The Forest

Halfway through the story of my life
I came to in a gloomy wood, because
I’d wandered off the path, away from the light.
It’s hard to put words to what that wood was;
I shudder even now to think of it,
so wild and rough and tortured were its ways;
and death might well be its confederate
in bitterness; yet all the good I owe
to it, and what else I saw there, I’ll relate.

Ciaran Carson, from “A New Translation of ‘The Inferno’ by Dante Alighieri

Archetypes never change. They constantly reappear, reinvented in different forms; but always the inner story remains the same, eternal and true.

This new group of paintings by Colin Watson, which includes three large triptychs and other smaller works, has been worked on during a period of great loss. These paintings have the austerity and beauty of myth, conveyed through heavily worked surface and texture that has its own inherent archaeology, built up through many layers, sometimes with tortured scraping, reworking, repainting, and yet ending finally in a dense subdued radiance, a spare beauty and elegance.

This is most apparent in the three triptychs, which in many ways Watson has been working towards over many years. These are composed of figures in a forest; they have a quality of mythical struggle, the forest itself acting as a metaphorical setting in which this takes place. One is reminded, although on a more intimate level, of the wonderful painting by Paolo Uccello, “The Hunt”, in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Here too are figures set in a forest, suggesting the same intense feeling of containment. But this is to limit Colin Watson’s influences and the manner in which they have been transmuted into a language entirely his own. One could equally cite the late, heavily worked painting of Balthus - but somehow overlaid by something very different, the hieratic nature of Egyptian tomb decoration (say), or the mythical geometry and storytelling of Poussin.

However, it seems to me that one of the most important and striking influences underlying the remarkable group of paintings called “The Forest”, is the calligraphic aspect of early Islamic manuscripts, and particularly the greatest of all, the pages from the “Blue Koran” (probably Tunisian and dating from the tenth century). This breathtaking calligraphy in gold on a dense dark lapis lazuli ground was a new refiguring of aesthetic possibilities.

These triptychs by Colin Watson seem to exist on a dark blue ground, all the time showing through almost as the density of the forest itself. The middle panel of “In the Forest” shows two figures struggling - it might be love or hate - and these are contained by the Forest as a force. It would not be possible to separate the three panels that form the triptych: they work as a whole. Perhaps it should be mentioned that all the paintings in this group are on panel in casein tempera; the paint is made by Watson himself and has become his preferred means of achieving such a density of surface. It is indeed an ancient method of painting, which he has triumphantly retrieved.

The second triptych, “The Deer”, shows a huntress aiming the Arrow of Love across the middle panel towards the deer in the first panel. (I am reminded here of Sorley MacLean’s great poem “Hallaig” with its opening line, “Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig”.) What the large expanse of mythical wood causes you to do is to focus on the figures, and then to be caught up in the beauty and complexity of how they are painted within the simple abstracted wood. They seem to have been scraped, abraided, layered, drawn slowly by means of accretion into their own world, until they attain the force of revelation.

Two figures are shown entering the forest in the third triptych - as in the first, but these are very different. They are tentative, enquiring, sensitive to danger; and again the forest holds them in a spell of foreboding. But however much the matrix of the forest holds and contains these figures, you are drawn in towards the beauty of the manner in which the figures are made - just as, with a page from the “Blue Koran” you are drawn towards one hieroglyphic element, only to have to pull back - to contemplate the beauty of the whole page.

There are four large paintings here, the three triptychs and a square painting in which the figures are entwined and no longer ambiguous: what this shows is compassion, love. It could be Giotto, conceived by a modern mind and joyously reinvented.

The other paintings are smaller works, again on panel in casein tempera, with the same heavily worked density - just as beautiful, but with a simpler type of beauty which might call to mind the austere power and narrative of early French Gothic altarpieces.

If it seems as though I’m writing about Colin Watson’s paintings as something created by a process of looking back - well, fine. But these are modern works, neither wholly figurative nor abstract but containing elements of both, and all transmuted through the force of myth by a painter who is also a serious collector. On a personal note - Colin is a friend, and I’m familiar with the artefacts, scripts, Mughal miniatures, with his travels, with the authentic quality of study, the crazy passion of a collector. When he visited the Ashmolean to view the Howard Hodgkin collection of Indian paintings, he rang me from the Museum. I had very much wanted to see this exhibition but was unable to get there - though I had the catalogue. Colin told me that he was standing in front of Sarat Purnima’s “The Gopis Dance in the Forest”. At that precise moment my catalogue was open in front of me at the page on which this great masterpiece was reproduced. Such happenstance is necessary in painting as in friendship.

Jeffrey Morgan
5th April 2013.