In his formative years Alan Reynolds aligned himself with the Neo-Romantic school of landscape painting. The gentle rhythms of life in the English countryside perhaps held a restorative appeal for the young Reynolds, whose late teens had been spent at war in France, the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) and Germany, and whose first formal art training came at the age of twenty-one, after demobilisation from the British army in 1947. However, like Victor Pasmore before him, Reynolds was to turn away from representational art in the late 1950s in favour of abstract painting and, later, relief constructions.
Reynolds burst onto London’s art scene in 1952. His first solo exhibition was held that year at art collector Rex Nan Kivell’s Redfern Gallery, while Reynolds was still at art school. During a two-year scholarship at the Royal Academy of Art in 1952 to 1953, Reynolds fell under the spell of England’s Romantic tradition, absorbing the visionary landscapes of Samuel Palmer and the poetry of William Blake. He subsequently moved to the Shoreham Valley, Kent, where Samuel Palmer had based himself a century earlier. Although Reynolds taught at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1954 to 1961, and afterwards at St Martin’s School of Art until 1999, he always preferred to reside in rural Kent. His large Shoreham painting series The Four Seasons, in which panoramic vistas and microscopic botanical observations were majestically and lyrically blended, were exhibited to great acclaim at the Redfern Gallery in 1956. Summer, 1954 (Tate, London), from this series was awarded a prize at the Giovani Pittore (Young Painters) exhibition at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome, in April 1955.
The Four Seasons was Reynolds’s most ambitious evocation of the love of nature and the English countryside that had been his primary concerns since the youthful untrained landscape studies he had undertaken in his childhood. According to the artist,
the four paintings were completed in the following order, Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn. I began work on them in September 1954 and completed work in May I believe the following year.1Alan Reynolds, letter of 17 March 1988 to Annette Dixon, former Curator, National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria research files.
All four paintings were sold by October 1955, when art critic Robert Melville published articles on the artist in both The Studio and Apollo, reproducing the series. His article in The Studio (1955) identified the NGV as the purchaser of Spring, 1955, also noting that Autumn had been acquired by Richard Attenborough; Winter by the Fleischmann Collection, Pittsburgh; and Summer by the Tate Gallery (at this stage Summer had actually been purchased by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest, who gifted it to the Tate in 1956).2Robert Melville, ‘Alan Reynolds’, The Studio, vol. 150, no. 751, Oct. 1955, p. 115. In Apollo (1955) Melville opened his article with the statement that: ‘Alan Reynolds, who has not yet reached the age of thirty, will shortly be holding his fifth exhibition at the Redfern Gallery’.3Robert Melville, ‘Alan Reynolds’, Apollo, vol. 62, no. 368, Oct. 1955, p. 99. This was The Four Seasons, actually Reynolds’s fourth solo show at Redfern in March 1956, which included the four paintings sold the previous year, along with ninety-two watercolours and drawings.4Robert Melville, Alan Reynolds. The Four Seasons, Redfern Gallery, London, 1956, unpaginated. Reynolds’s exhibition was mistakenly advertised as taking place at the Redfern Gallery from 1–24 May 1956, instead of 1–24 April in Apollo, vol. 63, no. 373, Mar. 1956, p. ix. The scale of the paintings provided an impressive response to the ever-expanding scale of contemporary abstract works and each season was given its own wall in the opening room of the Redfern Gallery.
The exhibition was a resounding success, selling out within a few days and described as ‘a tour de force of staggering effect’ by ‘that phenomenal artist, recognised at home and abroad by collectors who see in him the modern and the traditional at once though in varying degrees’.5G. S. Whittet, ‘London commentary’, The Studio, vol. 151, no. 759, Jun. 1956, p. 188. Dubbing The Four Seasons ‘the most exciting exhibition held in London during March’, the critic for the Apollo (1956) detected dark inflections within Reynolds’s seemingly lyrical landscape vistas:
His use of red-blues for his skies in three of the four large paintings (the autumn is beautifully golden and thereby most appealing) gives the skies a darker note than the earth, reversing the sources of light. It makes it all rather threatening, especially as he loves the spiky forms of vegetation, which he uses in fascinating detail in his foregrounds.6Perspex [Horace Shipp], ‘Current shows and comments, Apollo, vol. 63, no. 373, Apr. 1956, p. 104.
