THE LOST OF ENGLAND:

THE PAINTED WALL




In July 2016, Britain voted for Brexit. In Coventry the voting was 55% for leave, 45% for remain. Tile Hill wanted out.

In the spring of 2017, A Belgian art dealer, Laurent Mercier, visited George Shaw in his studio in Devon and discussed a forthcoming show. Shaw had been immersed in the National Gallery for two years, painting trees in response to the timeless treasures he saw on the walls there. The dealer hoped the paintings Shaw would be exhibiting at his commercial gallery in Brussels would mark a return to the streets of Tile Hill council estate, the subject for which the painter was well-known, and which, the dealer suggested, was far more amenable to being seen as contemporary in its preoccupations. In short, the dealer reckoned he could sell urban Tile Hill.

Shaw agreed to paint 14 paintings for the show, a nod to the 14 Stations of the Cross, the crucifixion never being far from his thoughts. The first of those paintings that I would like to write about in some detail is shown below:

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George Shaw. The Painted Wall, 2017. Enamel on canvas 92 x 121cm

A modernist high rise in the background. In the foreground, a carefully painted brick wall. I don't mean carefully painted with a set of goal posts: a meticulous hand would have used white paint rather than pale blue and have painted truer verticals. I mean that George Shaw has painstakingly rendered each brick, showing a loyalty and commitment to what? Tile Hill is a post-WW2 housing estate provided by a Labour government that was voted in to bring homes, education, health and prosperity to all. Perhaps what's being contrasted is the hard work and vision that went into the painting of those bricks compared to the quick, slick work of the guy that marked out the goal.

Perhaps too, the foreground represents an old way of life. Kids playing football on a strip of grass, as used to happen all over urban Britain. As opposed to the freshly painted block of flats, where the satellite dishes are reminders of how premier league football is piped into so many homes these days. What a year 2019 was, with exclusively English premier division teams contesting the finals of both European competitions. "But where did this word 'premier' come from?" I hear someone ask. "What was wrong with the old 'first' division?"

Can a political dimension to the painting be pinpointed at this early stage of the analysis? Perhaps it can be, but I don't want to jump to a premature conclusion.

I like to find out exactly where Shaw has painted a picture, in case this adds to an understanding of what was in the painter's mind when he chose the subject of his picture. Accordingly, I tried to find all the flat-roofed four-storey housing blocks in Tile Hill. There are nine blocks in a development just off Broad Lane, close to the site of the demolished Hawthorne Tree pub that Shaw has painted several times. There are three blocks just east of Tile Hill Wood at Pepys Corner, a site of particularly atmospheric Shaw paintings. This is them.

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There are four more blocks just to the south of Jardine Crescent, adjoining where Tile Hill Social Club used to be, yet another site of multiple George Shaw paintings acknowledging personal and communal loss. And there are two more blocks further along Jardine Crescent, which turned out to be the correct site.

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Here is an aerial view of the block of flats with brick wall in front of it. You can make out a set of goalposts painted on the brick wall in the foreground. Just about. What I can't do is switch to Street View as the green area in the foreground is a large park, and the Google vehicle that takes the Street View images must stick to the highways.

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OK, so now we know where the site of Shaw's painting actually is, what of significance does that tell us? Well, take look at this.

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What we have here (in my mind's eye, unquestionably stimulated by the day's research) is a couple of guys kicking a ball against a brick wall. They've turned their back on a lovely big football pitch. They don't want to play an open game of football on the wider stage, with a load of guys from a variety of backgrounds. They're happier to boot an old-fashioned leather football against a wall in their own backyard. We all know these two. They go by the names of Boris and Nigel.

The idea is for the pair to take turns to kick the ball into the goal area marked on the wall. They can kick the ball while it's still moving, or wait until the ball stops so as to get a better aim and
a surer contact. Another rule is that they can't allow the ball to roll back as far as the marked pitch.

Boris is bang on target. Thump: ball
on brick in goal.

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George Shaw. The Painted Wall, 2017. Enamel on canvas. Detail.

Nigel is good at this too. Thump: ball on brick in goal.

Nigel was educated at Dulwich College and Boris at Eton. It was on the playing fields of these public schools, whose annual fees are now £40,000 per year, that they learnt this game, which is called British brickmanship.

The loser of each game forfeits £1,000 to the other. And, in addition, £100 is forfeited every time the ball strikes the wall outside the goal area, though in such cases the game continues. Such stakes are mere pocket money to this pair, as Nigel draws an MEP's salary and allowances, while Boris makes £275,000 from his Monday column in the
Daily Telegraph alone.

