GALLERIES: Bringing reality into the room…

Friday June 08 2018

Zebra IV, by Timothy Brooke. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG


Pared down, spare, leaving only the essentials… after a lifetime of painting Timothy Brooke is focusing on the heart of the matter.

And the more reductive his paintings and drawings, the closer they get to creating their own reference points and becoming coherent entities beyond the realities they set out to project.

There is a point in every painting when an artist concentrates not on the literality of the subject but on making a picture; nature is adjusted to suit the forms already captured.

Brooke takes this even further and is at his best when realising the living presence of an animal, a scene, a flower in close up, or a tree; not simply presenting its form but bringing its reality into the room.

In his latest paintings, all our senses are engaged. As well as the look of the thing, there is the smell of the earth and the hot scent of the herd, the moaning of the wind through branches, thorns that can cut you, fur you can feel and even the salty taste of blood on a kill.

Brooke, who has always brought a strong sense of place to his painting —primarily the wildlife, open skies and bush of East Africa — is, at the age of 75, cutting back even further on unnecessary detail.


Examples abound in his current exhibition of around 50 works on the walls, with a further 25 in the racks at the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn to the west of Nairobi (until June 26).

There he has taken both the main gallery plus the whole of the new Stables Annex to provide a master class of painterly skills. Around half of the works on offer are charcoal and pastel drawings, made with the same energy that marks his oils.

Sometimes it is true that his usually sure touch falters, but I find that strangely reassuring.

When he hurriedly sketches a figure, for instance, the springy softness of a woman’s body (and nearly always they are women) can become subordinate to the bold line that sets the pose, creating a stiffness absent in his better work.

Brooke also shows an endearing tendency occasionally to get lost in his subject; wrapped up in describing its form and excited by its myriad possibilities. Witness The Bongo. The arch of its back is superbly described, as are the white stripes against the chestnut body. But the head?

Eventually I worked out that it was turned back on itself and the antelope was nuzzling its own neck. Perhaps it was doing precisely that, but a little licence would have made the picture far easier to read and less of a puzzle.

However, these are but quibbles.

Brooke’s zebra drawings — and there are around 12 of them in this show — are becoming an obsession.

Their dazzling stripes head towards abstraction, but in lesser hands might have become optical trickery. It would have been an easy cop-out to make a pattern and ignore the heaving flesh; the heads that pop up from the melee as though surprised by their own arrival, and the overall chaos of noise, heat and dust.

In these we see Brooke at his best; keeping his nerve as he analyses and sets down a river crossing with vigorous sweeps of the side of his charcoal stick.

They exemplify his ability to make a picture that becomes more than just a description; the fate of so many wildlife painters.

This ability to produce work that exists beyond the narrative runs throughout his oeuvre.

A bird’s eye view of wildebeest in The Migration for example, in which short stabs of paint join the gallop, is a fine example of this.

Consider the effortless way Brooke plays with the tonal scale and presents the herd as an arrowhead shot from the base of the painting up towards its centre to give perspective, tilting the sun-dappled savannah, fresh as lime juice, to the horizon.

Equally skilful is the lone ink drawing that tracks the intersections of acacia and euphorbia branches that spread across and finally possess the paper like a growth seen under a microscope.

With a few strokes of his crayon, Brooke draws the hull of a dhow and a couple of people in Lamu Waterfront; the most minimalist piece on show and also one of the most vital.

Clearly he likes trees. There is a notable set of four studies of yellow fever trees in the annex. Flowers too; aloes in bloom.

And Mount Kenya — many studies of that, resplendently Fauvist at sunset. And elephants with their massive skulls. Even an old cartwheel and the patterns of light on stones in a river.

In fact, pretty well anything and everything you would see when out and about in Kenya. Brooke with his endless curiosity is recording it all before it disappears, but the marvelous thing is that his paintings and drawings have become more than documents.

They have achieved independence and exist in their own right.