John Aldridge RA at The Fry Art Gallery Saffron Walden

Review of John Aldridge RA at The Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden
7 September-27 October 2013

John Aldridge (1905-1983) came to live in the Essex village of Great Bardfield in 1933 and stayed there for the rest of his life. There he worked alongside the group of exceptionally strong artists who lived in and around the village at different times during the period, particularly Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious (until his untimely death in the War) and Michael Rothenstein. To some extent the group operated slightly apart from whatever can be said to have been the mainstream of British art in this period. Each of them were individual artists working away at their own varied objectives and, as a result, their reputations as artists have not been as fashionable as those who cultivated the London art world more assiduously. Whether better-known contemporary artists were better artists is, of course, another matter.

The challenge with Aldridge, therefore, as with so many 20th Century British artists, is objectively to explore the question as to his proper status. We know that he has never been fashionable; his prices have never been high; he was in no sense experimental or avant-garde; he had no followers, no major retrospectives, no passionate rich collectors buying up his work, no proselytising art journalists promoting him at every stage of his career. Was everyone missing something? Should the “art world” have paid him more attention?

The small show at the Fry – that most wonderful of small galleries – was too small to make many substantive points in any such debate. Aldridge, emerging from his public school and Oxford education with sufficient money not to be too commercial about selling his pictures, had a long painting career and produced a lot of pictures; 30 odd works in a show barely scratches the surface. The challenge of assessing him is made worse by the fact that his work cannot be seen to any significant extent anywhere else and not very much comes through the London salerooms or leading galleries; nor, by definition, has much been written about him. So one looks at what there is to be seen (and more these days by means of Google Images) and struggles towards an assessment.

The heart of his work is landscape (or villagescape). Although the work of some of the most high-profile artists in 20th Century Britain may lead one to forget the fact, landscape underpins the work of many if not most 20th Century British artists; there is plenty to compare with Aldridge’s work in this regard. The result of even a casual comparison is good and bad news for those wishing to realign Aldridge’s artistic status. Unfortunately for them, there are some stunning landscape artists of different types that his work may be said to be “competing” with, from Stanley and Gilbert Spencer, Paul and John Nash, Graham Sutherland and John Piper, through Bawden and Ravilious in Great Bardfield; there are the wonderfully delicate watercolours of Thomas Hennell, the exquisite work of Stanley Roy Badmin, the superbly subtle work of Sir William Nicholson and so on: everywhere one turns there is fascinating landscape work going on, some of it stylistically adventurous and challenging. That is the bad news for Aldridge the landscape artist.

The better news is that he holds his own with at least some of them; he is certainly not completely shown up or outclassed. His landscape work reminds me a bit of that of Barnett Freedman – an excellent, skilful landscape artist, but with nothing very special to say. Aldridge is in some ways rather a typical Royal Academician of his time in this respect.

Of his other work, there are glimpses in his portraits of a considerable talent which was perhaps under-utilised. The picture of the writer (and close friend) Robert Graves is excellent and insightful. One of the London salerooms has recently seen an Aldridge portrait of Sir Cedric Morris which also shows a subtle artist at work studying a fellow painter. There are also the landscapes from the area around Graves’ house in Mallorca, which Aldridge frequently visited and painted. The light in those pictures is quite strikingly different from that produced from what might be called the Essex palate. It is rather like the effect on Sutherland’s palate of his discovery of the South of France or on Leon Underwood when he escaped to paint in Mexico. This is perhaps part of Aldridge’s problem: by tying himself to Essex for so long he limited himself too much and stayed too much within his comfort zone.

In the end, though, one feels that, wherever he had roamed as an artist, it would never have pushed him into the direction of artistic adventure; it is impossible to imagine him ever being at the forefront of anything. As such he is likely to remain amongst the footsoldiers of 20th Century British art – ahead of most of the artists of his time, but nowhere near the top group.

There is an excellent little catalogue for the exhibition, with a fine essay by local art historian, Peter Donovan. I would urge anyone reading this who lives anywhere within reach of Saffron Walden to visit and support the Fry Art Gallery. It has a gorgeous permanent collection of Bawden, Ravilious, Rothenstein, Aldridge, Colquhoun, Ayrton, Bellany and many others and is an absolute joy to visit.