John Virtue Painting Analysis Essay

For the Roman Catholic bishop, see John Vertue.

John Virtue is an English artist who specialises in monochromelandscapes. He is honorary Professor of Fine Art at the University of Plymouth, and from 2003–2005 was the sixth Associate Artist at London's National Gallery.[1]

Virtue was born in Accrington, Lancashire in 1947.[2] He trained at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1965 to 1969. In 1971 he moved to Green Haworth, near Oswaldtwistle, painting landscapes for two years before abandoning painting in favour of pen and ink drawings comprising dense networks of lines akin to the work of Samuel Palmer.[3]

From 1978 he worked as a postman, giving this up in 1985 to work as a full-time artist. He lived in Devon from 1988–2004.[4]

Maintaining a studio in Exeter, he produced works around the Exe estuary, before being offered the post of Associate Artist at the National Gallery.[5] This scheme engages contemporary artists to produce work that "connects to the National Gallery Collection" and demonstrates "the continuing inspiration of the Old Master tradition".[1]


Virtue uses only black and white on his work as he sees colour as "unnecessary distraction".[6] He uses shellac black ink and white paint.

He is well known for his "London Paintings" which were displayed in The National Gallery and focused on the London skyline, using easily distinguishable landmarks from the capital such as the Gherkin, the NatWest Tower and St. Paul's Cathedral, to familiarise his audience with the otherwise hazy, smoggy and ambiguous drawings.

Virtue's awards include: first prize in the Sunday Mirror painting competition (1964), Walter Neurath prize for painting awarded by Thames & Hudson Publishers (1966), Arts Council Major Award (1981), Joint First prize-winner in the 4th Tolly Cobbold Exhibition (1983), and Best Visual Artist in the South Bank Awards (2006).[7]

His work during his National Gallery tenure was exhibited in 2005 at the National Gallery and Courtauld Institute, and his final, large-scale, London works were exhibited at the University of Plymouth in 2007.[4]He moved to Italy to work and returned in 2009 to live in North Norfolk.[8] where he has continued to produce work, for example, 'The Sea' exhibitions[9]


  • Biography, National Gallery
  • Richard Cork [catalogue essay], John Virtue: Ten New Works London and New York: Lisson Gallery and Louver Gallery, 1990.

External links[edit]



  1. ^ abAssociate Artist SchemeArchived 23 December 2007 at the Wayback Machine., National Gallery
  2. ^Michael Glover (8 February 2013). "Great Works: Landscape No 710, 2003-4, by John Virtue". The Independent. 
  3. ^Peter Kingston (8 March 2005). "John Virtue: Being a professor is the new black". The Guardian. 
  4. ^ abPainting is a virtue, Jo Loosemore, BBC Devon
  5. ^Preparatory workArchived 29 January 2008 at the Wayback Machine., National Gallery
  6. ^Haymarket Hotel, London NW1, Rupert Wright, The Times, 19 May 2007
  7. ^Doctor Who saves Billie Piper's career, Jenny Booth and Jack Malvern, The Times, 27 January 2006
  8. ^ retrieved 19 October 2014
  9. ^ retrieved 19 October 2014

There's something missing from John Virtue's London skylines: the London Eye. And that's not just because he dislikes the featherlight airiness of the wheel, so at odds with his bituminous, Dante-like vision of a beaten-up, endlessly remade city of men scarred by the damage of history. Virtue's London is more battlefield than playground; his angle of vision is the angel's hover rather than the child's expectation of ascent. But his aversion also stems from what the Eye represents: a bubble-glazed, sound-sealed enclosure, an encapsulated rotation to postcard epiphany. Up it inexorably goes, carrying the happy hamsters, far above the grunts and grinds of the town. What Virtue most hates about it - I'm guessing - is its name: the presumption of vision. What his paintings do is take on the hamster wheel: insist that Virtue's vision is the real London eye. Instead of detachment there is smash-mouth contact; instead of mechanically engineered, user-friendly serenity, there is the whipsaw excitement of the city; its rain-sodden, dirt-caked, foul-tempered, beery-eyed, jack-hammered, traffic-jammed, nervy exhilaration. Instead of a tourist fantasy, there is a place.

