Dickon Hall - Retrospective

The world in which Colin Watson’s paintings are located is deliberately set outside the specifics of time and often, too, those of place. The figure paintings of the late 1990s that began to make his reputation were stripped of all unnecessary associations and avoided being pinned to a particular time or place, or to a particular readingof personality or narrative. Watson’s smaller paintings, usually head studies presented directly front-on or in profile, were concerned with tonal honesty and the suggestion of air and space around the head. This painstaking technical skill is also evident in the larger paintings of this period; the introduction of a second figure or certain props often suggested a narrative but the ambiguity of this, the simplicity of the objects or the room, even the use of the same model as different figures within the work, all assert that it is not open to a simple interpretation.

This is the human form and its environment as it has been depicted through history to make rich and meaningful associations. The artist has created abstract arrangements of shapes through their representation that have a meaning and an effect in themselves, as well as creating emotion and idea through the interaction of figures and through their gesture and action. This is closer to Watson’s intentions and while there are often more or less defined hints of narrative in Watson’s work it is rarely the driving force for the painting.

At that early stage, around the late 1990s and early 2000s, Colin Watson’s sympathy with the ancient art of Egypt and the Islamic world was less apparent, although these have been constant presences in his work, and these paintings seemed closer to Poussin, Balthus and Gwen John in their quiet momentousness and the sense of both solidity and the moment held in balance. Of course these artists drew from their own predecessors and found in the ancient world a search similar to their own. Thus there was also little need for them to find a subject matter specific to, and therefore also limited to, their own time. It is in this lengthy and illustrious tradition of known and anonymous artists who form a strangely united collaboration over thousands of years that Watson finds himself and his self-imposed challenge lies in the perpetuation and reinvigoration of this line.

The landscapes,which were drawn from places within Northern Ireland that he knew, that Watson paintedin a short series of complex large pictures of single figures and groups in sparse, dramatic settings, were more reminiscent of Balthus’ ‘La Montagne’ or of Poussin than other more typical images of the Ireland. His landscapes are a constant reminder of the vast and ancient lands that form a connecting part of the human experience across the world, rather than settings for local themes or events. The Ulster landscape rarely appears in Watson’s work. Travel was a central part of his life and early in his career he spent time in Kenya with the legendary traveller and writer Wilfred Thesiger and was commissioned to paint his portrait (now in the collection of the Royal Geographical Society, London). The works from these early journeys were generally concerned with the objects associated with the places he visited, as well as the landscapes and interiors with which he is now more strongly associated.

Through a series of large exhibitions held in London in the early 2000s Colin Watson’s involvement with Morocco, where he travelled several times a year, became a central part of his work. The intense light and deep shadows of the North African landscape and cities and its particular architecture allowed technical experimentation and an increased abstraction, while the simple but highly evocative shapes that made up the buildings, interiors and streets became crucial balancing and expressive shapes within paintings. Perhaps most importantly for the artist they held powerful associations with ancient worlds, enduring beliefs and cultural richness that provided a framework for Watson’s work.

While the indigenous art of North Africa, Persia and Egypt has been more influential for Watson than that of many of the Western artists who travelled and painted there, the work of Delacroix and Matisse and the example of their immersion in Morocco and Algeria has been important for him in part because they share the same awareness of the unchanging simplicity of life there and the unique visual qualities of the landscape.

The revelation of the eternal within the momentary is at the heart of many of these landscapes and streetscapes. The transient in Watson’s art is the transience of human experience, the momentary and fleeting nature of our contact with the physical world around us and the people around us, our fragmentary and unformed awareness of it. But within that, Watson is conscious that this shifting ambiguity is always connected to the history of humanity.

Colin Watson is unusual as an artist in the ease with which he has always moved between works of highly varying dimensions. The smaller figure paintings are typified by a sense of intimacy that often belies the rigorous formal arrangements around which they are structured. These paintings find a balance between this sense of austerity and architectural structure and the subtle ambiguity of interior dramas that recalls Vuillard both in mood and in the loosely descriptive brushwork, particularly when we see the dry surface of Watson’s casein tempera paintings.

Alongside these works several series of large paintings took shape that were at the heart of each exhibition. These were often multi-figure allegorical compositions, where the landscape became as crucial as the people within it. While the elements of the composition relate to the physical world, the simplification of form that characterises them creates universal symbols that represent the natural landscape in a mythical form and present a timeless human narrative; while our understanding is shaped by what is familiar to us and a unifying experience of life, the works ultimately point to the transcendent.

The connection with the ancient, indeed with many periods of history, in Watson’s work is often commented on and it is arguably only through this sense of continuity that the enduring and meaningful elements of the contemporary world are understood. The unchanging human form and the resilient natural world provides a vocabulary of abstract shapes that suggest the outline of what has formed them and that bear the weight of its meaning. The gestures or poses of a group of figures can be concerned with a particular moment or drama, but they also relate to meanings that go beyond those people or that time and carry the weight of a history of human existence as well as of instructive artistic references. Similarly, a pool suggests and defines certain actions and moods as well as representing the broadest allegorical and metaphorical meanings of water. The physical world we experience is the only medium through which we can approach the eternal, despite its insufficiencies.


