‘[Andrews] is private to an exquisitely English degree. [He] has an almost mythical reputation among his art-world contemporaries. He is what most English artists dream of being; the acceptable outsider’ (John McEwan, The Spectator, 15 November 1980).
Michael Andrews’ painting of the English countryside is part of a noble tradition of landscape painting that has dominated the medium for centuries. However, as Andrews belonged to a distinguished group of post-war English painters known as the School of London (which also included such luminaries as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud), the painting becomes not only a depiction of a bucolic idyll but also holds a deeper, psychological resonance too. As the title suggests, SAX A.D. 832 First Painting is the first of two canvases which Andrews began in 1982 featuring the village of Saxlingham Nethergate in the county of Norfolk. He had moved to the village the year before, attracted by the tranquility and the deeply rooted sense of history that the village embodied. Founded in A.D. 832, almost two centuries before the creation of the Doomsday Book, Saxlingham Nethergate was celebrating its 1150th anniversary when Andrews began work on the painting. When he arrived in the village he established his studio in a nearby ancient chapel and, enthused by the enormity of history and the individual’s place within it, began work on the present canvas, in part as a reaction to his long search for his own place in the world. Speaking of his fascination with the subject matter, Andrews said, ‘I like the antiquity of it. I was terribly affected by the fact that we were living in a 7th century village (a favourite century of mine)’ (M. Andrews, quoted in R. Cork, P. McCaughey & E. M. Weeks, exhibition catalogue, The School of London and Their Friends: The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians, New Haven, 2001, p. 36).
Set against the lush green backdrop of a country lane, the painting features a lone horse and its rider trotting quietly towards their destination. This figure, together with the small hamlet of cottages nestled amongst the trees, is one of the few signs of life in Andrews’ evocative portrait of the English countryside. However, despite this perceived emptiness, the canvas is filled with painterly detail as the artist captures the peaceful serenity of the rural setting. The high perspective, a key feature of Andrews’ work ever since he spotted a newspaper photograph of a balloon floating across the countryside in the 1970s, adds a distinctive new perspective to a familiar genre. Although still part of the landscape, the viewer is placed above it, hovering - Zen-like - above a familiar place, and as such, the painting becomes the result of, and a focus for, meditation and introduces a subtle yet poetically different viewpoint of the world. In addition, by introducing a high horizon line, Andrews is able to lavish a large proportion of the canvas with layer upon layer of luscious greenery. Tracts of tall trees mark the dividing line between the land and the expanse of heavy, leaden sky, their canopies, branches and leaves blending into verdant abstraction as they disappear into the distance. In the foreground, Andrews depicts the rich, variegated vegetation in passages of differentiated brushwork - building up layers of oil and acrylic paint in a series of features highlighted by subtle impasto to mimic the vegetation being displayed. The composition is then split dramatically in two by the narrow country lane that bisects the painting, not only physically but also metaphorically as it disrupts the pastoral nature of the scene that is being depicted. At first it is harsh and rigid, but as the road meanders towards the vanishing point, it begins to twist and wind as it passes an almost indistinguishable red telephone box before finally disappearing off to its unknown destination.
Andrews’ fascination with history, people and landscape are intertwined in works such as SAX A.D. 832 First Painting. Here, although barely visible, the village of Saxlingham Nethergate is clearly imprinted on the landscape by the sheer force of history. With the exception of two very twentieth century interventions (the telephone box and the associated wires and pylons), the scene being played out before could arguably have taken place at any time within the preceding centuries. Thus Andrews has looked at the landscape and accentuated its timeless qualities, yet as fellow artist Lawrence Gowing states, this is not a romantic notion of England but more of a post-modern comment on the nature of modernity in post-war Britain. ‘He has a serious (yet also romantic) regard for how life is lived, the fullness and emptiness in people, which art can make visible only by implication, in the kind of symbol that has to be minted afresh each time’ (L. Gowing, exhibition catalogue, ‘Introduction,’ Michael Andrews, Hayward Gallery, London, 1980, p. 11). Just as his contemporary Lucian Freud did in his Paddington series of pictures of the view from his studio window, Andrews finds a level of peace and catharsis in a seemingly unremarkable view, bringing to life the mundane details that are normally consigned to the margins of history. There is very little in SAX A.D. 832 First Painting to ostentatiously denote the presence of human history, yet the landscape we see before us is far more constructed by the human hand than it is by any divine or natural intervention. As Andrews himself states, ‘Actually what I’m painting is historical landscape. That is to say landscape relating the chain of events. It’s time and landscape that interests me. The way it’s been affected by the people living in it’ (M. Andrews, op. cit., p. 57).
Andrews was part of the famed School of London, a group of British painters whose distinguished alumni included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach. They sought to introduce a subjective approach into realism and thus provide a counterpoint to the dominance of abstraction. Like many of his contemporaries - particularly his teacher at the Slade School of Art, Lucian Freud - Andrews' work is characterised by a quiet intensity that requires concentration and consideration to unravel its intricacies, much at odds with the prevailing American gestural abstraction of the time. Gowing, a fellow member of the School of London, described Andrews’ work thus: ‘Ways of thought and feeling with evident introspective and autobiographical truth are matched, as if by internal necessity, with an exceptional quality of realism in paint - matched in varying, and it seems indefinitely variable combinations, which are nevertheless consistently and completely his own’ (L. Gowing, op. cit., p. 24).
Andrews belonged to the English school that, in some isolation at that time, kept itself completely distant from contemporary international artistic movements, remaining attached to human representation and figuration. His work taps into the physical nature of the English countryside, but also the nature of an imagined Englishness that has built up over millennia. The result is a truly unique approach to an historic painterly discipline and one which insured its continued relevance. As Gowing surmises, ‘The whole course of Andrews’ engrossment in his world and himself - an imaginative indulgence that is also austerely documented with a sense of the real - is surely one of the more original and remarkable episodes in the art of our time’ (L. Gowing, ibid.).