Until recently, the work of the artist David Gommon (1913-1987) was relatively unknown. However, a recent and an upcoming exhibition, both at The Art Stable in Child Okeford, give the wider public a chance to discover a sensitive and clever painter whose life and works mirror the development and movements within British Art in the first half of the Twentieth Century. This fresh and exciting body of works has emerged since the death of Gommon’s widow, and the retirement of his son, Peter. The works have a Romantic sensibility to them, with echoes of Paul Nash’s late landscapes, John Craxton’s undulating hills, Graham Sutherland’s eerie Surrealism, and with some of the bright colour palette of Christopher Wood.
Gommon just missed Christopher Wood in life, but struck up a friendship with David Jones, “a gentle soul” who lived in one room in a small private hotel. He brushed past Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash, too, as he became acquainted with the arts commissioner of Shell, Col. Jack Beddington, for whom Nash and Sutherland worked, Nash producing the Shell Guide to Dorset. However, Gommon felt that art and advertising didn’t mix, focusing instead on Mayfair, turning, at the age of eighteen, into the welcoming arms of Lucy Wertheim. She supported the Twenties group of artists – Cedric Morris, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis et al – and Gommon was given a living by her of £2 a week, “plus all the paints I needed”. By her, he had his first exhibition, at the tender age of nineteen. Another supporter was Rex Nan Kivell of the influential Redfern Gallery, who bought some of his work.
Born the year before the First World War broke out, David Gommon’s early childhood would have been inflected by war, his adulthood marred by a second conflagration. Gommon’s experiences were such that he believed that his art counted for nothing in the face of the suffering he saw. Once peace broke out, Gommon turned to teaching, only slowly returning to painting during the school holidays. However, having recommenced in 1945, he continued to explore and adapt artistically throughout the rest of his life.
Gommon’s writing, rediscovered recently by his son, proves him to be as enchanting a writer as he was an artist. He describes early trips to Dorset, and the memory of a hut on Chesil Beach which he shared with a friend: “of lying on my camp bed at night listening to Chekov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’. It was a windy night and the hut swayed and lurched, rose from the ground, squeaked and returned to the earth with a shudder”.
Gommon travelled widely, from the Isle of Wight and Holland with two Dutch students, to the lonely glens and lochs of Scotland and the Isle of Skye. However, he seems to have returned most frequently to Dorset, staying for a summer in the Blackmore Vale, “or as its old name has it, the Vale of the White Hart”. In a glorious link to the village that is now hosting an exhibition of David Gommon’s work, he wrote about the inhabitants and the environs in his journals:
“Our favourite village was Childe Okeford, just below Hambledon Hill. We would climb Hambledon Hill and having walked round its ditches, and from the very top picked out all the landmarks like Alfred’s Tower in Somerset, we would then come down to the pub, the Baker’s Arms it was called. It had a visually interesting group of regulars who played skittles, shove halfpenny or Cribbage. Some of these activities carried on until midnight, and because closing time was at ten o’clock and to avoid the village policeman on the look out for law breakers, we all climbed out of a back window into the garden found our cycles, usually pushing them until we were safely distanced ...”
What a pleasure, then, to be able to see his paintings in a landscape from which his inspiration sprung. Visitors to The Art Stable only have to turn a corner to see Hambledon Hill, and may be pleased to know that the Baker’s Arms is now open until midnight… India Lewis, July 2019
‘I know of few artists whose work communicates such a sense of joy in life as that which comes from these beautifully quiet, very modest and English paintings, so accurate in their evocation of the changing moods and feeling of nature. The landscapes …show that in his use of colour and simplified shapes he has found a personal and eloquent language, perfectly suited to its purpose; and an important part of that purpose is the expression of wonderment and delight in nature.’ (Ian Mayes writing in a review of David Gommon’s 1975 exhibition at St Catherines’ College, Cambridge) The exhibition opening at The Art Stable on 4th March has an intriguing history and a rooted Dorset connection. David Gommon’s son, Peter, contacted The Art Stable a couple of years ago regarding his collection of paintings by his father, many of which were images of Dorset. We were delighted to see a body of such high quality work from the mid twentieth century which still felt so fresh and interesting. Since then we have been displaying individual paintings in the gallery, with enthusiastic response, and are delighted now to be presenting a full exhibition of his work. To begin with, David Gommon painted the landscapes of Dorset in real time, having fallen in love with the county in the 1930’s on a cycling trip away from Battersea, where he grew up. He would stay with the Pooley family in Hartgrove, just 10 minutes drive from The Art Stable. Some of these early paintings would have been exhibited at the Wertheim Gallery, where he held his first solo exhibition when he was only 19 years old. Subsequently, David Gommon was taken up by Lucy Wertheim and exhibited in her influential gallery during the 1930’s, alongside Barbara Hepworth, Robert Medley, Henry Moore, Cedric Morris and Christopher Wood. His early work was influenced by the Neo Romantic group of artists that emerged in the 1930’s which included Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland. It was during that first trip to Dorset that Gommon experienced what Ian Mayes described as an ‘elemental bonding’ between the young man from Battersea and the English landscape. He went to Chesil Beach and recalled being ‘overwhelmed by the revelation of beach, the sea, the sky!’ One stormy night Gommon and a friend, staying in a beach hut on Chesil Beach, sat listening to Uncle Vanya on a battery wireless. Gommon remembered that the sound of the rain ‘intensified on our wooden roof - but the voice from the radio continued ‘and you and I, uncle, dear Uncle Vanya, shall see a life that is bright, lovely, beautiful. We shall rejoice.’ That idealistic world was to come to an end with the outbreak of the Second World War, during which he stopped painting altogether. After the war, settling in Northampton, he taught at the Grammar School and began painting again. Dorset remained an important imaginative part of his life and he returned to it again and again in his paintings with images of that landscape, developing an eye for what lay beneath the surface, the forces that had formed it and a sense of its history. Thomas Hardy was a particular interest and his shadowy figure appears in some of the paintings. Gommon’s later watercolours paintings in the 70’s and 80’s became increasingly bold and his colours stronger and brighter, similar in feel to David Hockneys more recent landscapes, as seen in his recent retrospective at the RA. Gommon exhibited regularly during his life time and has work in a number of public collections including the Whitworth, Manchester, Salford Museum and Art Gallery, The Northampton Museum & Art Gallery, The Towner, Eastbourne, Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand and Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.