Absolute Block: the Transport Art of Gail Brodholt

There is a wonderful sense of adventure when you are setting off on a journey even if you are just going home. For me you never know what’s going to happen, who you are going to see, or what you will see out of the window and there’s always a chance of an adventure – Gail Brodholt.

From time to time, The Beauty of Transport looks at artists who depict transport. In earlier parts of this series we’ve looked at (amongst others) the works of artists as diverse as Van Gogh, Monet, Mucha and Ravilious. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common: they’re all deceased. I thought it might be a nice change this time to feature the work of a living artist (not least because they’re actually able to talk about their work). This week I have the perfect subject, London-based painter and printmaker Gail Brodholt.

New Day Dawning, Gail Brodholt. © Gail Brodholt (used with permission), via the gallery at gailbrodholt.com

Although she has been a professional artist for about 20 years, I came across her work only a year ago, but was immediately impressed by her atmospheric representations of London’s transport network and its passengers. She works in both paint and linocut, and her work in both media is equally accomplished. She’s just seen a splendid new book of her work published, and there’s a retrospective of her linocut work showing in London. Today, it’s her linocuts I’m concentrating on, because it’s an artistic medium this blog hasn’t featured before.

At the most basic level, anyone who’s ever done potato-prints at school (and who hasn’t?) will understand the concept behind linocuts. You carve a shape into the base of your potato, apply ink, and press onto the paper to make a pattern. A linocut works in the same way, substituting a block of linoleum for a potato. The difference in sophistication between a potato-print and a linocut is, however, along the lines of the difference in sophistication between Richard Trevithick’s Penydarren steam locomotive, and the latest generation of international TGV. If all you can remember of your potato-printing days is blobby results, soggy paper, and a mounting sense of frustration, then you will have little idea of the extraordinary results that a skilled printmaker can produce.

A Weekend Away, Gail Brodholt. (I’m absolutely amazed by the accuracy and level of detail on the front of the train, making it clearly and unequivocally identifiable as 1992 stock) © Gail Brodholt (used with permission) via the gallery at gailbrodholt.com

I’ve had a go at linocutting and I can assure you it’s fiendishly difficult to get what’s in your head carved into the blocks of lino and then transferred onto paper without accidentally cutting away an area you meant to keep or damaging an area you have kept, and generally making your picture work on any kind of artistic or emotional level. Brodholt’s end results make the process look easy. It isn’t; it’s complicated and time-consuming. A print can take up to three months from starting work until the prints appear, as I discovered when caught up with Brodholt recently (she’s also detailed the process in a series of blog posts, starting with this one).

I’m always fascinated by whether artists know that they are artists early on, or whether the realisation comes later. For Brodholt it seems to have been the former. “I’ve always loved painting and drawing – and an early taste of success was winning the art prize one year at school,” she says. “It would be many years until I tasted that sort of success again!” She studied at Croydon College and then Kingston University, where she graduated with a Fine Art degree specialising in painting. “Our first year consisted of a term in the painting studios, a term in the sculpture studios and a term in the printmaking studios,” Brodholt explains. “As you can imagine, a term is not really long enough to take in so many complicated printmaking processes and I was rather overwhelmed. However, I did have a lot of fun with various types of printing, but in the end I decided to specialise in painting for the rest of my degree course. And, although I ended up specialising in painting, I very much enjoyed that early printmaking experience and it stayed with me.”

Like the Impressionists, who painted transport subjects because they happened to be there, rather than because of a specific interest in transport (with the possible exception of Monet, who I strongly suspect of being a closet trainspotter), Brodholt’s early work in transport subjects was a function of its local presence in London, with its unusually dense public transport network. “At art school I largely drew my subject matter from the urban environment – it was what was around me. I did one series of work featuring the railways which are so much a part of south London, one huge painting and three smaller. You can see the roots of my later work in this period.”

Brodholt took on a series of non-art jobs after leaving art school, but having left them to start a family, she found herself raising children at home, but with the opportunity to turn a spare bedroom into a studio and continue to paint still lives in her limited spare time. She feels acutely sympathetic with women artists through history, who, “have all suffered from the same problem when the demands of child rearing take you out of the wider world. The work of female artists so often historically was concerned with the domestic side of life – still lives, views out of the window, flowers etc., while their male counterparts are out painting monumental landscapes and battle scenes.” Or, in the case of Van Gogh, Monet and the Pissarros, railways and other transport modes. Yet despite the restrictions placed on her at the time, Brodholt says the experience informs her current work. “The still lives I produced in this period were very colourful and had very strong line – features I think you can see very prominently in my work today.”

