Artists in Quarantine No.4
Invisible to the naked eye, the Covid-19 virus seems an impossible subject for an artist stimulated by the visual world around her/him. And yet for David Downes the ‘Covids’ became a source of inspiration.
Locked down in Manningtree, in Constable country, David made one painting each day under the impact of the pandemic, which he sees as the “biggest crisis and tragedy of our times”.
In a departure from the meticulously observed city scenes and rural landscapes for which he is best known, he has created an imaginary more haunting than any photograph could capture.
His work became more symbolic as he drew on visionary images distant and yet near, as he embedded them in the tranquil local countryside.
Thanks to Constable, the fields around the Stour estuary and its church towers are etched deep in the collective psyche. We feel their presence, even in Downes’ most lightly-sketched images.
Not only the Essex-Suffolk countryside, but in a subconscious way, John Robert Cozens’ marvellous experimental watercolours are somehow present too. The simplest of trees, fields, hills and roads are endowed with a sense of poetry.
Familiar landscapes provide a sense of sanctuary and comfort, a place to hide from the terrifying Covids hovering above. The immediacy of the moment is powerfully conveyed.
“Thinking about how to express a pandemic, the album cover of Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason sprang to mind, as did images of the 1918-1919 Spanish flu epidemic which killed 20-50 million people in just one year,” he told me.
As the lockdown began, Downes made a painting each day: “The lockdown provided me with the opportunity to do what I wanted and the Covid pandemic has changed my work into a more symbolic direction. It is a catastrophe in which the death toll doesn’t tell the full story.
In Where once there were fields countless beds stretch out in rows as far as the eye can see. Unreal and yet real, as a church tower resembling that of St Mary’s Dedham rises near the horizon.
There’s a strange beauty in the shock contrast of the nurses and care-givers standing by the innumerable beds, and the notion that patients were placed outdoors in the hopes of providing fresh air and isolating them. Each patient is individually detailed in pen and ink and even the bedsteads vary subtly in shape.
Gigantic red and blue Covids hover in the sky, their corona spikes giving them an almost festive air, reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Sky. A web of pen and brush strokes create a dynamic surface patterning.
In The Long Road Ahead a small figure perched high up in a pine tree glimpses the field of beds and a large blue hospital tent marked by a red cross, while an empty highway stretches into the distance. There’s not a single car in sight, but the Covids cast sinister shadows.
“It expresses the helplessness of being out in nature with the Covids chasing me. We feel the power of nature of which we are a part. It’s like a potential war. I have felt almost like a war artist. Seeing images of people in hospital is like seeing the war in your front room.”
“The pandemic has profoundly changed our lives. Perhaps it’s not as lethal as the bubonic plague, but the difference is that it is happening in a globalised economy, an intertwined modern society with a high level of technology and a healthcare system. And yet it still caught us off guard. Any government would struggle with the situation as it is now.
“There’s a Catch 22 in that we need to protect ourselves and each other and the NHS and the best way to do that was to lock down 100%. But it produced a reaction – a pure rebellion as when people drove hundreds of miles to gather on the beach in Bournemouth. Why would people do that?”
”But we do have the capacity and technology to treat and save people. It needs a cultural change and changes to our habits and how we do things.
What does David want to see in a post-pandemic world?
“We need to come out of this with a more caring, more socialist, left-wing model of society. We need to slow down climate change, to look after nature. We need to learn from the pandemic.
“Music, art and theatre must not be lost. Otherwise we are just in a tunnel without an end. And above all, it’s the little things in life that are what makes it meaningful. 2021 will be a defining year.”
In earlier work Downes captured the huge scale of London as a 21st century metropolis viewed from a bird’s eye perspective: its Victorian monuments like St Pancras station, and Arsenal and Tottenham football grounds, the Thames bridges from Richmond to Waterloo and local neighbourhoods including Archway, Highgate, Hampstead and Stoke Newington.
But with these lockdown paintings he has rediscovered and conveyed the sense of fear, loneliness and wonder to be found in his childhood and teenage memories – see his Disordered Development narrative. He gives us the very Zeitgeist of the pandemic: its madness and our need to find safety and comfort in backyards, gardens and nature.
Finding Covids in the sky in our 21st century world reminds me of William Blake, who at the age of 8, had a vision while walking on London’s Peckham Rye: A tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.
Downes’ scarily beautiful Covids are not angels, but we cannot but share the artist’s visionary optimism and sense of shared destiny.
David Downes is an active supporter of the National Autistic Society, becoming Vice President in 2012. David regularly speaks on behalf of the charity and paints live at fundraising events.