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16 September 2020updated 22 Sep 2020 8:08pm

The greats outdoors: Michael Andrews’ valedictory Thames paintings

The philosophical landscapes of Lucian Freud's lesser-known contemporary.   

By Michael Prodger

Michael Andrews (1928-95) was a painter who was always greatly respected but never properly famous. As early as 1959, the Tate Gallery bought his A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over (1952), a work he had painted in his penultimate year at the Slade School of Art, yet he never matched the levels of recognition achieved by his peers. Andrews was associated with the School of London, the group of postwar painters who remained doggedly faithful to both paint and figurative art and which included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and RB Kitaj, and he spent a whole working life in their shadow.

Andrews was so shy and reticent a man, and such a slow worker, that the former Tate director John Rothenstein described him as “in danger of being taken for a rumour rather than a person”. His friends, however, knew his worth: Auerbach thought him an artist “who only ever paints masterpieces”, while Freud looked at his work and said simply, “I can’t better that”. There is a famous and telling photograph, taken in 1963 by John Deakin – the group’s house photographer – that shows several of its members in Wheeler’s restaurant in Soho. There, on the edge of the group, next to Freud, Bacon and Auerbach, sits Andrews, happy it seems to be part of the gathering, but just as happy not to be at the heart of it all.

Andrews was temperamentally the opposite of his notable friends: not for him the violent demi-monde that attracted Bacon or the woman hunting (and child making) that fuelled Freud. He was an altogether gentler soul, a legacy, perhaps, of his Methodist upbringing in Norwich.  Bacon’s art, though, was a lifelong influence and the way the older artist used thin paint to deliquesce forms is evident in Andrews’ work, as is Freud’s sheer fastidiousness in front of a canvas.

Andrews’ art training was interrupted between 1947 and 1949 as he completed his National Service, and when he returned to London he specialised in group portraits. In paintings such as Colony Room I and The Deer Park (both 1962) he showed the Soho set at play, viewing them as an outsider-insider and fascinated by the way parties made people “perform”. “They succeed or fail,” he said. “They increase in stature or flop. They put themselves to the test.” And he was well aware that he was not a fully fledged participant: “I am more of a spectator than I am at most times prepared to admit to myself.”

In the mid-1970s he had had enough of performers and started to paint landscapes. This was a world in which he could fully immerse himself, one in which the human figure is either entirely absent or greatly diminished. He worked in series – paintings of deer stalking in the Scottish Highlands; hot-air balloons floating serenely over coasts, hills and riverside London; Ayers Rock jutting up from the Australian outback like a humpbacked monster lumbering from the earth; and a final, numinous batch of the silt and sluice edgelands of the Thames.

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His landscapes were not simple representations, however, but spiritual and philosophical in intent. “It seems to me impossible not to paint religious landscapes of aboriginal Australia,” he once wrote, “just as it is almost impossible not to paint historical landscapes in Scotland.” His interest in Zen Buddhism meant that the balloon pictures should also be interpreted as images of the ego searching for enlightenment while this, his last picture, Thames Painting, The Estuary, 1994-95, in Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, is an end-of-life valediction.

It was one of a planned series of six, of which only two were finished, and was painted when he was living in Battersea and crossing the river each day to his studio in Fulham. In it, Andrews has imitated the aqueous channels and glistens of low-tide Thames mud by blowing paint across the canvas with a hairdryer; metallic rivulets undulate towards the river; water and shore meet in a soft indeterminacy; the viewpoint is high, as if from one of his balloons. But the tiny figures, fishermen and boatmen by a jetty, which stop the painting disappearing into abstraction, are dressed in 19th-century attire – an echo of Whistler. Andrews and the viewer are looking not just down but back in time. It is a dreamscape, both subtle and beautiful, touching on the timelessness of nature, the transience of man, and the river as witness to the stream of history. And for Andrews, for whom time was running out (he had his first cancer operation in 1994), the Thames was both Lethe and Styx – one the river of forgetfulness, the other the boundary between world and underworld.

Andrews’s total output over a career of more than 40 years was a mere 250 paintings and watercolours; most are in private collections, another reason his renown isn’t what it should be. His painstaking method meant that each picture mattered to him and was the result of great thought and care. “There’s such a marvellous difference between ideas and imagery,” he said. “I mean you can’t paint ideas; you really cannot paint ideas,” so instead he painted imagery that gives rise to ideas. He was to die not long after completing this grave and mysterious picture, and the idea it gives rise to is that he finally found what he had long yearned for: “To be released and unselfconscious – how wonderful that would be.”

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This article appears in the 16 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid