The final series of large landscape paintings might deceive us into thinking that we are witness merely to a nostalgic yearning for a lost place and past. This late work is more complex. Whilst there is certainly a neo-Romanticist element, these works spring from a heightened awareness of the exuberance and vitality of organic forms and processes. Nuttall himself referred to the paintings of the 1980s and 1990s as his ‘Dionysian Landscapes’. Turbulent hedges spill out of the picture frame in an ebullient mess of growth and decay. The apparent rural idyll of Nuttall’s youth – the ‘golden’ Orcop valley of the Welsh borders of Herefordshire – informs much of his later writings and artworks and is the specific subject of his poem, Return Trip.
The industrial North is also present in these later works. An unusual aspect of his Pennine series is the aerial viewpoint. Todmorden 1985, like a number of the others, looks down on the narrow post-industrial valleys dotted with dilapidated textile mills, railway arches, canals and viaducts.
The later Welsh landscapes and sculpted reliefs, with their riotous colours and bulging anthropomorphic forms, connect back to Nuttall’s recurring theme of re-engaging with the immediacy of sense experience. These were made largely when Nuttall moved to Abergavenny and Crickhowell. They combine the hyper-realism of the nineteenth-century painter Samuel Palmer and a Blakeian sense of astonishment with an eye for the farcical and burlesque that was rooted in the anarchic sensibility of the Sixties.
From Dambank to Quarry Mount is a landscape mangled like a mongrel’s scabby back with degradation. Charming like all charnel houses now the whip has fallen and the treadmill slowed, it inherits, beneath its superstructures of bawdy humour, music hall, smoky arse-orientated folklore, the hardmouthed toughness of a terrible ancient violence.
Jeff Nuttall, The Patriarchs, 1978
Mostly without horizons, the painting tilts perspective and offer the eye aerial overviews barely steadied by their frames. Flows of paint regenerate memories of walking and looking down into the hills, valleys and the line of Todmorden itself: scenes not depicted but expressed as appreciation. Each canvas radiates pleasure.
Eric Mottram, Landscapes, Angela Flowers Gallery, 1987
His Calder Valley landscapes tilt and soar with a tremendous vitality of drawing and colour
Eric Mottram, Dean Clough exhibition catalogue 1990
‘…all my creative work, whether literary or visual, has been concerned with the same discord, the ecstatic violence which is detonated when nature meets ethics…
I found that the Black Mountains…provided me with the opportunity to synthesise a vocabulary of gross eroticism with a full-blooded baroque romanticism
…they do emphasise that geological and vegetable forms share shapes and parallel processes with animal (and human) digestion, gestation and reproduction, in a turbulence of decay, erosion and rebirth. My work is intended as a celebratory prayer of these things…’
Jeff Nuttall, exhibition catalogue Abergavenny Museum, 1997
Golden in this spot. The oak with its root-seats – a germinal image.
So many gone. The roots’ bark cup, level cocoa-cup helping of red sand,
All buried, the bole choked.
Golden this valley with bubbling
Vomit of centuries spilled along the barrows, down
Ant-hills, spaced writing of ridges.
Clay cones, all levelled uprooted.
‘What I loved was never nature, was culture.
What stops pantheism’s vindication is this fact:
Lines and languages of land I long for,
What eradicates them’s rank grass, river clay.’