- 1 November 2018
In the most recent issue of PMC Notes Mark Hallett introduced examples of the work of George Shaw, the subject of the current exhibition A Corner of a Foreign Field at the Yale Center for British Art.
The tree rises up out of a sun-dappled patch of scuffed grass, casting its shadows against the golden expanse of a gable-end wall. The painter’s brush dwells with loving detail on the wrinkles and fissures of the tree-trunk, and on the intricately interlaced pattern of the shadows that flicker across the wall’s surfaces. It is 8.00 am on a chilly but blue-skied winter’s day, and the tree itself, its branches reaching up into the air, seems almost to be stretching out its arms with an early morning yawn. In the background, behind the hedge, light shines on the bedroom windows of some neighbouring houses, and onto their frosty roofs. The Midlands council estate of Tile Hill is waking up, just as it does every morning; but it is waking up, in this instance, to a different kind of day: Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and an important moment in the Catholic religious calendar.
Ash Wednesday: 8.00 am, by the contemporary British artist George Shaw, is one of the highlights of the forthcoming exhibition of his work at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven and the Holburne Museum at Bath. The picture is one of a series of seven pictures entitled Ash Wednesday, painted by the artist over a twelve-month period between 2004 and 2005. Each work in this sequence depicts a scene in Tile Hill—the council estate on which Shaw had grown up—at a particular time of day, and at half-hour intervals: the first is set at 6.00 am, the last, at 9.00 am. The series was inspired in part by the temporal structure of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the actions of which famously take place over a single day. Following this model, Shaw went out early one February morning, and spent the whole day on a long, slow walk around Tile Hill and the nearby woods, taking hundreds of photographs. The day, though cold, was bright and sharp and Tile Hill looked uncommonly fine. He ended his walk confident that it would provide him with a good body of source material for his new, hour-by-hour, pictorial chronicle of the estate and its surroundings.
Soon afterwards, he realised that the day he had chosen for his walk—25 February 2004—was actually Ash Wednesday that year, which he instantly recognised could provide his new project with a supplementary, and highly resonant, religious theme. Shaw, a lapsed Catholic, was fully aware that the day carried a powerful resonance, as one set aside by many Christians for fasting and repentance, and one marking the beginning of the forty-day period that saw Christ being cast into the desert, and that ended with his crucifixion and resurrection. But it was also a day that, for the artist, was loaded with personal associations: he remembered going as a child to the special Ash Wednesday service that was held at 9.00 am at his local Catholic church, and undergoing its distinctive rituals: ‘Ash Wednesday began for me with a dirty smudge of ash placed on my forehead by the serious thumb of a Catholic priest.’ And he was haunted, too, by the words that he remembered the priest saying as he applied his thumbprint of dust: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
Thanks in part to this conjunction of ideas and events, the pictorial series that Shaw ended up producing out of his mass of photographic sources enjoys a highly textured character. First of all, it offers an image of Tile Hill that seems, of all his many depictions of the estate, the most lyrical and uplifting. Indeed, Ash Wednesday can be seen to present Tile Hill itself, built in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, as a kind of quiet modernist utopia, in which the array of council houses that are pictured in almost every image, and that become increasingly illuminated by sunshine as the morning wears on, gradually become ever more symbolic of the kind of harmonious community dreamt of by the estate’s architect, Donald Gibson, and by the welfare state he represented. Thus, in Ash Wednesday: 8.00 am, as we have already seen, a gable-end is transformed into a spectacular screen, on which is projected a magical dance of shadows. In the sequence’s final, far quieter image, Ash Wednesday: 9.00 am, meanwhile, the signs of a proudly managed landscape serve to animate the more utilitarian surfaces and spaces of the estate: a silver birch rises elegantly at the image’s centre; the shadows of branches once again flicker across walls and windows; and exquisitely painted plants swirl across pebbledash and brick. Even the ripple of net curtains in an upstairs window is granted an aesthetically pleasing rhythm. Over the course of this morning, it seems, Tile Hill enjoys a momentary place in the sun.
Yet even as it offers something approaching a celebration of Tile Hill itself, and of the ideals of postwar public housing in England, Shaw’s pictorial series is shadowed by the more melancholy narratives of the particular day it describes, and by the traces of religious symbolism that run through its imagery. As so often in Shaw’s work, this half-buried Christian iconography finds it most powerful vehicle in the trees that play a central role in Ash Wednesday. Here, they are repeatedly deployed to evoke the Crucifixion to which the Christian rituals of Ash Wednesday inevitably allude. This is most dramatically evident in Ash Wednesday: 8.00 am, where Shaw’s depiction of the gnarled tree and its bold shadow unmistakably evokes William Holman Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelite painting The Shadow of Death (1873), in which the figure of Christ, his arms similarly outstretched, casts an analogous and highly ominous shadow across a neighbouring wall. To enrich this symbolism, Shaw adds a telling detail to his painting: a stain, buried deep within the tree’s shadow, drips down the wall, just as blood dripped from the wound made in Christ’s hanging body by a soldier’s spear. From such perspectives, even the final painting in the Ash Wednesday sequence invites being interpreted as a domesticated version of the crucifixion site of Golgotha. The pictured tree can once again be understood as a kind of symbolic substitute for the pale, hanging body of Christ, to which the branches of another, nearby tree give the requisite outstretched arms; meanwhile, the presence of the shadow on the right-hand wall conjures up the presence of the other crosses, the other hanging men, that were to be found at the site of the Crucifixion.
Significantly, Shaw’s pictorial series is suggested as one that culminates at precisely 9 o’clock in the morning, the time that he remembers the Ash Wednesday service always taking place when he was a boy. In stopping at this point, we are invited, just like the celebrants of the service itself, to meditate on what we have just been looking at and experiencing as we have proceeded on our visual journey through the series, from painting to painting. Reading the Ash Wednesday exhibition catalogue makes this correlation between the two rituals—religious and visual—explicit: for, on the page following the final image of his series, Shaw inserts a quotation that directly echoes the Catholic incantation (‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’) to which he had repeatedly been subjected during his childhood. Taken from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, it reads: ‘Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.’ In using that quotation, I’d like to suggest, Shaw places his own metaphorical thumbprint of dust on our foreheads, and asks that we should read his series, despite all its uplifting imagery of community and wonder, as a modern kind of memento mori.
Indeed, Ash Wednesday invites a sombre form of reflection on our own part, in which we are invited, having moved through its seven images, to mull not only upon that Christian imagery of mortality to which his series alludes, but also on the passing of youth signified by Shakespeare’s ‘golden lads and girls’ and, ultimately, the passing of the pictured estate itself. Although bathed in golden light over the course of this fine morning, and over the course of his lyrical series of paintings, Tile Hill will one day—so Ash Wednesday reminds us—return to dust. Somewhat chillingly, this is precisely the fate that, as is seen later in the exhibition, Shaw went on to record in a number of his subsequent paintings of the estate, which, prompted by the demolition of a series of local buildings, are full of the imagery of rubble and wreckage.
PMC Notes can be picked up for free at the Centre or read online here.
About the author
Director at the Paul Mellon Centre