Tony Foster | In Context


Exploring Beauty: Watercolour Diaries From the Wild

[Introduction from the exhibition catalogue Exploring Beauty: Watercolour Diaries From the Wild]

“My hunch is that what comes next will be something completely different. . . . The theme might be more intellectual than physical . . . more of a concept, really.”
— Tony Foster in conversation with John Halkes (2007)

For more than thirty years Tony Foster has scaled the heights and plumbed the depths of planet earth. He has done so as an artist who has, unusually in modern times, mastered that traditional medium of the itinerant painter out-of-doors, watercolour. Like his illustrious predecessors, he knows both its advantages and its limitations. On the one hand, it is portable. The pigments are water-soluble, and the support, paper, is light. On the other, it is unstable: a few drops of rain (not to mention a blizzard) can wash away hours of labour and reduce the paper to pulp. Even the finished product is a fragile thing, susceptible to fading in strong light and reacting unfavourably to changes in temperature and humidity. Yet Tony appears to relish the challenges. No one else to my knowledge has ever attempted to unfurl seven feet of paper, four feet high, in front of some of the most intractable subjects a landscape painter can attempt—on the rim of the Grand Canyon, for instance, or at an altitude of 17,600 feet in the Himalayas, looking toward the summit of Mount Everest. It begs the question, why?

Tony Foster and Penan tribesman Nyapun share a laugh together, Mulu, Borneo, February/March 2015. Photo: Alison Pritchard

Tony Foster and Penan tribesman Nyapun share a laugh together, Mulu, Borneo, February/March 2015. Photo: Alison Pritchard

In Tony’s own words, “I have drawn my inspiration from the sublime beauty of the wilderness.” Exploring Beauty: Watercolour Diaries from the Wild brings together landscapes from his travels around the world to provide a resounding endorsement of that inspiration. He has done so with the help of “luminaries”: rather than choosing the subjects himself, he appealed to a number of individuals to name what are for them the most beautiful places on earth. It is a distinguished list that includes former directors of the Department of Plant Biology at the Carnegie Institution for Science and of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; professors of astronomy and geology; and well-known writers, adventurers, and environmentalists. A significant number of them, like Bill Brace and Annie and Bill Vanderbilt, have accompanied Tony on some of his more arduous journeys, as willing if at times wary participants in his forays into wilderness. In a sense, then, there are more than one pair of eyes involved here, although it is to one in particular, Tony’s, that we are indebted. To paraphrase Confucius, “everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Thanks to Tony, our eyes too are opened, not only to the natural beauty he captures in his meticulously rendered observations of nature but also to the meanings and the implications of the landscapes that lie on the precarious edges of the world that he has revealed to us.

It might be useful at this point to retrace his steps as passionate sight/site seeker/seer. They began in 1982, when he and the photographer James Ravilious set out to follow in the footsteps of the nineteenth-century writer Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes was published just over a century earlier, in 1879. It was, in a sense, a romantic journey, on foot, in search of a lost past, but it led in short order to another venture, also inspired by a writer. In 1984 Tony “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” When Henry David Thoreau penned those words in 1854, Walden Pond was far enough away from Boston for him to feel isolated there, but behind them lay the tacit assumption that they offered an alternative to day-to-day life in the mid-nineteenth century. Like Wordsworth “wandering lonely as a cloud,” Thoreau did so knowing that the countryside to which he went to “live deliberately” was threatened by the forces of progress in an increasingly industrialised society. His experiences away from it all radicalised him, turning him into an environmentalist before his time. No wonder Tony took up his cause and set off on a series of journeys through the remoter parts of New England, to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and by canoe along the Concord River and into the Maine wilderness. 

Two years later, in 1986, increasingly aware that “no-one can spend long periods of time in these places without becoming concerned for their protection,” Tony took what for him was the logical next step. He returned to the United States, to the West Coast this time, to pick up the trail of the Scottish American explorer and naturalist John Muir, who proclaimed the “divine beauty” of the Sierra Nevada and advised his fellow Americans to “climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” Muir too was aware of the dangers of development and exploitation; it was as a direct result of his activities that Congress created the first of America’s national parks, Yosemite, in 1890. I remember joining Tony and his wife, Ann, in Washington, DC, for the opening of John Muir’s High Sierra at the National Museum of Natural History, of all the venues for the exhibition the most appropriate, honouring both the “father of the national parks” and his contemporary champion, who defends the restrictions placed by the present-day National Park Service on access to some of the most environmentally sensitive sites under its control. In Tony’s own words, “We cannot continue to use the world as if ours is the only generation that needs it.” In all of his subsequent forays into increasingly remote and inaccessible regions, he has never lost sight of their vulnerability, recognising that “many poorer places are protected simply because at the moment it is impractical or unprofitable to exploit them.”

