2. The search

The most important things to David Inshaw have always been people – friends and girlfriends, great men and women of the past and present ('heroes') – and the places which he came to know and associate with them. The need to commemorate these associations is the subject-matter and purpose of his art. His life when he is not painting – regularly driving great distances to see friends for an evening, running several emotional relationships at the same time – reflects a constant need for making connections of this kind happen and means, as a consequence, a life lived on a thin edge between exhaustion and stimulation. It is very much in contrast with the long and sustained periods of painting which he has always set himself, during which he disappears from view for months at a time, and thus it often seems that it is only on the canvas itself that he can make sense of the chaos of experience which he has so dangerously sought. It may not be too fanciful to suggest that it is this more than anything which accounts for the all-pervading stillness and silence that is an essential quality of almost all his paintings. This autobiographical quality in his works also accounts for the considerable amount of time most of them have taken to complete – the drawn out process of painting giving him the chance to explore his true feelings and to crystallise his vision. This act of celebrating in the physical quality and presence of the painting some sense of those things which have been most important to him emotionally and intellectually is of the essence of his painting. If the paintings can often appear pessimistic or melancholy that is because they are the celebration of a hard-won struggle with himself.

DAVID INSHAW Le Jardin des Plantes, 1964
Le Jardin des Plantes, 1964

Le Jardin des Plantes, one of Inshaw's very first large paintings, is just such a celebration – a celebration of the new-found sense of personal freedom which his first stay in a foreign country had given him. A French Government Scholarship, won shortly after he had started at the Royal Academy Schools, enabled him to live and study in Paris for six months. Considering the way he has worked and gathered inspiration for his painting subsequently it is not perhaps surprising to learn that he spent rather more of his time there drawing in the famous Jardin des Plantes than he did in the Louvre or the Beaux-Arts. People and places were always to be the chief inspiration to him. The thinly painted strip in the centre of this painting, for example, marks a collage made of cut-out picture postcards, snapshots of people he knew and places he visited in Paris, Metro tickets, and other souvenirs of his life there.

DAVID INSHAW Three studies of Janet, 1962
Three studies of Janet, 1962

The technique of the painting – a mixture of collage and a rough, rather insensitive paint surface – indicates a great deal about the growth of Inshaw's self-confidence as a painter after his Paris trip. A comparison of Le Jardin des Plantes with two earlier oil sketches of a woman and a man done at Beckenham Art School (shortly before going to the Royal Academy Schools) shows how clearly in this later painting he rejected what he had been taught there. Beckenham was a good school at this time with inspiring teachers like John Cole, Tom Freeth and Graham Arnold. They preached the virtues of a sound and painterly technique and were responsible for producing a number of very talented young painters at this time. Much later Inshaw was to turn back to what he first learnt there and gain great strength from it. For the moment, however, his impulse was to reject it totally and to follow the paths his time in Paris had given him the confidence to follow.

DAVID INSHAW French Kisses, 1964
French Kisses, 1964

With this tradition for figurative painting and conservative methods and values the Royal Academy Schools might have seemed the wrong place for someone of Inshaw's artistic temperament and inclination to go. The curious thing about the Royal Academy Schools, however, is the very diversity of talent they have always produced and this has never been more in evidence than over the last twenty-five years or so when their independence from the great postwar expansion of the state art school system has proved something of a blessing in disguise. The result has been to give them a resilience to the whims of fashion and bureaucratic interference to which, under the distinguished direction of Peter Greenham, has been added an openness to ideas and a rejection of dogma that is not only very important but also very rare in English art schools. For Inshaw it meant the time and freedom to develop in his painting those ideas which, after Paris, he seemed to have very well worked out in his head. Two other paintings completed while he was there, Yes Yes and Royal Academy Life Painting, are good examples of the style and methods of working he was to adopt over the next two or three years. It was a style in which the physical doing and making of the picture became an essential part of the idea of the picture. In Yes Yes each letter was separately shaped and painted before being slotted into the canvas, as though quite deliberately spinning out the time taken in making the work so that he could savour, at rather more length, the ideas and events it incorporated. In this case these are very much what they appear to be – a simple straightforward expression of the delight and happiness with which he accepted both his life and his painting at the time.