Virtue's paintings have been made as if much of contemporary art, or rather the fashion of contemporary installation art, had never happened, or at best is a facile distraction from more solidly enduring things. Irony is poison to his passion, for his work draws not on death but life; in the case of the epic paintings he has made while looking at London, the life of a bruised city, caught in the warp of time. But the élan vital of Virtue's work also owes its strength to another celebration: of the life of paint itself. Which is why, when you look at a John Virtue, be it one of his "landscapes" or his London pictures, you see more than the Exe estuary or St Paul's Cathedral. You see John Virtue himself, in the act of painting, the work a permanent present participle of storming creativity. The modish word to describe such action is "marks", but that implies discrete traces of remote activity. In Virtue's case, the more you look, the more you see the paint in a state of turbulent self-animation: dripping and drizzling, stabbing and dabbing, like a feverish sorcerer's apprentice. In an art culture comatose from ironic overkill, he has asked the straight question: what can paint actually do? And then he has set about supplying an unrepentant, triumphal answer.

So what is it exactly that Virtue pictures? Well, nature, culture, history - the history of his own craft as well as of the world - and the interlacing of them all in our visual imagination. In 1958 Frank O' Hara did an interview with one of Virtue's heroes, Franz Kline, in which the artist said: "Hell, half the world wants to be like Thoreau worrying about the noise of traffic on the way to Boston, the other half use up their lives being part of that noise. I like the second half, right?" Even when he has drawn by the side of a flowing stream or on a gantry swaying above the Thames, I think Virtue, too, is most moved by the buzz of the world, whether gnats humming in the tall grass, the gaseous tremble on the filmy pond or the pullulation of the urban hive. Instinctively, he draws no distinction between history and natural history.

His technique is painterly liberty guided by self-education. Virtue is a draftsman through and through, yet the sweeping grandeur of his designs is less a matter of carefully calibrated delineation (the passages in his work I like the least are those where he makes linear architectural summaries, however freely rendered), than of his involuntary obedience to the accumulated patterning of a lifetime's working practice. What Virtue gives us is not a visual document of London (in the manner, say of Wenceslaus Hollar) built from the accumulation of fastidiously gauged reported details so much as an overwhelming embodiment of London; closer to an East End pub knees-up, the trundle of an old bus grinding its way through the night streets, the jeering roar of a stand at White Hart Lane (or Highbury), the brimstone glare of a line of DonorKebabChickenFishnChippy takeaways, than to a prospect by Canaletto. Virtue's St Paul's is not Wren's architectural "gem" - it's the pre-bleached, grimily defiant mascot of cockneydom: black, hulking, a bit thuggish. And just as he turns the bleached dome black, he equally stunningly turns the dirty old river white.

But (as with Kline again), Virtue's blacks and whites aren't polarised absolutes: they drip and smear each other with gleeful impurity, much of the white flecked with a kind of metropolitan ashiness that gives the paint guts and substance, much of the black, streaky and loose, like road tar that refuses to set. His is, in fact, a smoky London, even if painted long after the epoch of the great pea-soup fogs. Whether to embrace or reject the begrimed air, the half-choked light has historically sorted out the men from the boys in London painters. Whistler loved it, though he gussied it up as a dove-grey penumbra hanging moodily over Chelsea Reach. Claude Monet was in two minds about it, cursing it from his room in the Savoy in 1899 for blotting out the fugitive sun. Yet by far the strongest of Monet's paintings - completed in a studio a long, long way from the Thames - were the greeny-grey early morning images of crowds tramping and omnibussing their way to work over hostile bridges, unblessed by even a hint of watery sunshine. The beatific tangerine sunsets that Monet inflicted on other paintings in the series, on the other hand, glimmer over the Houses of Parliament with a risible absurdity that could be forgivable only as the product of some mildly narcotic stupor.

Likewise, it's a symptom of their meretriciousness - their tyrannical prettiness, their utter failure to connect with anything that ever made London London - that almost all of the paintings produced between 1747 and 1750 by Giovanni Antonio Canaletto feature radiantly cerulean skies. It may just have been that Canaletto was lucky enough to work during days - we have them, to be sure - of empyrean blue hanging over the Thames, but his obligation to sunny optimism extended beyond mere pictorial ingratiation. Canaletto was working for aristocratic patrons like the Duke of Richmond, who invested heavily in the building of Hanoverian London, and whose education on the Grand Tour led them to reconceive the port city as the heir to Venice, Amsterdam or even Rome. Hence the earlier import of Italians to do London views - Antonio Joli and Marco and Sebastiano Ricci, for example - since their brief was to confect a fantasy metropolis in which classical memory united with commercial energy. Church facades bask in toasty Latin sunlight, the terraces of grand houses backing on to the Thames are populated only by ladies and gents, and the river itself is barely disturbed by the occasional barge.

