Anthony & Phyllis Eyton

A Common Pursuit

Quite often artistic talent runs in families, and the Eyton clan is definitely a case in point. By way of poignant confirmation, this exhibition brings together the paintings of two landscape painters: Phyllis Eyton (1900-29) and her son Anthony (born 1923). As we look at their work, a common pursuit emerges – a shared feeling and passion for light. The English are often criticised for producing rather dark and dreary paintings, but the opposite is true of the Eytons. Here we have pictures that radiate light – and all the optimistic and positive emotions that go with it.

Phyllis Annie Tyser was born in 1900 and trained as a painter at Heatherley’s Art School. In 1920 she married John Eyton who became an Assistant Collector in the Indian Civil Service. They lived in India, in the Nainital district, for only a year, before returning to England in April 1921. But that year was crucial for Phyllis’ development as an artist – the light and colour of the subcontinent liberated her vision. Her best work in India, and subsequently in England, has a rare and untroubled beauty. Phyllis died tragically young, aged 29, after a riding accident, in the year that she first had a picture accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Deprived of his mother at a painfully early age, Tony sought to re-connect with her somehow, and found that painting gave him the sense of a renewed bond. The discovery of her paint box when he was fifteen had all the force of revelation. Then, in the summer of 1942, when home on leave from the Army, Eyton discovered a cache of Phyllis’s paintings in an old trunk. They showed above all her love of colour, and made him aware of the freshness and authenticity of her response, and her ability to render the visual experience real on board or canvas. This discovery confirmed Phyllis’ work as a prime source of inspiration for her son.  As a consequence, it has been her example that has spurred him on through a long life of artistic achievement, and it is deeply appropriate that we should now have the opportunity to study their work together.

I visited Tony in his studio at the end of June, after the photographs had been taken for the catalogue but while he was still working on the paintings. He paints until the very last moment, and a canvas will often arrive for exhibition with the oil still wet. In this Eyton is very different from a contemporary such as Adrian Berg who preferred only to show work which had ‘settled’ – and which had been completed months before. Eyton’s habit of continual revision could lead to paintings which are overworked and leaden – and occasionally he does take an image too far in his quest to match up with his ideal – but his best paintings retain their beguiling freshness and sense of unforced spontaneity. He is swift at putting on the paint, or making corrections in pastel or charcoal. His natural pace is fast, whether in the studio or out in the field making drawings. (‘You’ve got to land in quickly’, he says.) Yet it can take months to finish a painting, and this is because Eyton questions his assumptions and responses, and worries at a picture until it feels entirely right.

Everything comes from nature, and that is the strength of his work – the primacy of observation. But the things seen are inevitably qualified and interpreted by personal and intuitive expression. The truth, yes perhaps – but what is truth? Mere interpretation, according to the poet. So a subjective truth. Then the parts have to be related to the whole, and the fleeting sense impressions gathered from the landscape have to be assessed and translated into a potent and coherent statement. That takes not just organisational skill but imagination. Eyton uses photographs as aides-memoire as much as drawings, assembling the greatest possible amount of information before he begins a painting in the studio and has to face the challenge of making his observations fit into a canvas rectangle with its own formal rules and requirements. Eyton concentrates on keeping the painting fluid, working over the whole of the canvas, introducing definition gradually and bringing it all together (if possible) at the last moment. His main problem is to maintain the initial excitement: starting paintings is always a much more attractive proposition than finishing them.

His pictures are all about forms revealed by light, just as his mother’s are, but sometimes the real meaning of his work appears to be in question. As he has said: ‘My dilemma is whether I’m getting the intensity of the subject in front of me, or is light the subject?’ Inevitably, for a painter in his 94th year, more work is studio-based these days than out in the landscape. But there’s always something new to explore. When I visited him, the old carpet in the studio had just been taken up and Eyton was excited at the challenge and delight of painting bare floorboards with their own particular patterns of age and wear. Among the subjects currently preoccupying him are studio still-life set-ups, with great banks and shelves of objects; the marvellous twists and turns of his staircase and banisters; and a couple of self-portraits. In one of these the artist appears almost as an afterthought in the background, foregrounded by a table-top still-life of vase, bowl, napery and lemon. Foreground and background compete edgily for our attention.

When Eyton first plans out a painting, the loose gestural marks he makes resemble de Kooning’s distinctive looping handling. For years, Eyton has been tempted to leave paintings in their early stages, with the exciting rhythms and pictorial dynamics clearly visible, but his conviction of what a painting from observation entails has nearly always driven him on to a more complete statement. Now he is relaxing his rules and taking more risks. Two paintings in particular demonstrate this new attitude: the wonderfully free evocation of a bentwood rocking chair, and a horizontal painting of the fallen walnut tree in his garden, very brushy and expressive in various greens and browns on a deep umber brown underpainting.

