Artist by nature displays in King's Lynn
IAN COLLINS Pictures by Kurt Jackson, Cornwall's leading landscape painter, depict a walk on the wild side and an elemental adventure on the edge of England. Ian Collins celebrates a new showing in King's Lynn.
More than 160 years ago, Britain's most celebrated painter was tied to the mast of a ship as it laboured through a gale out of Harwich – to produce one of his best works.
Bequeathed to the Tate, Turner's Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth is a chilling and thrilling affair, a maelstrom of pigment recording a wild encounter from which the artist declared himself lucky to escape with his life.
Even if there was a touch of artistic licence in the telling of this stirring story, 19th century landscape artists were at one with nature, walking and riding to favoured scenes and often being burned, drenched or frozen by their efforts to portray the very essence of England.
Now Kurt Jackson, Cornwall's leading landscape painter and resident artist at the Glastonbury Festival, is evoking the spirit of Turner in exhilarating pictures which remind us that our greatest adventure is – or should be – with the world beyond our window.
The touring exhibition Porth, which reaches the King's Lynn Art Centre today after a journey from Newlyn via Worcester and a platform of Paddington station, is an intense focus on a single Cornish cove and a broad plea for environmentalism.
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Kurt met his wife Caroline when they were both zoology students at Oxford, then they trekked for a year across Africa before settling in the far west of Cornwall so that an emerging artist could be immersed in remote and rugged scenery loved intensely from childhood.
The Jackson home on the Penwith peninsula is in an ancient landscape of standing stones and crumbling tin mines.
Walk around the local town of St Just and you can find yourself turning from a modern street into a Celtic amphitheatre used for medieval mystery plays.
For a series of sell-out shows in London, Kurt has wandered into superb landscapes from the abandoned Scilly isle of Samson to tracts of the South of France way beyond the map of modern mass tourism.
His exploration of woods in Cornwall and Oxfordshire has won him the friendship of environmental writer Richard Mabey, who now lives near Diss and has written: "Perhaps most impressive is his painterly translation of the ecology of wild places.
"In his woodland studies the patterns of light and shade, the thickness and invasiveness of the paint, the sudden detonations of colour and embryonic forms, echo the vitality of the natural processes they signify."
For this exhibition Kurt has meditated purely on the seascape closest to his home – Priest Cove on Cape Cornwall, England's most westerly natural harbour, where he has a studio in an old boatshed.
He walks around his featured area to get the lie of the land, then works on drawings in all weathers. Paint can drip like rain down his canvases.
Sand, grit and a beachcomber's haul are incorporated into atmospheric pictures that may be vast (up to 10x20 ft) in scale, while the absorbed artist is also gradually daubed with pigment.
In Catch the Light a string mesh dances above a seascape recalling the fishing industry on which coastal Cornwall so long relied.
In All That Remains, a fisherman's waterproof overalls have been washed on to the tide line - suggesting the loss of a man, a boat or an entire industry.
Words, sometimes in Cornish, can be printed or scribbled across these canvases – as in 'Moved by a wave' or 'Do you ever wonder what's out there'. Messages and questions underpin every picture.
A drama is being played on that elemental point where land, sea and sky meet, and where the last rocks of England fall into the Atlantic. Strongly authentic Cornish colours (red earth, piercingly blue sea) are out of this world.
The artist sometimes appears like a latter-day warrior in these images, seemingly doing battle with the scenery he is trying to honour in art.
Each work records a monumental struggle to capture the sensation of being alive in a particular setting.
Really, however, the fight is with all that is conspiring to ruin the world – local and globalised pollution and all-consuming development.
Green pictures support green politics. "Living in one of the windiest places in England, within sight of Land's End, we now get all our household energy from a windmill in the garden and we export surplus power to the national grid," says Kurt.
His back-to-nature message is carefully attuned to the human condition and the challenge of preserving the planet for the sake – and the survival – of humankind.
Proper environmentalism, after all, is a most philanthropic pursuit and part of an overall picture in which the artist is also an ardent campaigner for Aids relief in Africa (the divine Joanna Lumley auctioning his donated work at one recent charity sale).
Pondering the pictorial story of Porth I think of how for the last two centuries the most exciting areas for home-grown artists have been the easterly and westerly edges of England. Norfolk and Cornwall are closer than some people think.
But in the end these images are universal.
As the art critic John Russell Taylor writes: "Heart and mind, and, dare one say, soul are finely, inextricably fused in Kurt Jackson's art, and we are all the beneficiaries."
t Kurt Jackson's Porth is in the Shakespeare Barn Gallery of King's Lynn Art Centre until October 30. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10-5. Admission free. Works are for sale. www.kingslynnarts.co.uk