Christopher Bramham | New Work

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When the Bramhams moved from South West London to North East Cornwall Chris reported an intruder in the derelict garden, a monkey- puzzle tree opposite the window of the room he chose as a studio. Good, I told him. Incongruity’s fine. You expect to see monkey-puzzles outside Cheltenham villas, prickly leftovers of Empire on two-tone lawns, not parked on remote and soggy moorland. To him though it was every inch an affront. It had no luxuriance, no give. It was too diagrammatic. It had to go.

Once rid of it he was free to concentrate on the one remaining tree to be seen just outside his window, a mature Scots pine. More his sort of thing, it has now been painted over and over again, its pinkish crusty bark, its whirling, resilient quality as it faces up to the prevailing wind and catches a sudden sharp evening light. Bramham’s pine is a presence, there when the gorse flares yellow, there when the plastic sacks loll bunched below it awaiting disposal; always there, a sort of marker winning through.

Actually it’s just a tree, any old tree (though pines are more individual than most) and that, for the painter, is the beauty of it. Presiding as it does over the few tousled acres of the Bramham estate, it’s the first thing you come to and the last thing you see as you leave. For the painter it is both challenge and standby, a commanding subject and a peculiarly demanding one. Over time Bramham has learnt by heart the curve of every branch and the rhythms extending overhead. He can align himself with it and from an upstairs window, on a level with the pointing branches, see and depict what stretches beyond.

The move in 1999 from a council flat in suburban Richmond to a rambling house next to a range of dilapidated farm buildings was disorientating. It took time for the new place to prompt the painter and become his wherewithal. There was so much raw space, a greater sense of weather; skies were larger and more pressing; detail was more seasonal.

In winter the land lies open, bristling with bared trees, peppered with starlings over the miles between home and the slopes of Bodmin Moor. Hutches, fences and fence posts are left exposed. In spring and summer leaves thicken and seethe, their density blocks distances and complicates the enclosures where a turkey struts and geese patrol. These are the familiar recurrences that Bramham needs to feed his concentration. He watches and notes, works up from superficial to exact, his methods dedicatedly prosaic. ‘I find the poems in the fields and only write them down’, John Clare the poet said. Painting isn’t transcription (any more than Clare’s poems were readymades) but the insistence on painting from what’s there, not from if or maybe, is basic to anyone who delights in the sheer plenty of life. Tuppy and Duck the dogs, a dead fox, a sick rabbit put in appearances. Trees change character with a predictability that never ceases to amaze (Larkin’s ‘Begin afresh, afresh, afresh’) and paintings too, when they succeed, keep on looking wonderfully new.

When Lucian Freud lit upon Chris Bramham’s work for the first time, 25 years ago, he told me how ‘wild’ it seemed, meaning untame. It was, he said, ‘promising’ and ‘potential’ (meaning unschooled and unacademic). These were paintings with staying power. He really liked the passion that so unobtrusively had gone into them.

‘I learnt from Lucian how to persist with a picture’, Chris told me some years ago. ‘To do that you have to love the subject.’

It isn’t just the biting green of fields in winter or the pastel caress of teapot nuzzling tea cosy. The singularity of Bramham’s vision is fiercely parochial. These are places and things well within walking distance, stuff taken for granted, stuff become subject, stuff mastered by hand and eye. It’s a harvest of all seasons.

Most obviously so in the recent paintings of apples placed in twos and threes, up to fourteen for a multi-apple social occasion when the cloth on the round table looks readied to be pulled aside for a conjurer’s miracle. No miracles these. Fresh in, they are apples brought indoors to serve as content. What he the painter makes of them is more than descriptive. These are windfalls, non-Tesco apples graced with blemishes.

In ‘White Bowl on a Round Table’ conjugal apples (one for Adam and one for Eve) nestle among sticks of charcoal like victims in one of Dante’s lower circles. The bowl itself has a history, cracked as it is and chipped around the rim; so does the table, with paint scabs on its polished surface: blemishes again and from the point of view of the painter at his easel looking down this is a precarious arrangement that could so easily have spun centrifugally and gone crashing to the floor.

As an onlooker I’m free to interpret at will. The artist, I dare say, saw nothing more than an assembly of circular within circular, concentric spheres, tilt and foreshortening and classic floor- boards. But then he – and we – can see that following on from the making of the painting meanings accrue. How new it is, how immediate; and how beautifully at every level the painting touches.

A while back Chris mentioned in a letter his persisting feel – an affinity in a way – for the Scots pine. ‘I just love looking at it so much and still have ideas.’