As visual paradigms of the New London, Canaletto's display pieces were (unlike Hogarth's prints or Virtue's paintings) emphatically not for the "middling sort" of people, much less the plebs. This aristocratic preference for poetic fancy oversocial truth reached a reductio ad absurdum with Canaletto's follower, William Marlow, painting in 1795 a capriccio in which St Paul's has been transplanted to a faithfully rendered depiction of the Grand Canal in Venice.

We tend to think of Turner (another of Virtue's heroes), or at least Turner the Brentford boy and happy waterman, as the antidote to all this Italianate picturesque contrivance. But Turner was as drunk on visions of Italy, and Venice in particular, as any of the piccoli canaletti , and was quite capable of turning out editions of the Thames that washed the scummy old stream in a bath of sublimity. He was never above pleasing patrons, either. The direct ancestor of his 1826 Mortlake Terrace, now in the Frick Collection, painted for the nouveau riche William Moffatt, with its peachy light and strolling gentlefolk is, indeed, Canaletto, and beyond him, the Dutch city painters of the 17th century. Related concoctions such as Turner's Richmond Hill on the Prince of Wales's Birthday (1819), or the 1825 watercolour of him sketching the serpentine curve of the river and the city about it from the summit of Greenwich Park, are best understood (and forgiven) as patriotic-civic allegories; but this time insular and cocky rather than hybridised and Italianate.

A great gap opened up in modernism, then, between London as the site of aesthetic cosmetic and London as the site of raw document: in the 19th century between the butterfly effects of Whistler and the reports from the underworld of Gustave Doré; in the 20th between the visual histrionics of Oscar Kokoschka and in the 1950s the startling photographic streetscapes of the mind-blowingly gifted Nigel Henderson. Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach did wonders in regrounding vernacular visions of the city in the worked density of paint, but even they were not quite ready to take on the totemic sights and memories of the war-ravaged city in the way Virtue, born two years after the doodlebugs had done their worst, could.

But that fastidiousness sealed off modernist painting of the city from the broader public whose need was, and may always be, celebratory, not darkly suspicious, or furtively pathological in the Sickert way. And it's the muscular innocence of John Virtue's picturing (along with the bravura of his paint-handling), his instinctive relish of the ant-heap swirl of London, his shockingly brave determination to make work that the untrained eye can immediately engage with, which have helped him achieve something no other painter of or in London has ever managed: a truly populist expressionism. That an entire ensemble of his huge, as well as his merely impressively large, paintings should be hung together in the National Gallery as if in the Hall of Honour in the palace of some prince of baroque, so that they are experienced as a cumulatively intoxicating rush of spectacle, only makes their deeply democratic quality the more miraculous.

But then Virtue has not been holed up like Monet in the Savoy Hotel, nor taking the morning air like Canaletto with the Duke of Richmond these past few years. Instead, he has been swinging from a gantry, or perched precariously on the roof of Somerset House, London's mean drizzle on his head, its cinders flying in his face; taking the measure of the city very like his cynosure Turner, in his non-Mortlake moments, right between the eyes. The fine frenzy that pushes Virtue along is wonderfully documented in his sketchbooks, but the challenge for him has always been somehow to transform those immediate responses in the studio into something that both registers and transcends its subject matter. In this most difficult of painterly goals he has, I believe, triumphantly succeeded, allowing us to read the great white daub at the heart of so many of his paintings as intrinsically related to its figural source in the Thames. At such moments of recognition, the pulse of the Londoners among us, especially, will race a little faster. But the reason to be most grateful for these epic masterworks is precisely for their resistance to visual cliche, even to cockney sentimentality; for their faithfulness to a London eye that actually sees beyond London.

· This is an edited extract from the exhibition catalogue for John Virtue: London Paintings, at the National Gallery, London WC2 (020-7747 2885), from March 9. Simon Schama is working on a BBC2 series, The Power of Art.

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