” Here is a painter wholly engaged with the business of interpreting and abstracting from landscape what it is that makes up its atmosphere and vigour. His painting can literally be described as thrilling in its inventiveness and freedom.”

Caroline McAdam Clark

Biography

Michael Honnor was born in 1944. He grew up on the edge of Dartmoor, Devon, which instilled in him, an instinctive connection with the wilderness and wildness of landscape. He left Devon to first study English at Oxford University, and then painting at Hornsey College, followed by a year at Byam Shaw in London. He returned to Dartmoor in 1978, basing himself in a derelict farmhouse in the Erme valley. At this time, Michael started his involvement at Dartington Hall, where he set up their renowned print workshop, and has been the Director since.

For Michael, the landscape of Britain has been a constant source of inspiration. Its wild places, where the land meets the water, provide an alchemy of weather and light which he captures with a challenging honesty. He continues the strong line of British Landscape painters, working directly within the environment. In 2007 and 2008, Michael travelled further afield, to Italy and Corsica, which provided him with new material.

He has exhibited widely in the UK, and has work in many public collections. These include the British Embassies in Moscow and Vienna, British High Commissions in Dhaka, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Houston, as well as many corporate collections.

Michael Honnor has been exhibiting with the Thackeray Gallery since 1988.

Life and Works

At the age of six Michael Honnor watched a man sitting on a beach painting an ‘unbelievably believable’ picture of the sea. He was seized with the knowledge that this was what he wanted to do. His instinct told him what forty years of accrued experience have corroborated, that being a painter would enable him both to fully experience and to celebrate the landscape he lived in, and in some way to hold on to and preserve its changing patterns and atmospheres. His early motivation has not changed. Honnor’s determination to paint the world about him was hardly deflected by the academic demands of school and an English degree at Oxford. He did the necessary minimum and in the holidays and vacations the canvases piled up at home in Devon.

After school he took himself off alone to Paris to paint nudes – a self-imposed apprenticeship as an artist – and proudly returned home with a stack of these paintings. At Oxford, English took a poor second place to painting, and he held three successful student exhibitions while he was there. A couple of years were devoted to a more formalised study of art at Hornsey College of Art and at the Byam Shaw school, but these years served mainly to consolidate an artistic vocabulary which was already fully formed. By 1970 Michael Honnor was back in Devon, living in the valley in which he was born, setting up his stone lithography workshop and engaged for the rest of the time in painting.

Honnor’s artistic vocabulary owes much to the period in which it was formed, and the painters whose work he knew. He has concentrated almost exclusively on landscape, and the summary shapes and gestures which he uses to represent it recall the work of several English painters of a generation earlier, notably Ivon Hitchens and Peter Lanyon. Like post-war Hitchens, Michael Honnor paints mainly out of doors directly in front of the motif with loose brushwork, using the shapes of the landscape as references for the shapes that assemble on the canvas. Like Hitchens, he aims not for representation of the scene but for a pictorial equivalent with modulated passages of colour and sharp accents set against broader rhythm, rather like musical composition ‘paintings to be listened to’.

Honnor’s work also has something of abstract expressionism filtered through the English eye, the painterly gestures of Lanyon, whose concern was to abstract forms from a direct experience of landscape. He saw the Lanyon Exhibition at the Tate in 1968, and British painting of the 1960s has impregnated his work. But recently Honnor has freed himself from the demands of a rigorous abstraction and allowed himself a freer response to the landscape. The painter to whom he returns again and again, for his ability to transmit a tactile experience of nature, is Constable. He talks of looking at a Constable sketch in the V and A and feeling ‘the speed of the clouds and the stab of light, such Sweetness and roughness and sense of the loved spaces’.

‘Loved spaces’ are at the core of Michael Honnor’s work. He has painted the same spots in the Erme valley in Devon or around the South West coast for over thirty years, and has only recently widened his geographical orbit. ]t is quite a sight to see him prowling around a new painting site with several large canvases and all his gear on his back. He is looking in the landscape for forms and colours and rhythms that match his inner conception, the half-formed painting that he has in his head. He is hard to satisfy and sometimes a place is abandoned with a half-finished canvas because it does not feel right. Sometimes an intractable place he swears is no good will yield good results. A wrestling match is engaged between what is out there in nature demanding to be let into the picture, and what is forming in the inner eye, demanding to be revealed in the scene. Honnor sees this intense engagement of a few hours as a semi-pleasurable battle. All the forces of nature – the changing light, the wind-borne dust and insects, the rain – are against him. The pictures are often blotched with raindrops, marked with frost, sprinkled with debris painted in. He tries to use his weapons – brushes, sticks of charcoal – with the speed and poise of a dancer. During the high-pitched intensity of the battle the shapes come together on the canvas, making an image which is both an abstracted equivalent and is very specific to the landscape before him.

