Louise Cattrell

First Light

The paintings of Louise Cattrell haunt the imagination with their mysterious beauty. They appear as timeless as the landscapes they depict, and yet somehow distinctly contemporary. Each work is as exquisitely painted as anything by JMW Turner, and seems to show a world that still looks just as it must have done in his day – the unchanging rocks, seas, hills and skies of the long ago past – but there is always another dimension to Cattrell’s art. She is a romantic for the twenty-first century.
This has something to do with the extraordinary expansiveness of her work. Every image – no matter how vast or small – opens up to reveal endless space: the fathomless ocean of the sky, the measureless volumes of the sea and the air that circulates between them. All figurative painters face the paradox of representing the three-dimensional world on a piece of two-dimensional canvas but Cattrell goes further, introducing a glimpse of infinity into her work.
In the painting called Tyne, Cattrell is looking out across the river at North Shields, praising the famous silver light that rings through the morning air, gilding the waters below. But above the water, the sky appears diaphanous, cloud-tinged and unthinkably vast. There is moisture below and vapour above, and they are united in this airy vision of a sky so high it seems more like a fantasy. The place is real enough, but the image is like something from a dream.
This painting was made in a studio. Cattrell is not out there in the landscape as she paints, but indoors in successive studios – first in Scotland, where she was born in 1957; latterly in London, which has been her principal home since attending the Royal College of Art in 1980. Everything she paints comes from memory, from the recollection of natural phenomena revealed on a long walk, travelling through a landscape, or at the summit of a hill. Hers is an art of sustained memories, not of single transient images.
A particularly pervasive sense of Northumbria runs through all the works made especially for this show. Prints depict the thistles around Berwick, fiercely beautiful, and the rosebay willowherb found at nearby Dilston, seen as if from the waist up in a vividly graphic portrait. Other etchings made at Northern Print include a memory of the Bass Rock and of Ailsa, that strange volcanic island off the Scottish coast, incandescent with light at dawn.
In Sea Rock, a vision of Holy Isle hovers across the water. Two spots of early sunshine dance on the sea, forming pools of brilliant lemon light (which just happens to be the name of the oil paint Cattrell has used). The scale is modest but the structure of the image feels vast – the rock more like a small city, the frissons of ambient air architectural. And you see that same glassy stillness in the early morning waters in the painting called First Light, which gives this show its title. Here the sea lies deep yet transparent, heavy and yet delicate, revealing the immense fathoms of darkness below even in its shining surface.
Occasionally, a painting may be inspired by more than one epiphany. The strange building hoisted high on a rock in Tower, for instance, comes from seeing two dramatically far-flung outposts – a religious retreat clinging to the edge of a precipitous hillside in Portugal, and the darkly isolated tower of Smailholm in the Borders. Smailholm, described by Sir Walter Scott, who returned to it compulsively, as ‘standing stark and upright like a warden’, is a tower you come upon almost by accident, so unpredictable is the terrain. Cattrell’s painting fuses the astonishment of seeing both places in one spectral vision, somewhere between reality and hallucination.
Light breaks mysteriously through the scene, but also through the painting itself, arriving on the surface like a misty seaside haar or the shimmer of heat on a summer’s road. And time appears to be passing in the picture, too, as the grain of the canvas emerges through the levels of paint: the past materialising in the present.
Lately, Cattrell’s work has come to recall the natural towers of the landscape – hills, promontories and abrupt rocks like the one seen through the morning vapours in First Light. What makes these works so different from the romanticism of the past is the embodied sense of passing through the landscape, of passing through time, of moving towards something in the distance that seems always just slightly out of reach.
These paintings express the way we experience such places, as much as what we actually see—the way we come upon the surprise of a sceptred isle, a vertical peak in mist or a miniature loch high among the hills, the bright sky mirrored in its waters. The eye does not take it all in at once; the revelation unfolds itself slowly. And this is the character of Cattrell’s own work: slowly made, gradually evolving in the studio and just as gradually working its spell upon the viewer.
Rock is a mesmerising picture. The eponymous rock floats in a magical world of opalescent air and vaporous sea, motionless down the centuries and yet seeming to hover in the light. Although it derives from two real geological phenomena, this could be the island from the Tempest, a pearl thrown into the ocean, a place to which you could swim except that it would appear more remote with every stroke.
Go close and you can scarcely see how the painting is made, so subtle is its brushwork. Vapour and substance flow into one another, form and colour merge in the translucent oils worked with softest badger-hair brushes. The rock’s reflection is strong and yet absolutely intangible. It seems to lie both in and on the water, just as the delicate blue light behind the rock seems to come from close up and yet infinitely far away.
And then the picture suddenly changes – to the viewer’s surprise. As the ambient daylight shifts in the gallery, so the painting also changes, passing through something like seasons or moods. One moment it is wintry white, another it seems to take on the promise of early summer, heat scintillating in the glowing air. Just as the world is endlessly altered by the ever-changing atmosphere of climate and light, so the painting repeats this phenomenon. The light rises, the painting changes, giving more of itself, as if alive to its very surroundings.
Laura Cumming
Chief Art Critic, The Observer