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Glimpses of the light

11 October 2013

Richard Harries views paintings by the late Norman Adams

photos © the estate of norman adams

Challenge to excessive consumption:Azrael at the Feast, 1992, by Norman Adams

Challenge to excessive consumption:Azrael at the Feast, 1992, by Norman Adams

NORMAN ADAMS (1927-2005) had a successful career as an artist and teacher, ending up as Keeper of the Royal Academy. During his lifetime, he was probably best known for his paintings inspired by the countryside in Yorkshire and the island of Scarp in the Outer Hebrides.

Since his death, however, he has become increasingly recognised as a painter of profound spiritual significance. Indeed, it now emerges from his son Ben Adams that religious themes were a daily preoccupation.

Guildford Cathedral has mounted the first exhibition of some of these works, mostly never shown in public before. The Raising of Lazarus was a theme that Adams returned to many times in life. And Lazarus Saw the Light in the current exhibition brings to mind the final Station in the remarkable Stations of the Cross that Adams did for St Mary's, Mulberry Street, in Manchester, in which resurrection is conveyed through a garden in full flower.

It also takes up the theme of the Tree of Life, familiar from traditional Christian iconography Lazarus catches a glimpse of the uncreated light and life of eternity before being thrust back into the twilight of this world.

A. S. Byatt saw a thread of sadness running through the works of Adams, and they do often relate to a current political concern, such as the "disappeared" in Argentina; but what is more remarkable is that, like Thomas Hardy's thrush, they often convey "Some blessed hope whereof he knew and I was unaware". The image that Adams uses, above all, for this is a butterfly, and it appears here even in Azrael at the Feast. This is a challenging story about death standing behind our excessive consumption and violence; and yet, remarkably, it would seem that Adams did not want us to think of this as the final word.



Above all, it was colour that mattered to Adams, and through which he shared his vision. He may also have seen sounds, which were equally important to him, as colours. Towards the end of his life, Adams suffered from Parkinson's, and, unable to do oils, concentrated on large watercolours. It is in these that the spiritual dimension is most luminous.

Besides the works in Guildford Cathedral, there is an exhibition of works by Adams in a gallery near by. The works here are mainly landscapes, but, even here, the religious dimension is present, as in his powerful Dark Madonna, one of a series on this theme painted when his mother died. It is a work in which deep grief is held in a wider environment of joyful colour.

These two exhibitions are well worth a visit. We can only hope that this is a first instalment of more to come; for there is is a cache of paintings on religious themes still in store in Adams's old house in Yorkshire.

"Images of God" in Guildford Cathedral and "The Artist is His Environment", a short walk away in the Lewis Elton Gallery, at the University of Surrey, are open until Thursday 24 October. The exhibition in the Lewis Elton Gallery is open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and weekends by prior appointment (phone 01483 682167; arts@surrey.ac.uk).

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