Painting the Landscape

In conversation with Jake Attree

Painting The Landscape is this month’s theme for Messums Northern views and we are delighted to invite the artist Jake Attree for our first interview.

Born in York, where Jake first studied painting, he graduated from Liverpool College of art and went on to study at Royal Academy Schools. He is now living in the popular Village, Saltaire in North Yorkshire, with his art studio located at Dean Clough, Halifax.

A poet of painting, Attree celebrates the art of suggestion through his evocation of North Yorkshire’s cities and landscapes:

“I was initially, and still am deeply influenced by the art of northern Europe, principally because, I suppose, I am northern European. The light Rubens responded to in seventeenth-century Flanders, later influenced Constable in nineteenth-century Suffolk, and later still, Constable opened my eyes to the flat water meadow-surrounded city of York.”

Given the variety of landscape in Yorkshire, can there ever be one representation of Yorkshire? If you had to choose, which would it be?  

No, I don’t think there can ever be one representation of Yorkshire with examples of work as diverse as Turner, Ginner, Hockney, Laura Knight, Lisa Dracup and Constance Pearson, her daughter and granddaughter, Philippa and Katharine Holmes.  It seems to be a county that inspires wide and varied responses.

If I had to choose one image, well, John Sell Cotman’s “The Drop Gate, Duncombe Park” seems pretty good, as does Turner’s “Frosty Morning”, which I believe developed from drawings made around Farnley Hall near Otley.

Are you influenced by the cultural landscape? Do you feel a responsibility to paint Yorkshire proud?  

I think we are all influenced by the cultural landscape, whether we choose to be or not.  I think Igor Stravinsky said “I am the vessel through which The Rite passed”.  If we are artists of integrity and authenticity, I feel that to be a pretty accurate observation.

John Constable, a big influence on me, observed: “I shall always paint my own places best.” and I feel that is the case for me also.  So, if not “proud”, then perhaps I would rather say “paint Yorkshire true”.

Has there been a shift in aesthetics about what sort of landscape/view appeals to you and or your audience?  

If there has been a shift in aesthetics, I am not conscious of it.  I am aware that I do not want to go on always making the same kind of work but that really is not some conscious, analytical decision but rather a purely intuitive one and one which I am really not aware of until the work is hung on the wall; and by that, I mean I have no idea how the work will look until it is completed or, rather, I should say, until circumstance dictates I leave it alone.   As to my audience, I am not really aware that I have one.

Looking at the landscape we think first about its strength, of course now we are more than ever aware of its fragility, is that something that has entered your thinking and work?   

This must sound as though I am not cognisant of anything when I am painting and, in a way, that is true: my complete focus is on making the painting work as a painting and not as some kind of statement.  Having said that, any landscape painter of value would inevitably make work that expressed something that somehow reflected the physical and emotional climate of the time in which they were working.

Whilst making the transcriptions after Bruegel, I began to be aware that these beautiful paintings were being made whilst the plague was raging across Europe and yet we are still here, so, without in any way failing to recognise the tragic impact of the current pandemic, I feel there is a message of hope here.  We do, however, have some very big issues to address and it seems to me the painting of landscape is one means of articulating a deep connection to and a kind of reverence for our planet.  To quote David Bomberg, painting for him was “the celebration of a memorable hour”.