DAVID INSHAW Yes Yes, 1964
Yes Yes, 1964

Dormans to Pinner, A Journey, painted shortly after Inshaw left the Royal Academy Schools, is a rather more specific and private celebration, the ticket relating to a particular series of journeys he made to see a girlfriend, while the grid of crosses relates to measurements made on her anatomy. Its construction shows the interest in constructing still very much present – the hugely enlarged silk-screen railway ticket which is placed centrally at the top of the picture was, for example, separately made and afterwards slotted into the canvas.

DAVID INSHAW Dormans to Pinner, A Journey, 1967
Dormans to Pinner, A Journey, 1967

After Inshaw had finished at the Royal Academy Schools in 1966 he went to live and work in Bristol, teaching at the West of England College of Art. The Window dates from this period and shows the strong impact the move out of London had on his work. Though he had no personal connections of any kind with the West Country it at once became home while landscape, though not specifically West Country landscape, became and has remained an essential part of his artistic expression. Apart from containing one of the earliest landscapes to be found in his painting, The Window also gives many other hints of the way his work was to develop, most notably an increasing interest in painted rather than silk-screened surfaces so that, though the landscape seen through the window was silk-screened before being painted over, everything else in the picture – the interior, the window, the sky and the aircraft – is painted. The aircraft, interestingly, was added almost as an afterthought but is a crucial element in creating the marvellous, dreamlike tension between the interior and the landscape beyond, the whole painting filled with a noise you cannot hear. In its powerful evocation of mood this is one of the most successful and striking paintings up to this point in his career. It was also the last painting he completed before his first one-man show at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, in 1969. The direction his work was to take afterwards shows how much the exhibition, and The Window in particular, must have confirmed a feeling that he had reached the end of one road and was at the start of another. The beginning lay in his realisation that, in painting, pure and simple, lay the means for him to reach his full expressive power as an artist. A first visit to the USA, and the renewal on a much closer basis of the friendship with his Beckenham Art School teacher, Graham Arnold, helped to encourage and confirm this instinct.

DAVID INSHAW The Window, 1969
The Window, 1969

My feelings for a fish a girl and an aeroplane was one of the first works Inshaw completed after the Arnolfini show and his return from the USA. The use of silk-screen for both the girl on the screen (a deliberate reminiscence of the drive-in cinemas he went to in the USA) and the fish floating in the sky is used here in a deliberately ironic way. The story he tells of the inclusion of the fish tells a great deal about his rapidly changing attitudes. While painting the clouds their shapes and patterns had continuously reminded him of fish swimming in the sea. When a 'real' fish arrived in the form of a photograph brought into the art school while he was painting by a student who wanted the print enlarged, he decided to include it as a silk-screen. At this point the feeling about the sky vanished completely and the clouds returned to being just clouds again.

DAVID INSHAW My feelings for a fish a girl and an aeroplane, 1969
My feelings for a fish a girl and an aeroplane, 1969

My feelings for a fish a girl and an aeroplane was, for other reasons, an important painting for Inshaw – The Window had been the last painting completed in acrylic paint; this was the first oil painting he had attempted since Beckenham Art School. The difference between the flatter, more opaque surfaces of acrylic and the richer and more complex subtleties of oil symbolises the greater densities of emotion and feeling which he now so urgently felt his paintings should bear. Oil painting became for him the only way of making sense and form out of the flood of ideas which he now consciously sought, confident of his ability to express them in his work.

The text above is an edited extract of an essay by Nicholas Usherwood in the exhibition catalogue for
a major retrospective of David Inshaw's work at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery in 1978.