This quite large but not very good painting has now dropped out of The Gallery after being exhibited for a year or so. The text with it read:
‘This is one of my most ambitious paintings over the last 12 months. The image here is actually the third one on a canvas which is quite big by my standards.
The first painting in 2013 was basically a vertical air-photograph image of a Suffolk-like sort of landscape, in conception not wildly different from ‘English countryside’ in The Gallery here; it did not ‘work’, particularly when I added two large standing stones of a most un-Suffolky nature in an attempt to ‘rescue’ it.
Loathe to waste such a large (and, nowadays, expensive) canvas, I over-painted the landscape during 2014 with an ‘estuary-scape’ based on a superb oblique air-photograph from the west looking downriver over the Alde estuary towards Aldeburgh. This was even worse. Soon after, I happened to be on the edge of that picture, down on the coast at Sizewell. Here, the mere presence of the bulky nuclear power station has deterred modern development and village, dunes and beach together still have very much the air of the seaside I enjoyed as a child and Topsy and Tim (Tipsy and Tom in my version) enjoyed in those oh-so-goody-goody books I read to my children some 20 years later.
Nuclear power plant as conservation agent? – an intriguing thought. There is also the irony that, while a long-lived, low-tech industry, fishing from the beach, continues, already the days of this high-tech hardware of the later-20th century power-generating industry are numbered. ‘Sizewell A’ (the big white cube in the painting) is defunct, and ‘Sizewell B’ (the blue cube and white dome to the right) is already past its sell-by date (despite assurances that it is safe for another ten years). Meanwhile, unavoidably contentious plans to build ‘Sizewell C’ (with Chinese money) to come on-stream in the mid-2020s have been activated, without any answer in sight to the inevitable question: ‘If you were starting from scratch, knowing what we now know about climate change and rising sea-levels, would you plan to build a new nuclear reactor on one of the country’s most visibly-eroding shores?’ The painting preceding this in The Gallery, ‘Dissolving coast’, could well be specifically about this length of coast.
So there’s quite a lot going on behind and in this painting. I was also challenged to address the architectural question: though many find the present power station ugly, even obscene, ‘A’ and ‘B’, like them or not, are major examples of mid/later 20th century architecture. Indeed, the design differences between them are already historically interesting, an interest which will be enhanced should an early 21st century ‘C’ actually be built. Meanwhile, the challenge was to include modern architecture into my version of rural landscape. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded but at least my painting acknowledges that these rather large modern structures exist on, indeed visually dominate, this unpretentious but so very sensitive stretch of coast.
As a painter, I have not bothered at all with architectural detail since, for my purposes, it is the bulky and, in the case of ‘B’, rather surreal presence of the nuclear power station which is significant. Also significant, albeit in a different sort of way, is the small undistinguished building just above the shore on the lower right: this represent another example of public architecture, the only example in my oeuvre as far as I am aware of a public convenience. The structural tangle in the sea, bottom right, represents two off-shore platforms connected with the station, now much-beloved by seagulls.
Methodologically, behind this painting was a second visit to look carefully at what I was going to paint and to take, in glorious sunshine, well over 100 photographs of detail in particular e.g. the stand-alone diesel engines which pull the boats up the shingle beach. I was working on the painting during much of the wet summer of 2015. It is one of the rare works where I had a clear idea of what it was going to look like from the start; the layers of ‘meaning’ accrued as the layers of oil accrued.
Sizewell, viewed from about 100 m offshore and 30 m above the sea, is presented in this painting as primarily a metaphor for change; it is about new and old, the passing of time quicker and quicker, high-tech modern soon useless while old-time food supplier continues, and the basic resillience of the landscape (from the first painting!), lurking behind and showing through this great hulk of now partly redundant, and curiously transparent, concrete. But the power station is not alone in its redundancy: its small but balancing structure on the left was the coastguard lookout, now also superceded by modern technology. The long-term future of the fishermen’s wooden huts is also uncertain; some are already derelict. There’s a lot going on at Sizewell, physically and also in the mind: that’s what this painting is about in my mind, but I’m not at all sure that I have conveyed that.’