River runs through the imagination

April 15, 2005

Artist John Virtue has returned to London to find a city he once abandoned overflowing with inspiration, says Steve Farrar

One January morning just over two years ago, a thickset middle-aged man climbed to the roof of Somerset House and stood watching the Thames as it flowed through the jagged urban landscape of London.

From his vantage point high over the river's north bank, he noticed its structure within the grid of the city, how it seethed with life inside its manmade banks, how its mood changed with the light the sky decided to lend it, how the tides pulled its water in and out. And he quietly drew what he saw in a little sketchbook.

An hour earlier, the same man had stood unnoticed on the opposite bank, watching and sketching.

The next day he was back, and the next. This continued until just a few months ago, each session ending with a walk back to a Stygian studio in the bowels of the National Gallery where some remarkable images slowly took shape.

Black ink, white titanium acrylic and shellac rolled, lapped and splashed across a succession of giant canvases to reanimate that river, the overgrown city around it and the brooding sky above.

The Thames has been many things to many people. For John Virtue, professor of fine art at Plymouth University, it has proved a source of inspiration that has helped him enrich the National Gallery with his startling monochrome riverscapes.

"It isn't London - it's the Thames that fascinates me," he says. "I'm trying to make sense of the visceral, the pulsating, the dynamic nature of being by the river within all the traffic, all the noise and all the pollution. I'm trying to conjure up something that excites me."

Last month, two exhibitions of his London work opened in the capital - 12 giant paintings at the National and more than 100 of his sketches at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House. The critics are impressed and the public enthralled. His friend Simon Schama, the art historian, has written an essay for the exhibition catalogue. Virtue's career is on something of a flood tide.

Since Virtue started as an associate artist at the National his vision and work ethic have enabled him to far exceed everyone's expectations. When we met, just weeks before the opening, Virtue was still working on an enormous canvas - 8.5m by 4m - that shows the great sweep of the river as viewed from Greenwich Park.

This was not part of the plan. The National exhibition was supposed to consist of just eight canvases. But an autumn boat trip compelled him to add another piece to the collection. And that was in addition to the three extra paintings he had produced of Nelson's Column, after chancing on a wonderful view from the gallery roof of the iconic monument to his hero.

The National has fired Virtue's imagination since his childhood. He still recalls his first visit as a schoolboy in 1964.

"It's been a 40-year love affair," he admits. "Koninck, Ruisdael, Gainsborough, Turner, Constable - there are certain paintings in this gallery that I'm in love with."

So every Friday, heedless of other demands, he would make time for a two-hour "audience" with the National's collection. Paul Moorhouse, curator of the Tate collection, notes: "He was placing himself and his work in the shadow of the artists he revered."

London has proved an inspirational place for Virtue. But it was not always so. At 17, he moved from the Lancashire countryside to study at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. When he quit four years later, he destroyed his entire body of work and returned to the North West.

"I was too young. I didn't feel I was mature enough in any way," he says.

"You should go to college when you're old enough, perhaps in your mid 20s as a postgraduate."

Despite this setback, Virtue continued to pursue the dream he had had since he used oils to copy a picture of St Giles' Cathedral, Newcastle, on New Year's Eve 1961.

As a boy, he had been encouraged and guided by Alan Butcher, an art teacher at his small grammar school in the defunct cotton town of Accrington. Now he was back home, seeking fresh inspiration in the familiar countryside of northeast Lancashire.

For a spell, Virtue lectured at Liverpool Polytechnic. He then worked as a postman for seven years while he struggled to establish himself as a full-time painter, a goal he achieved in 1985. By this time, his distinctive monochrome style had developed and all colour had been excluded from his palette.

He moved to the edge of Dartmoor and then on to the Exe estuary. In 1995, his reputation growing, Virtue was invited to teach at the Exeter campus of Plymouth University. He soon became a fellow.

His eye was now directed towards the Exe. He would regularly walk a 25km route along the river with that driven discipline that later characterised his working practice in London to find the material to feed his hunger for the epic landscape.

During this time, he proved a talented teacher, giving his students more than the benefit of his understanding and experience.

Jeremy Diggle, a former colleague and now associate dean for research at Plymouth's faculty of arts, recalls Virtue's impact on those around him.

"The most important thing any teacher can impart is a sense of enthusiasm," Diggle says. "Students gain so much through their exposure to their peers and the teachers who get them to learn and push the boundaries. It is fantastic to see them 'switch on' and it is charismatic people like John who are able to do that."

Steven Parissien, dean of the faculty, regards Virtue as a natural communicator and talented practitioner of art who proved an inspiration to his students.

"He opens out the academic experience and is someone who obviously enjoys contact with the real world," he says. "He is a marvellous example for our students."

The excitement Virtue prompts is reciprocated. "I'm always amazed at how wonderful young people are," he says. "They're like sponges and are unblinkered even if they often seem conservative with a small c. I find what they say fascinating and inspiring.

"I would hope, though, that most of them would think I was a boring old fart." This seems unlikely.

Despite his enthusiasm, Virtue stopped teaching in 1999. "Teaching seems the pinnacle of human activity - what could be more important than the exchange of ideas?" he asks. "But there is a dilemma between the time it takes to teach properly and the remorseless tyranny of painting. Teaching is an incredible profession but it is one I've chosen not to pursue in favour of my obsessions as a painter."

Furthermore, he feels that going to university has little to do with becoming an artist per se. "Academic learning is, at best, something to react against," he says. "Being an artist is a life experience - if you accept the wisdom within the confines of academe, you fail."

That leaves inspiration and perspiration. "Unless you ruthlessly exploit whatever ability you have, you won't achieve anything. The more you work, the more you find."

Virtue's links with Plymouth University are still strong, though. He gives its academics exclusive access to his archival material, submits reports on what he has been doing and delivers the occasional lecture. One of his canvases hangs in the vice-chancellor's office.

Plymouth has contributed towards the London exhibitions and Parissien's links with Yale have contributed to plans to exhibit the pictures next year at the US Ivy League university.

And, of course, many of Plymouth's art students have been travelling to London to see the exhibition.

Virtue has now moved to the city. When he accepted the temporary post at the National - "inspired by hubris" - he planned to remain in Exeter. But London has drawn him in. Perhaps Virtue has absorbed too much of it, studied its shape too deeply and found his own place within its landscape.

He has certainly discovered inspiration there, in its forms, in its river and in the great works in its galleries.

John Virtue: London Paintings is at the National Gallery and London Drawings is at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, both in London, until June 5.

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