Averil King describes the brief but creative and colourful life of the Welsh artist James Dickson Innes
By Averil King
As with Cézanne and his Mont St Victoire, a mountain in North Wales called Arenig was to be a continual inspiration for the Welsh artist James Dickson Innes (1887–1914). Painted braving the dawn light, bathed in sudden sunshine or overhung by storm clouds, Arenig Fawr (in English, Great High Ground) was the subject that made him famous.
Innes was originally from Llanelli in South Wales, one of three sons of John Innes, who became chief accountant of the town’s copper works, and Alice Ann, who was born in Lyon and rumoured to have been of Catalan descent. Never a strong child, James studied first at the School of Art in Carmarthen
and then, for three years from 1905, at the Slade School of Art in London, where his teachers included Philip Wilson Steer and Roger Fry. He soon became a somewhat irreverent student, collecting risqué drawings and influenced not so much by his teachers as by Turner and Constable.
When, in spring 1906, the Turner Bequest was displayed at the National Gallery of British Art (now Tate Britain), he called there nearly every day and, from then on, on his own painting expeditions, he always carried with him Turner’s Liber Studiorum and a book of colour reproductions of Constable’s paintings. For it would be Innes’s vibrant, boldly painted landscapes that are his best remembered works.
On visits home during the college holidays, he sought out distinctive viewpoints and historic buildings, sketching them in a Turneresque manner that revealed an increasing appreciation of balance, grandeur and atmospheric effects. Examples of such works are his watercolours The Furnace Quarry, Llanelli, 1906, and Chepstow Castle, 1907, for both of which he adopted a low viewpoint to add to their dramatic effect. In the first, the quarry walls are seen in sunshine and rendered a brilliant, glowing yellow and, in the second, the old castle is pictured high above the River Wye in Monmouthshire.
In the summer of 1907, Innes met his fellow Welshman Augustus John, the charismatic, swashbuckling meteor of an artist, who was nine years older than him. Perhaps emboldened by the acquaintance, the following February, he found a room in Fitzroy Street, where John, along with Walter Sickert, Spencer Gore and other artists, was already living.
Although his life drawing was weak, he made some bold and slightly offbeat attempts at indoor scenes, including figures, which have about them something of Sickert. His A Scene at the Theatre, about 1908, for instance, shows two male actors and a fashionably dressed woman in front of an opulent, brightly lit stage setting; In the Mirror Self Portrait, 1907–8, painted in a heavy impasto and his only known self-portrait, portrays him as a long-legged figure sitting a little awkwardly on a sofa behind partly drawn curtains.
In March 1908, in his third year at the Slade, and feeling the need for new horizons, both painterly and geographical, Innes set off for Europe, accompanied by a fellow student, John Fothergill. Making for the Aveyron valley in the South of France, they stayed in the village of Bozouls, near Rodez, where Innes painted its houses and fruit trees, the flat countryside beyond and an orchard in blossom beneath its dramatic cliffs.
They then travelled on to the coastal town of Collioure, where the French artists Matisse and Derain had also painted. Writing to friends in London, Innes described it as having ‘a promontory with a Saracenic church and a gem-like bay with fishing boats of antique build’, as well as ‘the dirtiest of hotels’. It was here, seemingly, among Collioure’s red-roofed houses, dark pines and indigo-blue water, that his sense of colour awakened.
His increasingly frail health meant that, once back in England, Innes sought fresh, unpolluted air and, for a while, he stayed at St Ives, in Cornwall, in a comfortable house with ‘a garden full of flowers… and geraniums 20 feet high climbing up like ivy does’. He moved on to the Tamar Valley in Devon, and a house bordering Dartmoor, where for the first time, hilly slopes, if not mountains, formed the central feature of a painting, his colourful Dartmoor, dating from 1909–10. Painted in high summer, it shows the wooded lower slopes a brilliant blue-green and the crests of the hills burnished orange.
