-like aesthetic; pieced together parts are developed through accretion to create a convincing, imaginary painted place”.
Kenton Webb’s paintings “are part of a larger philosophical investigation of The Practice of Colour which I began whilst teaching at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1998”. That was when he “proposed the question ‘Is colour a language?'” and argued that, if ‘yes’, then it can be “taught and expressed in a practical way”. Twenty-five years later, he’s still considering the same question with his ‘Manifesto of Painting’, which is now responding to the colour green. He says: “Green is about the idea of language. Green is deep inside my memory, and yet it surprises me.” For him: “painting and teaching are like the ebb and flow of the tide. It is who I am. I follow my creator. I listen, wait, reflect, and dream. I listen to colour; I feel it and live inside of it by making this visual poetry.”
Included in the exhibition is Kenton Webb’s triptych ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, from Book III of ‘Paradise Lost’. A conversation with his son in front of the John Martin mezzotints for ‘Paradise Lost’ in the 2011 Tate ‘Apocalypse’ exhibition has resulted in the 179 un-commissioned artworks on paper, canvas and board that make up his ‘A Conversation with John Milton’s Paradise Lost’ series. This has just been published by Benjamin Rhodes Arts as a digital publication and heralds the 350th anniversary of the death of Milton in December 2024, which is to be celebrated with a one-person show at Milton’s Cottage in Chalfont St Giles.
Kenton Webb has written about his experience of working on this series in an essay, which, together with an interview and nine of his works, is included in a new book ‘Milton Across Borders and Media’ demonstrating the breadth of response to John Milton’s work: “For the last ten years, Milton has been a companion like Virgil to Dante guiding me through the narrative of my own life. I started this collaboration with an imagined drawing of Milton the Blind Poet, considering the problem of evil. I ended my journey with a portrait of myself, acting as a companion piece to the long journey about good, evil, and everything in between that we had taken together. Milton is a great English poet who gives hope, which in itself is a creative act for these difficult times.”
William Blake was another artist who valued Milton and created work related to his poems. Blake’s Visionary art is currently being celebrated at The J. Paul Getty Museum with the exhibition ‘William Blake: Visionary’.
The exhibition follows Blake’s journey as an artist, beginning with how he first honed his technical skills as a printmaker in London. At first, he specialized in producing prints based on images created by others. However, in the 1790s, he began to receive commissions to design and engrave his own pictorial inventions responding to other authors’ texts. Blake was eager to break with his craftsman background throughout his career and establish himself as an independent artist. The exhibition shows examples of work he produced to that end and explores reasons for his lack of success. His relationship with the British Art Establishment was conflicted, but he received some commissions to design and engrave some of his compositions. Five pages from a series of over 80 Biblical watercolours are in the exhibition, including ‘The Death of a Virgin’. In 1793, he proudly claimed to have invented a new printmaking technique of relief etching, allowing him to effectively combine poetry and images on a single page. He began exclusively publishing his own illustrated poetry, which he referred to as “illuminated books.” Pages from his most celebrated illuminated books, ‘Songs of Innocence’ and ‘Songs of Experience’, feature in the exhibition.
“Blake employed innovative graphic techniques to combine poetry and images, often using his own highly allegorical characters to respond to the historic events of the time in a veiled manner,” says Edina Adam, assistant curator at the Getty Museum. “By employing his mythology to comment on revolutions, wars, political and economic repression, and social unrest, he was cleverly able to avoid persecution.” The exhibition displays one of the finest coloured copies of Blake’s illuminated book, ‘America: a Prophecy’, which retells the story of the American Revolution. Julian Brooks, senior curator of drawings at the Getty Museum, says, “William Blake’s deep spirituality, questioning nature, and vivid imagination particularly resonated with poets and musicians of the 1960s and 1970s such as Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, and Bob Dylan”. He hopes “visitors who enter his visionary world through this exhibition will leave feeling empowered to explore the boundaries of what can be imagined”.
The title of ‘Uncharted Streets: Photographers from the Hyman Collection’ at the Ben Uri Gallery alludes to Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ and T. S. Elliot’s ‘The Wasteland’. However, it inverts its chartered streets to suggest the role of those from outside in charting new territories, providing new perspectives and taking British photography in new directions. The exhibition presents five photographers who were born outside the UK but have been central to the development of photography in Britain over the last century.
Kurt Hutton and Bill Brandt played a pivotal role in bringing European ideas into British culture and stimulated British photographic publications such as ‘Lilliput’ and ‘Picture Post’ magazine. Edith Tudor-Hart used photography as a vehicle for social change. Charlie Phillips is one of the most celebrated documenters of the African-Caribbean community in London, and Markéta Luskačová’s work has been influential to British photography since the early 1970s. This is a rare opportunity to see vintage prints by these five photographers. The exhibition also includes selected publications of the period, from major books to the pages of important magazines such as ‘Lilliput’ and ‘Picture Post’.
I first encountered Bohemia-born Luskacová at Tate Britain in 2019 when photographs from her documentary series, ‘Pilgrims’, an intense study of the Christian rituals and devotions of Slovakian villagers, were on show. Her photography “is engaged with the ties that bind people together”. “Her focus is communal, showing us the deep faith held in common that upholds her pilgrims as they live a common life with determination in the face of change and adversity.”
