Algernon Newton British, 1880-1968

Provenance

A P C Baxter Collection; purchased 3rd May 1958

The Fine Art Society, May 1974 (label on reverse) 

Private Collection, UK

Exhibitions

1958, Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, no.612. 
Algernon Newton was born in Hampstead in 1880 into an artistic family. His grandfather was the founder of the art suppliers Winsor & Newton and, like Newton’s father, a keen amateur painter. At the age of nine Newton was sent to Farnborough School, where he was deeply unhappy, followed by Clare College, Cambridge, leaving without attaining a degree to study art. He studied first at Frank Calderon’s School of Animal Painting, Baker Street, from 1903, followed by the London School of Art in Kensington from around 1906 until 1907, where he was taught by Frank Brangwyn and George Lambert. After his studies, Newton and his wife led a restless life, constantly moving around the UK and then further afield to Canada and Switzerland, as artistic success evaded him. Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Newton enlisted in the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry, invalided out two years later after suffering two bouts of severe pneumonia. After the war, Newton took to selling his paintings on street corners in disguise, shamed by the depths to which he had been forced. Newton later wrote, “At that time masked ex-servicemen were begging in the streets of London, so I made myself a mask to wear as I did not want to be recognised.”

By the late 1920s, however, Newton’s career was on the rise. He drew inspiration for his painted views of the city when wandering around London, often in areas on the fringe of prosperity such as Bayswater, Paddington, and the industrial tracts along Regent’s Canal. He was termed ‘the Regent’s Canaletto’ by critics for his atmospheric scenes of London’s waterways, decaying warehouses and dilapidated Regency townhouses reflected in watery surfaces. Usually deserted, these townscapes possess a certain uncanny eeriness. Unpeopled streets evoke the legacy of WWI: a generation of men sent to France, never to return. Like other artists who lived through the war, such as Paul Nash, Newton’s scenes are haunted by the ghosts of his comrades; absence speaks to loss, drawing attention to what should be present but for a profound tragedy.

Throughout the 1930s and beyond, Newton enjoyed increasing success and his work commanded correspondingly escalating prices, as his paintings were in demand with wealthy and noble families. He was commissioned by these collectors to paint ‘portraits’ of their country houses. From the 1950s onwards his landscapes took on greater prominence in his oeuvre, and were all he produced from 1954 until his death in 1968. Newton was elected an Academician in 1943 and a posthumous retrospective of his work was held at the Royal Academy in 1980. His work can be found in international public collections including the Tate, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

‘On the Kentish Downs’, c. 1960, is a quintessentially mature work by Newton, looking over the rolling countryside of the ‘Garden of England’. The predominant focus of Newton’s scene is the quality of light, the ever paradoxical search to capture ephemeral and elusive atmospheric effects in painted form. The luminous quality of the surface is achieved through built up thin layers of glazes of oil paint. The landscape is seen in the hazy glow of late afternoon or evening sunshine, long shadows cast horizontally across the gentle central dip. In the face of turmoil and trauma, political and personal, the rural idyll of the English countryside stands as a foil, an unchanging beacon of consistency and a haven of peace.

Nonetheless, even amidst this tranquil scene, allegorical elements, in the tradition of seventeenth-century Dutch landscape paintings, suggest discord and an uncanny sense of menace. A pair of statuesque trees frame the composition to the left and right, with the woods in the background casting a shadow over the grassy trough between the trees. The tree to the right is stripped of its foliage, its trunk and branches reduced to raw bark in stark contrast to its leafy partnering tree and the dense woods behind. Scudding grey clouds to the left suggest the balmy weather may be broken by incoming rain. The landscape bears immanent potential: life forces reside within arcadia. Concerns of life and death, of transience and permanence, of repressed trauma are all just beneath the surface of ‘On the Kentish Downs’.