The Gritty Side Of Beauty

AS a child in the industrial city of Sheffield, England, Bill Ward recalls that he ``used to play by `Salmon Pastures.' ''

``Salmon Pastures'' was far from being some idyllic rural setting. ``It was a hot, bubbly stream - a river,'' Ward says, ``that was used for curing steel.'' It was the color of stout. ``There were no environmentalists then to object to it!''

But it never struck him that anything horrendous was happening. In fact, such things as slag heaps and tall chimneys belching out dense clouds of smoke, soot that blackened every surface and texture, unbelievably close-packed rows of houses and warehouses, were not only part of the rigorous reality and experience of home, but also could be seen as beautiful. The form of a great coal heap could be the stuff of art, grist for the pictorial mill.

As John Constable had once said about his native Stour Valley in Suffolk, so Bill Ward might have said about the Sheffield he was brought up in: ``These scenes made me a painter.''

His small etching ``Brightside,'' made in the 1970s long after he had moved to London and only spent holidays in Sheffield, bears witness to his vigorous relish of the black-and-white cityscape he knew so well, and to his sense of its fierce vitality. Every inch of a Ward picture is packed with life, so much so that you do not immediately notice the general absence of people in them. People - such as those in Gustave Dors 19th-century illustrations of London, for example - would introduce an element of storytelling, of the anecdotal, which Ward leaves out because it can so easily become an overwhelming interest.

Structure is Ward's consuming concern, not the dramas and characters of human beings. In ``Brightside,'' perhaps there are some figures suggested along the street, but they are reduced to mere dashes of line, of no significance; and the only other evidence of human presence in this deeply perspectived conglomeration of chimneys and buildings are the serried ranks of gravestones in the foreground churchyard. This picture, like most of Ward's, is a confrontation between him and the bare bones of his chosen subject matter.

Ward is first and foremost a draftsman. His intense interest in structure is expressed through drawing, through strong, hard, emphatic line, in the downright conviction of pencil, brush, etching needle, or chalk firmly directed and stringently applied. He has drawn continuously ever since childhood. He drew at every possible opportunity during the year he was at sea as a young man. He drew when he took on various other jobs not directly connected with art before World War II. He drew whenever he could right through the war, in England, France, and Burma, accumulating a great many drawings that he still has and that should be of extreme interest to historians of the war.

As the son of a news agent, Ward had easy access to magazine illustrations, and this stimulated his determination to draw. He remembers in particular the illustrations for such periodicals as Good Housekeeping, Wide World, and Passing Show. And he was also greatly impressed by sub-Remington kinds of drawings he found in Western magazines that came on ships from America, bundled as ballast and to be used as pulp. ``They knew how to draw horses!'' he says.

AFTER the war, Ward at last went to art school - in the school of engraving at London's Royal College of Art. Although etching was taught very traditionally, Ward recalls that even without having seen anything of the etching techniques of modernist printmaker S. W. Hayter, he and some of his fellow students shocked their teachers with all kinds of experimentalism. And when they finally saw Hayter's work later on, they thought it was not as novel or as difficult as people imagined.

During the 1950s, Ward was closely associated with several artists - some, like him, from Sheffield - who believed art should not have to do with romantic subject matter, or the beauties of faraway or picturesque places, but with the realities of kitchen and backyard, doorstep and curb, coal bunker and washing line, side street and corner shop. Among his friends - they were frequently in and out of each others' studios - were such artists as Jack Smith, Derrik Greaves, and Eddie Middleditch, whose grubby realism and domestic (if also somewhat sordid) subject matter, earned them the title ``Kitchen Sink'' painters.

These painters were friends but not a ``school'' in any formal sense, and while the three mentioned, who have become better known than Ward, all developed into abstract artists, Ward himself has not. At the time, however, none of them, Ward says, ``wanted to go abstract,'' and ``some of my colleagues made some amusing comments about abstract painters....''