Ukrainian artist Oksana Kondratyeva creates artworks that merge the traditions of painting, design and stained glass. She aims “to create glass art in architecture to make people feel something special”. As such, she endeavours “to create a special feeling, a resembling vibration, about every space I work with”.
She has had solo exhibitions at the National Museum of Folk Decorative Art (2016) in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Wells Cathedral (2019) and has been “overwhelmed by the audience’s response”. Both included her stained-glass sculpture ‘Mother and Child’, which is currently on display at St Stephen Walbrook, in front of their Henry Moore altar. This sculpture illustrates a universal theme of love. Made with the traditional stained-glass technique of acid-etching and painting, it reveals the beauty of a medieval craft that has been listed as ‘endangered’ by British Heritage Crafts.
Polish artist Maciej Hoffman chooses themes “that pervade everyday life, our constant battle with problems which we inevitably face”. These are “issues which haunt us for years, shaping our perspective on the world and building us as humans”. Hoffman says, “I try to capture the moments of tension, the climax, and the spark before ignition”.
His experience is that painting “begins with a spark, an idea, an impulse”: “Sometimes it seems as though the painting creates itself, intuition guides me during the process … In trivialities as well as in big events, I seek contrasts between imagination and reality. Our expectations and our anticipations are never what we finally meet in real life. This constant collision fascinates me. It’s irrelevant whether it’s beauty and ugliness, order or chaos – the point is how it’s reflected in the mirror of my interpretation … I am moved by people’s stories with all their misfortunes and moments of happiness. It seems like one is always part of the other.”
Born in Wrocław, the son of artist parents, and growing up under Poland’s communist regime, Hoffman worked for 15 years in one of Poland’s largest advertising agencies until a watershed moment in 2003, when he returned full-time to the studio and oil painting. He moved to England in 2012 in search of new artistic and life opportunities and continues to paint, teach and exhibit in the UK and abroad. Here, he became involved in leading art workshops for school students, encouraging self-expression through art therapy for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or coping with mental health issues and trauma. He also contributed artworks to exhibitions dealing with conflict and resolution, including two that marked Holocaust Memorial Days in 2012 and 2018, respectively. His exhibition ‘Who Tells Your Story? Who Tells Your Future?’ will be at St Andrew’s Church, Wickford, from 23 January.
British artist and human rights activist Hannah Rose Thomas addresses similar themes of conflict and survival. ‘Tears of Gold’, her debut art book, conveys the dignity and resilience of women survivors of violence in forgotten corners of the world. The book presents her stunning portrait paintings of Yazidi women who escaped ISIS captivity, Rohingya women who fled violence in Myanmar, and Nigerian women who survived Boko Haram violence, alongside their own words, stories, and self-portraits. The final chapter then features portraits and stories of Afghan, Ukrainian, Uyghur, and Palestinian women.
These portraits, depicting women from three continents and three religions, are a visual testimony not only of war and injustice but also of humanity and resilience. Many of the women suffered sexual violence; all have been persecuted and forcibly displaced on account of their faith or ethnicity. Thomas met these women in Iraqi Kurdistan, Bangladeshi refugee camps, and Northern Nigeria while organizing art projects to teach women how to paint their self-portraits as a way to reclaim their personhood and self-worth. She gives women their own voice both by creating a safe space for them to share their stories and by using her impressive connections to make sure their stories are heard in places of influence in the Global North.
In an article for Plough magazine, she writes: “The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas speaks of encountering the face of another person as an encounter with the ‘Infinite.’…
Mother Teresa invites us to seek ‘the face of God in everything, everyone, everywhere, all the time…especially in the distressing disguise of the poor.’…
Mother Maria Skobtsova – a refugee from the USSR who died in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1945, having helped to shelter many Jews in Paris – spoke of the need to recognize people as ‘living icons.’
These women are survivors, yet their lives cannot be reduced to a single violent experience. My paintings are an attempt to honour these ‘living icons’ and to convey their extraordinary resilience, resistance, and dignity.”
‘Luminous: light – colour – imagination’, Benjamin Rhodes Arts, until 17 February 2024.
‘Richard Kenton Webb: A Conversation with John Milton’s Paradise Lost’.
I. Issa and A. Duran, eds., ‘Milton Across Borders and Media’, Oxford University Press, January 2024.
‘William Blake: Visionary’, the Getty Center, 17 October 2023 – 14 January 2024.
‘Uncharted Streets: Kurt Hutton, Bill Brandt, Edith Tudor-Hart, Charlie Phillips, Markéta Luskačová – Photographs from the Hyman Collection’, Ben Uri Gallery, 17 January – 8 March 2024.
‘Mother and Child’ by Oksana Kondratyeva, St Stephen Walbrook, until 9 January 2024.
‘Who Tells Your Story? Who Tells Your Future?’ An exhibition of paintings by Maciej Hoffman, St Andrew’s Church, Wickford, 23 January – 29 March 2024.
‘Portraits of Survival’, Plough Quarterly, 5 December 2023.
H.R. Thomas, ‘Tears of Gold: Portraits of Yazidi, Rohingya, and Nigerian Women’, Plough Books, February 2024.