Capturing the fleeting moment

Friday November 7 2008

Timothy Brooke’s The Grass is Singing: ‘Colours

Timothy Brooke’s The Grass is Singing: ‘Colours that splash us with the scent of wild flowers; choke us with dust…’ 

By Frank Whalley

Constable's oil sketches of the Stour Valley are regarded by most painters as far superior to his popular setpieces like the Hay Wain.

There is in them the essence of the English landscape; clouds scudding across a brightening sky, and what Keats pinned to the page as “mists and mellow fruitfulness.”

This fluidity — the knack of capturing a fleeting moment — is the essence of a landscape sketch. And inevitably it reflects the artist’s concerns, be they colour, light or form.

In the case of Timothy Brooke, we have an artist who appears to have devoted himself purely to the spontaneity of the oil sketch, but on the dominant scale of finished studio paintings.

It gives a freedom to his art that is very appealing. We are stunned by colour — greens, violets and oranges, in a riot of African light — and by the certainty of his form.

He has a sure line, whether confidently capturing a lioness slinking past an acacia tree or two buffalos beneath an escarpment.

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His colours, hurriedly applied, bleed across the canvas, soaking into the weave and splashing us with the scent of wild flowers; choking us with dust.

Brooke, now 65, was born in England and came to Kenya, aged three, shortly after the Second World War.

His father was an architect who designed among other things the Post Office in Nairobi’s City Square and the Banana School chapel.

Brooke, sent back to the UK to complete his education, then found work in an advertising studio and took evening classes in drawing at St Martin’s in London, under the Royal Acadamician James Dring, whom he remembers as a prescriptive teacher who spoke often of the need for self-discipline.

From St Martin’s, Brooke went to Farnham, near London, on a scholarship to study life drawing, before returning to Kenya.

They say if you can draw the nude, you can draw anything, and it remains true that a great strength of Brooke’s painting is his solid draughtsmanship. “I learnt to draw freely, using the whole arm,” he told me.

And it is perhaps ironic that if there is a problem with Brooke’s paintings it centres on this dashing facility with line. At times the drawing is so swift and free that it verges on slick and tend towards the superficial.

It is in those paintings with which he has had to struggle that we see his finer work.

Wildlife and landscape have become his preoccupations; handy given that you rarely see one here without the other.

Around 30 of Brooke’s more recent pictures are on show at the RaMoMa Museum of Modern Art in its new home on 2nd Avenue, Parklands.

The show is due to come down this weekend but most of the pictures will be around and can be seen there, if only in store.

The exhibition, which spreads over two floors, shows that increasingly Brooke’s work has become looser, wider, more open; his colouring more daring.

Some of the colours in these recent pieces are quite astonishing. The point is made by the fierce blues, yellows and reds on the hides of wildebeest in what for me is the finest picture in the exhibition, The Grass is Singing.

Yet Brooke doesn’t use any colours that you would not see in the wilderness: The blushing rose and mauves of dusk; the lemon yellows and pinks of dawn, and the harsh greens and brutal ochres of the noonday.

Perhaps it takes an artist to show us more clearly what is there. For good artists don’t simply record what is in front of them (we have bad artists and cameras to do that for us.)

Good artists take what is there, filter it, reassess it and then transform it for us into something we did not expect but eventually connect with because it is deep within us anyway. It just needed re-presenting for us to realise it was there all along.

Which is why really good art can take some time to appreciate, and why the myth was born that great artists are not loved in their lifetimes but understood only after their deaths. Not true. Picasso, Bacon, Freud, Moore … you can make your own list of artists who enjoyed fame and riches while alive.

(The exception usually quoted is Van Gogh ,but that’s the exception that proves the rule because like Gauguin, Modigliani and Jackson Pollock — also often cited — he died absurdly young; in his case at 37, having sold only one painting in his lifetime.

So back to Brooke. Look at these paintings and you won’t look at landscape in quite the same way again. You’ll see much more.

Incidentally, you don’t have to go to the gallery to see Brooke at his best. There are some excellent pictures from a trip to Samburu in a banqueting room at the Serena Hotel.

And the paintings that hang in the Ibis restaurant and bar at the Norfolk — scenes from the filmset of Out of Africa — are all by Brooke. There is usually a good selection of his work at the Watatu Gallery in Standard Street, as well.

Can’t afford one from the current exhibition? Neither can I at more than Kh350,000 ($4,375) a pop. But it’s only fair that fine work should command a good price and Brooke need not worry; six have sold so far.

For the less well-heeled among us, the pictures are there to enjoy anyway, and limited edition prints from the Norfolk series are available in the gallery gift shop for a rather more modest Ksh10,000 ($125) each.

Elsewhere in Ramoma, paintings by young Kenyan Peter Kibunja are on show in the Dodhia Gallery.

Full of life and light, they hint at the forms of pylons, ladders and railway tracks and fairly sing with colour.

Someone has put a bunch of sunflowers in the room, which complements them perfectly.

On show too are watercolours by Susannah Mortensen. They are brisk and competent, with the artist seen at her best in a study of a lioness.

For my taste, some of the drawing, while accurate, seems a touch overstated with an unnecessarily heavy line. Like that little girl who had a curl in the middle of her forehead, when she is good she is very, very good, but when she is bad…

Now a friendly note to the gallery curator: Please get Prison Monger by Jesse Ng’ang’a out of that dimly lit corridor near the washroom and into one of your main galleries, and surround it with the space it both deserves and needs. It is a powerful painting, scary in its intensity, and it is being crushed to death.

Ng’ang’a lives and works in the Mathare Valley and has therefore seen things I only ever wish to watch on TV (and then only once.)

It has marked him. He admits to being influenced by Francis Bacon and the screaming ape-like figure in Prison Monger represents an entirely justified howl of outrage. But in that corridor, like a prison in itself, it is left to ambush, not to confront.

Frank Whalley runs LengaJuu Ltd, a media and fine arts consultancy based in Nairobi. E-mail: [email protected]