David Inshaw’s Gromit, ‘Bushed’, at the RWA in Bristol

David Inshaw is an RWA Academician. He works predominately in oil paint, producing paintings of significant size. His work can be found in many places including the Bristol Art Gallery and Museum and the Tate Collection. He is the painter of The Badminton Game, 1972-3, which is one of his most famous pieces, and the beautiful but less well-known painting The River Bank (Ophelia), 1980.

The Gromit that Inshaw has designed is called ‘Bushed’ and – before the exhibition of all eighty Gromits – was situated just inside the entrance to the RWA. ‘Bushed’ is an apt name considering the Gromit is covered in dark green details of English foliage and leaves. This makes it feel like one of the subtler Gromit designs that can be seen around the city. The design also exemplifies much of Inshaw’s work that is immersed in Englishness and a love of the English countryside. His representation of trees and shrubs is striking and so stylised that it is instantly recognisable as his work. It therefore seems appropriate that this is the design for his Gromit sculpture.

Inshaw’s paintings focus on particular detailed aspects of nature, which he uses to reflect and explore human emotions. In various interviews he admits that Thomas Hardy’s novels and poems, and particularly the novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, heavily influence him. In this novel natural landscapes are used as metaphors for elements of the human psyche. The landscape influences the mind as well as reflecting or helping to translate it. This is suggested in Inshaw’s own work partly because landscapes dominate each composition (and even overshadow the few figures also included in the paintings) and emit feelings of tranquillity, melancholy, nostalgia or order, as appropriate to the circumstantial production of the painting and its title. Besides Thomas Hardy, other creative figureheads such as the Pre-Raphaelites and William Blake also influence Inshaw. Some of the themes manifest in these artists’ work and their respective political stances suggest he is interested in exploring the politics of aesthetics and the place of the artist in society. Similar to trends within Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Inshaw paints nature (particularly foliage) in an intricate, hyper real – and so slightly surrealist – style. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, he finds beauty in everyday scenes and natural places.

Inshaw’s immense detail also suggests that nature is tamed, pruned, and contained. It is man’s mastery over nature, and his mastery over himself that many of the paintings seem to explore. This creates a sense of idealism to Inshaw’s work. It also gives an air of expectation when looking at the paintings. As viewers we try to find harmonious narratives in the scenes and come to conclusions about what they say about various strands of the human condition. The titles of Inshaw’s work do seem to encourage idealist narrative readings.

The theme of idealism suggests nature is frozen at a perfect moment in time – and so is timeless. This seems to make ‘space’ for us as the viewers to take our time whilst interpreting the work. We are invited into Inshaw’s (green) world to lose ourselves in the details and beauty of nature. Having this time to look can help us to perceive nature in a different and more attentive way. However, although this emphasis on idealism is uplifting or positive there is also a darker side, as the organic elements also remind us of our own mortality. We are presented with a timeless fertile landscape which is in almost alarming contrast to our own surroundings and conditions.

My favourite painting by Inshaw is Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers, 1971-2, which was painted for an exhibition at the Arnolfini. The title comes from one of Hardy’s poems (called After a Journey), which is about how a dead lover’s spirit lives on within nature. Similar to Hardy’s poem, Inshaw’s painting is striking because it combines both serene and ominous qualities. There is a sense of waiting, turning, looking back at a previous moment and even regretting something in the past. The lone woman who looks back is framed by a nature that appears to be ultra alive. The extent of the vibrant green hues is overwhelming. The girl also seems vulnerable and engulfed by the organic scene around her, partly because she is depicted in such contrasting (drab) colours and with thin muscle-less limbs. This creates a clear juxtaposition between life and death (indeed, the woman could almost be a figure of death), which is extended to juxtapositions between the real and surreal, and the everyday and the eternal.

Although Inshaw’s paintings are heavily detailed, demanding lots of energy from the viewer, his work also has a philosophical or spiritual level to it. There is literally poetry behind it. Just as the painting, Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers indicates, his work is about seeing into the life (and death) of things. Human emotions  – such as longing, loss and regret – are explored through material entities of nature. In this way, his work portrays deep, subjective feelings through specific narratives, country scenes and material objects.

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