The problem as Ward saw it in the '50s was to represent in painting something of what these artists felt about postwar Britain. He remembers coming out of the cinema in Sheffield and being struck forcibly by the difference between the lush romantic view of life in New York City or Los Angeles presented by Hollywood and ``there, down the hill, rows of pits and manufacturing places, great steaming chimneys....'' He and his friends used to laugh about the amateur painters who would fly to Spain in search of ``spots that can paint themselves'' because so obviously ``beautiful.''

But it was not only amateurs who would travel to exotic places looking for such things, and the ``kitchen sink'' painters, as well as equivalent artists in other parts of Europe at the time, introduced a needed and gritty antidote to such soft escapism. Ward puts it this way: ``Beauty's ever-present, it's all around, your own back garden provides quite enough for you if you really want it.''

In London, however, as opposed to his familiar home territory, Ward at first found it difficult to find his subject matter. ``Hammersmith Broadway,'' a collage and watercolor, gives an idea of what he eventually found. Again, the absence of people does not at first strike the viewer. The complex interplay of signs and poles, of crossings, beacons, and lights, of windows and doorways, all trapped beneath a veritable cage of wires for trolley-buses, and an overall suggestion of dank evening light, builds into an atmosphere and a locality that one feels the artist knew intimately.

Although at first sight the fragmented character of this collage image might suggest a debt to Cubism, in fact Ward's strongest formal tool in constructing his pictures has never been Cubist space, but the kind of space that perspective offers. He insists that perspective is a tool, ``a way of getting space, but not reality'' in a picture. ``The relationship of shapes and forms have a lot to do with the space in which they exist,'' he says, and it is perfectly clear that he knows what he is talking about: He has been a full-time teacher of art for a large part of his career.

``I don't like to construct a picture,'' he explains, ``which, if you shake it, it looks as if it will all fall down to the bottom of the frame. I like it to be well-stabilized and well-constructed, held together. Once you've got the flat structure laid out on your paper, that structure should relate to the third dimension as you go back from the surface of the design into the picture. So there are two structures. The surface structure is an indication of the third-dimensional structure.'' Then he adds with quiet but definite emphasis: ``I do give some thought to that.''

This explanation is, in fact, a key to appreciating Ward's pictures.

Ward now lives in East Anglia, England, not many miles from Constable country (on the Shotley Peninsula between the rivers Stour and Orwell). For the first time in his long career, he is finding landscape - and, incidentally, color - an intriguing possibility as a development for his art.

BUT what drew him and his sculptor wife, Joan, to this area, was boats. It is their structure and shape that engages him, ``because the sea and the wind and power that moves them still have powerful effects. It is these influences I find totally fascinating. But not only that. It is the fact that they are hollow, that you can see the inside and the out. That's why I often draw little boats: I can see inside and outside at the same time. And I have not in any way got near to what I want to say about that.''

While teaching, Ward found it easier to do illustrating work than his own paintings. In particular, he illustrated a series of publications by David Macgregor on sailing ships. He could work at it systematically in short bursts, yet he could not work at his own paintings in the same way at all. One thing he learned from this commission was that he could not work satisfactorily from photographs or models. Drawing from a model boat resulted in a drawing that looked like a model. Photographs, always from one angle only, never gave him the information about form that he needed. ``Bits one wanted to get round and look at with great care just weren't there or were smothered in tone,'' he says.

In his paintings, part of the information he wants to convey is the feel, weight, and substance of things, not just their appearance. He visited the part of East Anglia where he now lives while working on the MacGregor illustrations, in order to really see what ``old wooden ships looked like, splintered and so forth, and what rope really looks like, and canvas, its coarseness and heaviness.''

Ward's realistic view of boats might be an analogy for the realism of painting. ``I like the feel that if I draw a boat, the thing will sail! It's not going to go down to the bottom.'' And his paintings, likewise, have that determination not to shortchange or fudge the authentic, definite experience from which they have grown.

``Do you know,'' he says frankly, ``I haven't the faintest idea how to do a painting. When I start, it's just a blank bit of paper to glare at. I just take it, and I go back to the experience all the time.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The Gritty Side Of Beauty
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today