‘None the Bloody Wiser’ is the title of the conversation between George Shaw and Gordon Burn that appeared in
The Sly and Unseen Day. It reveals that the artist’s father had died, I think in 2006. One of the results of the death of George senior was that his son, by the time of the 2007 interview with Burn, hadn’t really painted since his bereavement, though it seems he was painting while his father was dying.

“Were you seeing the estate differently in the last few months when your dad was ill?”

GS: “
Yeah, the whole thing became heightened and warped. There’s a painting of graffiti on a wall and underneath it has been scribbled out, but it said ‘so-and-so and so-and-so forever’, and quite clearly it wasn’t forever because someone’s come along and had second thoughts. Reality has made it pretty plain that things don’t go on for ever.”

I haven’t been able to track down that painting, though I’ll keep looking. There aren’t many paintings that are dated after the Ash Wednesday series, I mean not much from 2005 or 2006. Indeed it’s not until 2009 that George seems to have been able to get back to work wholeheartedly. Not until then that he was able to incorporate the death of his father into paintings of Tile Hill. But this he did in the ambitious - and superb - exhibition, ‘Woodsman’, which was served up at the Wilkinson Gallery from 28 February to April 9, 2009.

This was George Shaw’s fourth solo show at the Wilkinson Gallery, but the first since the Wilkinsons had moved their premises from 242 Cambridge Heath Road to 50 to 58 Vyner Street. (Still in the East End of London, still in bustling Hackney.) This is how one of the galleries looked with ‘Woodsman’ installed. There are six charcoal drawings of trees in the local woods. There are no houses in sight, perhaps that’s why my eye sees the far end of the gallery as the gable end of a Tile Hill home...

Installation shot of George Shaw’s ‘Woodsman’ show at Wilkinson Gallery, 2009. Photograph by Peter White.

Death of a tree = death of the father? Well, yes that comes into it, I’m sure. Though as always with George Shaw, things are neither simple nor naive.

George Shaw. Woodsman 5, 2009, Charcoal on paper (152.5 × 198 cm)

A second gallery contained a display of new Humbrol paintings. There were eight, four of which were bigger than any Shaw had painted before. The installation view below illustrates the point. The two paintings on the right are 44x53cm, which had been the standard size at the start of the Tile Hill project, while the painting on the left is a whopping 147x196cm. LIke Paul Noble, George Shaw gained in confidence over the years, and knowing he had found a rich seam of work, clearly decided to wholeheartedly mine it.

Installation shot of George Shaw’s ‘Woodsman’ show at Wilkinson Gallery, 2009. Photograph by Peter White.

Let’s start with the large painting on the left of the above installation shot,
The End of Time. It’s the site of a demolished pub, once called Woodsman.

George Shaw. The End of Time, 2009: Humbrol enamel on board. 147x198cm

The press release states:
‘Woodsman was the new name of the local pub on the Midlands estate on which Shaw was brought up. Years before when it was called The New Star his mother worked there and his father had the odd drink there. Shaw himself recalls it as being post-war British modern - ‘which is a longer way of saying it was shite’- and hardly warmed at all by the white heat of optimism promised by the period of it’s and the artist’s birth; “I remember it as being dimly Victorian in a strange way. It was an age when the insides of pubs were hidden by net curtains so there wasn’t much daylight.” He does not know why it was renamed Woodsman but suspects it was part of a remarketing gamble. However it soon caught fire and was later demolished. The corner on which it stood remains empty and is no doubt a redevelopment opportunity.

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©2013 Google

The above view shows that the rudiments of the pub sign are still standing, or they were when Google took this photo in 2008. In fact, the Wilkinson Gallery used a reproduction of the pub sign as the invite to the ‘Woodsman’ show:


As illustrated below, George Shaw painted the pub in 2002. It had been derelict since being damaged by fire in 2000, and was finally demolished in 2005. I think Shaw may have had the flames in mind when he painted this scene, what I take to be wispy autumn leaves evoking both fire and smoke.

George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The New Star, 2002: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

The night view below was painted by Shaw a few years earlier, when the pub was still open. As the press release begins with a quote from ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ by The Smiths, I like to think that it was a Smiths’ tribute band that was playing the night that the artist took the photograph on which he would base the night painting:

“Oh so I drank one
or was it four
and when I fell on the floor..
...I drank more
stop me, stop me
stop me if you think that you’ve
heard this one before
nothing’s changed
I still love you
I still love you
but only slightly
less than I used to.”

George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The New Star, 1998: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

If the painter got through quite a few tinnies of black enamel in rendering the above, green is what he splashed out on in the paintings of ‘Woodsman’ in general, as the two smaller pictures next to
The End of Time demonstrate. First, there’s This Sporting Life, the name of a 1960 novel by David Storey: rugby league player and an author who wrote about working-class life in the north of England.

George Shaw. This Sporting Life, 2009, Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

The goalposts in This Sporting Life had been painted erect, ten years before. This glowing sky over rich green grass was used for the invite to the Dundee showing of ‘What I Did This Summer’. I valued that card, but have lost it. Actually, I may have sent it to my brother as a birthday card. Perhaps I wrote in the gatefold: ‘What we did in those summers of our shared youth. Skinned our knees and kissed the sky. 1965-1972, Hamilton, R.I.P.’

