Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Mystery solved...


Have you any idea who might have painted this charmingly rural picture?

 No? Well nor did I until this week. Let me explain!

My sister lives near Kendal (UK) on the edge of the Lake District. In her cottage she has a painting (shown above) that I have long admired yet neither of us knew who the artist was. Well, earlier this week she found out and told me. He is called Douglas Wilson.

Before the storm

Douglas Wilson was born in 1936 - which means that he is now in his late seventies but still painting and teaching. Today he lives in Shropshire, on the Welsh borders - a rural area of Britain that is relatively unspoilt and of great natural beauty.

I know Shropshire well for it was there that I filmed a drama for BBC television based on a short story by Elizabeth Gaskell, called Cousin Phillis. My film starred Anne-Louise Lambert and Dominic Guard, both of who you may remember from Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). My drama was set in a village not unlike the one shown below.

Mrs Shakeshaft in her garden

Indeed, Douglas Wilson's subject is that of the village and surrounding countryside - tranquil and somewhat isolated places far from the noise and bustle of the 'real' world. It is art that is quintessentially British and for him conjures up the music of Edward Elgar, the rural poetry of A.E. Housman (A Shropshire Lad) and the romantic novels of Mary Webb.

For painters of my generation, Wilson's rural scenes bring to mind the music of Frank Bridge rather than Edward Elgar. Agatha Christie's 'Miss Marple' could easily inhabit this landscape although I suspect that the murder rate in Shropshire is considerably lower than it would appear to be in Miss Marple's village of St.Mary Mead (allegedly in Hampshire)! 

The title of the lovely painting (below) suggests the gentle pattern of country life -  the man hurrying back home in time for the six o'clock BBC radio news, probably followed by The Archers!
Six o'clock news

Douglas Wilson studied art at Oxford under Lawrence Toynbee, Percy Horton and Geoffrey Rhoades - all distinguished landscape artists. You can see their work on the BBC's Your Paintings website featured elsewhere in this blog.

Wilson's art looks back to the landscapes of Richard Wilson (1714-1782) and forward to the Brotherhood of Ruralists whose work appears to be partly inspired by Wilson's gentle vistas and evident love of the countryside.The Brotherhood of Ruralists is a British art group founded in 1975 in Wellow, Somerset

Richard Wilson was a Welsh artist who was much influenced by Claude Lorrain and painted landscapes featuring golden sunsets against trees in silhouette - detailed filigree work that is also evident in many of Douglas Wilson's paintings.

There is also a touch, perhaps, of the Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) for the brambles in the foreground of the above painting remind me of Hilliard's Young Man Among Roses (1588). Both are exquisitely drawn on a flat pictorial plane. Spookily, my sister also has the Hilliard print in her house!


There are other influences at work here too. These include the Pre-Raphaelites, whose love of detail (particularly plant forms) can be found in the work of, for example, John Millais. Millais was a late Victorian artist who had a profound affect on landscape artists well into the early part of the 20th Century. 


This beautiful study of winter foliage reveals not only Wilson's extraordinary eye for detail and muted colours but a deep understanding of nature - something that resonates throughout his work.

Marcher, February

Sometimes the detail is quite beautiful, as in the bare foliage of the foreground tree in the above landscape.

It  is a striking composition - the kind of original composition you also find in the later work of David Inshaw, whose paintings I have featured elsewhere in this blog. Inshaw was one of the early members of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, as was 'Pop Artist' Peter Blake.

Lifting the onions

Wilson's paintings also show a profound sense of place, even though they are sparsely populated with people. The isolation - as in the man working in his cottage garden shown above - is part of the painting's tranquility and nostalgic ambiance. 

This feels like prewar Britain and yet, even today, you can come across scenes like this in countless villages in rural Britain, especially in Shropshire, Wales, the English Lake District or in the South West where the Ruralists still  live and work.

And after April

Occasionally Wilson will place a solitary figure within a landscape (as in the painting above) that creates a mood of contemplation. This figure is observing the countryside rather than being a worker (such as a gardener, for example). The title suggests regrowth tempered with uncertainty (the question mark is tantalizingly missing).

The mysterious ivy-covered tree

Some of these paintings have a tinge of Romanticism, the brush-work being softer and the clouds brooding. The use of autumnal sunlight on the hedge and grass contrasts dramatically with the dark tree on the left of frame and the long shadows in the foreground.


This beautiful canvas showing oak trees in a wintry landscape is very atmospheric and reveals masterly control of his medium. The pale, wintry sun peeping through a cold mist gives this moody landscape a real sense of depth, as do the almost ghost-like trees in the background.

Summer evening, Shropshire

Not all his landscapes are as subtle or (in my view) as successful as these. The composition and colours of the above canvas appear to me forced and formulaic - he has done similar compositions that are far subtler and much more effective.

The date of this painting is known - 2012. It suggests that Wilson's style is evolving towards a more deliberate graphic sense. This is evident too in later, more abstract work inspired by visits to Provence. I will look at these paintings in a later posting perhaps but for me the earlier work is far more engaging.

High Summer

This stunningly beautiful landscape shows Wilson at his best - a mixture of closely observed plant forms against a moody background of sunlit fields and late summer trees. The detail is exquisite and the slightly copper tinge to the clouds is a master-stroke. The landscape slopes down to the left which gives the picture a somewhat unsettling effect for the viewer.


Since my picture source (Highgate Contemporary Art) does not date any of Wilson's works in their catalogue, I cannot tell if the above painting is a more recent work. 

Its bold construction and limited palate suggests a late work but it is still impressive. I particularly like the area of exposed chalk - like a scar on some ancient burial mound.

Dorset, Spring

This West Country landscape is another masterpiece, revealing all that characterizes Wilson's best work - striking composition with bare hills defining a deep valley or wooded stream; close observation of natural forms; striking use of shadow and wonderfully drawn trees stripped of all leaves against a subtle, pale-blue sky

 Mike Healey

You can see more of Douglas Wilson's work by clicking on the link below:


In 1979 Douglas Wilson was elected a member of the Royal Cambrian Academy in Wales. The Academy was founded in 1881 and has included amongst its distinguished Presidents since then the great Welsh painter, Augustus John.

To find out more about the RCA, click on the link below:


To compare Douglas Wilson's work with that of the later generation of Ruralists, go to David Inshaw in the Popular posts list at the top of this blog.

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