Ben Hartley takes a bicyclist's-eye view of Britain
In the 1970s, Bernard Samuels then director of an arts center in Plymouth, England met an "extremely shy and retiring" painter named Ben Hartley. Mr. Samuels visited this relatively unknown artist's "dull-looking" modest house in the village of Ermington, outside Plymouth. Hartley had lived there since 1961. "Inside was almost completely bare," Samuels writes in his book about Hartley, published last year. But he did notice a bicycle.
Trying to break the ice, Samuels mentioned that his favorite artist was French "Intimiste" painter Pierre Bonnard, Hartley relaxed. He "nodded in agreement. 'Food and drink,' he said most fervently, 'food and drink.' "
In spite of the influence of the very French Bonnard (particularly on Hartley's rich sense of color), Hartley was clearly his own man. And although he was a keen traveler, the Samuels book suggests that Hartley felt most at home in the English countryside.
"Devon Lane, Westlake" pictures a precisely identifiable place near Ermington, but it typifies the whole west country scene with its lush farmland, unpretentious farmhouses, and narrow lanes snaking up hill and down dale between banks so deep that the traveler feels contained by them.
I fancy this is Hartley's bicyclist's-eye view. Very unusually, he based this painting directly on a drawing in one of his many notebooks. The drawing is a hasty notation, as if he merely wanted to fix the topography for future reference. The painting much more vividly conveys the experience, rather than just the observation.
Imagine trying to paint a road that plunges downhill from the foreground. Paintings have a bottom and a top. The falling road is in fact painted up the picture's surface. With apparent ease, Hartley persuades the viewer of its sharp descent. It disappears, then reappears in the distance, a much narrower gray ribbon charging up the opposite hillside.
The exhilaration of cycling furiously down this steep lane, with it slipping away under your wheels, and then having to pedal strenuously up its long climb, makes this picture more potent than a mere "view." You feel as though like the cycling artist you are rushing down into the landscape.