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Review of 'Amity' painting by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker

'Amity' is a painting by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker (1893-1965). I first saw it at the Tate Liverpool, though it's part of the collection of the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. In the first half of 2007 i saw it on display in the Fleetwood-Walker exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. Why do I find this painting so interesting and what can we as photographers learn from it?

I was captivated by this painting when I first saw it, because of the beauty and complexity of the composition, not to mention the beauty of the girl. She is every bit the idealised English rose, from her blonde her and red cheeks and lips down to her red shoes. She is beautifully rendered by the artist, who has a great sensitivity towards the female physical presence.

The style is both traditional, recalling early paintings, which can also be seen in the Walker collection, and at the same time it's modern: The couple have a contemporary 1930's look and aura. The fashions, especially the hair styles, wouldn't look out of place today. The statuesque forms and strong 'visionary' light give it an idealistic, neo-classical quality, characteristic of much art and architecture of the 1930s.

At the modern art summer school I did in Paris in 1977, I learned that paintings are criss-crossed with invisible lines, used by artists as an aid to composition. This painting has a complex network of these lines, some flowing in a meandering course from top right to lower left, and others running vertically and horizontally.

At the centre of things is the flower, symbol of 'amity', which is placed on the intersection of two very significant lines., one running horizontally from the boy's hands to the girl's face., the other running vertically from the boy's face down into the folds of the girl's dress, to where her fingers seems to gesture.

The lines form a cross, a potent Christian symbol. The word 'Amity' means 'friendship' or 'harmonious relations' but it comes from a word in French and Latin meaning 'love'. Is there love here and if so, is it spiritual or carnal? The base of the cross, a symbol of religious purity, points to the girl's lower body. Could this have something to do with fertility?

Whatever the painter was alluding to, I'm told that the relationship of the couple who posed for the painting was anything but harmonious, in fact they hated each other. There's certainly no 'amity' in the body language. Both are facing away from each other, and exuding an air of mutual indifference.

As I see it the models are just that, models. The 'amity' is in the symbolism of the painting, not in any true bond between the two people.

It's a remarkable image which we as photographers can learn much from. And unlike most photographs of the time, this picture has vibrant colours, fresh and crisp as if the apples- now there's another element of symbolism - had only been painted yesterday.

I could gaze at this painting for hours, and I would travel a long way to see it. I'm not sure how much it would cost to own, but when it's on display again in Liverpool, I'll be able to travel to there and see it again. I recommend everyone should do likewise!

Many thanks to Nicola Walker, the artist's granddaughter, who has set up fleetwood-walker.co.uk, official site for the artist's collection of drawings.

More on the 24 Hour Museum and Liverpool Museums.

Further exhibitions: The work of Bernard Fleetwood-Walker featured in Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) exhibition May 14th - June 2nd 2007.

Footnote: I went to Wolverhampton as I had to take some photos for a client in the centre. I needed some inspiration and went into the art gallery where I saw the paintings and watercolours by Fleetwood-Walker. The photos I took weren't used, but at least I saw 'Amity' again, resulting in this article. Chance is a funny thing!

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-03-25

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