10. Time transfixed

Awe at, fascination with, and a desire to in some small way trap, record, replicate the glories of nature seem to be more or less universal. Millions of us travel the world each year to gawp at other people's beauty spots. There is, we feel, something special, something spiritual, something healing and whole-making in the finest landscapes. It is of course easy to ask just how much 'unconscious intercourse with beauty', as Wordsworth put it, you can really have as you queue to take your snap of Victoria Falls, say, or Mont Blanc, but the cynic is in a clear minority.

DAVID INSHAW Swallows, 2004
Swallows, 2004

Artists and poets down the centuries have attempted to express the complicated human emotions that are inextricably bound up with our perception of natural beauty. Virgil's Eclogues evoked the idyllic state of Arcadia in which shepherds lived in total harmony with their environment, while countless artists – and one supreme poet – have let their imaginations loose on the Garden of Eden. The idea of happiness and human innocence cannot, it seems, be separated from a strong sense of place.

DAVID INSHAW Lower Bockhampton I, 2007
Lower Bockhampton I, 2007

But it is manifestly true that neither as a species nor as individuals are we happy, far less innocent. The idyll is irretrievably locked and lost in the past:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

The popularity of A E Housman's most famous poem comes, perhaps, from its succinct articulation of something each of us feels: the poignant recognition of the passing of time, the inevitability of 'lost content' and ultimate mortality. The poem's stroke of genius is, of course, 'those blue remembered hills'.

DAVID INSHAW Lower Bockhampton II, 2007
Lower Bockhampton II, 2007

Thomas Hardy had a whole remembered landscape – Wessex – that he made uniquely personal, and in the process, common to us all. Lost love, fleeting happiness, separation, the death of dear ones – for Hardy all are archived in landscape. 'I had not thought what ghosts would walk / With shivering footsteps to my tune.'

DAVID INSHAW Path to Stinsford, 2008
Path to Stinsford, 2008

And with Hardy we arrive at one of our finest contemporary landscape painters. David Inshaw has followed in Hardy's footsteps, and indeed has painted two pictures of the Path to Stinsford near Hardy's Cottage. It is typical of Inshaw to have painted the same picture twice, and to have placed a female figure running along the path in one of them. Seen together, the paintings evoke all the tantalising possibilities, and also the inescapable downside of choice. As Robert Frost put it in The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

While Inshaw country overlaps Hardy territory, he has made his home for most of his life in Devizes, Wiltshire. Perhaps in no other county is it possible to commune so readily with England's ancient past, to see, as it were, through the pylon-bedraggled, fume-miasma'd modern world, and walk in the footsteps of our long-lost ancestors: Stonehenge, Avebury, and, of particular attraction to Inshaw, Silbury Hill, in many ways the most mysterious of all. Why did they build it, what was it for, what did it mean? The modern world, in its brisk, no-nonsense way, decided to take the lid off and, taking a cue from Polonius [in Shakespeare's Hamlet], find 'Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / Within the centre.' Of course they found nothing and in the process very nearly destroyed an ancient monument that has been an integral part of the landscape from time immemorial.

DAVID INSHAW Hardy's Thrush, 2008
Hardy's Thrush, 2008

Inshaw's way is different: to look and see, to study and revere – and paint, again and again. Silbury, like the cliffs at West Bay, is always the same but always different. The light changes, the mood changes, the tone changes, the emotional vibe changes. But one thing does not change – and that is Inshaw's painstaking attention to detail and love of his subject implicit in every brush stroke.

DAVID INSHAW Storm over Silbury Hill, 2008
Storm over Silbury Hill, 2008

Many in the arts cannot forgive a painter for seeing through the modern world. For those who kneel at the shrine of an unmade bed or a vitrine containing a dead animal, there can be no quarter given to an artist who refuses to compromise his vision of England with pylons and cooling towers, motorways and shopping malls. But long after the work of many of his lauded contemporaries has been discreetly trucked round to the recycling depot, Inshaw's paintings will be giving both pleasure and profound insights into the human condition to generations as yet unborn.

DAVID INSHAW Silbury Hill in the Moonlight, 2008
Silbury Hill in the Moonlight, 2008
The text above is an edited version of an essay by Simon Rae in the exhibition catalogue
for David Inshaw's paintings and etchings at the Millinery Works, London, in 2008.