I was pulled up short on my meandering around the Fitzwilliam when my breathe was snatched by James Dickson Innes's 'Arenig Fawr'. I am not a stranger to the work of Innes, for a brief period in my younger days I could quote at length from Holroyd's Augustus John and consequently was well aware of John's friendship and painting adventures with Innes. The joy this painting emanates is amazing, it's full of vigour and confidence, it's brilliant, it's a motivator. A trip was required, and it was not long after Oxford that the car was parked up on the A4212 to Bala just above Nant Ddu.
Tea was taken with Mr and Mrs Jones at Rhyd-y-fen farm, followed by a walk along the black brook and then out onto the Migneint that stretches beneath the inspiring Arenig Fawr. The moors and the mountains are immutable but pretty much everything else is gone. Arenig railway station where Innes met John from the train has completely vanished, closed in 1960 and the site cleared. The cottage, the two rented at Nant Ddu for ten pounds a year,on the bank of the stream below the railway track was demolished in the 1980's. Washington Davies, the host at Rhyd-y-fen eventually went bankrupt and the Inn reverted to being a farmhouse, which it is today.
When Innes and John began their Welsh adventure and first established themselves at Nant-Ddu they were soon joined by Derwent Lees, these three are sometimes 'The Arenig School'. Between 1911 and 1913, two Welshmen and an Australian made British painting an exciting adventure. Days were spent in long treks across moorland and arduous mountain climbs, all in search of the moment. Innes adopted from John a style of alla prima painting, working rapidly in oils on small wooden panels, this borrowed technique Innes made entirely his own. Innes was never a strong draughtsmen, unlike John, at times this lack of facility seemed to impede his progress. In the mountains he found himself free from convention and this newly acquired technique allowed him to manipulate his medium with great verve and dexterity. He quickly developed his signature style, strong directional brushstrokes, strokes which conveyed speed of application but which are nevertheless assured and deliberate. He creates the illusion of a detailed observation by the application of small swift strokes, dabs of paint which are counter directional to produce a staccato effect against the underpainting. His use of the 'running' line and his 'Fauvist' palette bring Derain to mind but he has more in common with Maurice Denis. In the symbolist scheme the persona of the painter is responsible for translating universal truths into paint on canvas. The best of Innes is always invested with commitment and his artistic and passionate personality has a distinct visual form. In Arenig, Innes found his Mount Fujii, and as Cezanne had appropriated Mont Saint Victoire, so Innes appropriated Arenig. 'Mynedd Arenig remained his sacred mountain, and the slopes of the Migneint his spiritual home'. Innes was cursed with the 'artists disease', tuberculosis, he died aged 27. Had his career been longer he would have occupied a position as significant as that of other outstanding individual talents such as Matthew Smith and Stanley Spencer.
AGED AND AWKWARD