John Gledhill and Samuel Irwin

Painter and poet collaborate on multimedia exhibition at Strule Arts Centre revealing a shared concern for natural history and conservation and fascination with City life

From his Clink Street studio, noted London artist John Gledhill has brought a collection of his best drawings, linocut prints and large oil paintings to the gallery at Omagh's Strule Arts Centre, a space which shows them off in the best possible light.

Many of these arresting works depict daily life on the streets of London. Then there are the bold paintings in burnt orange, dark purple, maroon pink and rust red of tigers, elephants and rhinos threatened with extinction by poachers, and finally a series of tall ships which, like people, pass each other in the night.

Omagh is, in a real sense, a second home for Gledhill’s work, for his wife, Julia, hails from the area and his paintings are complemented by poems written by his brother-in-law, Samuel Irwin, who grew up on a farm at Bera near the scenic Gortin Glen in the foothills of the Sperrin mountains.

Born in Bolton, Gledhill obtained a first degree in literature and philosophy from Lancaster University. He then became a prize-winning art student and MA graduate at the Royal Academy schools, and later gained a doctorate in Art History from York University. Leaving college in 1981 he realised that London, and in particular the financial and business heart of the City, were his primary inspiration.

He subsequently spent hours in tiled underground walkways and on poster-lined railway platforms making sketches of commuters. Those pencil, pastel or charcoal drawings were developed as linocuts from which he made limited edition prints on fine quality acid-free or handmade Japanese papers. He also produced large-scale oil paintings in a distinctive style, which has over the years become more gestural and less graphic, more painterly and refined.

This exhibition, then, includes works in all of his favourite media: a pencil drawing of Samuel Irwin made in 1982, linocut black and white and colour prints, oil paintings from 2008 and recent large canvases, some of which measure 204 x 178 cms.

'New Birth in the City' takes in the view from the roof of Gledhill’s Clink Street studio. It includes the giant Gherkin at St. Mary Axe and London Bridge across which, in the years following the First World War, TS Elliott walked to work at Lloyd’s bank. In his famous poem of the time, ‘The Wasteland’, Elliot describes the crowds that flowed over the bridge, each man fixing his eyes before his feet.

Gledhill’s contemporary blue-suited, white-collared, black-tied, ashen-faced city gents are similarly uniform, absorbed by the business of making money through banking and high finance. They talk on their mobile phones as they walk in the street ('Communication'), the streets themselves like treadmills ('Treadmill') helping them get to work faster. They sit in regimented lines in open plan offices in front of endless rows of computers. 'At Work in the Nineties' is a painting so densely complex and so painstakingly drawn that it took nine years to complete.

Gledhill depicts the Little Dorrit café near Borough Street market now dwarfed by the magnificent Shard building. Other cityscapes include 'Piccadilly Summer', where the artist uses yellow, red and blue primary colours and their complementary opposites to create poster-like images that are so loud one can almost hear and smell the atmosphere of the streets depicted.

On the waterfront just below Gledhill’s studio at St. Mary Overy’s dock, Sir Francis Drake’s galleon, The Golden Hinde II – which in 1577 sailed down the Thames and around the world – is permanently moored. Gledhill’s dark ships of titanic proportions are illuminated against a night sea and sky by their cabin lights. They pass each other silently, like those ships described in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘Tales of a Wayside Inn’. Gledhill too sees the ships as a metaphor for people who barely speak but recognise each other with a look and a distant voice.

On the back wall of the gallery is 'The Last Tiger', one of a series of large canvases designed to draw attention to the plight of the world’s largest land animals which are still being poached for their horns, tusks or pelts. Even if some of the people in the picture seem indifferent to the fate of the tiger, the artist himself is so concerned that, once gallery commission is deducted, he donates 50% of the revenue from such pictures to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

'The Last Elephant' is now owned by the Victoria and Albert museum but a linocut print is included in this show. 'The Last Rhino' is also on display in Omagh.

Gledhill sells most of his work either directly from his studio to corporate and private clients or through his website and occasionally via his Facebook page or on eBay. Such is Gledhill’s modesty and commitment to the creative process, however, that his works are unsigned. 

In this regard his association with Samuel Irwin, a poet who writes from the heart to express his feelings about the natural world, people and tragic events like famine in Africa, the Omagh bomb or the Kegworth air crash, is entirely empathetic, and both artists clearly admire each other’s work. Irwin’s poem, ‘The Last Elephant’, was commissioned by Gledhill for his exhibition, Tigers Elephants, Rhinos and People held in London in May 2014. 

‘The Fall from Eden’s Table’, which Irwin first read during the 2012 G8 Summit at the Oxfam shop in Omagh, was inspired by his six month sojourn in Tanzania, where he worked with the African Inland Mission clearing land to grow vegetables. Written like all of his poems in free verse, it illustrates Irwin’s feeling for the land. It’s biblical imagery evokes better times:

'Rice sprang as the Ugali overflowed, maize swayed like
angels in the valley’s breeze, vowing from their roots
to slay the hunger and death of men.
It is a dream now, for so much is gone
and the last memory is almost flown…
For we have turned our brothers’ mouths away,
away to grow pale and thin.'

The contrasting worlds of the poet and the painter meet in 'Going Home'. Gledhill depicts the scene on the MI as vehicles travel northwards, bumper to bumper, at dusk. On the horizon are virgin fields and a last glimmer of light as night falls. This is truly a touching show full of human stories, striking images and skilfully wrought art works.

John Gledhill and Samuel Irwin runs at the Strule Arts Centre, Omagh until February 28.