Alan Reynolds British, 1926-2016
Alan Reynolds was a singular post-war British artist whose early landscapes of Suffolk and Kent — works peppered with teasels, oast houses, hop gardens, orchards, copses and cornfields — mutated into formally abstract compositions.
In 1944, aged 18, he joined the Highland Light Infantry. “When the war finished, my division was broken up,” Reynolds said in 2011. “We were all sent off to different places and I finished up training as an Army schoolmaster and eventually settled in Hanover for about a year and a half.” It was there that he was introduced to the avant-garde - “It was the most important experience I had.”
During the early Fifties, Reynolds - himself a Suffolk boy - turned the farmland and fens of his childhood into a series of spectral scenes. Drawing on an earthy palette of dull cloudy greys, muddy browns and rainwater greens, his landscapes while captivating - even beautiful - were never vistas steeped in nostalgia or a notion of bucolic bliss; rather they hummed with elemental anxieties.
In Summer: Young September’s Cornfield (1954) - now held in the Tate collection - a sun-kissed field of wheat is framed in the foreground by a prickly wall of thistles and on the horizon by an ominous inky firmament. The work illustrated Reynolds’s ability to render human psychology through a representation of flora and fauna, soil and sky. Often the war’s legacy echoed through his strokes. With Winter Pastoral, Kent (1952) he turned England’s garden into a sepia-toned necropolis, a composition reminiscent of the war art of Paul Nash - although Reynolds alludes to the possibility of nature’s reawakening.
That reinvention began in the Sixties. Over the previous decade his landscapes had brought him considerable fame: he was feted as “the golden boy of post neo-romanticism” and his exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in 1956 had been the talk of London’s art world. However, Reynolds moved increasingly towards geometric abstraction.
He received his artistic education first at the Woolwich Polytechnic Art School (1948-52) and later at the Royal College of Art, where he won a medal for his painting. His first one-man exhibition was held in London while he was still a student, and his first New York show was in 1954. He settled in Kent.
Reynolds was an artist who retained a strong personal integrity in his painting style, refusing to repeat the early motifs that had made his name. His career can be seen to fall into two halves: the landscape and abstract painter of the 1950s and 1960s, and the constructive artist of the last 45 years. The former brought success, the latter relative obscurity.
Reynolds’s success in his new style grew, leading to international exhibitions, including a retrospective at the Städtische Galerie im Schloss, Wolfsburg, and the Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen in 1996. He was particularly admired in France (in 2009 he was shown at Galerie Gimpel & Müller) and Germany; but in Britain he continued to be known best for his Fifties’ bucolic canvases.
In 2003 Kettles Yard gallery in Cambridge staged a retrospective of Reynolds’s paintings and drawings; and in 2011 Michael Harrison, its director and a long-standing friend of the artist, wrote an extensive monograph on his work.
Reynolds taught at the Central School of Art & Design from 1954 to 1961 and subsequently at St Martin’s School of Art. He retired from teaching in 1990.
He won a number of prestigious awards, including an international prize at the Giovani Pittori in Rome (1955), the CoID award (1965) and an Arts Council award (1967). His work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the V&A and the National Museum of Canada.