Deftly drawn and delicately composed, Derrick Greaves’ sublime Rose was one of a series of canvases that heralded major change in the artist’s later development.
Born in Sheffield in 1927, Greaves first came to the attention of the art world when he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1956 alongside other ‘Kitchen Sink’ painters after graduating from the Royal College of Art. Drawing upon gritty scenes of working class suburban life, the movement sought to make political comment through sullen palettes of browns, blacks, and greys.
By the end of the 1960s, however, Greaves had become disillusioned with the social realism of their earlier work. In a significant departure from his austere, representational style, he began to clear his paintings of unnecessary clutter and started implementing new stylistic and compositional techniques, with a focus on line, flat colour, and ambiguous, poetic imagery with echoes of the work of Patrick Caulfield.
Throughout this period of formal evolution, the rose became a frequent theme in Greaves’ work, to which he returned a number of times in varying media. Usually a florid, declarative sign of love or affection, in these paintings and prints the visual intricacy of the flower head itself, its thin stem and curled leaves, was pared back to stark outlines, often in pale colour or on blank or neutral backgrounds. In so doing, these symbols of effusion and expression were made ironically subdued, mute, pensive.
In Rose, completed in 1982, these prevailing influences of Greaves’ career – murky Kitchen Sink realism, bright Pop-Art inspired canvases, and introspective composition – seem to overlap, incorporated once more through the flower of love. Its unusual technique involving mixed media textures was the result of an unhappy accident: in 1975 a catastrophic flood in Greaves’ studio, which destroyed five years’ worth of cached prints, left the wallpapered walls peeling and dripping with paste. Initially distraught, the situation provoked Greaves to reclaim a few scraps of lining paper from the wreckage and experiment with layering these sheets of paper over old canvases, painting and drawing over the collaged sections.
In these new canvases, later termed ‘collage paintings’, Greaves developed a process of layering and painting that culminated in works like Rose. Torn paper was carefully collaged to create a textured background for the surface image. Line motifs were then drawn on top, the clarity and precision of the empty outline contrasting with the rough, feathered texture of the painted paper beneath. These dualities of rough/smooth, precise/inexact soon became a source of fascination: ‘By drawing across the torn areas I became aware of the inner formal dialogues emerging between the accidentally informal ground and the imposed more formal drawing. Because of this stimulating and surprising inner life, the drawing was able to be firmer, far less figuratively descriptive.’
The lone vase of Rose and its delicate flower heads, combined with subdued background colours, recalls the melancholy of Greaves’ earlier still lifes, the fruit bowls and vases of the late 1950s; yet in its minimalism and its restrained abstraction, it marks a definitive stylistic break, and a maturing in both technique and subject matter. Subtle, sophisticated, it ranks among the very best works we have seen from Greaves’ hand.