John Virtue is one of the most distinguished painters working today in the United Kingdom. Since 2009 he has lived in North Norfolk, regularly walking along the beach at Cley next the Sea. He has regularly exhibited in London starting with the Lisson Gallery in 1985, and his many solo museum shows include major solo exhibitions with the Tate St Ives, Yale Center for British Art, and the National Gallery.
Without directly trying to paint the sea, John’s painting practice is informed by these walks, where he fills his many notebooks with drawings. The current exhibition is the fourth exhibition we are mounting for John since 1999, and includes a group of 20 small paintings on Belgian linen as well as nine, 6 x 6 ft paintings. This survey show, which borrows a painting from every decade that John has painted, looks at the source material that has informed his practice. An eloquent speaker on the history of art, the book published for this exhibition includes a text by Martin Gayford (well known for his writing on Lucian Freud and David Hockney), and an interview with Paul Moorhouse, Senior Curator of 20th Century Collections and Head of Collections Displays (Victorian to Contemporary) at the National Portrait Gallery (Paul was former Senior Curator and Acting Head of Contemporary Art at the Tate gallery) and whose Howard Hodgkin exhibition is currently on at the National Portrait Gallery.
These two texts cover the history of John’s working practice and his painting heroes from Duccio to Jackson Pollock. It would be fair to say that while John has moved from a figurative style to his more abstract current body of work, his vision is continuous and his geographical moving from Lancashire to Devon, to London, and now to Norfolk, make for a visual continuum which makes complete sense. John Virtue is almost unique in his idiosyncratic practice of painting in only black and white for the duration of his career. This point, which he continues to ignore completely when discussing his work, is one of the most fascinating aspects of his painting.
We are extremely grateful to the lenders of these important works which allow us to look across his practice. Since leaving the Slade School of Fine Art, under the watchful eye of Frank Auerbach, John’s practice has moved from a cross-hatched detailed landscape painting, reminiscent of Samuel Palmer, to an almost completely abstract gestural image closer to the Tachists, Jackson Pollock, or even the most eloquent and abstract Japanese calligraphers, Sengai Gibon and Ike Taiga.
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