Eric Coombes: Drawing, tradition and Peter Clossick

Despite the best efforts of the state-art establishment visual intelligence survives, argues Eric Coombes

In 1941, Augustus John contributed A Note on Drawing (from which I quoted a few words in the previous issue) to a book edited by Lillian Browse, containing reproductions of his own drawings. John records his sense of good fortune in having been a student at the Slade, and thereby spared an oppressive training in ‘the substitute for drawing’ prevailing in other places, notably the Royal College of Art or its immediate precursor at South Kensington.  This substitute was ‘Stumping’: ‘An innovation having no roots in tradition, it pretended to provide the student with a means of representing form without risking the use of a line. … the student was instructed to copy the objects placed before him by means of a prolonged smudging and stippling process.’  This system ‘… blighted every trace of talent which suffered under its inexorable discipline.  Many a lad and lass, their souls alight with that flame which in the young only art and love can kindle, were fated, after a course of “Stumping” … to retire beaten at last …’  At the Slade, by contrast, ‘a very different system prevailed under Frederick Brown and his chief lieutenant Henry Tonks.  There “Stumping” was severely banned and the students had to do the best they could with the point of a stick of charcoal and a sheet of “Michelet”. They were even encouraged to study the Old Masters!’.  He continues with some remarks about Brown’s use of ‘rhythmical lines’ and ‘Tonks’ insistence on the Contour [which] was equally sound and in the great Tradition …’

Two themes in this brief note are closely connected. First, John was repelled by a system which eliminated the risk of using line, because it extinguished for the students the very source of joy, which had motivated them to study art. It did so by making mindless precisely what should engage the mind in the endeavour to find and articulate an intelligible visual ordering in what is drawn. This endeavour cannot bypass the decisions, the revisions of decisions and, indeed, the mistakes and attempted corrections, which are brought to judgement in the determinacy of line. To eliminate this essential feature of visual thought is to render drawing mindless and deny its very nature. It was clearly important—to invoke the second theme—that this ‘substitute for drawing’ had ‘no roots in tradition’, whereas at the Slade drawing was understood and taught as the unifying central strand in ‘the great Tradition’, and students were encouraged to study the Old Masters—a policy whose fruits are illustrated in this book by the astoundingly accomplished drawing after Watteau which won John a prize awarded by Tonks in 1897. The ‘great Tradition’ was defined by a canon, in which the practice of the masters provided models of drawing as a medium of thought.

It does not, for present purposes, matter greatly if John was exaggerating (as he probably was), or being to some extent unfair, in his eloquent denunciation of what went on in South Kensington. What does matter is that he intuitively understood drawing as essentially an exercise of thinking, which cannot be reduced to a mere technique, still less to a fail-safe technique. The gesture of drawing a line is an action integral to the draughtsman’s thinking, and the trace remaining is alive with the meaning with which that action imbues it: the risk of not immediately getting it quite right is just the risk that attends and is inseparable from thought itself. To eliminate that risk is to withdraw the mind from its internal relationship to drawing—that is, the relationship in which drawing is thinking, not merely the product of thinking—leaving nothing but an inert routine: a ‘substitute for drawing’.

It is misconceived, therefore, to take the ‘skill’ of drawing to be merely a technique, merely the means to the end of producing a certain kind of artefact, which might, in principle, be produced, equally well, or more conveniently, by some other technique. Something like this misconception must underlie claims that photography, for example, can be considered a form of drawing, and ‘Stumping’ as described by John could almost be described (with qualifications unimportant in the present context) as a pointlessly laborious procedure for manufacturing substitutes for photographs.

