As an en plein air artist, Wiltshire-based Oliver Akers Douglas has a deep connection with the landscape, as he explains to Janet Menzies
Engaged by the sporting scene just before it springs to life, Oliver Akers Douglas tells Janet Menzies why he cannot turn away from the land.
OLIVER AKERS DOUGLAS
What’s your favourite part of a sporting day? For me, it’s the waiting: sitting on your horse by a hedge at dawn on an autumn morning, or admiring the woodland before the first pheasant comes over. It is the same for landscape artist Oliver Akers Douglas. He, too, is engaged by the sporting scene at the moment just before it springs into life.
“I don’t know what it is but I get very excited when I can see precisely what I want to do in depicting a time and place and then, after a lot of waiting, it comes together,” he admits. “I spend time watching for the right scene. There is a long build-up and then something is really impressive and grips me and I rush to get it onto the canvas – there is a lot of that waiting before starting. As an en plein air painter you can be busy the whole time but actually I need the sun to be out. It doesn’t mean anything to me until that moment that I am captivated.”
Akers Douglas is based in Wiltshire and he is intrigued by the way that shooting and hunting have shaped the countryside that we see today. “I am in South Wiltshire and quite a lot of my paintings have chalky bare game strips visible. These game strips along the top of the combes are a distinctive feature round here. They stay chalky for a long time while the cover crop is growing and they make these abstract graphic shapes.”
Where the keeper is looking at the cover to hold birds, Akers Douglas is seeing its artistic qualities but finds a common interest. “I like there to be plenty of topography and strategic blocks of woodland and places that would hold game. I think about landscape in a similar way to how a sportsman does, with that engagement with the shape and form, but for me it is about composition and colour. I was brought up near Winchester and that chalk landscape is something I have always gone back to. When I looked to move out of London we were renting a cottage and I suddenly realised how moved I am by the scale of the Cranborne Chase. It has really dramatic forms. It is an absolutely beguiling bit of land and it also has really special cloud forms. You have Atlantic air flow, which then hits the Downs and bubbles up above Ashcombe, where the famous partridge shoot is.”
Akers Douglas is not the first to be captivated by the chalk downland. He says: “Society photographer Cecil Beaton saw the glamour of this landscape and artist Augustus John said, ‘Nowhere in Britain is the broken weather so beautiful.’ There are these billowing cloud shapes and the chalk adds a glow to them. In my new exhibition I have a picture called Harvest Paused, where I have that reflection off the bottom of the cloud onto the down.”
DAILY DRAMA OF LAND AND WEATHER
Influenced by the Scottish Colourist movement, the work of Akers Douglas captures the daily drama of land and weather, which resonates with all of us lucky enough to be out in it. However, he doesn’t find it easy to express it in paint. “I am very influenced by Francis Cadell and Samuel Peploe and their paintings of the Western Isles, especially Iona – I like the raw wildness. I go up there most summers and you are painting the same scene from the same position as them so it is hard to ignore their influence. They pushed themselves and I find you have to be incredibly detailed and exacting in your response, especially technically. You can’t just slap the paint on. You have to temper your feeling, it is a really absorbing challenge and a hard thing to get right.”
Despite his respect for technique, Akers Douglas didn’t spend long at art school. “I did an art foundation course but was completely disillusioned by it, so read English at Edinburgh instead.” Graduating onto Fleet Street, Akers Douglas remembers: “I discovered that I really wasn’t very good at journalism so I took a scary leap into the unknown and tried to get a book published. My grandmother read the manuscript and said, ‘What about the art?’ I say to everyone, don’t do it unless you have to, do something more sensible unless you really can’t.”
Akers Douglas finds he cannot turn away from the land: “I was thinking about how my interests in landscape coincide with the sportsman. We all have the same feeling about the land and our ways of engaging with landscape; it is about more than just getting your kicks, it is much more primal than that. It is a strategic engagement with the place.”
Artist Marcel Duchamp believed that a work of art is completed by the viewer. For his current exhibition, Land Sea Sky, Oliver Akers Douglas has done his job. Now, it is our turn as the viewer to complete his paintings.
To see more of Oliver Akers Douglas’s work, go to: olliead.com or call 07884 054177