Jock McFadyen, Landscape Painter
Aldgate East by Jock McFadyen
Hidden behind an old terrace facing London Fields is a back street with a scrapyard and a car repair garage, and a row of anonymous industrial units where painter Jock McFadyen has his studio. You enter through a narrow alley round the back to discover Jock in his lair, a scrawny Scotsman with freckles, tufts of ginger hair, and beady eyes that look right through you. Yet such is the modesty of his demeanour, he acted more like the caretaker than the owner – concentrating on the coffee and biscuits, and leaving me to gasp at his vast canvasses of landscapes on a scale uncommon in our age.
With plain titles such as “Dagenham,” “Looking West,” “Pink Flats,” and “Popular Enclosure,” Jock McFadyen evokes the terrain where East London unravels into Essex beneath apocalyptic northern skies, encompassed by an horizon that extends beyond your field of vision when you stand in front of these pictures. The works of man appear insubstantial, either dwarfed by the scale of the landscape or partly obscured by meteorological effects.
Originating from Paisley, Jock has lived and worked in the East End since 1978, with studios in Butler’s Wharf, Bow and the Truman Brewery before arriving in London Fields fifteen years ago. Although he has painted a whole series of epic landscapes of the East End, Jock remains ambivalent about its impact upon his work. “It’s difficult to say how much a place affects you because my real influences are other painters like Lowry and Sickert,” he admitted to me with a shrug, “You’re never just painting what’s in front of your nose, you’re aware of the history of painting.”
“When I was a student at Chelsea in the seventies, the previous generation were the pop artists and my work was quite stark and self-referential.” he confessed with a chuckle, breaking into a shy grin, “But when I became Artist in Residence at the National Gallery in 1981, I realised I couldn’t spend my life just making art about art, so I started painting what I saw in the street – What could be less fashionable?”
“Then in 1991, I got commissioned to design a set for the Royal Ballet. They thought, ‘It’s urban despair, let’s get Jock McFadyen!’” he continued, sipping his coffee with relish, “There were no figures in my design, because the dancers were the figures. And that’s when I realised I had been a landscape painter all along – I’d been painting people in places.”
Once we had reached this point and he had told the story of his self-liberation as an artist, Jock leaned back on his couch and cast his eyes in pleasurable appreciation up to a rusty bicycle frame hanging from the roof. He wanted to talk about his love for Lowry and Sickert. “Lowry was the most committed painter because he had nothing else in his life. I think he spent every day outdoors in his raincoat, knocking out paintings. You believe him, it’s authentic.” Jock assured me fondly. Yet it was Sickert who has provided the inspiration for the current exhibition entitled “After Walter” at Eleven Spitalfields in which, after two decades of landscapes, Jock returns to painting figures. “They’re the first full-blown figures I’ve done,” he declared with a significant nod, “They’re not actual people though, they’re dirty old man fantasies.”
So there we left our conversation, as I set off to the gallery in Princelet St to discover the substance of Jock’s libidinous imagination. But before I departed his studio, I paused to admire a huge canvas of magnificent old rotting warehouses on the River Lea. It occurred to me that Jock came from Glasgow – a decayed port city with a vibrant working class culture - and felt at home in the East End, a location with a similar identity. I saw Jock looking at me and I realised he knew what I was thinking. “If you are a landscape painter you can only paint one place at a time,” he said, anticipating my words “So the question is ‘Are you an East End painter or are you just a landscape painter that happens to live here?’”
Jock McFadyen in London Fields
From Beckton Alp
Jock & Horseshoe Jake in front of Popular Enclosure
Black & white portraits copyright © Lucinda Douglas Menzies