Richard Davey sees 50 years’ work
WHAT is the taste of colour? It might seem absurd to describe a work of art
through the sense of taste rather than sight, but, as a response to the work of
Albert Herbert, it is somehow appropriate.
Usually colour is used as a tool to depict the world; at times it even takes
on a symbolic or expressive quality; but just occasionally it becomes a
visceral experience, a celebration of itself as a raw and sensuous pleasure.
With bold brushstrokes Herbert weaves a luscious tapestry across his picture
surfaces as he deposits a bright pink next to a vivid blue, or a stab of purple
across a khaki green. The viewer’s response is then one of consumption, tasting
and devouring the surface with the tongue of the eye.
A retrospective of Herbert’s paintings in London gives us a chance to feast
our eyes. Here are the familiar paintings from his recent shows, whose
dream-like world began to emerge into the open from the 1980s.
But here are also some of the paintings from the early 1950s, whose
depiction of London scenes and family life still show the influence of his time
at the Royal College of Art and his friendship with members of the "Kitchen
Sink" school of painting.
There may be more than 50 years separating the oldest from the most recent
paintings in the exhibition, but his fascination with colour, and the
brushstrokes that apply it, serve as a bridge across the decades.
The staccato strokes of blue that pick out the sky in
Landscape Box Hill, c.1950, are the same as those that touch
the top of the canvas in Family in Garden, 2001/04. The early
paintings may have their roots more clearly in the real and observable world,
but colours still turn up in unexpected places, as green becomes the shadow for
pink, or the colour of the sky.
A number of themes also span the gap. His landscapes might no longer submit
themselves to the limiting scale of human proportions or be observed from life,
but the family playing on Wanstead Flats in 1951 can still be seen playing in
gardens in 2004. The idea of interior spaces is also a recurrent idea, although
the viewers’ perspective has changed.
In 1951, He looks in from the Garden placed the spectator inside
the room, looking out at the man in the garden. But now, in paintings such as
Burning Bush, 2001, we are the ones outside, looking in at those
staring out at us from inside.
But there is also a distinct division between the early and late works. The
sophisticated observation of the external world that can be seen in the 1950s
has been replaced by the exuberance and innocence of a child in the later works.
But this is only appropriate, for his paintings have become the
archaeological records of an internal, subjective state rather than an
external, objective reality. With fleeting brushmarks and rapidly sketched
symbols, they seek to capture a transient sensation, or dream, before it passes
But, as with any journey into the subjective unconscious, there are many
layers and partially glimpsed insights that leave only an insubstantial record
of their passing. A thought pops into our heads, but before we can grasp it it
has gone, leaving only the sensation that something had been there.
This is echoed in the many layers of Herbert’s paintings. Like an
archaeologist, the viewer latches on to specks of colour that are glimpsed
below the surface, the record of other beginnings and alternative thoughts that
have long since been obscured, but whose presence makes up part of the work’s
Within these sensuous fields full of colourful archaeology, Herbert places
archetypal symbols that capture an idea: a house or temple, a mother or child,
Jonah and the whale, a footprint, a burning bush. He creates an emotional space
that allows us to contemplate ideas and emotions such as love, family, hope,
redemption, and communication with the Divine.
But the symbols are not just pictorial. Words inhabit these landscapes as
well. They have squeezed themselves out of the earth to become a graffiti that
proclaims the world as a place resplendent with God. They point the way to him,
are a visualisation of the world’s own hidden poetry.
The most recent works in the show retain the vibrancy of the earlier
paintings, but they have also become more elegiac. Now we see Herbert himself
as an old man looking back at his younger self. We see him in his war service.
And we find a recurrent figure climbing a ladder into the clear blue of the
sky, while the hands of a nearby clock point to 11.50. It is a figure poised in
mid-air, still attached to the earth, but suspended on the threshold of heaven,
waiting and looking.
This is what Herbert paintings do. They seem to transport us to a space of
contemplation, in which we are able to remember those dreams and thoughts that
inspire our own faith and hope.
"Albert Herbert: Fifty Years of Painting" is at England & Co., 216
Westbourne Grove, London W11, until 12 June. Phone 020 7221 0417.