John Wonnacott has spent the best part of sixty years with his eye firmly fixed on life’s ebbs and flows. His subject is the great British seaside, and more specifically, the Essex town of Southend-on-Sea.
Rather fittingly the veteran artist’s latest show takes place at the town’s Focal Point Gallery. Titled The Estuary, the exhibition consists of a series of paintings that takes the town and its inhabitants as subjects.
At best, most artistic representation of life by the sea is sentimental, at worst, sneering. Yet John skilfully avoids falling into either camp, neither donning a Kiss Me Quick hat on the end of the pier, or posing outside an arcade with a rotweiler in hand. Instead, within John’s work Spindly-limbed pre-teen boys recreate royal rumbles in the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, hunched pensioners congregate on the pristine fuzz of a bowling green, and the mudflats that mark this stretch of the Essex coast – the endpoint of the Thames – which seem to stretch on forever. In a very real way, it’s a very English kind of heaven, captured from the front room John’s been painting in for longer than most of us have been alive.
He grew up in Leigh, just a few miles down the road from the theme parks, whelk bars, and penny slot machines of Southend itself. A move to London followed, and a young John studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, graduating in 1963. Essex whispered on the wind, and since then the artist has dedicated much of his life to capturing what Focal Point Gallery calls “the fashions and frolics of its [Southend’s] inhabitants to the structural alterations of its architecture.”
His style combines the craggy naturalism of a Lucien Freud with something more poetic, a kind of keening for a time long since lost that comes through in the just-about-there washes that make up his big open skies and gauzy seas which give his canvasses a peculiar sense of end-of-a-lovely-day-out-in-the-summer-holidays sensation of contended sleepiness. “I paint as I live,” he says, “mining deep memories of Leigh, dominated by the anarchic splendours of the Essex sky John goes on to note that the sky provides “the wild card in my painting. It floods each landscape with particular atmospheric light while fighting the formal plotting of my geometry.”
In a video accompanying the show – a short documentary on display just outside of the gallery, meaning John’s work is visible to anyone having a wander just off Southend’s gloriously quotidian high street – he describes himself as “the luckiest man on Earth.”
Given that he’s been gifted with a life of contemplation, creative fulfilment, and the ever-present smell of salt water and hot chips that makes the seaside such an intoxicating place for so many of us, we think that John might just be right.