Later, Brodholt signed up for an adult education class in printmaking, and then taught herself how to print more and more complex designs, starting with still lives but moving on to urban subjects as her confidence and technique improved. “Only once I was able to fully develop the technical complexity did I return to the urban, and particularly transport-related themes of my early paintings. The melding of the graphical urban painting and the strong colour and line of my still life paintings is very much what you will see today in my prints,” she says.

Brodholt’s prints and paintings, with just a few exceptions, are of London subjects, and very often the transport network that underpins the city. “I like to portray the world that I live in and that happens to be London. If I lived in another part of the country, that would be my subject matter,” she says. “In any case, London is such a huge and varied place that I think you would find enough subject matter to last you several lifetimes without running out.”

Against the Tide, Gail Brodholt. © Gail Brodholt (used with permission) via the gallery at gailbrodholt.com

Though many of Brodholt’s paintings and prints are set on the transport network, and beautifully illustrate the infrastructure of stations or the interior of trains, it’s people who are the real focus of her works. It’s a useful reminder that the public transport network is fundamentally about the movement of people, who are using it to facilitate their lives, work and dreams. “I like the idea of being on a journey. You never really know what’s going to happen as you travel from one place to another – mostly nothing obviously – but there’s always a chance of the unexpected happening and it’s always interesting to be suspended from your normal responsibilities and commitments while you sit on a train looking out of the window.”

Brodholt draws inspiration from a wide range of artists, including American artist Edward Hopper. Despite their different styles, there’s a clear similarity in the way both of them place human figures in the built environment and the sense of people living their lives. There’s a distinct and very peculiar sensation which Hopper’s artworks of people in the urban environment give off, and it’s there in Brodholt’s works too. “I always include people in my work people because London is inhabited by people. I also like to use them to provide a human counterpoint to what can be quite alien and hard-edged places,” she explains. “I like the fact that the people are there but not for very long. They are there to add atmosphere in some way – they give emotion to the pieces – an empty train station would be a completely different thing. I have once or twice done this and the resulting picture is quite different. There is always a narrative if you put people in as the viewer will always put their own interpretation on what they see.” To see what she means, compare the feeling you get from Brodholt’s early morning, and all-but deserted, view of Waterloo East with the feeling you get from her prints in which there are plenty of passengers around.

Shadows in the City, Gail Brodholt. © Gail Brodholt (used with permision) via the gallery at gailbrodholt.com

She’s also an admirer of British linocut artist Edward Bawden, who worked for London Transport amongst other clients, and London Transport’s Underground stations were a favourite early subject for Brodholt. “I started doing the tube stations because of the curves of the platforms and the circular tunnels, as they provide a really good structure and movement – there is a real contrast between the elegance and organic nature of the curves with the hard-edge almost-brutalism of the materials used.”

Her prints frequently celebrate, even as a background or stage for the human stories which they underpin, the architecture of London’s transport, and they do so with both considerable style and surprising accuracy. Several of Charles Holden’s London Underground stations appear in glorious detail, as do mainline railway stations like King’s Cross and London Bridge. I’d assumed that she must rely on photographs for reference, but surprisingly that’s not the case. “I use sketch books all the time and I will do lots of very quick thumbnail sketches of my new subject – sometimes hundreds of them. I also take photographs but this is more useful for details because using photographs as a source material is very constricting and I like to be more flexible with how I’m portraying the scene. I like to move things around and bend perspective to get the right composition. Using photographs makes this too difficult. I then use all this source material to make a very detailed working drawing which can take (like everything I do) several weeks to finish. I change my mind a lot and frequently rub out whole areas and rework them until I’m happy. I then trace the finished drawing and transfer to four lino blocks and this drawing is the guide for cutting. I proof each block many, many times as I don’t cut the whole block straight away – instead of actually cutting the block, I will firstly ink up the block and then wipe away areas of ink – I like to hedge my bets until I’m sure. I try out a lot of different colours [this entry on Brodholt’s blog shows some experiments with different colour palettes on a print of Tooting Broadway station] but I nearly always use a dark colour to start. I then overlay with more and more transparent colours so that each previous layer shows through. This creates a much larger range of colours and tones to use. It is also very complicated as it’s impossible to predict precisely what effect each layer will produce on all the others.”