Without for one moment abandoning these principles, Tony’s attention as an artist was drawn increasingly to “bigger subjects,” starting with the Grand Canyon. I have written before about his extraordinary achievement in capturing the essence of that most spectacular of natural phenomena, which has challenged and defeated so many attempts to describe it in words and images. Who would have thought that Tony’s sharply focussed eye for detail would succeed in representing that awe-inspiring sense of almost limitless space where many a broad brush and wide-angle lens has failed? Since then—inspired, I suspect, by past masters of landscape painting like Turner, for whom no natural effect, however elusive, was allowed to escape their attention—Tony has pursued all of the elements of air, water, earth, and fire, often in their most dramatic and spectacular combinations. Watching him rise to these challenges is to be reminded, once again, that he is first and foremost an artist whose chosen form of expression is pictorial.

Tony Foster painting in Deer Cave, Mulu, Borneo, February/March 2015. Photo: Andu Gubtaz

Tony Foster painting in Deer Cave, Mulu, Borneo, February/March 2015. Photo: Andu Gubtaz

Even the most basic dictionary definition of beauty is likely to give rise to disagreement, and in the twentieth century the very idea of beauty, let alone the association with virtue that has persisted in Western philosophy ever since it was first made by Aristotle, was either questioned or rejected by many artists as well as philosophers. More recently, however, attempts have been made to counteract the anti-aesthetics of postmodernism with new theories of beauty, such as the one proposed by the California philosopher Guy Sircello in his study of 1975. Sircello argued for the perception of beauty as objective rather than subjective, returning to a position not too distant from that of the seventeenth-century empirical philosopher John Locke, for whom “beauty consists of a certain composition of colour and figure, causing delight in the beholder.” I doubt that Tony is particularly interested in abstract theorising when, as far as he is concerned, beauty exists in plentiful supply in the natural world and serves as his source of inspiration. “I suppose all my work is about beauty,” he has said to me, confessing that a New York art dealer once told him that it was “too beautiful.” No wonder then that he decided to tackle the subject head-on, by undertaking a new series of journeys with the help of his “luminaries.”

Asked by John Halkes what united his subjects, irrespective of their scale, Tony replied that “all of them have the germ of the idea of wildness about them.” From the minutiae of Tywardreath Marsh to the sweeping vistas of the Atacama Desert, “you’ll find that there are some extraordinary things there to see.” And of course he sees them, with the tenacity of the explorer and the keen eye of the naturalist. The bigger the subject, the more detail he includes in the marginalia, from found objects (a bird’s feather, a book of El Capitan matches carelessly discarded by a passer-by) to his exquisite watercolour miniatures of the flora and fauna specific to his location. He never paints the human inhabitants of his landscapes, but they are often poignantly present; in the stone arrowheads he observed on the floor of the Grand Canyon, in the silk khatas given to him by Tibetan monks, so that his pictures not only record his experiences but also are “a way of bringing together the history of the land and my journey through it.”

“All of my work is about journeys” has become something of a catchphrase for Tony, but it remains fundamentally true, regardless of the distance travelled. I am bemused by the fact that to this anthology, Exploring Beauty, he added as his contribution “places of breathtaking beauty that can be found by walking for an hour or two from my own back door.” Is it a coincidence that there is nowhere in the British Isles that conveys a stronger sense of the past than Cornwall, with its dolmens and standing stones reminding us of prehistory, with its rocky promontories referring to geologic time? As Tony knows from his time as an arts officer in the region, the Cornish landscape and its coastline were sources of inspiration for artists throughout the twentieth century, from the Newlyn School, which flourished at the century’s inception, to the painters who congregated in St Ives after Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth settled there at its midpoint, softening their geometric abstractions with the irregular forms of land and sea. Later no one evoked the topography of Cornwall more effectively than Peter Lanyon in the paintings he based on what he saw from his glider, as he looked down from above onto the contours of that ancient landscape. Yet even there, in the sweeping airborne curves of his semi-abstracts, there is a suggestion of impermanence, of a landscape aging more slowly but just as surely as we ourselves do with the passage of time. As the critic Adrian Stokes observed, in Cornwall the fusion of landscape, history, and art is all-pervasive.

Talking to Tony about his work, you are immediately struck by his modest acceptance of his own human limitations: “you are just a molecule on a gnat’s eyelash when it comes to these enormous subjects.” In his conversation with John Halkes he went on to add that at work in the field “I am also confronted by geological time—thinking of the eons that were involved in making that landscape and the insignificance of yourself sitting there day after day trying to depict it with pigments and water and pencil!” But as John noted, Tony is a born communicator who never loses sight of the wider implications of what he paints. Eventually erosion takes its toll on stone just as surely as global warming contributes to the melting of glaciers and chain saws rip their deadly way through rainforests. Those packets containing volcanic dust or seeds, the leaves, twigs, bones, and feathers he either attaches or represents, all of them refer implicitly to the different cycles of life on earth, animate and inanimate, to which we are temporary witnesses. In his quest for beauty in the wildernesses and around the edges of the world, Tony reminds us constantly of time as well as space, of our own journeys through life. Is that perhaps an inevitable consequence of beauty, as it was for Keats confronted by a Grecian urn? If so, then maybe after all:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”



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