In a previous issue Dr Selby Whittingham cited Finberg as complaining in 1910 that ‘the only kind of training that is provided for English art students is training in this capacity of reproducing objects of sight accurately.’. Finberg may well have had good reasons for complaint, but his actual words here, if taken perfectly literally, make no sense. Drawings, of their very nature, cannot possibly ‘reproduce’ ‘objects of sight’ (accurately or inaccurately) except, perhaps, in the limiting case where the sole ‘object of sight’ is itself a drawing. Now as in the past, however, visual representation is often naïvely described in this way. Even so sophisticated and powerful a thinker as Ruskin is guilty of this confusion, most obviously (if inconsistently) in The Elements of Drawing – although what is there posited as the object to be copied is an appearance, incoherently understood as an array of coloured shapes, already a kind of picture of the scene to be represented. But an appearance is of a different ontological order from a picture and is logically uncopyable by any physical entity. One might as well say that a debt can be copied by a coin. This common misconception, which is derived from a notoriously fallacious strand of empiricist philosophy, is extraordinarily tenacious, and by no means dead.

In the practice of art, and even in the practice of criticism, this confusion need not be disastrous: a better understanding advances and articulates itself in the practices themselves, even where less defective conceptions do not emerge into the light of theoretical reflection, or emerge only inchoately in criticism. But it matters much more when, as often happens today, the misconception deforms both teaching and practice. Fifty or so years ago, most art teachers at every level intuitively understood drawing as much more than a technique for making something that might as well be done with a camera, although they probably saw no need, and perhaps lacked the capacity, to explain this at the level of theory. They were content in the knowledge that anyone to whom this was not intuitively self-evident had not yet fully appreciated the gifts of the tradition that defines what the visual arts are. But nowadays the very word ‘tradition’ may meet with incomprehension, bewilderment or automatic, unfocused hostility; and its invocation may aggravate rather than deflect the vindictive resentment of uncultured ignorance. But, to touch again on John’s second theme, it is through the tradition of image making that perceptual capacities are cultivated which sustain drawing as a medium of thought. In this respect, drawing is analogous to language.

A photograph, of course, ‘reproduces’ the ‘objects of sight’ no more than a drawing does. But in the confused view we are considering, it might be thought of as a device whereby visual appearances are mechanically copied. The tenacity of the ‘copying’ error derives, presumably, from the experience of naturalistic painting where the vividness or immediacy of the depicted scene may engender the sense of looking at something ‘just like’ the scene itself. Less naturalistic modes of representation may then be conceived of as deviations from a naturalistic norm, although there is, in fact, no norm of naturalism. It is in a way surprising that this misconception remains so common, even among those supposedly educated in the visual arts, and even since the publication of Ernst Gombrich’s justly celebrated book, Art and Illusion. This book made a huge impression, quickly found its way onto countless reading lists and initiated a chain of discussion, still continuing after more than fifty years. Since it is also very readable, quite a few students asked to read it might have actually done so. Few, if any, serious theorists would now endorse all its arguments and conclusions without important reservations (not least about Gombrich’s use of the notion of illusion); but among its indisputable intellectual achievements is that it put beyond all question the erroneousness of the ‘copying’ conception.

We need, then, to distinguish a visual representation from a mere simulacrum or surrogate, which cannot, as such, embody thought (although it may contain information). This simple conceptual point has many implications for our understanding of the visual arts, and various lines of discussion may converge on it. It has an application to the history of early modernist painting, when associated theorizing was informed (though not always explicitly or clearly) by those implications, largely under the (not necessarily direct) influence of Schopenhauer. There is much more to be said here. But I must content myself with stating the following: A representation, as such, does embody thought about what is represented, which, in the case of visual representation, is essentially thought about how things look, including how things look in imagination and memory. (It is important not to misunderstand this by unduly restricting, a priori, the kinds of thought supposed capable of being internal to perception.) A drawing, as a drawing, is essentially about what it represents: it has the property of aboutness – or ‘intentionality’ to use the philosophical term. We see the drawing as the record and embodiment of the draughtsman’s actions, understood as the movement of essentially communicable thought. The example of the embodied gesture in the decisively drawn line makes the point particularly clear. But the principle must be generalized to include not just line, but all the resources available to the draughtsman. It must also of course, be generalized to include painting, because painting is drawing – drawing with an extended range of materials and tools, and (usually) the additional dimension of colour. And with a little reflection we see that this also extends to sculpture.