Michael Honnor is naturally an alla prima painter but he often works further on his pictures in the studio and occasionally makes big studio paintings from small outdoor sketches. In these he tries to keep a strong sense of the time and place alluded to, being concerned to preserve that clement of everyday ‘quotidian’ reality that is almost unconsciously trapped by hand and eye while working fast. He works best when the original idea for a painting is strong enough to withstand almost any change. “A lot of work goes into looking for the place. That’s very important, as is feeling the place, because the paintings are not topographical scenes. They should be a balance between the particular and the universal. Knowing the landscape well and knowing how it’s always changing, you can get quite skilled at being lucky with the weather and the season and the sort of painting you’ve got inside you. Work goes into conceiving the painting, and conceiving it in relation to the landscape. You’ve got to experience it – the landscape is absolute chaos and sometimes it’s opaque and not even stimulating – it’s particularly not stimulating if you’re not in it for a while – you haven’t seen things out of the corner of your eye which somehow say to you’ Aha, make something out of that the next day’. It’s incredibly exciting painting outdoors – the silence, the movement – one has the illusion they can get into the painting – I think in some ways they do.”

‘Feeling the place’ is important to Michael Honnor. He is drawn to certain motifs, especially deeply recessional shapes, such as the view along a river bed or a limitless coastline. He prefers things tilted, sliding, on the move, as if held together only momentarily. “The paintings I think are interesting are those that are ‘on the cusp’ as in Picasso’s Demoiselles d’ Avignon, which is a wonderfully strange mixture of things held side by side. I think some painters compose much too easily, as if they were arranging flowers – they’re awfully good at balancing this with that, and they end up with something very static. I like something that is really sliding off and is just redeemed.”

Honnor’s compositions often sweep sideways to a one-sided focal point on a high horizon line, where the broad paint strokes become chopped into small dots and dabs of colour. THE ISLES OF SCILLY – ALMOST LOW TIDE leads from foreground to background in this way, with the sea seen as a total shape jutting into the landscape. Confronted with the flatnesses of Aldeburgh, he chooses a dyke or the sewage pipes on the beach as shapes to thrust deep into the pictorial distance. Two paintings of Dartmoor, RIVER POOL – MIDSUMMER, and RIVER COMING INTO SUNLIGHT, have a more full-frontal recession. Is the painter standing in the water? He is certainly thinking of doing so. “What I like about this place is the way the water comes into the sun and takes the light, increasing until there’s this amazing pool of gold. A very inviting place to swim – I do associate it with swims over the years.” In these paintings the water in sunlight and shadow has all the body, while the more solid surroundings are less substantial. The shapes describe the suck and glide of the water and its speed over different parts of the river bed.

The weather is a crucial factor in Michael Honnor’s work. A painting such as DARTMOOR – BLACKTHORN HEDGE is dominated by his consciousness of the weather. This was painted on ‘one of those March wind days’. A huge cloud moves from left to right at speed, echoing the tossing grasses beneath it. The blues in the sky strike cold and one is tempted to turn up one’s collar and put one’s back to the wind. SUFFOLK – CORNFIELD AND DYKE is swept by a contrary wind, with broken clouds blowing over a low horizon which is the only stable element between sky and a windswept foreground. In YORKSHIRE – THE STEEP ROAD AT MIDDLESMOOR driving rain sweeps the painting from right to left, blanking out the sky and agitating the trees. Northern rain looming is captured in the deep colours and heavy shapes of SCOTLAND – SUMMER AT HUSHINISH BAY and in the softer southern colours of ISLES OF SCILLY – TOWARDS TRESCO – RAIN THREATENING.

A current favourite painting place for Honnor is “on a particular patch of wet sand on the Isles of Scilly, mid-morning when the tide is draining back off St Martin’s Flats, the lagoon-like space between St Mary’s, St Martin’s and Tresco. the sensation is of the gentleness with which the flat sand and seaweed seem to push the water back, encircled far out by the roughness of the Atlantic. I was lucky to be there this year for the lowest tides of the century.” In two coastal paintings – ISLES OF SCILLY, SUMMER GALE, DUSK, and DEVON, WONWELL ESTUARY, MAY, one feels the atmospheric envelope of gale and rain wrap itself around the land, lapping behind the horizon. Two coastal sunsets – CAPE CORNWALL, ISLES OF SCILLY JUST VISIBLE and NORTH CORNWALL, LATE SUN, PORTHERAS – Capture the eggshell-brittle brilliance of the evening skies over the darkening land and water.

There are many moods in these paintings. As Michael Honnor says, landscape is still a powerful vehicle of mood and dictates the painter’s choice of subject, and the landscape’s mood, created by the weather, evoke a particular response from the painter. Paintings are created out of this interaction of feeling. Again the battle is engaged. “The changing focus of colour and movement is dazzling. It hurts. There’s not much time. And how to deal with the awkward, unarguable identity of the place which is so different from art? The challenge of that identity is like that of language which must both change and stay the same, and the abstraction I sense is the cipher which just makes sense. Anyone about to paint will have experienced the feeling of being in the only place in the world, of wholeness and anticipation and undescribable particularity. I suppose the erotic parallels are obvious. But it’s safer than being in love. Maybe, like music, painting can be a safe store for longing, the shapes and marks like the notes to which we can always return.”

As Honnor increasingly allows the landscape to leak its own message into his work, and is less dominating about what he confronts, the balance between the inner and the outer world grows more perfect. These paintings are of landscapes fully experienced and fully comprehended. They are a wonderfully versatile, dynamic and lyrical mixture of change, continuity, speed, stillness, sharpness, softness, conflict and peace.

Jenny Pery