towner gallery

Virtue and the sea


To the Towner at Eastbourne, and John Virtue’s incredible paintings. For the last five years, Virtue has been examining the sea, in all its moods and gestures, from the vantage point of his home in Blakeney. Not the relatively gentle English Channel that frames our currentjourney along the coast, but the North Sea, an altogether more wild and intenseplace. I too have been getting to know that coastline over the last ten years,from my perch near Aldeburgh, and what Virtue has captured for me (more so thanHambling, who has also made the North Sea her subject) is its grey strangeinhuman turbulence. His paintings remind me of the John Montague poem I consider most accurate at capturing its emotional scope:

North Sea

From the cold depths
towards the shelf of Europe
the waves press, hotel fronts
streaked with rain, bleached
blue bathing huts, enduring like
rocks, on wind ravelled sand.

& the dome of the casino
glistening: a tethered balloon.

Perfect setting for
the almost forgotten monster
of unhappiness to clank ashore
(an old horror movie come true)
to where rain spits on
your hotel window
& claim you.


(image by Corey Arnold, from his series The North Sea)

That’s what Virtue does, with his monochromatic palette, he creates something immediately known from our beachgazing, but also completely abstract, a dash of grey, a splotch of white, and we are lost somewhere else, somewhere inside, with the monster of unhappiness clanking down. The paintings are huge, and so you can get lost, as you might get lost at sea, or lost in your thoughts. They are daydreams you can walk inside; you can see the arc of water, the gesture of a man waving his hand over the canvas. For works which are so physical, so full of movement and drama, they are also oddly still, as if what Virtue has really found is the core of the sea, a whirlpool that sweeps us into silence. 


Like a poem, the paintings are built overtime, one gesture, then another, then another. The paintings start as sketches, small watercolour notes to the artist, that Virtue makes while he’s walking, the same walk over Blakeney Point, in all seasons and weathers. In that, he is like Turner, observing the changes over a single location. But whereas Turner was, even in his most abstract moments, trying to portray what weather really looks like, Virtue is already memorialising it, committing it to black and white. It’s really the memory of the sea he’s painting, the thing he’s carried home in his head, then placed on canvas, not just the sea, but the way it’s made him feel.