To understand a drawing, painting or sculpture is not merely to know that it embodies a thought, but to perceive it as doing so. The possibility of its being so perceived is essential to its nature as a work of visual art. It is not enough for it to be arbitrarily associated or linked with some thought, which remains external to its perception. This requirement by no means excludes the possible relevance and efficacy of supplementary information or critical elucidation, but it does exclude what is now typical of state art and of the sad travesty now presented in Fine Art finals shows: things which cannot so much as pretend to bear meaning without elaborate and often absurd ‘explanation’ – alleged meaning which remains entirely unperceivable even when it is made known to the viewer. The requirement of perceivability can be fulfilled only if the materials constituting the work are raised to the status of a medium. The medium of painting, for example, is not just paint but paint as used in the art of painting. And paint functions as a medium only when its use is perceivable as such. However idiosyncratic or personal a particular pattern of use may be, it must produce what can be appropriately seen by the viewer, or else fail as a medium. It is here that we understand the centrality of a tradition within which the necessary perceptual capacities are cultivated through the production and reception of work which itself demands the exercise of those capacities – by both artist and viewers.

Culture, as I’ve put it in the Introduction to What is Wrong with Us?, is constituted by its own continuity; and the central duty of education, now extensively abandoned, is to sustain that continuity, which amounts to sustaining us. Traditions are the particular institutions, the social organisms of continuity, needing cultivation and nourishment. The visual tradition was once supported (with varying levels of efficacy!) by the work of the art schools. But the collectivized zombies, the living-dead remnants of the art schools, have joined the apparatchiks of state art in their murderous assault on that tradition.

A few recent exhibitions remind us again of how recently the tradition was in a state of vigorous health, and how recently it has been not quite broken, as I nearly said, but marginalized in the sight of the state-art establishment. One is the recent Paul Nash exhibition, although, despite Nash’s great importance and achievement, one might have found in some of its constituents portents of a failure of cultural nerve in the decades following his death. Another, titled The Mythic Method, was at Pallant House. Its subtitle, Classicism in British Art 1920-1950, is actually a little misleading as to the contents, which include the work not just of classicists as usually understood, but also, for example, of Edward Burra, Ceri Richards and Wyndham Lewis, the last represented by a particularly fine portrait.

A much smaller exhibition at Felix & Spear, Viewpoints, furnishes a recent example of the resilience of the tradition, still defying the malevolence of the state-art establishment. Organized by Peter Clossick, it displayed one recent work by each of sixteen members of the London Group, of which he is a past president.  Four of these were contemporaries or near-contemporaries as students at Camberwell School of Art between the mid-1970s and the beginning of the 80s: Julie Held, David Tebbs, Susan Wilson and Clossick himself. In picking out these painters, I imply no disrespect for the admirable work of the other exhibitors. But these four are particularly interesting to me in the present context, partly because I am very familiar with their work, but also because they all insist on the importance of the discipline of observational drawing, which was still maintained vigorously at Camberwell when they were students there, although it was already sinking to varying depths of dereliction, corruption, deformation or outright destruction in many, probably most, art schools. From their shared grounding in that discipline has evolved the individuality of quite different, though inter-congenial, artistic personalities – demonstrating that disciplined study, far from flattening individuality, is what supplies the means of realizing it. They have received none of the support, still less the imbecile adulation, lavished on the Hirsts, Emins, Lucases, Creeds etc., but have continued with their serious and life-enhancing work, not in the easiest of circumstances, during the thirty-five years or more since they were at Camberwell. A model for such long-sustained effort could have been provided by one of their most respected mentors there, Tony Eyton, who also had a small painting in the exhibition. Now in his mid-nineties, Eyton has enjoyed considerable success, and  – not only in my opinion – among the most distinguished painters of the last half-century, he continues to be ignored by the state-art establishment.