"It's
who you know, not what you know," says Boris, thumping the ball into the brick goal again.

"You said it chum." Thump. Nigel is surprisingly well-co-ordinated.

"Do you know my vision for Coventry?" Asks Boris. Thump.

"Not until you tell me." Thump.

"Have you ever been to Petworth?" Thump.

"Lord Egremont's seat near Brighton?" Thump.

"Not near Brighton, you idiot." Thump.

"Well, the south coast, then." Thump.

"It's just off the south circular." Thump.

"I bow to your superior mental map of this great country of ours." Thump.

"Well, the thing is, Turner used to go there." Thump.

"Who is Turner?" Thump.

"J.M.W. Turner. Britain's greatest ever painter." Thump.

"Never heard of him." Thump.

"He painted the house from the lake." Thump.

"Why did he do that?" Thump.

"And he painted the lake from the house." Thump.

"I wish I knew why you were telling me this."

"Oh hang on a minute." Boris lets the ball roll past him and onto the marked out football pitch. He is thinking something through.

"Game to me, old boy," says Nigel. "That's 6-3."

"Nigel, I must paint you another picture before I show you my vision for Coventry. It's hilarious." So he does. With words. Until both men can imagine something approximating to this:

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This is an amalgam of a painting by George Shaw and a print by Jeremy Deller. And if George or Jeremy don't like it I will have to take it down.

"Oh, that Deller guy. Doesn't bother me. I simply read it as gibberish. It might as well read 'Garage in Prison'."

"Ha! Corrugated iron in the dock. The silkscreens were on sale for £110 back in March. On what was suppose to be Brexit Day. I had to buy one. It goes wherever I go, so I've got the actual poster up in my Coventry digs. I wish he'd done one called 'Boris in Brixton'. I'd have loved that. Wasn't Jeremy Deller at your school?"

"Yes. I didn't know him though. Different set. Different politics."

"I think you'll find most of the artist set have the same politics. Not ours, I'm afraid. OK, I'm kicking off again. You ready?"

"Sure."

"So I was saying about Turner." Thump.

"Isn't there one with a stag drinking?" Thump.

"You're a man of culture after all, Nigel!" Thump.

"Swans and deer. Lots of deer." Thump.

"Can't beat British venison." Thump.

"And your vision for this once-great country of ours, Boris?" Thump.

"Is for everybody to be able to share in these great paintings by Turner." Thump.

"You mean have them up as murals?" Thump.

"On every brick wall juxtaposing every block of flats in Tile Hill for a start." Thump. "And that's a fair few, my ardent researcher assures me."

"I can't see it myself." Thump.

"You have no vision." Thump. "God. That noise. Sounds like our friend over the water."

"I don't know what you're on about with this vision business. Help me out here, Boris." Thump.

Boris lets the ball roll past him again and onto the pitch. "You can see it, can't you?" says Boris, raising both arms. "The lake…Petworth…sunset…a stag drinking…1829."

"I had a drink with Lord Egremont in the South Wing once. Nice chap."

"He's an Eton man, though a bit before my time."

"Oh, lord! - must go, Boris. I've got a register to sign in Brussels. Although I've done quite nicely out of this morning's little tussle, I still have a political campaign to fund."

"You're flying off to Brussels leaving me alone in Tile Hill until the Tory hustings are over?"

"Not alone, Boris. You've got your vision, remember?"

"I do, don't I?"

Alone, Boris conjures it up.

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This is an amalgam of paintings by George Shaw and JMW Turner. And if George objects to such a use of his image I will have to take it down.

Boris stands and stares for a bit. Then he plods off to fetch the ball. He places it on some notional penalty spot, takes a few steps back and pauses. Aiming. For a second, the phrase 'Grenfell Tower' comes to mind, but he pushes that aside as irrelevant, since the building in his sights is such a dwarf-rise.

He realises that what he should do is get the wall built higher so that it blocks out all view of what he takes to be social housing in the background. Then he would have a million working class bricks supporting a single upper class estate. That was the real vision. But Rome wasn't built in a day. For now he just had to release some pent up energy.

"Set your controls for the heart of the sun," he says. Then he runs towards the ball with cannonball intent.



'The Lost of England' is continued here.



Acknowledgements The images of George Shaw’s works on this site are copyright the artist. The artist is represented by Anthony Wilkinson.

'The Lost of England' was an exhibition of George Shaw paintings at Maruani Mercier in autumn, 2017.