Hearing again the four vowels of the wind
Hearing again the talking house
and the four vowels of the wind,
and midnight monsters whispering
In the white throat of my room.
[…] Each old and echo-salted tongue
sings to my backward glance,
but the voice of the boy, the boy I seek,
within my mouth is dumb.
Laurie Lee, The Abandoned Shade
Essay by Matthew Holman
By restaging and emptying out the sentimentality of the English countryside in his paintings, Anthony Banks commemorates the death of a place that never really existed. As Raymond Williams reminded us in The Country and the City, all the way back in 1973, there has never been one single, static version of the English countryside. The ‘country way of life’ has been ‘astonishingly varied’ while the same sentimental images of the green and pleasant land proliferate. Williams called these familiar images the ‘endless flow of colourful retrospect, simple idealisations of a happy and privileged past… merely temporary alternatives to the pain of any kind of connection.’ The stories we tell about the English countryside areinvariably stories of loss and demise, with significantly differing end-dates, of the timeless rhythm of agriculture and the seasons.
We might think of the ‘peasant poet’ John Clare’s localist lyrics and the sense of himself as having been expelled from the temporal ‘Eden’ of his childhood. Or Thomas Hardy’s Jude, the working-class young stonemason from the imagined west of England who both dreams of becoming a scholar while clinging to the rural simplicity of a family with whom he has increasingly little in common. Banks’s paintings might take the English countryside as their subject, but their power rests in their capacity to remind us of the strange truth that, as represented in art as in literature and life, the changes to the landscape that we knew as children seem the most extreme over the course of one’s life. The loss of the Arcadian dream stands for the loss of youth. We track the changes of these places like we track the changes that we make in our lives. We use the landscape to make sense of our distance from the people we once were.
In Banks’s elliptical landscape Untitled (Mill, River, Boat) (2009-22) I’m reminded of anotheroft-cited moment of rural transition held in the national imagination. Like the Tulliverfamily’s water-powered Dorlcote in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860, but set in 1830), which was destroyed less by the ending’s fatal flood than by the invisible forces of the new coal-fired steam economy, Banks’s scene appears to be marked already by the conditions of its own irrelevance. The world has changed. It’s already a residue of the distant past. That’s not to say there’s no activity, though, for there’s plenty in this painting: the lake mesmerically shifts from a pinkish-cream to the cobalt of a schoolboy’s toy-boat; a forbidding swan oversees its cygnet; the millrace appears suspended but holds a place.
There is grace in the presence of what’s left here, but we are never quite sure whether this is the representation of a landscape or the representation of something closer to what Joan Mitchell called the ‘remembered landscapes that I carry with me—and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed.’ For Banks, he remembers through the surface of a work every time that he has touched it. Sometimes, when he was skint, Banks used cheap canvases that become reused or altered, and sometimes when he could afford more expensive linen or supports he would take advantage of this, but in either case the paintings still bear visible traces of its earlier form. He uses the paintings to remember the course of his life. ‘All of those moments of indecision when I avoided the real issue or couldn’t bring myself to paint over something I knew I needed to get rid of’, he recently confided to me: ‘They hold these thoughts better than I do… Indecision and forgetting become as or even more important than confidence and knowing.’
In Untitled (Beach, Boat, Sky) (2012-22), the patina of mark-making forms dense rivulets of matured paint on the surface like the lines of geological time, as the critic Matt Price has said of Banks’s works, but here as though seen through a prismatic lens that abstracts what should be the earthy and soled tones for a polychromatic, zestful vista. There are traces of pigment that seem to have existed only for another colour – quite incompatible to its own – to replace it. These are painting-palimpsests: we sense what once was, but not with any clarity of its shape; we know something has been lost, but we cannot make out what it was. Given Banks’s unremitting compositional approach, we can understand why. Many of these paintings, often oil and wax on canvas, started life when Banks was a student at the University of Brighton around 2009. The wax thickens the paint but also creates what he calls a ‘mattness’ or aged quality. Banks put them in storage at his grandmother’s garage, but when she went into care in 2018, he took new purpose to these old scenes. The artist seems to be playing catch with past versions of himself, and the process of hiding, forgetting, and retrieving paintings invites the onlooker to seek out their life as objects in time.
When I visited Banks’s Bow studio on a sweltering early May day, with mid-afternoon light flooding the coastal studies on the walls, I was struck by how he had taped old pages from Shell Guides onto the canvases as direct reference points for the landscapes. These middle-brow series of guidebooks, which were published predominantly after the Second World War by Faber and Faber, were designed for the metropolitan tourist to experience the ‘authentic’ English countryside by car. But these are also artistic documents: in many cases collaborations between national poets, like John Betjeman, and artists, such as the surrealist and war painters John and Paul Nash, as well as John Piper, whose work depicted the churches and monuments of the English village. By engaging with the visual mythologisation of the English countryside as a means of negotiating his own relationship, real and imagined, to these landscapes, Banks paints less a singular and irreplaceable scene but rather the landscape of memory in both the national and the individual mind. It’s not by coincidence, then, that so many of Banks’s canvases are marked by subjects of transition and journey-making: boats, bridges, roads, and pathways, especially, but also the landscapes themselves, which represent what was once was abandoned but might yet be a site of return.