A small solo exhibition of paintings by Peter Clossick, also at Felix & Spear, will run through May, under the title of ‘Spirit & Matter’, words which evoke Bomberg’s well-known references to ‘the spirit in the mass’. Clossick’s painting immediately brings to mind the work of Auerbach and Kossoff, of that growth within ‘the great tradition’ which owed so much of its strength to the example and teaching of David Bomberg. Far from being a fault or weakness, it is greatly to Clossick’s credit – central to his strength as a painter – that he does not self-consciously will himself to deviate from their example, by seeking novelty for the sake of novelty in a factitious show of differentiating his work from theirs. He knows that, for the painter, true individuality arises, unforced, only from participation in a shared visual culture, which sustains the media of thought within which individuality evolves. His painting embodies an individual sensibility all the more powerfully, because it does not rely on meretricious contrivance. He is not bamboozled by the contemporary crassness that confuses novelty with originality.

We might approach his painting by returning to the understanding of drawing as embodied action, which I endeavoured to elucidate earlier. Of course, if this is right, it is not just true, but, in a broad sense of ‘logical’, logically true – true of all drawing, including smoothly finished presentation drawings, and not only of drawing which ostentatiously exhibits the physicality of its production. It is therefore true of all painting; or, if we wish to exercise pre-emptive intellectual caution, at least of all representational painting. But this necessary truth gains a kind of visually exhibited emphasis or salience in Clossick’s painting. It is as if the painter wants to retain, or reconstitute, the early impulse of drawing in the final painting, the kind of drawing which Augustus John’s ‘note’ brings to mind, in which the action of representing finds an obvious image in the clear trace of physical action in the decisively drawn line.

Typically, space as depicted in Clossick’s painting asserts its significance through the vigour with which it is invoked in the constructed morphology of the paint surface. The thick paint retains the texture which records the movement of the brush or other implement applying it, so that we have a very immediate sense not simply that a complex structure is described as something that was there, but that it has been reconstructed or reimagined in and through the process of making the painting.

Our perception of space has an essential kinaesthetic dimension, and even when we are just sitting still, that element is integrated into our perceptions – at least subliminally – through memory and imagination, as potential movement. An important aspect of Clossick’s painterly idiom is that it enables such potentiality to be made explicit and salient in the construction of the painting itself, in the gestures embodied in the highly worked surface of the paint. Provided that the depicted space is established by the disposition of sufficiently recognizable forms, it is possible for imagined movement through that space to be embodied in gestures that are not constrained by an imperative exactly to follow a specific form, or which, in following it, withdraw from explicit or determinate definition, to register the less focal character of the attention we give to parts of what we perceive. A clear example of this is provided by Clossick’s painting in the group exhibition: Santon, a vertical-format painting of a reclining female nude. She lies back on a bed, or bed-like raised surface with red covering; her feet are towards us, her right leg crossed over her left, the foot approximately touching the virtual picture plane, so that it is life size. Although it is so close to the viewer, however, the foot is remote from the psychological centre of the attention we give to a person, and, being so close, can be – literally – overlooked. Though not in itself the subject of focal attention, it is at the culmination of a powerful visual thrust towards the viewer from the knee, drawn with an emphatic sweeping thick line, or visual pathway, of dark paint, as much movement through space as description of form in space. At its culmination, that movement is turned back into the virtual space, by the equally emphatic and inventive drawing of the foot – or not so much of the foot, which is rendered with conviction but quite indeterminately, as of that counter-movement itself, as if the foot’s significance lies mainly in its being at a major articulation of the spatial construction. The movement is picked up by an emphatic, but depictionally inscrutable, mark running back from us across the surface of the bed, bringing this space defining movement to rest. This complex movement – from the knee, turning at the foot and back to a point on the bed near to the model’s left hip – marks a kind of semi-enclosure in which the space seems to take on a kind of virtual substantiality or ‘density’ of its own – a quality hard to describe but characteristic of Clossick’s painting.

Movement of many kinds is inseparable from human life in all its aspects, and does, of course, take place in time. But a painting is realized in a static object, and cannot simulate movement or the passage of time. To mention this particular ‘incapacity’ is to remind ourselves that representation is surrogacy in respect of movement no more than in respect of physical objects or space. The representation of movement in painting or sculpture is a big topic. But here, in discussing Clossick’s work, I’m concerned not so much with the representation of physical movement in depicted objects as with the movements of thought or perceptual attention involved in the painter’s engagement with his subject-matter, including, but not confined to, the relatively straightforward example given above of imagined movement through the depicted space.

