The Stowe Centenary Project: Paintings and sketches of Stowe by Anthony Eyton RA and Mark Flawn-Thomas OS

Anthony Eyton is the last of the great Euston Road painters, a group founded in October 1937 by William Coldstream, Victor Pasmore and Claude Rogers which had its pre-war premises at 314-316 Euston Road and then re-emerged at the Camberwell School of Art after 1945. The School became synonymous with aesthetically pleasing paintings derived from close observation, careful measurement, subtle use of colours, structural composition and balance.

Eyton began painting when he was a boarder at Canford, a school which had been founded with Stowe in 1923 by the Reverend Percy Warrington as part of the evangelising mission of the Martyrs Memorial Trust to advance the Protestant principles of the Church of England. Eyton was occasionally tutored by William Coldstream, a friend of the Reverend Clifford Canning, Canford’s cultured and civilised Headmaster. Canning took a close interest in Eyton’s emergence as a young artist of talent and promise while Coldstream remained a defining influence and was the main reason why Eyton joined Camberwell School of Art in 1947 after he was demobilised from the Army.

Eyton was elected a Royal Academician in 1986 and his paintings have won many accolades and prizes over the years, including the John Moores Prize in 1972 and the Charles Wollaston Award in 1989. Through direct observation and careful study of a particular place he captures its appearance, history and intangible genius loci. He goes beyond the post-impressionist realism of the Euston Road School with its puritanical denial of abstraction and has developed his own pictorial language by welcoming the poetic realms of the subjective and associational. For Eyton, a landscape is not just to be admired as a sunset, seascape or an attractive view over the mountains, but something to be climbed over, trodden on, lain in, discovered and experienced from every conceivable angle.

Constable’s description of painting as “another word for feeling” resonates strongly in Eyton’s work: just as Constable shocked the sensibilities of the nineteenth-century art establishment by selecting ordinary scenes drawn from his local and topographical knowledge of Suffolk’s wind-rippled streams, cart tracks, tow paths, hedgerows, wheat-fields lined with summer elms and meteorologically correct cloud formations, so Eyton’s subject matter consistently defeats conventional stereotyping. Over the years he has torn up any agreement about the approved subject matter for a painter: as artist-in-residence for the Eden Project in the 1990s, he chronicled the construction of the futuristic-looking Biomes which emerged from the clay pits around St Austell. With the all the reverence of an Old Master chronicling the ruins of classical antiquity in the Roman Campagna, Eyton carefully documented the stripping out of Gilbert Scott’s Bankside and Battersea Power Stations: industrial chimneys resemble classical columns and discarded, obsolete machinery scattered on the ground resemble the broken sarcophagi and collapsed capitals of a lost civilisation.
Eyton’s paintings are concerned with traditional qualities such as depth, rhyming colour, symmetry and balance – but there is nothing rear-guard, conservative or reactionary about his work. Paintings are executed after months of direct observation and draughtsmanship in which the subject is investigated from many different angles in charcoal, pencil and pastel drawings. Eyton constantly searches for the apposite image, a synthesis of memory, fact and sensation, to create a totality of awareness which conveys his physical and emotional connection to a place. The solid monuments of the permanent past – Gothic Temple, Palladian Bridge, Corinthian Arch – vie with the transient effects of changing patterns of weather and light. His handling of paint is expressive, textural and lyrical, with sensuous surfaces created by a virtuosity of touch and achieved by broad and energetic brush strokes and colours which glow with the lustre and iridescence of semi-precious stones: flesh coloured carnelian, feathery whites, gritty matts in earth and ore tones, Naples yellow, ochres, sienna, rose madder, viridian and cobalt blue.
At Stowe, Eyton is often to be found painting plein air in the sublime landscaped gardens at all times of the year: stippling, scumbling, welcoming wild accidents, but never submitting to random order. Pictorial space involves a tension between what is seen and hidden, abstract and figuration, contemplative and impulsive. He establishes the presence of an object by use of a vivid fragment of colour, an architectural detail, exploring the technical and expressive possibilities afforded by blending observational realism and painterly abstraction. Eyton’s work is characterised by a stunning ability to resolve the conflict between depicting the objective reality of a place and the artist’s subjective need to reshape the world through the visual sensation of colour, form and pictorial architecture, all focused into the central impulse of the creative act.

As we approach the centenary of the School’s foundation on 11 May 1923 we want to commemorate this landmark event by commissioning one of Britain’s finest painters to record Stowe in all seasons, in all its various guises, to capture and convey the vitality of the landscape and the people who live and work in this extraordinary environment. The fact that Anthony Eyton will also be celebrating his 100th birthday in May 2023 is, of course, not just a coincidence! 

Dr Anthony Wallersteiner