This unsettling effect is certainly found in Spring, where a distant view of rolling hills is masked by a solid wall of flowering plants that have the solidity of a barbed-wire fence, which effectively prevents immersion within the bounty of nature (even the fluffy dandelion seeds at the right seem hard and thorny). While The Four Seasons works clearly looked back to the great landscape tradition of nineteenth-century British art, especially the golden-hued homages to nature created by Samuel Palmer, Melville was careful to note in the exhibition’s catalogue that Reynolds did not share Palmer’s Christian outlook or ‘his nostalgia for a Golden Age’.7Melville, unpaginated. The artist’s experiences in the Second World War destroyed his faith in religious belief, as well as his trust in the benevolence of nature.8Michael Harrison, Alan Reynolds. The Making of a Concretist Artist, Lund Humphries, Farnham, Surrey, 2011, p. 12. Melville equated the ambivalent mood of Reynolds’s landscape scenes with the writings on English rural life by Richard Jeffries, who wrote of how:
All nature, all the universe we can see, is absolutely indifferent to us, and except to us Human Life is of no more account than grass. If the entire human race perished at this hour, what difference would it make to the earth? What would the earth care?9Richard Jeffries, The Story of My Heart (1883), Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1922, pp. 63–4.
When Spring was presented to the NGV by the Felton Bequest Committee in September 1956, the accompanying notes remarked that:
The success of Alan Reynolds has been astonishing. His work has been bought by leading Galleries in most countries, and he now holds a dominant place in English art.10‘Notes on some of the new Felton works’, Sep. 1956, National Gallery of Victoria research files.
At a time when the primacy of British art seemed increasingly threatened on the world stage, Reynolds’s landscape paintings seemed to some critics to shore up the nation’s defences against the gestural hegemony of American Abstract Expressionism. As Melville wrote when Spring was first shown in London in 1956:
Alan Reynolds began to record his imaginative response to the English landscape at a time when there were grounds for thinking that the final destruction of the picture categories was in sight, and that contemporary modes of expression were extinguishing the art of landscape painting. If we are now regaining confidence in the future of the most rewarding tradition in English art, it is due in large measure to the promise of his work and the evidence of his already remarkable development.11Melville, unpaginated.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Alan Reynolds, letter of 17 March 1988 to Annette Dixon, former Curator, National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria research files.
Robert Melville, ‘Alan Reynolds’, The Studio, vol. 150, no. 751, Oct. 1955, p. 115.
Robert Melville, ‘Alan Reynolds’, Apollo, vol. 62, no. 368, Oct. 1955, p. 99.
Robert Melville, Alan Reynolds. The Four Seasons, Redfern Gallery, London, 1956, unpaginated. Reynolds’s exhibition was mistakenly advertised as taking place at the Redfern Gallery from 1–24 May 1956, instead of 1–24 April in Apollo, vol. 63, no. 373, Mar. 1956, p. ix.
G. S. Whittet, ‘London commentary’, The Studio, vol. 151, no. 759, Jun. 1956, p. 188.
Perspex [Horace Shipp], ‘Current shows and comments, Apollo, vol. 63, no. 373, Apr. 1956, p. 104.
Michael Harrison, Alan Reynolds. The Making of a Concretist Artist, Lund Humphries, Farnham, Surrey, 2011, p. 12.
Richard Jeffries, The Story of My Heart (1883), Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1922, pp. 63–4.
‘Notes on some of the new Felton works’, Sep. 1956, National Gallery of Victoria research files.