Aware that his life might not be a long one, Innes determined to return to Europe, travelling via Paris. In a Montmartre cafe, he met Euphemia Lamb, the woman who would become, according to John, ‘the lady of his dreams’. Already married to the Australian Henry Lamb, she and Innes were instantly attracted to each other and it seems that they set off together to Collioure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this time, the journey resulted in no remarkable works. The two remained close and Euphemia would be featured in both interiors and landscapes, including his Landscape with Figure, Arenig, about 1911–12.
Later in 1910, Innes embarked on the ‘Wild Wales’ tour he had long planned and, on this journey, he painted with a new conviction, producing his first scenic masterpieces, including the still, calm, slate-blue watercolour Lake Scene, painted near Betws-y-Coed; the sombre, heavily linear The Waterfall—Boch y Rhaeadr; and a brooding, melancholy view into a mountain valley, The Dark Mountains.
Innes’s first exhibition, ‘Landscapes by J D Innes’, opened at the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea in January 1911 and was well received. His friend Randolph Schwabe described him at this time, referring to
‘his great zest for life and for romantic adventure’ and his great personal charm. And according to Augustus John, Innes affected an arresting, Bohemian appearance, often wearing a deep-brimmed hat,
a coloured silk scarf and a long black overcoat, which set off his pale face and glittering dark eyes. When he talked, ‘an agreeable Welsh substratum underlay his heavy English accent’.
Following the success of his exhibition, the 24 year old decided to continue his work in North Wales, this time accompanied by John, who, however, noticed a slight reluctance when Innes introduced him
to ‘his best girl’, Arenig mountain. But, as they walked among the hills, the younger artist worked with an increased precision and assurance. As well as various views of Arenig, he painted some appealing watercolours, including a dark and atmospheric view of Nant ddu.
At the end of the summer term, Innes set off again for Europe, accompanied by his fellow student, Derwent Lees. Significantly, on this occasion, he travelled into the Pyrenees, where, in works such as Twilight, Pyrénées Orientales, the magnificent mountain ranges allowed him to experiment with the subject that was closest to his heart.
Returning to North Wales that autumn, and painting with renewed vigour, he produced some of his most expressive views of ‘his’ mountain, Arenig views that, indeed, Schwabe described as having something of Expressionism about them. Such works were, in fact, occasioned by long rambles over rough terrain combined with considerable patience while waiting for ‘the magic moment’ when the light he sought encompassed the mountains.
In one view, Arenig is coloured a deep green and pale rose, as clouds hover over her, and, in a second, she is located to one side of the composition, towering over a wide green valley. In another work, now owned by the National Gallery of Canada and perhaps his masterpiece, a dark Arenig emerges triumphantly from a grey, billowing mass of cumulus, her peak soaring towards a sky streaked with bright-pink strips of cloud.
In February 1912, Innes had his second show at the Chenil Gallery, but, this time, it received a mixed reception. Whereas some viewers considered that his bright palette gave his work a character that was highly emotive, the reviewer in The Atheneum found his pigments gaudy. Stung by such comments, although undeterred, Innes accepted an offer from Thomas Scott Ellis, 8th Baron Howard de Walden, to drive through France into Spain. Delighted to have new landscapes to commemorate, but avoiding the searing heat, on this journey, he painted later in the day, often just before sunset.
Back in Wales the following year, he created one of his most memorable works, The Van Pool, a view of a small lake near the Black Mountain of Carmarthen. Using his ‘gaudy’ palette, he used bright pinks and yellow-greens to convey the extraordinary formation of the escarpment and its distinctive sandstone strata, reflected in the still, lonely waters of Llyn y Fan Fach. And in his last views of Arenig, her twin peaks appear a glowing, roseate pink, crowning her grey walls as she emerges from storm clouds or shadow.
Ian Strang’s fine portrait of Innes, probably dating from 1913, as tuberculosis was beginning to take its toll, shows his pale complexion and thin, bony face. Innes died in August 1914, his death little noticed in the midst of preparations for the First World War. Horace de Vere Cole, writing in The New Age, described Innes and his mountain in these lines: ‘And through his vision and enchanted brain/He caught and held her for a moment’s space.’