1. Games without frontiers

'Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three', according to Philip Larkin in his poem Annus Mirabilis, and Pop Art was also in its prime at that time. Many young artists were experimenting with the form, including David Inshaw, who was twenty years old in Larkin's year of wonders and a student at the Royal Academy Schools in London. Pop Art served him well for the next six years and resulted in a series of highly-accomplished paintings such as Les Jardin des Plantes, Kiss Kiss Kiss and My feelings for a fish a girl and an aeroplane. But Inshaw did not feel that Pop was in tune with his aspirations as an artist and he began to look for a more personal direction to pursue.

An epiphany came in 1967 when a girlfriend introduced him to the work of Thomas Hardy, a writer of profound emotional depth and, for Inshaw, one of several influential 'heroes' that include William Blake, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Samuel Palmer, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and the composer Edward Elgar. Hardy's use of the English countryside as a metaphor for the complex emotional landscapes of the human psyche struck a powerful chord with Inshaw and became a catalyst for the direction his art would subsequently take.

By the early 1970s he had developed an uniquely Inshavian style of painting and produced the first of his mature works, with exquisitely-crafted paintings such as The Raven, Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers, The Badminton Game and She did not turn winning him critical acclaim and a wide audience. The Badminton Game was subsequently acquired by the Tate Gallery in London and is probably Inshaw's most famous painting. The artist describes its genesis elsewhere on this website, but it is also worth considering it here for the themes it contains can be traced through much of Inshaw's work to this day.

DAVID INSHAW The Badminton Game, 1972-73
The Badminton Game, 1972-73

The painting is set in a formal garden with a carpet of lawn stretching back to a distant landscape, and it is early morning on a fine summery day. On the left is a box hedge and behind it a house that is crowned with a small roof- top balustrade. The house is unusually tall and strangely fenestrated; its high windows bring to mind the clerestory and vaulted interior of a church, an impression that is reinforced by the trees which stand beside it like a mute congregation. These trees provide the backdrop to the game itself, towering above it like a crowd of curious onlookers, leaning, craning and peering through gaps to watch two young women play badminton.

It is a dreamlike scene, suffused with an air of magic and mystery and redolent with expectation. The trees seem poised on the brink of movement and one priapic member of the group stands close behind a rounded bush that appears to be encroaching on the makeshift court. But the girls play on, seemingly unaware of this pitch invasion. The juxtaposition of tree and bush is clearly of a sexual nature and, as sex and nature, it recalls Hardy's use of landscape as a conduit for feelings and emotions. It is masculine and feminine, strength and vulnerability, eroticism and innocence writ large, and Inshaw's playful take on this reveals an impish sense of humour that would reappear elsewhere in his art.

The Badminton Game is a remarkable achievement for an artist who had just turned thirty years of age, and like so many of his paintings its power lies partly in the conflicting thoughts and feelings it evokes. To some extent the picture reflects a mixture of emotions at a time in the artist's past, although they were, of course, very much in the present when he painted it. But on another level – and this is true of Inshaw's work in general – it addresses the passage of time in a deeper sense. Another verse by Larkin expresses this clearly:

This is the first thing
I have understood:
Time is the echo of an axe
Within a wood.

For Inshaw, it is the metronomic rhythm of a shuttlecock, the ebb and flow of shadows, and the mutability of a mackerel sky. And yet the picture has a timeless quality too, the painted moment when time stands still and the shuttlecock is caught in flight and the moon frozen in its trajectory. This 'timeless moment' is a theme that Inshaw would return to. Above all, however, The Badminton Game is a celebration – of sex and nature, love and landscape, girlfriends and gardens.