Untitled (Red, Industry, Town) (2009-2022), by contrast to the coastal scenes, is a heaving furnace of cadmium red set ablaze, and totally infused by the modernist architectural imagination in paint: all grids and girders and gyres. It has something of Graham Sutherland’s early opencast mines around Swansea, or Lawrence Atkinson’s scaffolded cathedrals for the machine age. The fierce reds and white-heat of the central production plant appear to push their very contours to breaking point, as overlaid right angles and arched corners struggle to contain its own ungovernable structure. A thin jiggle of opaque flaxen-yellow in the foreground and the kind of forest-green that George Stubbs might have used for a tree-lined horizon-line suggest nature has still found its way here, but has been pared back to the margins. If Untitled (Red, Industry, Town) was painted a century ago, it might have held for the viewer the terrifying thrill that would have accompanied these extraordinary interventions in the manufacturing towns of the former countryside; but the forcefulness of Banks’s landscapes is that they are devastatingly paintings of now. The industry towns that once represented the world transformed through their coal consumption and scalable production now seem as dated as the mind-mill by the stream.
In Untitled (Bottle, Vessel, Pear) (2009-22) an emptied container of Hecks Farmhouse Cider, which is brewed in the orchards around Glastonbury Tor, is positioned next to a cylindrical vessel. All around the dispersed pigment falls somewhere between a cacophonous revision of Giorgio Morandi’s table and exposed rust out on the workman’s yard. Errant drips of liquid-blue slink off to the edges. Evidence of scraping and sandpapering suggest the pentimenti of a painter working through the decisions and regrets of mark-making over more than a decade. It’s impossible to ignore the evidence of Banks’s sustained labour here: the close attention given to crafting the composition, the toiling on the painting’s shape over several years as it accrues dust and the residue of life in storage and in the studio.
We find this still life as one might stumble upon the fieldman’s objects left out at golden hour on a summer’s evening: traces of work and solitary imbibes, but now integrated within the agrestic landscape itself. The countryside as traditionally envisioned as a place of idlenessand not labour, of rung on the ladder and not common boundary is radically reimagined here, all framed by a densely sonorous border that half resembles a Matisse cut-out. A superficial reading of Banks’s paintings might take it for revelling in what British journalist Steven Poole has called nostalgie de la boue – the French term for a kind of rustic-fancying inverted snobbery, which literally means ‘nostalgia for the mud’. But, for me, these are rather going-home paintings, and landscapes that call to mind the original Greek of ‘nostalgia’: nostos‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’. We all kill the versions of ourselves that we leave behind at home: we deliberately alter the course of our lives but then mourn the things that have not remained as they were prior to the intervention. Banks’s paintings are as much about the revolutions of life lived as they are the places in which we live.
Banks grew up a stone’s throw from Slad, the sleepy Cotswold village that the poet Laurie Lee left before labouring jobs took him to London and then, with the International Brigades, into the fire and fury of the Spanish Civil War. Lee’s writing of landscape is always inflected by an unconditional hospitality, whether experienced in the Gloucestershire home he left behind, or the welcome he received in Catalonia. He thought deeply about the task of learning who you are once you leave the parent’s house, and how each person you meet, and each place you visit, will change you in turn. Lee is often criticised for his rose-tinted view of Englishness, but as Robert Macfarlane reminds us: his writing is also ‘thick with disenchantment and darkness.’ Lee had no illusions about what he left behind, even as he set out into a profoundly uncertain future.
Like Lee’s poetry and prose, Banks’s paintings are travelogues that document the experience of wandering from home to an elsewhere and back again. We might say that in their own extended compositional journey these canvases themselves resemble homecoming travellers. They trace not only the transformations of the English countryside – its industry, its waterways, its quiet – but ask us to trace the distances between different versions of ourselves when we arrive back to the places that have defined our life. Returning home, we are always different to the one who left.
For me, all the significance of Lee’s ‘The Abandoned Shade’ depends on the fact that it is at the very moment that the speaker takes a backward glance and hears the echoes of his childhood, and his senses are once more touched by his past, that he is unable to give voice to the boy he once was but whom he still seeks. I cannot help but see these paintings in a similar way. They remind us less of an idealised and anachronistic vision of rural England, but rather the universal experience of simultaneously being a native and an exile in the places in which we were raised. ‘For the first time I was learning how much easier it was to leave’, Lee writesin As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, ‘than to stay behind and love.’ These paintings are about what’s hard to do in both.