Although he revels in the flicker of the changing moment, he is also drawn to classical structure and stability. As a student nearly 70 years ago at Camberwell he was taught the discipline of how to give some certainty to looking (they called it certezza in honour of Piero and the great Italians). It was a question of making an order from what was seen.

The inspiration he finds in Poussin, Courbet, Rembrandt, Corot, Giotto and Chardin helps to anchor his sense impressions. Cezanne is a constant example in his conversation with nature. Through his study of the Old Masters (what collectively might be called Masaccio’s materiality), Eyton gives solidity of form to the ephemeral. But there is also a strong romantic side to his nature which counteracts and balances the classical urge. He greatly admires Cy Twombly and cultivates an openness of approach and a Zen quality of acceptance of accident. Some of his smaller paintings have a delicious zest to them: the still-life study of apples, the lightly gridded view through a winter window which leads out to a yellow van on the Brixton Road. Although he was taught to measure appearances, today the rhythm and flow are mostly done by eye, and are all the more fluid and dynamic for it. The formality is more likely to appear in the uprights measured against horizontals in an underlying grid or mesh.

If I seem to be giving more attention to Anthony’s work than his mother’s, this is inevitable, given the shortness of her career and the longevity of his. But there are many fundamental traits they hold in common, such as approaching a subject with a fresh eye. One of the challenges for the figurative painter is seeing a familiar subject anew, an achievement that perhaps came naturally to Phyllis but which Tony has worked hard to maintain. As realists they have the advantage of a subject in the natural world looking different every time you see it – principally because of the change in ambient light. Back to light again. And at this point it is more than apt to quote the first stanza of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins entitled Pied Beauty (1877). It sums up this pursuit of light in a rather wonderful and precise way.

Glory be to God for dappled things –

   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

Hopkins’ great hymn of praise celebrates the rich colours and patterns of creation, and the way light illuminates them. One of Phyllis Eyton’s last paintings is called Old Meadows, and features an outhouse, a water-butt and an overturned bucket. Note the touches of colour in the flower border (just like ‘fresh-firecoal’ and ‘finches’ wings’) that ignite the composition. Another late work is a landscape at Bude, in Cornwall, where she painted a vista of woods and fields and distant sea, through a screen of bright pink foxgloves. Phyllis specialised in woodland subjects and loved the play of light through foliage – the dappled effect that Hopkins wrote so beautifully about, and, curiously enough, that was also one of the key subjects of that international Modernist painter, William Gear (1915-97). It is a quintessential English subject: soft light falling through leafy branches, perhaps in a beech wood, casting alternate patches of light and shade on the tree-trunks below and on the ground. Sometimes the dappling takes on a larger form of blotching, like camouflage; at others, an almost post-impressionist patterning.

Phyllis painted mostly on wooden panels, using the brown of the board as a warm base against which to build her sparkling light-filled compositions. Among her subjects are a patch of poppies, a crossroads, a laburnum in magnificent full bloom and a bluebell wood. There are also three fine paintings of the Himalayas, done in 1920 during the Indian sojourn. My personal favourite is the one of Mukteswar. The bold dabbing, dotting and brushing remind me of the paintings of JD Innes (1887-1914), radical landscape painter and crucial influence on Augustus John, who also died far too young. The two others depict mountains under pale flaming sunsets, with a lake. Here are Phyllis Eyton’s three favourite subjects: skies and water and trees. She also wrote poetry, and in one poem refers to ‘a glimpse of sunlight stretched across our way’, while in another she describes ‘pale pink clouds in a sky of pearl.’ She wrote too of ‘glorious colour-giving light’, and declared ‘colour, you are so beautiful – and you’ve given yourself to me.’

Phyllis Eyton painted with great confidence and directness – perhaps because she never lived to experience the many problems that confront the mid-career artist. She enjoyed a certain early success, exhibiting at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters as well as the RA, and both Augustus John and William Orpen championed her work. Trying to convey what he terms the ‘full-on blast’ of his mother’s paintings, Tony Eyton quotes from Hopkins’ poem Spring, in which the poet describes a thrush: ‘it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing’. And recently Eyton wrote of his mother: ‘She remains a talisman, almost an ideal which I can admire and envy, compared to my more gradual procedure, subject to doubt. She went straight to the point. However, we have in common spontaneity.’

That spontaneity is often hard-won for Anthony Eyton, who yet manages to fill his paintings with air and atmosphere as well as evocative, telling brush marks. He also tends to include a lively human presence, whether overt or implied. He is fascinated by human nature and behaviour, by the rituals, habits and spontaneous acts of daily existence. He paints single figures (portraits and nudes) as well as crowd scenes, all suffused with vivid light, all instinct with particular moments (like Constable), and all with a profound sense of the touchability (his word) of the things depicted. In 1989, Eyton concluded the first interview I did with him thus: ‘Painting should be an exclamation at the validity or beauty of nature. A cry of surprise.’ His best paintings, and his mother’s best paintings, are exactly this.

Andrew Lambirth