DAVID INSHAW The Cricket Game, 1976
The Cricket Game, 1976

When Inshaw painted The Badminton Game he was living in Devizes, Wiltshire, and teaching at the West of England College of Art in Bristol. In 1975 he formed the Brotherhood of Ruralists with six other artists and resigned from his teaching post to take up a two-year fellowship in Creative Art at Trinity College, Cambridge. Whilst there he completed The Cricket Game, the first of three paintings with this title and loosely connected to The Badminton Game by its rural setting, long shadows and slanting light. After Cambridge, Inshaw returned to Devizes and in the early 1980s he began to experiment with a change of style, relying less on drawing, and standing up to paint with broader brush strokes than before. The greater freedom this gave him found its way, over time, into his paintings, which retained their intensity but became more 'open'.

This new method of painting brought a change of focus too, and in 1983 Inshaw left the Brotherhood of Ruralists. He was forty years old and regularly painted the Wiltshire landscape around his home in Devizes. The Marlborough Downs, its animals and birds, and the neolithic monument of Silbury Hill all made frequent appearances in his work, interspersed with paintings of nudes such as Blind Man's Buff. The two subjects complement each other well, for the warmth and intensity of his nudes is carried through into his landscapes and, in a sense, one may be seen as an embodiment of the other. The nude stretched out in the foreground of his Wiltshire Landscape in 1984 and the sensous rolling contours of the land behind her illustrate this clearly, while his Portrait of Silbury Hill in May five years later achieves the same effect without a female presence.

DAVID INSHAW Wiltshire Landscape, 1984 DAVID INSHAW Blind Man's Buff, 1983 DAVID INSHAW Portrait of Silbury Hill in May, 1989
Wiltshire Landscape Blind Man's Buff Portrait of Silbury Hill in May

Inshaw's paintings from this period reveal an artist at home in his surroundings, and expressing his love of the English countryside by painting people and places with a renewed vitality and freshness of composition. Then in 1989 came a new range of subjects and a very different kind of landscape when Inshaw relocated to Clyro in the Welsh Borders. The move prompted a series of six large etchings of the Wiltshire landscape – his 'fond farewells' to the places he had left behind – but it also introduced new motifs to his paintings. Bonfires and fireworks began to feature prominently, as did sandcastles and beaches, followed by pet cats and pussy willows a few years later.

In 1995 Inshaw returned to Devizes and made it his permanent home. He then began a new series of paintings inspired by the landscape of Dorset and its spectacular Jurassic coastline at West Bay, where the cliffs rise from the sea in giant folds of rock. It is a place he has visited many times over the years, gradually developing a deeply personal sense of the place until finally he felt he was ready to paint it. The result is a series of large square canvases on which the artist's accumulated memories and more fanciful imaginings are lovingly set out like a beachcomber's objets trouvés. The daytime scenes feature women and children, cats and dogs, gulls and even fairies, while at night a son et lumière of bonfires, fireworks and thunderstorms provides an equally magical display of pyrotechnics. Common to all these paintings is the backdrop of concertinaed cliffs, suggesting a similar compression of time itself as thoughts and dreams, past and present, converge on canvas.

DAVID INSHAW Firework and Bonfire, West Bay, 2000 DAVID INSHAW Dorset Landscape: Cerne Giant, 2004 DAVID INSHAW Oak Tree, Bonfire and Fireworks, 2004
Firework and Bonfire, West Bay Dorset Landscape: Cerne Giant Oak Tree, Bonfire and Fireworks

Inshaw has continued to use square canvases for many of his paintings, finding that it frees him from 'boundary conditions' and thus, in a way, increases the freedom that his work acquired in the 1980s. Today he is painting more freely than ever, revisiting subjects and adding new ones, like the white chalk figure of the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset. There are bonfires and barn owls, portraits and nudes, a series of smaller West Bay paintings, commissioned works and large tree portraits such as Oak Tree, Bonfire and Fireworks, plus new views of the Wiltshire landscape and Silbury Hill in all its aspects.

This website and on-line gallery covers David Inshaw's career to date, from art school and Pop Art, to the paintings that made his name in the 1970s, his time with the Brotherhood of Ruralists, the Wiltshire landscapes, West Bay canvases and other recent works. With articles and essays on his life and art, and over 200 paintings, collages, drawings and etchings, it is a journey between imagination and reality. You are cordially invited to turn the page.