Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Adam Berry, artist

“Field Sport Series (Fear of the Dog)”, 2011-12

I know Adam and have long admired his work, so writing about his latest pieces has been difficult in that I’ve tried to forget almost everything I know about his views on art and look at them through a stranger’s eyes, as I have – out of necessity – the works of other contemporary artists I’ve discussed. (I’ve also studiously ignored the 10,000 word thesis that accompanies this series as part of Adam’s final submission towards his MA degree; if art can’t speak for itself, it’s not doing its job.)

I’ve always been struck by a certain ‘Englishness’ about Adam’s work: hard to put into words precisely; something Turneresque, perhaps? Constable-ish?
Then, looking again at Field Series, it hit me: Thomas Gainsborough.­
Now, I’ve no inkling about what Adam will make of the comparison, but I’ve come to view him as something of a natural heir to the great 18th century painter.

Gainsborough’s great love was reserved for landscape, the land; portraiture was how he earned his living. When he combined the two, something extraordinary happened, something a world away from the academic ‘grand manner’ style favoured by his rival, Joshua Reynolds:

‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’, 1750, 69cm x 119cm
The National Gallery, London

Portraits were (still are?) commissioned by the landed and wealthy to reflect their social standing back at themselves and at their peers: a kind of certificate of authenticity, of ‘belonging’.
But the newly-minted Mr Andrews got rather more than he bargained for.

The artist, having no love for the monied, landed classes, produced a painting which, while doing what it says on the tin, is full of irony, subtlety and subversion. It is what Adam would call ‘a situation in an image’, where nothing is stated and everything implied.

Consider the gawky awkwardness of the couple in posture and, in her case, dress: their relationship to the land is strictly proprietorial, not ‘natural’ –  the land has not been tended by their hands; the great oak tree, symbol of tradition and stability, is surely ironic when one recalls that Mr Andrews was something of a parvenu. But he’s got the land, the gun, the broodmare: to him, then, the history.
What he hasn’t got is the nous to see that, in that lowering grey cloud, Gainsborough is about to piss on his parade.

This, in my view, is exactly what Adam, another lover of the land, does in Field Series.

Stylistically, the artists are similar: the warm greeny-brown palette of an English late summer/autumn (the start of the hunting season); superb draughtsmanship combined with vigorous brushwork and a lively painterliness; in Adam’s work here, however, the ‘situation’ is not in a particular image, but in the series as a whole. Several pieces could be taken out of context and appear quite anodyne (and look well on a huntsman’s drawing-room wall; oh, irony), but viewed together, referentially, they imply an over-arching narrative that is as satirical as Gainsborough’s masterpiece.

Just as Gainsborough took traditional form and content and used them as a means of subversive social critique, so Adam appropriates age-old artistic tropes and genres – the hunting print, the cartoon, the portrait, the horse study – and deploys them not just to ‘condemn’ fox-hunting – too crudely didactic –  but, I believe, to allow for, while never insisting upon, a strongly political interpretation: the ‘State of the Nation’, no less.

Hunting with dogs, opposed by the ordinary majority, has been illegal in England since 2005, yet the law is routinely flouted by those with the money/power, the rich ‘them’, with their exclusive and excluding ‘uniforms’ (hunting ‘pinks’, hunt buttons, special ribbons, collars, etc. etc.), their strict top-down hierarchy, their particular and peculiar jargon, their arcane rituals (‘blooding’ of children, for one.)

The government does not give two hoots, clearly. We are supposed to live in a democracy, all equal before the law.

The fact is, we are governed by a self-regarding ‘club’, a network of vested interests which rides rough-shod over the rest of us much like the local hunt once ploughed through a North Yorkshire neighbour’s garden. Just as we have pro-hunt types waxing sophistical about the ‘traditions’ and’benefits’ of chasing foxes and their cubs and ripping them to bloody shreds, so we have Cameron and his mob hunting down and tearing the lives away from those among us, the ‘vermin’, who have so very little to start with; at the same time they are doing nothing at all, other than engaging in diversionary moralising (Jimmy Carr), to curb the excesses and evasions of the obscenely wealthy.

It is not ‘we’ who control our land, our history; it is still ‘they’, Mr Andrews and his ilk; the toilers, like Andrews’ invisible farm-hands, the true curators of those golden, rolling acres, don’t get a look-in.

What is ‘tradition’? Whom does it serve?
Both Gainsborough and Adam raise these questions formally, through the medium of paint; ‘traditional’ content becomes the means of it’s own radical subversion. Crucially, Adam’s work shows that painting, as an art form, can still be relevant and incisive, whatever the ‘conceptualists’ would have you believe.

Oscar Wilde once described fox-hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”.

So it remains.

Adam’s very own (True) ‘Blue Boy’?

Come the Revolution…



All Adam’s images in the series –  the above are a very small selection – are approximately 25cm x 22cm, and are framed in Adam’s own idiosyncratic, handmade style:

The frames, which would require their own blog post,  and the position of the images within the frames, are integral to the art works, but I wanted to concentrate in the first place on the images. The above gives you some idea of the look of the whole, and why, together, with this extra heft, I view the Series as something more substantial, more ‘sculptural’, perhaps, than simply ‘paintings’.

See more of Adam’s work here:
(Needs updating, Ad!)

10 thoughts on “Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Adam Berry, artist

  1. This is ruddy fantastic!! Adam’s paintings are astonishingly good and once again, Glennie, you’ve said everything so eloquently, all that’s left for me to do is applaud over my morning brew 🙂
    x x x

    • Bless you, Lucy! That’s calmed me down a bit – it’s always nerve-racking writing about ‘real’ people, especially when you know them personally. Must really try to do it less often… 🙂

  2. Many thanks Glennie, very, very kind assessment, thanks also all others, ad. x

  3. An interesting article and beautiful paintings. I confess that I haven’t taken much interest in English art other than Turner. I am familiar with the names and must have tripped over their work many times. Have to investigate. Good stuff.

  4. “if art can’t speak for itself, it’s not doing its job”

    Well said! I believe all art forms should provoke emotion, be that a positive or a negative emotion, but stir our feelings. If the artist does not achieve this, in my (untrained) opinion, the artest has failed.

    Thank you for posting, I enjoyed it vry much.

    • Thank you!! That’s made me happy!
      Totally agree – the worst thing I (very much ‘untrained’) can say about an artwork is ‘meh’. I’d rather hate it with a passion: at least then I’d want to talk about it.
      Say no to ‘meh’!!

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