‘Vermeer used to be cited as a painter who left a great impression in spite of his small output. Each of his pictures contains so much information, both sensory and aesthetic, that one Vermeer equals a roomful of work even by – say – Rubens or by Monet. Michael Andrews seems to me to be a painter of this rare sort. Each work of his is a separate invention; the transformation of complex subjects so poetic, the formal allusions so subtle and varied'
Acquired directly from the artist by Stephen Spender, A Garden Party is a highly evocative painting from a key transitional period within Michael Andrews’ career. It is no surprise that one of the leading novelists and poets of the twentieth century would be seduced by such a captivating manifestation of pastoral England. Spender had a keen eye for art, amassing a collection that included works by Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore. Befriending many of the artists he collected, Spender is depicted several times by Freud – to whom he loaned the front room of a flat to use as a studio during the war – and is also one of the few people to have sat for Moore. A firm believer that art and literature could transcend political and ideological divides, he co-founded Horizon magazine with Cyril Connolly and Peter Watson in 1939 and Encounter magazine with Irving Kristol in 1953.
A Garden Party possesses the gestation of key themes that would preoccupy Michael Andrews throughout his career – namely an observational interest in people and place. Set against a luscious green background, the richly textured composition can be divided into three parts. To the left, mapped out by brown soil, is the abundant vegetation of a shrubbery from which a bright blue summerhouse emerges. The lower half of the composition is occupied by four figures that give the painting its title. In the upper right quadrant, there appears to be another figure on their own, in a secluded part of the garden. David Sylvester acknowledges the influence of Pierre Bonnard on Andrews’ work of this time, both in terms of palette and design: ‘a certain compression of space … not so deep as hitherto; planes are up tilted, the distant distances shortened’ (D. Sylvester, quoted in exhibition catalogue, Michael Andrews Earth Air Water, London, Gagosian, p. 31).
Viewed from an untypically high perspective, as if in a hot air balloon passing over the garden, we are observing the party rather than invited to it. It’s fascinating to see Andrews utilising a vantage point which would become such a distinctive feature of his work during the 1970s. The setting is based on the garden of his family home in Park Lane, Norwich, which he used as the fictional backdrop for several paintings in the mid to late 1950s, that combined images of friends relaxing in London with elements of porches and gardens observed in Norfolk. The distinctive blue summerhouse can be found in other paintings of this period such as Four People Sunbathing, 1955 (Arts Council) and Tea in the Garden, 1956 (private collection). Andrews found parties an indispensable source of imagery, where he could observe unguarded social interactions. Commenting in an interview in 1990, he explained that his ‘earliest paintings would have been to do with myself at the Slade and my family and then discovering a larger life … in London … a constant fascination with behaviour … on a larger stage’ (M. Andrews, quoted in ibid., p. 31).
Andrews' work is characterised by a quiet intensity that requires concentration and consideration to unravel its intricacies. He was part of the famed School of London, a distinguished group that included Bacon, Freud, Kossoff and Auerbach. They sought to introduce a subjective approach to realism which provided a counterpoint to the prevailing American gestural abstraction. Andrews’ paintings of the British countryside are part of a noble tradition of landscape painting that has dominated the medium for centuries. Belying the apparently tranquil and beguiling simplicity of his landscapes, his interests were deeply rooted in the existential and the philosophical. Renowned for his fastidiously slow working methods and consequentially extremely limited output, each Andrews painting is a rare jewel that makes its own unique statement. As Lawrence Gowing comments, ‘They are a kind of picture that no one else paints – highly specific, thoroughly observed images, which are nevertheless ultimately symbolic, and on that level indispensable to a meaning that is increasingly personal and enigmatic’ (L. Gowing, exhibition catalogue, Michael Andrews, London, Hayward Gallery, 1980, p. 11).