Patrick Hall, 1906-1992

Hall was an artist for whom watercolour was the most perfect medium. It allowed him to convey a sense of immediacy, sudden delight, the sparkling intensity of the scene before him. He worked swiftly and prolifically - but let nothing out of his studio that did not stand up to his own intense, critical scrutiny. As a consequence, his work is elusive, not only in terms of his medium and his preoccupation with passing effects of light and movement, but also in terms of trying to track it down, today.

In fact, it is quite clear that his work is now somewhat neglected; and part of this must be put down to its scarcity. Those who have found and developed a love of his pictures are not keen to let them go.

Born in York, Patrick Hall went to school in Sedbergh, in the South Lakes. One thing is certain: though conditions must have been cold and hard, this School is embraced by a landscape which cannot have been other than inspirational. Beyond the small town, there is a dramatic panorama of hills, fells and moors, patterned with scattered farms, stone walls, cascading becks, scudding shadows and sheets of rain. With its perpetually shifting light, atmosphere and colour, this is a remarkable landscape, combining evanescence with rich texture and enduring grandeur. In later life, Hall did not paint the rugged north. Instead, he tended to avoid the sensational, often preferring the reflections of light playing over the modest land- and city-scapes of the south of England or Europe. One cannot help but think, however, that his remarkable ability to translate a quality of pulsing light and atmosphere, as well as an intimation of solid form, in just a few, swift strokes, must owe something to the time spent in the Sedbergh landscape.

On leaving school, Hall returned to York and worked in his family’s business, in New Earswick. He entertained a desire to be an artist from the first, however, and he found some time to study at both York and Northampton Schools of Art. Whilst still a teenager, he also assisted in the conservation studios attached to York Minster, where the stained glass was being repaired and conserved. If he left Sedbergh with an acute understanding of a landscape drenched in a rich and subtle range of grey, black and green, in the stained-glass studios he must have encountered the brilliant luminosity of blue, gold and red, seen against the light.

Hall was unable to work full time as an artist until after WWII and the subsequent closure of the family business. Well before this, however, he started to exhibit, notably at the Royal Academy. In 1928, ’29 and ’32, he showed drawings of York - including, in 1929, a pencil drawing entitled, Maintenance of the fabric, York Minster. His early work was dominated by drawings, with pencil and chalk. In 1943, again at the Royal Academy, he showed dry point etchings of The Toll Bridge, Selby and Interior, St. Martin-le-Grand, York. In 1944, he started to exhibit London scenes - including St. Paul’s from Bankside, an image of the Cathedral which, in 1943, had become an icon of fortitude, when it largely survived the onslaught of the Blitz.

In 1947, it was with another image of St. Paul’s, a chalk drawing, that Hall marked his move from York to London, shortly after the War - at last, feeling free to focus on his work as an artist, as the family business had closed. From this time, for more than three decades, Hall lived and worked in London, before moving to Kent in the early 1970s, where he died, in 1992.

Hall continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy, until 1961, and at the New English Art Club, the Royal Scottish Academy and the Paris Salon. He also showed elsewhere, in London and the provinces, including at the Waddington and Marjorie Parr Galleries. Both of these focused on contemporary artists; the latter, in particular, showing many painters who explored the expressive possibilities of landscape as a theme - John Hitchens, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Patrick Lanyon, Denis Peploe amongst them: Patrick Hall was keeping good company.

Hall regularly travelled round the countryside and coast of England and Europe. His artistic method was to stop and sketch the images he encountered on his journeys. These sketches were then worked up in the studio. This process did not end up with highly-finished, literal representations; instead, Hall aimed to keep a sense of sudden encounter, immediacy, freshness. He worked with a very wet brush, saturating his paper with a dominant hue – the white ground shining through – and thus capturing the light and atmosphere. On that ground, his fleeting images are touched in, with sophisticated brevity; details are even stuck onto the pictures with neat, tiny, patches of collage and textures sometimes conveyed by combing and scraping through the surface of the wet paint. His is not a conventional approach. But, as a perfectionist, he was rarely satisfied and he repeatedly destroyed his work and started again. His shows were renowned as being of the highest quality.

Hall has been described as deriving, ‘his values and artistic influences … from the 19th century and, most particularly, the Impressionist school’[1]. This is, however, far too simplistic a view, for he was not an artist who was merely engaging with the past. Certainly, he had absorbed lessons from the late 19th century and he was, indeed, preoccupied by trying to capture the elusive effects of light and life. But his paintings reveal a celebration, too, of the medium itself and an exploration of the compositional tensions between the surface of the picture plane and aerial perspective. He was also acutely conscious of the individuality of his own vision. Thus, Hall’s work – like the output of those mentioned above, who showed at the Marjorie Parr Galleries – was not only enriched by his attachment to the plein-air traditions of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. It was also the outcome of his enquiring interest in the expressive abstractions of post-war Europe and America. Patrick Hall’s appearance – tall, dapper, elegant – and the apparent serenity of his pictures should not mislead. His pictures, which sing with an abstract poise and subtlety, as well as vivid, translucent colour, are the outcome of a questioning and exacting mind.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012

[1] Robert Sandelson, ‘Obituary of William Patrick Hall’, The Independent, 10th July, 1992.