-       the sketchbooks, drawings and prints of John Green

The first and only time I have had the opportunity of handling and exploring the sketchbook of a famous artist was in the library of Chatsworth House where the Curator, I thought somewhat reluctantly, presented me with the sketchbooks of Inigo Jones.

Arising out of a journey to Rome in 1605/6 the pencil sketches clearly show Jones morphing into the first true prophet of the Italian Renaissance in England.  Thus it was subsequently with some disbelief I read Sir Roy Strong’s statement that the style of Jones’s sketches for the costumes for the Stuart Masques showed no sign of Italianate influence.  Well who am I ….?

This piece has given me the opportunity to get this off my chest, albeit a bit of a digression, because John Green’s sketchbooks, equally marvellous in their own way are indubitably, unswervingly, the products of a decidedly Pompey experience.

On the one hand it is a privilege to study an artist’s sketchbook because it is almost getting a chance to see a new world through their eyes for a briefest moment.  On the other hand whether it is again the effect of the immediacy of the revelation one finds little masterpieces exquisitely detailed, accompanied often by notes of extraordinary insight.  It is a well used cliché to observe that sketchbooks are the ‘windows to the soul of the artist’ …. well John Green’s sketchbooks are the windows whereby we can enter the DNA of his mates, the riggers, the dockies, and their old Sorts, over the past half a century of life in Portsmouth.

The characters he later ‘blocked’ into his larger paintings literally trip off the pages of his sketchbooks.  Well, let’s face it, some of them just grudgingly trudge as they drag on their gaspers, or whatever, and stare into the distance.  His managers effortlessly look important and grumpy, his dock workers wrinkled and defiant, his women and children a pure jolly delight.  I wish he had sketched more women and children.

These sketchbooks are also a construction guide to the vast dockscapes that were in themselves a revelation when they were exhibited in the Jack House Gallery, Portsmouth, earlier this year.

Dwarfed by acres of steel-clad sea power John’s characters play out scenes of everyday dock life, all of them star performers and instantly recognizable from sketchbook to drawing, to print, to full size painting.  As Hogarth argued against a ‘whole nest of Phizmongers’ there is a huge difference between character and caricature.  With John’s characters he is not seeking to exaggerate, distort or lampoon.  He sketches his mates with enormous affection and understanding.  Sometimes, as with the draughtsmanship pure and simple – no additives, no gimmicks, just line as if demonstrating he can do it when he wants to.  I have fallen in love with a stout lady in a red and white headscarf, apparently dancing up steps I call her ‘Mother Brown’.  ‘Knees up Mother Brown’ and perhaps her old fella is a chap fiercely concentrating on making a roll-up?  Then there are the sour visages of the supervisors looking down on the sturdy riggers alongside for no apparent reason a scribbled reference to the Pogues and Kirsty McColl’s Fairy Tales of New York  what moment of joy caused him to recall ‘and the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day’?  Well John’s art brings it all out.  It is so life affirming.  And sometimes it is deadly serious.  The great wooden bulk of HMS Victory is hoisted into its berth, like a newborn baby laid down in a cradle, watched by anxious dockies with hunch-shouldered intensity.  Three ancient old boys in great long raincoats and flat caps peer into the misty distance as if seeking Hamlet’s ghost in the sea beyond the harbour.  Then there is a delicious study of a lone woman walking a dog grasping the dog lead behind her back.

The only other artist I know who combines such an eclectic range of subjects with a boldness of characterization and affection is Pierre Bonnard with his children, his laundry girls, his dogs and his cats (yes, John Green does cats – dockies cats of course).  And John, like Bonnard, is a compulsive draughtsman who relies on his life studies and sketches extensively in the preparation of his paintings.  John, knowledgeable to a fault, will admit he is no Bonnard but he has all the bravura humanity that makes this latest exhibition of very affordable prints and drawings an absolute must.

Besides, as I strongly feel, it captures the decidely Portsmouth experience.


                                                                                                            Bill Crow 17/8/16