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Object of the month: February 2016

Basil Beattie RA's 'Never Before' (2001)

Published 1 February 2016

“My paintings are abstract to me.” Basil Beattie RA’s painting suggests a narrative of ascent, but leads nowhere.

  • Basil Beattie RA is both a painter and printmaker who first trained at West Hartlepool College of Art from 1950 until 1955, and then at the RA Schools. At art school he was influenced by the work of Walter Sickert and his early work reflected this with subjects of ordinary people working and at leisure. However, in 1958 an exhibition at Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) of New American Painting – which included work by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis – proved a liberating experience for the development of his work. Other students at the RA Schools, such as John Hoyland and Paul Huxley, also shared his enthusiasm for the work of the Abstract Expressionists.

    Although the influence of these American painters was strong, Beattie’s work continued to make reference to the visible world. From the 1980s this often took the form of spatial components such as steps, doors, tunnels or shapes which resembled ziggurats, the ancient temple towers built up in successive stages. These paintings explored abstract pictorial spaces and the associated feelings that they engendered.

  • Beattie himself does not make a distinction between abstraction and representation. He says, “My paintings are abstract to me, but I feel I can put almost anything in. I put things that have references to psychological and emotional concerns that are important to me; but I’m trying to paint them in a way that is not illustrative. I’m fascinated by the representational element – it gives me large and small, a sense of distance. There’s intrigue, as well; the curiosity of corridors, colonnades, archways, cloisters. But I withdraw from describing it to myself in a precise way because I want it to remain ambiguous. Perhaps an image – a door or whatever – may invite thoughts of escape; but the sheer physicality of the means prevents there being an escape from the language of painting. I deliberately construct this contradiction.” (taken from a conversation with John McEwen in 1988, published in Basil Beattie, Todd Gallery, London).

    Never Before suggests a narrative of ascent with its stairs, but these lead nowhere, not even to the top of the canvas. The “stairs” are painted with thick impasto, in a subdued range of earth colours, which contrasts with the bare canvas in the rest of the picture which Beattie often refers to as a breathing space or “lung”.

    Never Before will be on display at Basil Beattie – When Now Becomes Then: Three Decades at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, from 20 February until 5 June.

    February’s artist of the month is Thomas Daniell RA, who is best known for his images of the Indian subcontinent. More widely travelled than any of his colonial artist counterparts, he earned the nickname of “artist-adventurer”. Find out more about the RA Collection.