David Aitchison

The Power of Charcoal

DAVID AITCHISON, Artist and Gardener at Docwra's Manor, combines the life of an artist with a gardener's creative activities.

by: Robert Hallman    

David Aitchison studied architecture for two years before deciding to study sculpture at Winchester School of Art. Subsequently he taught in art schools as a visiting lecturer until cuts within Further Education brought this facility to a close. He became involved in documentary film making but ultimately realised that he had to choose to be committed either to film or his own work. At this point he took a temporary gardening job, "to avoid a cashflow crisis." In horticulture he realised that he had stumbled into a large and fascinating subject and that as a freelance gardener and garden advisor he would find the activity not only complimentary to his work but flexible with regard to commitment and

David's portfolio shows a wide range of interests. Studies of how things and nature work - skulls , bird skeleton, the action of movement in the manner of Leonardo da Vinci - research that probes "just how the world is put together." Moody, broody landscapes, sometimes disturbing, sometimes joyful, concentrate on fens, low and high country, sea dominated views, studies of weather.......

A series of willows, drawn realistically, progressively evolve into the abstract, developing to studies of shape and structure. "I sold a lot of these," he concedes.

In his studio, which he built onto his house in Shepreth, outsize faces confront the visitor, dominating, intrusive, haunting evocations of humanity. They're not portraits in the traditional sense: "Rather than the meticulous observation involved in working with a sitter, I prefer to work from memory."

"I have found that memory is a great editor of what is superfluous. Working this way re-establishes how important reactions are to something ...........to get back to an initial reaction without being swayed by detail. Degas said that drawing is not form but it is the way form is seen. The memory can be a filter system to this end."

David's pictures are created in the studio but he has always made notes, sketches and drawings from observation. "You draw from life, a bone, a skull, a seedpod or a human being. What you see and study continually adds to your visual vocabulary and understanding, which you can then recall if needed. When all is said and done, to draw is to analyse. It is also a unique way of experiencing and learning about things and training visual memory."

David's staunch conviction is that a student of art, while being introduced to the greatest variety of techniques and possibilities should not forget the importance of draughtsmanship, especially with that most basic of means, paper and charcoal. " If the electronic and mechanical means by which we can create images today suddenly were no more, it would essentially be down to the individual's creative power with this most basic mark-making implement. It is a form of magic that is as relevant today as it was twentythousand years ago and I believe that if mankind is still around in twenty-thousand years time, there will still be those who will have the need to draw in this way.

David is magnanimous toward the modern idea of art as unmade beds or cows in formaldehyde: " Art is an unfolding process in which we try to come to terms with our cosmology, our environment and the life we live. Human hopes, aspirations and so on don't seem to change that much, but the ways in which we express these things do according to the age and culture. We unavoidably inherit from what has gone before, in art as in all things, yet we can only be products of our own time whatever the means we choose to use to express ourselves ........ it's amazing that one can now talk to and see someone in another country using an instrument little bigger than a matchbox. It makes it impossible for us to regard the "world" in the same way as, for instance, the creators of the paintings in the cave at Lascaux, yet this does not detract from the beauty and power of those paintings."

David's nudes were particularly successful. Quite a lucrative line, he agrees, but he became dissatisfied with being, in his words, "a purveyor of fine nudes ............ you have to move on."

Yet humans figure strongly in his artistic consciousness.

I noticed a good deal of humanity in his character faces. "That's what I get most out of...... that's what I find most challenging. It's about people. The human condition interests me artistically. The landscapes and other subjects play their part."

A set of pictures drawn from sketches of his ageing father, showing the progressive effects of physical decline and dementia, are powerful in their brutal reality. When offered a high price for the first drawing in the sequence, he refused to sell on principle. He felt the coherence of the progression would be impoverished if one of the drawings were to be removed.

"The singers" are expressions of - soundless - concentration, not pretty but powerful."My wife sings in a choir, so I usually sit at the back of the cathedral, church, concert hall or wherever and sketch. These sketches are very small - only a few inches - but may end up as a painting four to five feet in size."

Much of his work has a three dimensional, sculptural quality to it. His heads, his figures and objects, recall Elizabeth Frink and Henry Moore in this respect.

"Although most of my work for a long time has been in the form of drawing and painting using various media, I still consider myself a sculptor ........ when I am doing a picture I use colour to enhance the forms because form is very important to me. There has to be that feeling that you can touch ...... walk round ...... get to the side you can't see. However much I'd like to hide aspects of a picture, I always find that, for me, it looks wrong and only looks right when there is this three dimensional aspect ........so I never call myself a painter. I envy painters with their, what I might call liberties, which is one of the reasons why I enjoy looking at paintings so much. Aside from television most of our communicated visual information comes in the form of photographs and as much as I appreciate them, I find them quite inhibiting to work from, so I don't use them. Many artists have used photographs very creatively, just look for instance, at Degas or Francis Bacon."

Last year (2002) David teamed up with two students from the Cambridge Regional College for an exhibition in one of the barns at Docwra's Manor where he displayed some of his paintings. Among them was a collection of what can perhaps be described as lager louts - phallic symbol beer bottles in hand - juxtaposed with the more angelic, though nonetheless enthusiastic choir to which his wife belongs. He was grateful to be able to show pictures he knew were not particularly marketable, as he thinks that to paint constantly to a market formula is not what artists should be doing.

His pictures sell through a London gallery, the Gagliardi Gallery in Chelsea, although there is a hard economic factor to reckon with which confronts all artists. The gallery commission, framing costs, transportation and loss of working time in doing so reduces the final income substantially.

How does gardening fit into that mindset?

"Well ............ gardening provides me with a regular income while allowing me flexibility with the time I devote to it. The knowledge I have gathered has shown me what an inexhaustable and challenging subject gardening is but because art is a compulsion for me, it's often tempting to drop everything and concentrate exclusively on a picture. Going to the garden does force me to move outside myself ........ to test an idea against the world ....... its very easy to become studio bound ....... isolated. There are so many interacting aspects, universes if you like, going on in a garden, from the human involvement to the wildlife going about it's business regardless. The Garden of Docwra's Manor is open to the public, so I meet a large cross - section of peoples from all over the world".

"Increasingly I find that I impart the notion that we should try to achieve a balance between what we desire of gardens and the needs of the fauna that inhabit the same space. I believe this is where the responsibility for ecology begins ............ that a hole in a leaf is not horticultural failure ...... to see the fascinating relationship between insect and flower............ that predator and prey given the appropriate habitat do co-exist ......... I find these relationships endlessly fascinating, whatever the species .......... for me this is what gardening is all about".

David gardens at Docwra's Manor three days a week which provides important ' continuity. The owner, Mrs. Faith Raven, is a knowledgeable and experienced plantswoman and their association has been a beneficial one - it has to be in such a situation and when a difference does occur the compromise is usually a catalyst for creative advancement rather than a hindrance.

What of teaching ?

"I do give occasional workshops and lectures, but for me regular teaching requires the kind of commitment which diminishes the energy and emotional charge required for my work. I certainly missed the teaching when it ended all those years ago. I now think it was a good thing to have happened because I would never have done and experienced many of the things that I have. We have had horticultural and garden design students at Docwra's wishing to learn what we have to offer. Thats the the interesting thing about gardening, it actually runs along the boundary between art/craft and science. It also puts you in touch with the earth and the changing seasons. Art I can't switch off, gardening I can, though they both become a way of life".

What of the future ?

"Oh, start new work, re-invent things, make use of life experiences. Thats a prerequisite. An artist should strive to be independent at all costs, to cherish that feeling of creative freedom in spite of the outcome ..... its good for his work and it is good for his soul."