'I used to sit on the beach by the lakeside in some hidden refuge. There, the sound of the waves and the stirring of the water held my senses still, drove out of my mind all other kinds of agitation, and immersed it in a delightful reverie. Night often crept upon me without my noticing...
Brilliant flowers, enameled meadows, fresh shades, streams, woods, verdure, come, purify my imagination ... My soul, dead to all strong emotions, can be affected now only by sensory objects, and it is only through them that pleasure and pain can reach me.'
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Reveries du Promeneur Solitaire, 1765
In Edward Middleditch's Summer Landscape (1969) and its companion Garden Landscape (1969) a rhythmic row of trees stretches endlessly across the picture plane and a series of flowers expands before our gaze. The effect is at once highly ordered, exquisitely patterned and serenely classical. It is also highly decorative and deeply artificial. The flowers derive from a Persian carpet or kilim, whilst the trees come from the toy Lego of the artist's daughter Emily.
For all the critical discussion of Englishness and of a landscape tradition, Middleditch's was a peculiarly individual response to Nature. Whilst it is true that Nature was at the heart of his work - indeed people are virtually absent and urban scenes are a rarity - it was merely a starting point for pictures that became ever more personal, formal, even abstract. To appreciate Middleditch's individuality it is necessary to trace the ways in which his response to these subjects shifted from the 1950s to the 1980s. To do so is to appreciate how far the artist travelled, increasingly detaching himself from the motif in order to pursue more personal obsessions. In this respect drawing was a key and reviews of Middleditch's exhibitions are characterized by their praise for his draughtsmanship. Middleditch established himself in the mid 1950s as one of the most powerful young painters and draughtsmen in Britain. Promoted as a 'Kitchen-Sink' painter alongside John Bratby, Derrick Greaves and Jack Smith, he received the critical patronage of John Berger, then the leading promoter of social realism. What Middleditch shared with them was a robust aesthetic, where he differed was in his innate lyricism and poetry as well as in his preference for natural rather than urban or domestic motifs. Indeed his work over the following decades concentrated principally on Nature and on the elements; from the weight of a massive hillside or the density of a field of corn to the lightness of the sun dancing on a pool of water in a neighbour's garden or darting through the foliage of his own apple trees.
As it evolved, so this work became ever more stylized. So that the more one reflects on Middleditch's achievements, the less easy they are to categorise. To relate his later landscapes either to those that preceded them, or to those of his contemporaries, is to appreciate the distinctiveness of Middleditch's own contribution to Modern British Art, as well as to recognise its disengagement from constructions of a British landscape tradition.
Perhaps the dominant 'tradition' against which Middleditch worked was that of the Neo-Romantic painters of the 1940s and their pastoralism influenced to a greater or lesser extent by Samuel Palmer. However, in contrast to the neo-Romantic painters who, in Douglas Cooper's terms, imposed their 'poetical and emotional' interpretation on the land, Middleditch's response was generally more constrained. As Cooper observed:
'Edward Middleditch is moved to wonderment by what he sees in nature. We can, I think best describe him as a looker, for it is clear that nature appears to him so miraculous and mysterious in itself, so imbued with lyrical and dramatic effects, that he has no need to impose upon it a poetical or emotional interpretation of his own. For this reason Middleditch respects natural appearances and tries to translate his sensuous experiences as directly and with as little complication as possible into pictorial terms.
Not for him the glow of nostalgia or a lyrical pastoralism of fields filled with lowing herds of cattle, nor the intimate dimensions of the Neo-Romantics, not their lightness with a watercolour brush. In contrast Middleditch's paintings and even watercolours are characteristically big and bold and balsy. The countryside does not extend forever into the distance before hitting a sun tinged horizon. On the contrary, illusions of depth are dispensed with in favour of a Modernist stress on the front plane. As a result everything is to hand, within grasp, close to. At times, too, the artist appears to be looking down rather than up, down at the sun dappled field, down at the rippling water, down at the patterns made by foliage. At other times, what is emphasized is the intrusion of man. Middleditch's Nature is not pure, unsullied or innocent. It is not a world that Wordsworth would have recognized, not a pretext for the anthropomorphism or metamorphic transformation found in Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore and so many other British artists. Instead this is where man and nature collide. In Yellow Roses (1955) nature is tamed by a trellis, in Cow Parsley (1955) (Arts Council) cut flowers are shown on a window sill and in Flowers, Chair and Bedsprings (1956) (Tate Gallery) picked flowers rest on a chair against the repeating pattern of bedsprings.
In fact it was Nature not landscape that preoccupied him as his great champion and early dealer, the formidable Helen Lessore, recognised:
'He quickly found his true self, and from then on the fountain-head of his inspiration has always been what, until comparatively recently, was understood by Nature - with a capital N; that is the whole physical creation, as perceived by our normal sight: the surface of the earth, in all its variety of flatness, hills and rocks, and including its waters; moonrise or sunset, the night sky full of stars, atmospheric phenomena - clouds, rain, snow; every kind of vegetation; and any animal life - except human kind. He is, as purely as can be, a poet, a lyrical poet, of appearancesHe has no mannerism, but that much bigger quality: style. He is a maker of memorable images.
Memorable images, certainly, but their power is a quiet one. His is the silent art identified by Virginia Woolf and cited in a note made by Middleditch himself:
'It may be that there is a zone of silence in the middle of every art. The artists themselves live in it.'
This is a landscape of solace. Solace in the highly personalized sense to be found in the writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which Middleditch discovered in the 1950s and which must have had particular resonance given his wartime experiences.
'A deep and sweet reverie seizes your senses, and you lose yourself with a delicious drunkenness in the immensity of this beautiful system with which you identify yourself. Then all particular objects fall away; you see nothing and feel nothing except in the whole. . . I never meditate or dream more delightfully than when I forget my self. I feel indescribable ecstasy, delirium in melting, as it were, into the system of beings, in identifying myself with the whole of nature.' [Seventh promenade]
In Middleditch's paintings and drawings such consolation also possesses a more contemporary edge. The very flux of nature reassures. As Margaret Drabble has written, Nature changes, decays and is reborn. With appreciation of continuity comes assurance.
'It is not the Day of Judgement or Armageddon that we now fear, but the death of the planet. A mortality echoing our own has entered the seasons, the weather, the earth itself. And yet amidst this turbulence, amidst these anxieties and uncertainties, a very strong positive feeling for the history and permanence of the natural world persistsIt is surely Rousseau, as well as David Bomberg, who lies behind Middleditch's extraordinary Spanish landscapes of the early 1960s such as Spanish Landscape (c.1962), Grazalem (c.1961) and Muri, Ronda, Spain (1961). One may scale their massive form as though climbing the hillside, but one is given no distant vista. In such paintings Middleditch uncharacteristically projected himself into the landscape, immersing himself physically and emotionally. Inspired by the example of David Bomberg, and stimulated by a visit to Spain with one of Bomberg's former students, Miles Richmond, these works have an unprecedented expressiveness. Perhaps freed from the landscape of Britain, Middleditch allowed a greater emotionalism to produce drawings that eschewed stylization and linear clarity in favour of the seduction of light and shadow as in the charcoal and wash of Grazalem (c.1962). But this response to the natural world, although undeniably powerful, is not typical of Middleditch's work. It is rare that the artist's temperament does come across, although Derrick Greaves, one of his closest friends and one with whom he shared a home and studio for many years, has identified 'a melancholy lurking behind his English lyricism that gave it an autumnal power'.
Increasingly nature is shown to be constructed, tamed and patterned and the landscape to be a place scarred by man's presence. Paths, trails and roads tattoo the land while the fields and crops fill in the colour. Whether inspired by the land and sea of Suffolk or by the apples trees in his garden, Middleditch made the subject his own. The flowers in his garden landscapes may have been inspired by the floral motifs on a kilim but also act passively as a form of branding. This landscape is Middleditch's.
By the later 1960s and early 1970s Middleditch had begun to strip down his drawings and paintings. Away went the descriptive, the naturalistic, the subjective and the emotional. In came stenciling, incremental repetition, pattern and rhythm. Like a shift from a cubism of analysis to one of synthesis, these later paintings are less and less an art of observation and more and more an art of hermeticism, an art in which artist and artwork appear increasingly distanced from the motif. In Seascape (1969) there is a uniformity of attention across the canvas, that gives everything a similar density. Water ripples from top to bottom and side to side, endlessly without a hint of an horizon or of the sky. It becomes increasingly difficult to define these pictures by geography or by time of day. Middleditch's concerns lie elsewhere, playing games with absence and presence and setting up stark contrasts between light and dark, day and night, solid and void. His bold large-scale drawings of the 1980s resonate with a contemporary sensibility that makes them as fresh today as when they were first created. The techniques are as relevant as the imagery. Trees across a landscape are created by masking or by stenciling shapes that remain entirely unpainted. Corn is depicted by rubbing away charcoal to provide a glimmering presence.
Middleditch's late landscapes are places of control and use. People are conspicuously absent, yet their effects are everywhere. Far from being a landscape of the sublime, these paintings present a classical order. This world is structured, taught and composed, what Paul Barker has characterized as 'a landscape of control.' This is a formalised landscape as artificial as a garden. In the words of Gerald Manly Hopkins a 'Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough... All things counter, original, spare, strange.' Middleditch's meditation on the beauty of nature follows this lead, similarly exploring the relationship between symmetry and asymmetry, regularity and irregularity, harmony and disorder. Viewed in the light of such apparent contradictions, it becomes apparent that Middleditch's paradoxical achievement was to create paintings whose roots lie in his closeness to Nature, yet whose power derives from their distance from it.