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Fear and Consolation in Landscape Painting

Updated: May 10, 2022

A guest blog from Sylvia Wadsley, focussing on her latest body of work, THAW




Have you ever contemplated a view and wondered what is actually going on underneath it all? Or been suddenly struck by the sheer fragility of our environment?


This happened to me after revisiting my childhood home after many years, prompting my environmental concerns to come to the fore. I grew up on a riverbank in the Fens. On returning I saw that the river was still as beautiful as I remembered; the skies still big and the soil black; but I also saw how industrialised the farming had become and how nature and wildlife have been pushed to the margins. This coincided with me starting the mentoring course at Newlyn School of Art. I decided to try to make landscape work with a message about my concerns for the environment.


The art critic and historian Simon Schama expressed the idea that the act of landscape painting was a consolation, making us yearn for an arcadian world. Some artists believe that highlighting the beauty and mythology of landscape will encourage people to appreciate it and look after it. Although this was something I wanted to do too, I wanted to go even further and hint at the dangers from advancing urbanisation and climate change.


How to do this without overkill, seeming preachy or too doom-laden? This was a difficult challenge. One of the key painters I looked at was Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901). He was one of the first artists to show how landscape could be manipulated to have an effect, speaking to the anxieties of the day. His prolific printed versions of the ‘Isle of the Dead’ were eagerly snapped up. Even Freud had a version in his office. I also looked at the solemn works by Franz von Stuck, Munch, Hugo Simberg and others, mainly Scandinavian artists. I studied their subdued use of colour, darkness, stillness and veiling but evolved my own way of working with bright colours, reflecting, I feel, a more contemporary world. Throughout my time on the Newlyn School of Art Mentoring Programme, during a trip to Norway and working up ideas from observation, I developed an approach that is consolidated in this series. Eventually, using sketches from Norway and the brighter palette I had explored, my first large painting ‘Thaw’ emerged. This is the signature piece for the series.





Over the last three years I have added to this theme of global warming and rising waters. I set the scene as sublime and beautiful, but with a feeling of unsettling calm. During the making of this series, I have had moments of doubt and crisis of confidence. Taking risks with your work often causes anxiety to well up. The research into climate change can be emotionally tough. One can no longer belong to the ‘I’d rather not know club’.

I find my consolation in seascape painting. I paint the sea and its moods, emphasising our connection with it. I have found that this other thread to my art practice has provided me with a sense of balance. I have kept these two ways of working separate and exhibit them in different places.


I hope my series ‘Thaw’ affects how people think about what is happening to the natural world in some way and how nature itself is facing the void.


I will be showing a few pieces from the ‘Thaw’ series in the Stroud Select Arts Trail over two weekends, May 14th, 15th and 21st, 22nd. I will be a guest artist at Three Storeys in Nailsworth. Three Storeys has a gallery, studios and a cafe. It would be lovely to see you there. More details at www.selectartspresent.com


Waters Rising


Thank you very much to Sylvia for sharing this blog. She's very clear about what are her core values, and how this is reflected in her art. Our Living from Art meeting on 19 May is all about articulating 'Whats in your stick of rock?' as a person and an artist. Do join us on Zoom to be part of this session with Guest Speaker, Sue Davies. Details and tickets at www.livingfromart.co.uk/events-training Anna Poulton

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