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Algernon Newton: rediscovering British art’s “Canaletto of the canals”

The painter’s depopulated cities and landscapes are visions of a 20th-century world wracked by war.

By Michael Prodger

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, the painter CRW Nevinson proclaimed that “there is no beauty except in strife, and no masterpiece without aggressiveness”. Other avant-garde artists shared his view but in the light of the destruction that followed, such bombast came to seem not simply crass but offensively ill-judged.

The work of Algernon Newton (1880-1968) stands as a direct refutation of Nevinson’s stance. During the war Newton served as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and then with the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry. He was invalided out of the army in 1916 when he contracted double pneumonia, which nearly killed him. By then he had seen more than enough of service to know that there was no beauty to be found in strife and he became a committed and active pacifist. This was not just a moral stance but an artistic one too, and in his paintings he sought conflict’s opposite – a hermetic stillness and silence.

Calm and stasis were the defining characteristics of one strand of interwar art and it sometimes took a hyper-realist form, as in the portraits of Meredith Frampton and Gerald Brockhurst and the seascapes and landscapes of Tristram Hillier. With Newton, however, it became disquieting. “I tried to create something in every picture I painted,” he said, “a mood, a mental atmosphere, a sentiment.” What he didn’t – or couldn’t – define was the nature of those moods.

[See also: Mildred Eldridge devoted her life and art to a windswept natural world]

Newton specialised in paintings of nondescript parts of London and especially the Regent’s Canal as it passed through Camden Town and Islington. The capital, he wrote, “held a very individual beauty of its own, a beauty that was London”. He explained that he was “chiefly attracted to the poorer districts and the slums” because: “They seemed to me so much more beautiful than the West End of London. There was more of the individual character of London there, far more mental atmosphere and a certain sadness made up of human associations hung over the sordid streets and backwaters of London.”

That sadness was something he expressed without the people who emanated it being present. His streets, canals and landscapes are usually bare. Where has everyone gone? The roads and waterways should be bustling but they are human-free, vehicle-free, boat-free. There is no sign of anything amiss but something, the war perhaps, has emptied them of life. What is left is a series of immaculate stage sets waiting for a cast to appear and act on them.

Newton was originally a very different sort of artist. He was the grandson of Henry Newton, one of the founders of the celebrated firm of artists’ colourmen Windsor and Newton, and after leaving Cambridge without a degree he attended a series of London art schools, including the Frank Calderon School of Animal Painting in London. He had early success as a horse painter, with his portrait The Arab “Rebab” being hung “on the line” – the prime viewing spot – at the 1903 Royal Academy (RA) Summer Exhibition. He married that same year and when further artistic success failed to materialise he took his family off first to Switzerland, where the mountains oppressed him, and then British Columbia.

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After the war and a spell recuperating at Lamorna in Cornwall, where there was a vibrant artists’ colony, Newton returned to London without his wife and children and eked out a living selling his pictures on street corners. It was studying the Canalettos in the National Gallery that proved a turning point. In these early 18th-century Venetian vedute he found not just a world completely unlike contemporary Britain but a way of painting too. It was Canaletto’s “rendering of light in landscape” that first attracted him since he had never found “such accurate and sensitive values in any other master”. Newton duly adopted both Canaletto’s technique of using monochrome underpainting to help give accurate tonal contrasts and his use of multiple thin glazes to hide any sign of the artist’s hand.

The style he developed brought him a great degree of success: he began exhibiting at the forward-thinking New English Art Club as well as at the RA (he was elected an Academician in 1943) and sold works for good sums – £250 to £350. His canal paintings gained him the nickname “the Regent’s Canaletto” and the tautological “Canaletto of the canals”, and aristocratic patrons, attracted by his Old Master style, began to ask him to paint pictures of their country houses, just as Canaletto had done while living in England between 1746 and 1755.

He exhibited internationally too, as one of the artists selected to represent Britain at the Venice Biennales of 1926 and 1934, and, somewhat incongruously, alongside Picasso, Braque and Chagall at an international exhibition in Pittsburgh in 1938. 

[See also: The Brazilian landscapes of Frans Post capture the dismal dawn of the colonial age]

If the oddity of Newton’s city views, their surrealism, suggests a temperamental or psychological affinity with contemporary painters such as Giorgio de Chirico and especially Magritte, they also call to mind the snippets of buildings in Naples painted by Thomas Jones in the 1770s. Landscapes had nevertheless always formed a part of his output and from the mid-1950s they would become his main subject.

This painting, The “Lord Nelson”, Winter Morning, Beck Hole (1943), now in the Government Art Collection, shows how Newton imagined not just empty towns but an empty countryside too. In 1941, he escaped the dangers of London for the sanctuary of the North Yorkshire village of Beck Hole, possibly at the recommendation of his friend Laura Knight, and stayed there until 1948. The painting shows his home, a former pub, whose upper floor he converted into a studio (it was there that he painted an inn sign on metal for the village’s surviving pub, the Birch Hall Inn, which he gave to the landlady).

The comfort he found in this secluded and hilly spot above the Murk Esk river is not, however, evident in the painting. Smoke rises from the chimneys and an upper window is open, but any inhabitants are absent. Newton liked the long shadows and still air of early mornings and evenings for the sharp relief they gave. And here the sun’s rays fall like a spotlight on the building, the drystone wall and the looming, bare tree which leans somewhat menacingly towards the house, while two patches of sunlight appear like eyes in a mask on the distant hillside.

It is, like all Newton’s pictures, an image made with extreme care. He would combine observations with drawings made on the spot and sometimes photographs to give his compositions the stability and sense of recession he required, even if this painting depicts a less ordered vista than many of his landscapes. It is also, typically, difficult to interpret: is this a restful scene or is there is a tension here that suggests something is about to happen or a discovery made? Is it a picture about the missing of the current world war as well as the earlier one? Or is it a painting without meaning, capturing or invoking nothing more than a timeless mood that could equally well be hope and contentment as anxiety and foreboding. Indeed, this might not be an image of reality at all but a dream recalled in preternatural detail. In this evocative mixing of precise scrutiny with memory and feeling, Newton was less a painter of views than of visions.

At his death, both Newton’s work and the distinctive place he occupied in interwar British art were largely forgotten. Like the people in his paintings, he simply disappeared.

[See also: How Edvard Munch turned his personal fears into universal symbols]

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This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man