The popular song English Country Garden starts in a sweet enough vein. ‘How many kinds of sweet flowers grow in an English country garden? We'll tell you now of some that we know. Those we miss you'll surely pardon, daffodils, heart's ease and flox, meadowsweet and lady smocks’ And so it continues.
But did you know there are more verses? And that they convey a rather different sense? What about this from verse two? ‘How many insects come here and go. In an English country garden? There are snakes, ants that sting. And other creeping things. In an English country garden.’ Here in a single song are the two conflicting sides of the great English pastoral tradition.
You see it in English art too. On one hand, the romantic beauty of the landscape: Constable, Meadows, the 20th century Ruralist school. On the other a weird and slightly unsettling surrealism: Blake, Fuseli, Paul Nash.
The contemporary English artist Alan Parry clearly relishes both traditions. In his previous three shows for the Catto, Alan delighted visitors with paintings of undiluted floral splendour. Bursting with sensual colour, they were a flower arranger’s dream. But mixed in with these visual delights - like ants that sting, and other creeping things - were works that depicted strange moonlit dramas worthy of a David Lynch movie.
Alan’s new collection reveals his twin fascinations are undiminished. No Parry show would be complete without Alliums. These flowers are a gift to the garden painter with their rod-straight stems, spherical heads and fractal-like petals. They explode off the canvas. No wonder the painter calls two of his works Alliumania I and II.
For all their sensuality, these images are also precise, mathematical and symmetrical. In fact, all Alan's works are. But the effect is rather different in a rigorously composed painting like Allegory, which might also be titled ‘formal garden with lightbulb and horse’. It's not the only out-of-place horse in the collection. They also appear in living rooms and mirrors. All very strange.
The high point of the show, in terms of symmetry at least, is surely The New Work. Here, a woman kneels on a leopard skin chaise longue and stares at a painting of a leopard on the wall behind her. The big cat and the furniture are almost exactly the same shape and colour. Ingenious. Tellingly, the leopard in the painting is depicted in moonlight - another Alan Parry trope. Elsewhere in the show, a huge moon looms menacingly over the bathers in The Dipper. It does the same in the beguiling Weekend Retreat paintings.
Alan conjures these wonderful dramas from his home in rural Worcestershire, where he is surrounded by glorious countryside and formal gardens. He wasn’t always a country gent. He studied art in London at the Willesden and Hornsey Art Colleges, where he received a formal art training with an emphasis on drawing and design. He later became a freelance artist and illustrator for advertising agencies, magazines and books.
Today, Alan is recognised as one of England's finest landscape painters after many decades of diligent work. This new show consolidates his status. Any fan of horticulture or psychodrama should definitely visit.
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