Lakeside Arts
Part of University of Nottingham
Lakeside Arts

Detail of an abstract landscape by David Blackburn with waving forms


Whilst working from my kitchen table, with the Djanogly Gallery closed for the foreseeable future, I thought what better time to bring to light some of the art works in the University’s collection. Normally, these can be difficult for the general public to see because of where they’re displayed or because they are kept in store for their protection. Each week we’ll fetch one of those works ‘out of store’. – Neil Walker, Head of Visual Arts Programming


By David Blackburn (1939-2016)
Pastel on paper
61.5 x 50.3 cm

In my earlier piece on the artist Rosalba Carriera for ‘Out of Store’, I wrote how in the eighteenth century she was instrumental in elevating the status of pastel drawing into a serious art form. David Blackburn, whose career started in the 1960s, worked almost exclusively with pastel and revealed exciting new directions in which the medium could be taken for a contemporary audience.

This drawing was acquired on the occasion of the artist’s retrospective at the Djanogly Gallery in 1995. It is a typical example of his work and although at first sight might appear to be a puzzling arrangement of lines, marks, shapes and colours, the title suggests its origin in the landscape and in natural forms. The artist’s life story begins and ends in his native Yorkshire and the body of work he has left shows a lifelong engagement with the landscape, not only of Yorkshire but also of Australia and America where at various times he lived and worked.

People can still be confounded by abstraction. For many it is the epitome of ‘modern art’ even though it now has a history of over a hundred years; this makes the earliest abstract paintings – by the customary definition of the word – antiques. The problem with abstraction tends to arise from an expectation that art should represent something, that it should somehow deceive the eye and reproduce the observed world on a two-dimensional surface or in sculptural form.

Full image of David Blackburn's painting

Click on the picture to open up a full view that you can zoom in. 

In talking about abstract art it’s more useful to use the analogy of music. Generally speaking, music creates its own emotional world of sound without any obvious reference to any external aural source (unless that’s other music). In the same way that a composer uses melody, rhythm, tempo, harmony and instrumental colour to create the musical work, 

the artist draws upon a palette of colours and a vocabulary of lines, shapes and forms that can, in theory, affect us without any reference to an identifiable subject.

Some artists arrive at their abstract or semi-abstract compositions through a process of reduction or distillation of natural forms; others create works that are entirely non-referential. If we think of pure abstraction and straightforward representation as opposite polarities on a scale, then David Blackburn’s work seems to sit somewhere in between. 

More often than not, traditional landscape paintings have a horizontal format, that is, their length or width is greater than their height. We expect to see a horizon line - a division between land or sea and sky – and some clear reading of space from foreground to far distance. None of these features apply to David Blackburn’s drawing. Here the format is vertical as if we are looking down from a high vantage point or perhaps from an aircraft. 

The image is framed rather as if we are looking through a stained-glass window with its delicate cobweb of lead cames.

Given the artist’s familiarity with the Yorkshire Dales, it’s hard not to see those black lines in terms of the dry-stone walls that criss-cross its landscape. The vestiges of such landmarks and natural phenomena appear in his work like memories that have been absorbed into a language entirely his own. He strove for a sense of harmony and balance between the extremes of literal representation and abstract mark making that had lost its power to relate to the real world and become purely decorative. Ultimately, he was seeking what he called the ‘X’ quality: a sense of being touched by an extra dimension.

To find out more about David Blackburn, and see other works by him visit his website.