To deepen his understanding of the principles through which this can be explored Watson spent a month copying in the Louvre for three consecutive years, between 2002 and 2004. The choice of the paintings that he decided to work from is revealing; the 14th century Avignon Pieta is a masterpiece of spiritual expression whose formal restraint intensifies its emotional power. He also copied two paintings by Poussin, Et In Arcadia Ego and The Inspiration of the Poet. Poussin is an artist whose presence can be found throughout Watson’s work and his examination and simplification of the abstract rhythms that connect the spaces and forms of these work clearly led to revelations that Watson brought back to his own work at a point when the large, multi-figure composition, often set in a landscape, became of increasing interest.


Much as the Poussin Et In Arcadia Ego presents an ideal world that is primarily expressed through its formal harmonies and balance, Watson’s large paintings often present a world similar to ours but do not relate to any specific place, unlike many modern artists who have found their idyll in the interpretation of a particular landscape. Like Poussin, Watson uses the formal language of painting to create a landscape defined by order and permanence that reveals the working of the invisible and eternal powers in our world. It seems concrete and tangible yet we are conscious it is only the imagined worldly form taken by this spiritual or emotional exploration.

The time spent in front of these masterpieces allowed Watson to go far beyond the imitation or replication of the appearance alone of these works and to establish the hieratic in both landscape and human form, to see how human existence has interacted with the physical world to create something enduring, an expression of the awareness of a deeper meaning to which it is inherently related.

Colour has become an increasingly expressive element within Watson’s work. The restrained tones and dense, highly worked surfaces of his earlier work were concerned with creating a truer depiction of the scene, the reality of human presence and its interaction with the surroundingspaces and materials. Air became tangible as it defined form and light described texture. Around 2006, Watson began to use casein tempera, a medium rarely seen today, and more associated with fresco painting of the ancient world, perhaps with Egypt above all, although it was also used by Balthus in the second part of the twentieth century. Colour began to take on a more metaphorical and less local and naturalistic role, and there was a strong emotional impact in the intensity and purity of tone that began to dominate Watson’s work. In addition, the dryness and dustiness of the paint surface was enormously effective in rendering the experience of North African streets and landscapes and the dazzling intensity and saturation of the colours of those places was again defined by the medium. Although few of Watson’s paintings are completed on the spot, the speed at which one could work with casein tempera facilitated the making of evocative sketches and also provided the effect of fleeting and almost intangible momentary experiences even in work completed in the studio.

Journey to the East, Watson’s acclaimed 2009 exhibition held in London and Northern Ireland, was inspired largely by his experiences accompanying HRH The Prince of Wales as an official artist in Brunei and South East Asia and the immediacy of casein tempera was crucial in the success of works that demonstrated a swift and intuitive absorption of place and culture in the most striking visual form. The unchanged nature of many of the places they visited and the ceremonial nature of society found an entirely sympathetic and knowledgeable interpreter in Watson and he presents us with an image of how the ancient world has not only survived into the present day but remains at the centre of contemporary life.

In his large-scale works Watson became increasingly interested in the creation of an interconnected series of paintings that could take on the effect and appearance of fresco, particularly as the casein tempera would physically recall the flatness and dryness of traditional frescoes and give the effect of entering a room unchanged for centuries. The three large, entirely invented, figure paintings exhibited in Journey to the East demonstrated Watson’s ambition to create symbolically unified works on a physically and emotionally involving scale that was followed bythe triptych The Pool in 2010, a more deliberately conceived work that was even more adventurous in its use of symbol and abstraction and had a more obvious connection with Islamic art.

The fulfilment of this concept of a modern fresco was in the united series of panels that formed The Forest, in the 2013 exhibition of the same name. Designed site specifically as three triptychs and a single large panel that filled the four walls of an entire room, the viewer entered a highly formally organised world in which the archetypes of human activity were balanced by the abstract patterns of the forest they inhabited, another archetype and one that was continued throughout the exhibition to create an exceptionally unified body of work, despite the dynamic diversity of mood and subject within individual paintings. The physical completeness of the exhibition is mirrored in the manner in which the metaphor encompasses this entire body of work; the former allows the viewer the most complete immersion in this metaphor and the most intense experience of the artist’s vision. This was arguably one of the most highly personal groups of work that Watson has completed, yet the use of metaphor allowed these themes the breadth of vision to ensure that they were not limited to a single reading, demonstrating the power of myth to be both individually and universally relevant at the same moment.

The Forest was entirely invented from the artist’s imagination and in the wake of it Watson began to work again from life, the models in this case being his wife, Karima, and his daughter, Maryam. From the process of completing two portraits of the mother and child, the posed figure began to enter his work again but the abstraction and stylisation that had become more dominant in recent years is still at the basis of these paintings. There is a more naturalistic use of colour again and figures and fabrics are fully realised to depict the human form, but these paintings are filled with the same sense of mystery, ambiguity and intangibility as Watson’s most abstract or deliberately symbolic works. The viewer is conscious that the artist has invented and consciously constructed the angle of a fallen tree, the gesture with which two figures touch, or the relationship of figures to the buildings and trees around them and that every element of the composition plays its part.

These dramas seem once again to bring the viewer back closer to the present day, or to a recognised place, but the artist reminds us that these questions are irrelevant to the purpose of art and that anything that belongs purely to the present day only belongs to the present day and plays little part in understanding the underlying and constant human relationship with the world we inhabit. It is this that Watson continues to explore.