The striking range of colours in Brodholt’s works are part of their appeal, suggesting the warmth of sunshine, or the biting cold of standing on London Bridge’s high level platforms in the winter. But with an artist’s eye, she insists that this is pretty much how she sees the world. “I don’t see the colours I use as particularly unnaturalistic. I know that may sound a bit odd to those who know my work, but I really don’t,” she says.

Although she is always keen to depict people in her prints, it’s clear from her work that the design of London’s transport buildings has its own fascination for Brodholt, and not just the curves of the London Underground tunnel stations. It’s partly a result of her process. “I think the key to a good linocut is structure – what I like to call the bones of a print. It’s quite a graphic medium in so far as it’s not easy to get much texture or tone. Also you are cutting into a block of lino and there’s not much scope for fine detail. Therefore you have to edit out a lot of detail and it forces you to consider carefully what you can and can’t leave out.” What Brodholt’s linocuts do is reveal the very essence of many of London’s most famous stations, such that anyone with the most basic knowledge of them can instantly recognise each one.

“These places, such as railway stations, have a certain transient quality with people passing through all the time, but on the other hand they are often these vast monolithic structures which are going to be there long after we have gone,” she notes. Yet London’s transport network is in a state of perpetual change, and already Brodholt’s depictions of London Bridge station before its soon-to-be-completed reconstruction as part of the Thameslink Project are records of a station which no longer exists. Her linocuts convey an incredible amount of design detail about the old station through a medium in which fine detail is difficult.

City of Gold, Gail Brodholt. © Gail Brodholt (used with permission) via the gallery at gailbrodholt.com

They also convey a unique sense of the feeling of the using the old station, to which photographs can never quite do justice. While Blackfriars station was being rebuilt as part of the same project, one of her linocuts of Farringdon station was selected by Network Rail to be displayed on the hoardings at the station as part of a collaboration between Network Rail and the Bankside Gallery.

Brodholt’s art isn’t confined only to London’s railways. She’s also produced artworks of London bus stations and London streetscenes, as well as seaside subjects from the Norfolk coast, where she spends some of her time.

In fact there seems to be no transport subject Brodholt isn’t interested in, and she is able to find beauty even in the road network. “Motorways are my current interest. I think that they are quite beautiful things in the right context. They are very elegant but also quite alien in the landscape. They provide a path through the picture and they are also absent from almost all landscape art in Britain.”

The Road to Nowhere, Gail Brodholt. © Gail Brodholt (used with permission) via the gallery at gailbrodholt.com

It’s been a long time coming, but at last it looks as though Brodholt is gaining the far wider profile she and her work deserves. This April saw the publication of a book collecting many of her artworks together, and she’s very excited. “It feels great!” she exclaims. It’s been produced by a small publisher based on Norfolk, based not far from Brodholt’s Norfolk retreat. It’s called, appropriately, Gail Brodholt’s Art of Travel. And I think you’ll agree, it’s a fine art she’s got it down to.

Further Reading and Visiting

Gail Brodholt’s Art of Travel is published by Mascot Media, runs to 144 pages and features more than 100 of Brodholt’s artworks. It is available direct via this website (not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this on these pages, but I also work part-time in a library, and that part of me would very much like you to support an independent book publisher)

Gail Brodholt – Linocuts is showing at the Eames Fine Art Gallery in London until June 11, 2017 (click here for details)

Gail Brodholt’s website features a gallery of her work (just a small selection), information on upcoming exhibitions and sales of her work, and a blog showcasing the development of her work, and the challenges of earning a living from being an artist.

Acknowledgements

Many, many, thanks to Gail Brodholt herself for giving up her time to answer my questions.

5 thoughts on “Absolute Block: the Transport Art of Gail Brodholt

  1. The point about motorways is very true… as ugly as they are, they exist and form part of our landscape but no one wishes to include them in a landcape. It’s interesting to see such an example that makes a motorway look vaguely pretty.

  2. Extraordinary and unique. As well as depicting the urban landscape in such an individual way Gail Brodholt’s visual storytelling encourages us to look more deeply into our surroundings as we travel and perhaps start to see what she sees.

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