Stamp of success for architectural art

Ian Collins Earlier in the summer an American private jet landed at Norwich Airport, and when it left again it carried not a passenger but a painting - a new work by Gerard Stamp, destined to hang among modernist masterpieces in a major New York collection.

Ian Collins

Earlier in the summer an American private jet landed at Norwich Airport, and when it left again it carried not a passenger but a painting - a new work by Gerard Stamp, destined to hang among modernist masterpieces in a major New York collection.

That might seem slightly strange company for the Norfolk artist to keep, seeing that his immaculate images in watercolour and charcoal celebrate the romantic tradition in British art in general and the legacy of early 19th century Norwich School master John Sell Cotman in particular.

But it is proof of how highly his pictures are now prized. The Stamp of success, so to speak.

In September you can watch him at work in his Gunton Park studio near North Walsham, in a series of four television documentaries on the life of Edward Seago and the ongoing concerns of the landscape artist, to be aired on both Anglia and Sky.

Better still is his latest solo exhibition. It opens at Burnham Grapevine Gallery this Saturday, August 23.

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Aptly titled Mediaeval, the show salutes forgotten masons from the Middle Ages who adorned our landscape with sublime clerical buildings - from the Fen churches beloved of Sir John Betjeman (West Walton, Wiggenhall St Margaret) and the towering splendour of Salle, Cawston, Eye and Long Melford, to a congregation of cathedrals (Norwich, Ely, Durham, Winchester).

“Gerard Stamp turns architecture into art,” writes Simon Jenkins in the catalogue. “He converts stone and brick, light and shadow, the tilt of a roof and the line of a wall into a living, exhilarating picture.

“His eye for the power of style is unerring, whether the fluting on a pillar or the tracery in a window. He gives depth and character to the simplest buttress or the blandest patch of limestone. Above all, his pictures evoke the mystery of English churches.”

And the author of England's Thousand Best Churches - who takes over as chairman of the National Trust in November - protests that otherwise ancient churches are nowadays “dismissed as preaching boxes or social centres, properties that present their users with nothing but costly problems.

“Their historic role as galleries of vernacular art - and the role of their creators as artists - has long been ignored in the onward march of specialist curatorship. Most of England's finest ecclesiastical art has been removed to national museums. Only the architecture remains.”

Yet Gerard Stamp shows that “the only true museum - and every church is in part a museum - is one filled by local people who have used and improved it day by day, one that embodies their memories and their achievements.

“In his depiction of churches great and small he celebrates the most genuine English art, that of the church, and does so in terms that genuine English artists would applaud.”

And all lovers of the East Anglian landscape will surely add their cheer.

Mediaeval: Watercolours and Drawings by Gerard Stamp is at Burnham Grapevine Gallery, Overy Road, Burnham Market, Norfolk PE31 8HH (01328 730125; www.burnhamgrapevine.co.uk) until September 13. Catalogues cost £2.50 including postage.