David Blackburn, who lists among his fans such cultural gurus as Sir Kenneth Clark, Peter Fuller and Sister Wendy Beckett has never sought the limelight. Working in pastel from his kitchen in Huddersfield, the 76-year-old used to show his work in a gallery in Nottingham. But he is now represented by Messum’s, which is showing Blackburn’s works from this week (Feb 17–March 11)in its Mayfair gallery – and this solitary artist is enjoying a long overdue moment of, if not exactly fame, then increased acclaim.
Blackburn describes himself as a metaphysical landscape artist and says that he is “predominantly concerned with beauty” – not a fashionable stance in our age of art brut. Yet last year he received the MBE for services to British art and, judging by how many big collections hold his work (the Yale Center for British Art, the Ashmolean Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery, to name but a few), his place in the pantheon of great 20th-century landscape artists seems assured – though notably Tate has yet to buy any of his works.
After first studying at the Huddersfield School of Art (as a textile artist), in 1959 he enrolled at the Royal College of Art where he focused on abstracts influenced by Paul Klee abstractions. Some of his most talented contemporaries at the RCA, such as David Hockney and RB Kitaj, were not only defining their own identities but also creating a new genre in British art: pop art. Blackburn, meanwhile, was drawn to Claude, Constable and Turner.
There are close to 50 works in this show (prices for which range from around £6,500 to £8,500), charting Blackburn’s career from 1962 to 2010, and they provide a timely retrospective of a man once said to belong to the same tradition as Samuel Palmer – in “fusing the fervent vision of Blake with the tradition of the landscape sketch”.
Many of his most sublime works have been inspired by the Yorkshire moors, of which Summer Sunlight (2003, £8,850) is a prime example. Envelopes of watery yellows and greens bounded by darker colours are a common motif in Blackburn’s work, denoting the walls and fields of the countryside. Much of this show also features works done when he was living in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, while the reds and ochres in From Above –Desert Landscape (1999, £8,850) or Memory of a Distant Landscape (2003, £8,850, first picture)echo primitive Australian art in the way they float between dream and reality.
Also in the show are five densely worked black pastel sketches (second picture) showing a miasma of human forms from one of Blackburn’s most iconic series: Creation (£15,500), done in 1964.
Blackburn is a loner who has gone against the trend and sought his own path. His pictures are internal diagram of his sensations of walking through a landscape, rather than a literal description of them. As we become more conscious of the environment and our impact on it, his pictures are not only newly topical but also timeless and serve to remind us of its frailty and beauty.