Bristol in south west England is famous for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and completed in 1864. It spans a deep gorge in which flows the River Avon (also known as the Bristol Avon to avoid confusion with other rivers of the same, like the one that runs through Shakespeare country.)
I’ve visited Bristol on and off over the years but I became especially intrigued by it’s river when I stayed in the city whilst exhibiting at the Other Art Fair at Temple Meads Station in 2018. (The exhibition space took place in an old railway terminus, also built by Brunel.)
My lodgings were in the district of Totterdown, a residential area well known for it’s colourfully painted houses. The fifteen minute walk to the venue and back each day included a jaunt over the Bristol Avon that featured a splendid view of the river gently curving away with an urban skyline. The time of day and tidal ranges produced many different effects in the scene with each journey.
From this view there are no famous landmarks, just a leafy river nestled alongside a fairly ordinary looking urban backdrop. It was precisely this unassuming quality - rooted in a real localised place - that I found most appealing appealing. The countrified waterway and foliage gave me a mind’s eye impression of a green belt zone, where the urban sprawl of housing and carparks reach a city limit. This perspective is present in my other work such as the River Lea landscapes flowing through undistinguished but potential-laden areas in East London. City rivers and waterways, often removed from an industrial and commercial past, continue to be assets because they bring renewal, new practical needs and spiritual growth… and ideas for painting.
I produced two studio paintings overlooking the river measuring 60 x 80 cm. At low tide the river displayed an interplay of sharp silhouettes, glittering water and muddy banks which were immediately stark yet uplifting. The challenge for me was in keeping detail to a minimum to avoid overpainting and losing freshness.
Bristol Avon I has a glassy mirrored image of the sky contained inside it, which reminds me slightly of the Thames Television ident. When preparing a landscape composition an artist has to decide between the ratio of sky and ground. A fifty-fifty split creates a too balanced composition that deadens the visual effect. For this painting I went with a large sky... the dark cloud had a great influence on the scene, especially with a champagne coloured lining, where I wanted a to create a sense of drama.
Rivers represent places of settlement, of journeys and of mysteries. My experience of the Bristol Avon gave me an insight into a the interplay between all those things.
Bristol Avon I will be showing at the Elevate exhibition at Duff & Phelps with ArtCan at the Shard 6 Feb - 30 April.