Anthony Gross seems to have suffered a fate similar to that of a number of underrepresented British artists of the 20th century. Though he considered himself first and foremost a painter and draughtsman, his legacy is that of an expert printmaker, highly proficient in the fields of etching and engraving. While his contribution to the graphic world was indeed immense, helping shape the British etching revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s, the belief in the secondary importance of printmaking beside painting held by critics and curators during his lifetime persists to this day. Though Gross was championed in the one, he has been comparatively ignored in the other, to the great detriment of his deserved reputation as one of Britain’s finest landscape painters.
(above) Haberdashers’ Hall
From the very early years of Gross’ career translucent watercolour and rich oils were a major preoccupation, used to describe the many places at home and abroad where he sought inspiration: rural British hedgerows; the exotic sights of Malaysia, India and the Middle East, experienced as an Official War Artist (of which he was among the most prolific); and the sun-baked valleys of south-west France, where he resided with his family for several months of every year from 1955 until his death in 1984.
Frequently the techniques of etching and ink drawing, in which he excelled, would inform and interchange with one another, his use of the pen bearing the same loose and lively qualities as his work with the etcher’s échoppe. In his informal watercolour scenes of Villeneuve garden picnics and pastoral outings, his descriptive line is typically light and lyrical: freely drawn, it dances over the page, looping around luminous patches of watercolour wash that shimmer like stained glass.
(above) detail from Stone Wall and Church at Coulourges
In even Gross’ most expansive landscapes, the viewer is often treated to peculiar details, animals, characters, flowers and plants hidden amongst his overlapping pen strokes. To the eye of Rigby Graham, a near contemporary and fellow topographer, these form part of a gentle wit in Gross’ work that continues to enrich: ‘His love of detail, of snails, insects, beetles, dogs and small children create a feast of texture which enriches the overall image and at the same time can be read as asides, stage directions, or seen as a reflection of all the extraneous detail of life in street, pier or park. Gross’ whimsical Gallic view is as rich as bouillabaisse.’
(above) Landscape (Tree), 1950
In the three decades that have passed since Gross’ death, relatively little appears to have been done to celebrate his achievements across so many media. Retrospectives, such as that in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, have been scant, despite a plethora of major public collections housing original works. While a select few will recognise his wonderfully idiosyncratic etchings, far fewer know of his early work in animated film, a genre whose demands of countless sketches no doubt contributed to the confident and spontaneous touch revealed in later drawings.
(above) Rocks and Sea
Above all, it is to our undeniable discredit that so little time has been spent looking at that work which Gross himself felt so important: the exquisite watercolours, oils and gouaches, brim full of life even now. In such intimate scenes, there is so very much to miss.