Light from Two Worlds

The painter Chardin was very secretive and, as far as we know, made no pronouncements about his work. When someone asked him to describe his method of painting, he replied. ‘We use colours, but we paint with feeling.’

Colin Watson is a wonderful Irish painter who also paints with ‘feeling’, feeling underpinned by scholarship, study, travel, anything that helps him create works of great depth and hieratic beauty. During the last few years, Colin has spent some time at the Louvre making copies of certain paintings which he loves, including Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego. (No, ‘copies’ is not the right word; it’s more a matter of interpretation.) This is a traditional practice which enables one painter to understand in the most profound way the work of another, to assimilate an influence and make something new and invigorating out of it. Colin Watson, for example, has recently completed a number of large paintings containing figures, all works of great complexity and resonance – e.g. The Poet and Edge of the Forest.

However, with any painter worth his salt, it’s an oversimplification to single out a particular influence, and this is certainly true of Colin Watson. His travels to North Africa, his collection of drawings, books and personal elements – all of these contribute richness and intensity to his work.

I met Colin under strange circumstances. I had recently moved to Antrim from Blackheath in London, and one day found myself in an antique shop in Donegall Pass in Belfast. On a table in front of me I spotted a catalogue and quickly picked it up, alerted by the remarkable cover painting Koubba. Leafing through the catalogue I was struck by the beauty of these paintings encompassing two seemingly different worlds – and in particular, I got a sense of some connection with the work of Thomas Jones. I had assumed that the catalogue related to a past exhibition – but then I found that, in fact, it was due to open the following evening at Pyms Gallery in London. As it happened, I myself was flying over for a sale at Sotheby’s that day. Before going to the sale, I walked round the corner to Pyms: and there was Colin Watson actually in the window of the gallery, touching up a painting that got slightly damaged in transit. I banged on the window and shouted, ‘I have a book dated 1758 that belonged to Thomas Jones.’ Instead of quickly disappearing into the back of the gallery to get away form this bizarre interruption, Colin came and opened the gallery door – and this was the start of our friendship. I looked around the gallery where he’d hung many fine, noble, mostly single-figure paintings, quite often featuring a particular muse, and bringing in elements of Ireland and North Africa – all of them works of astonishing beauty, painted with the surest of touches, the paint quality alive and tangible.

Colin Watson is someone who understands the importance of chance, not only as far as friendship is concerned, but in connection with the whole act of painting – the importance of trying to get chance to work in your favour, moment by moment. What strikes me about his recent paintings is the way he has brought together themes and images that have appeared before, but with a new cogency and complexity added. A paradox is that many of the smaller works, those on paper using casein tempera, are among the freest and most expressive premier coups – for instance, Autumn and Tanagra – while the larger paintings are imbued with a classical density and geometry.

The latter spark off all kinds of resonances, calling to mind something that occurs with the greatest Sean Nós music (for example), when a large classical structure is generated out of a small, even romantic or improvised beginning - which you also get with the Sufic music of North Africa, Indian raga or even Bach.

In the paintings of Colin Watson, two very different worlds, Ireland and North Africa, are contained in the most distinctive way, intermingled and unified in the light of the painter’s unique and captivating vision.

Jeffery Morgan, 2006.