Clossick usually works on his painting in the presence of its subject, often scraping a painting down at the end of a session, so that only its ‘ghost’ remains when he returns to it. This does not mean that the session was wasted; and the ‘ghost’ serves as the site of further exploration, gathering to itself the memory of what went before and prompting the finer articulation of what is still inchoate. Each session is a stage in the process whereby the painter is getting to know the subject better (including the subjectivity of the human subject), discovering what he thinks about it, gradually bringing into focus his thoughts about its visual and emotional complexity, and finding ways of dealing with them. He tries to reach a point where the perceptual explorations have, as it were, reached a kind of conclusion, and settled themselves into a stable resolution or crystallization which embodies their discoveries and memorializes the process.

The ease of moving between varying levels of representational determinacy is exploited (not necessarily in a highly self-conscious way) in Raft (earlier titled Carol Floating), which depicts an unclothed woman reclining on what appears to be a bed, which is resting on, not to say nestling in, what it’s irresistible to call a ‘sea’ of broad blue brush marks, which can certainly be ‘read’ as water, but can equally be understood to signify the desultory movements of Carol’s dozing mind, projecting an unresolved image of water, as she dreams of being afloat and drifting away. Here it is as if the painter seeks to incorporate the subjectivity of the model in the construction of the painting.

This empathic relationship with his human subjects is revealed in many of Clossick’s paintings. One I particularly admired when I saw it some months ago at the Anna Lovely Gallery is Sophia, a tender, sympathetically observed image of vulnerability, which seems to me to have fully achieved that state of ‘stable resolution’. This painting, in my judgement, is one which exemplifies the virtue and individuality of Clossick’s sensibility especially strongly. It also, incidentally, is one where he seems even closer to Bomberg than to Auerbach or Kossoff. The quality of sympathy is especially important in an earlier painting, the portrait of Trevor Aston, who was a close friend of the painter, a troubled man of some distinction whose life ended tragically.

In conclusion, I return to my starting point in the thought that Clossick seeks to ‘retain or reconstitute the early impulse of drawing in the final painting’. The technique of ‘thick’ painting seems to facilitate that, since it allows for redrawing or additional drawing, even at a late stage, by working freely into the un-dried or semi-dried paint. This engenders a quality of directness equivalent to the directness achieved with ‘drawing materials’. It also accommodates the registration of varying levels of determinacy in the depiction of different elements in the depicted scene, corresponding to the different levels or kinds of attention occurring in our actual experience. In some passages, a close inspection reveals something surprisingly close to line drawing, as in the heads, for example, in Raft and in Santon – drawing which is delicate, and even detailed to perhaps an unexpected degree. Being worked into the surface of the paint, rather than merely superimposed on it, this drawing integrates itself seamlessly into the broad structure of the painting, just as different levels of determinacy come together seamlessly in our perceptions of the world.


For relative ease of exposition, I’ve written almost entirely about drawing and painting, and I apologize if this has not achieved ease of comprehension. But I think it worth adding a brief postscript about sculpture. For of course, the discipline of drawing is as vital to sculpture as to painting, especially if we make a small and natural extension of the denotation of ‘drawing’.

It is no longer necessary to enter art galleries to observe directly the consequences of the abandonment of drawing. For some time, public spaces have displayed ‘substitutes for sculpture’, to adapt Augustus John’s phrase, in the form of objects made from body casts, by Marc Quinn and other culprits. In addition to this we now have, in the technology of three-dimensional scanners, another ‘substitute for drawing’, the misuse of which is already polluting public spaces with parodies of sculpture, by such as Mark Wallinger. These ‘sculptors’ are completely untouched by any understanding, intellectual or intuitive, of sculptural form. The very notion seems beyond the grasp of them or their supporters. Wallinger’s ‘sculptures’, for example, have all the sculptural energy of petrified blancmange.

Eric Coombes
The Jackdaw