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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Sir Alfred East

View at Kettering, Sir Alfred East
For the artist-writer such as myself, there are few things harder to write about than a landscape painter who's good (perhaps even well above average) but seldom spectacular. Why is it that landscape painters of the past gravitated toward the mundane, both in content, color, and composition rather than searching out exceptional scenes such as Sir Alfred East's painting of his hometown, Kettering, Northamptonshire, England (above)? I suspect one reason might be that they nearly all painted on location, thus needing relatively uncomplicated scenes in order to start and finish before the light changed too much or faded altogether. Also they needed (or preferred) decent weather, which further limited their possibilities. Likewise, even after photography began to show practical applications for artists, few painters were photographers, nor embraced the new imaging technology. In fact, a good many of them felt threatened by it.

Though the subject of portrait artist friends,
East painted only one of himself (above, top-right).
Sir Alfred West falls perfectly into this "hard to write about" mold. Born in 1844, and educated at the Glasgow School of Art, West painted several hundred landscapes during his lifetime and virtually nothing else. He also studied in Paris under Adolphe-William Bouguereau before settling in London in 1873. His distinctive palette of pale browns and greens and his idealization of the landscape indicate the influence of the French Barbizon painters, who perceived the countryside in the form of an escape from urban banality.

Newlyn, Penzance in the distance from Geoffrey
Garnier's Garden, 1895, Alfred East
Working in southern England along the Cornish coast, East had plenty of great scenery from which to choose, yet only occasionally does he strike gold, as in his Newlyn, Penzance in the distance from Geoffrey Garnier's Garden (above), from 1895. He was a guest at the home of his friend, and fellow artist, Geoffrey Garnier. Garnier's estate sat atop a steep incline overlooking Newlyn harbor, where it is possible to view the entire bay over to St Michael's Mount. The combination of the windswept Monterey pines, the opaque flat planes of sunlight reflected from the rooftops and the generous foreground, call to mind the iconography of Japanese prints and create a surprisingly abstracted 20th-century composition. 

View of a Shinto Shrine, 1889, Sir Alfred East.
Alfred East came by his oriental influence quite honestly. Rather that study the flood of Japanese prints descending all over Europe at the time, East went to the source. He spent six months in Japan, traveling about painting both the scenery and the people of the country such as his View of a Shinto Shrine (above), dating from 1889. East's The Island of Ye No Shima (below) is a less formal study of Japanese fishermen, not too unlike those living along the Cornish coast in England.

The Island of Ye No Shima, Sir Alfred East.
When the exhibition of 104 paintings from East's Japanese tour was held at the Fine Art Society in 1890 it was a spectacular success. This prompted him to visited Spain sometime after 1892 where he focused on the Algeciras region at the southern end of the Iberian peninsula. East's The Fiesta (below) dates from this excursion. It's one of his best. It would appear that East seldom rose above the plethora of other British painters flocking to the Cornish coast at the time until he left the Cornish coast.

The Fiesta, ca. 1892, Sir Alfred East.
In 1906 Alfred East was elected President of the Royal Society of British Artists, a position he held until his death. That same year, he published a 107-page illustrated book, The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Color. In his book he noted that the greatest errors in landscape painting are to be found not so much in painting technique as in the painter's attitude toward nature. Yet, despite this declaration, most of the book is devoted to his painting techniques, his use of colors, half-tones, and pencil sketches. Alfred East was awarded a Knighthood in 1910 by King Edward VII and his portrait painted by Philip de Laszlo. East was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1899, having been a regular exhibitor since 1883. He was elected to full membership in 1913. Alfred East died the same year, at his London residence in Belsize Park. He was sixty-nine. The Alfred East Art Gallery in Kettering (below), opened two months after his death.

Alfred East Art Gallery, Kettering, Northamptonshire, England.

The Dignity of Autumn, Alfred East.
I found this painting amusing in that
the trees in the center resemble two
childlike cartoon characters conversing.


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