George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Goal Mouth, 1999, 43x53cm

Below is a still from the Channel 4 documentary,
The Late George Shaw. It shows George in the summer of 2004, aged 38, walking in the cemetery attached to Berkswell Church. Still a relatively young man, he is about to walk past two monuments topped with crosses.

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Still from The Late George Shaw, The Art Show, Channel 4, 2004

Fast forward five years...

George Shaw. Fallen More Slowly, 2009. Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

As the title implies, one gravestone has fallen more slowly than the other. But they’ll both fall in the end, just as people do. George senior may have bitten the dust first, but George junior will also be dead in a few short decades. I guess that’s one of the implications of the painting, anyway. In the press release, Shaw writes eloquently:

‘THERE IS NO NEW WORK. It is the old work rotting and I can’t recognise it anymore. It is the old world rotting and I see it for what it is. For the first time maybe. It is departing slowly from me. Waving gently and nodding as though it will all be OK in the end, that it’s just nature, just the way of things. The things that made me are in themselves becoming unmade. What appeared permanent and solid and outside of time is coming apart and falling behind itself.’

Below are four more Woodsman paintings with more than their fair share of green in them.

George Shaw. Installation shot of ‘Woodsman’ show at Wilkinson Gallery, 2009. Photograph by Peter White.

George Shaw always uses the same six colours of Humbrol enamel. Black, white, red, blue, yellow and green. Red, yellow and blue are the primary colours, so in a sense, green is an extra. Orange and purple would be the equivalent secondaries, but the artist does not purchase these colours. If he needs orange, he mixes red and yellow. If he needs purple, he mixes blue and red. Of course, blue and yellow would give him green. But so much of Tile Hill is green, that it must come in handy to have that extra 50ml pot to hand! Below is the large painting on the left of the four:

George Shaw. No Returns, 2009: Humbrol enamel on board. 147x198cm

I had no idea what the title,
No Returns, referred to, until I matched up some of the background detail with detail (cypress tree, flat-roofed buildings of a certain height) in the painting below, which is from 2003. The earlier picture shows a back entrance to the library which George - to begin with no doubt under the encouragement of his father - would use to give himself access to books. Alas, the day comes when the door to literature was closed to George. That’s to say, the boarding up of the entrance to the library symbolises the death of his father. No returns.

George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: Wednesday week, 2003: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

Returning to the last installation shot, below is one of the smaller paintings that feature in between the two large ones.
When first and last things sound the same echoes Fallen More Slowly. George Shaw may be recalling walking through the woods with his father, when George was a child and his father a mature man. Time has passed. By 2009, George is the one walking tall, while his father has been cut down.

George Shaw. When first and last things sound the same, 2009, Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

This is how the artist puts at the end of the press release for Woodsman:
‘Memory becomes as unreliable as forgetting. Reality lacks the poetry of melting into air. The familiar falls beyond use and lies in the way. I carry within myself an older man. His illness slows me, his dried mouth robs me of speech, his amnesia forces me to live in the today. But after all this I still cannot come to terms with the simple fact that life slips away and time is called everywhere everyday. What some may call a subject or an idea or an answer to the question “what is your work about?” is only an act of holding on.’

Below is the second big picture in the last installation shot. It revisits the tree that George commemorated in Ash Wednesday: 8am. Only this time there’s no sun to throw a shadow of the tree onto the gable end of the house on Frisby Road. And if there was a sun it wouldn’t make any difference, because now there is no tree to throw intricate shadows of branch. Just a stump.

George Shaw. It is finished, 2009: Humbrol enamel on board. 147x198cm

The title, It is finished, leads me to think that the painting is inspired by the conclusion of the episode in The Woodlanders that I referred to in the Ash Wednesday page. If you recall, a character in Thomas Hardy’s novel makes himself ill thinking that an elm tree - which was a sapling when he was a boy, but is now a mature tree that sways in the wind - is going to fall on his house. He takes to his bed and, though he is only 55, the doctor fears for his patient’s continued existence. It’s resolved that the tree must come down in order to save the man’s life. So down it comes, cut down by the woodlanders. “It is gone, see,” says the doctor. The ‘old man’ observes the vacant patch in place of the branched column that he was used to seeing, and is overwhelmed. He has to be carried back to bed where he mutters: “O it is gone! - where - where?” He dies that evening as the sun goes down.

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©2013 Google

Any connection between Hardy’s ‘It is gone’ and Shaw’s ‘it is finished’? Any connection between the doomed character in the
Woodlanders and George senior ensconced in number 57? Who knows.

The two installation shots further up the page show seven of the eight paintings that make up ‘Woodsman’. There is one more and it’s another of the very large ones. The tree has been chopped down by a woodsman, but by the state of the roots it was vulnerable to being blown down by nature. In other words, its time had come. As George’s father’s time had come in 2005 or 2006.

George Shaw. Stump with roots, 2009: Humbrol enamel on board. 147x198cm

The separation of the upper part of the tree from the lower trunk and the roots reminds me of something. When Thomas Hardy died in 1928, aged 88, he was living in a fine house just three miles from the humble home in which he was born in Upper Bockhampton. The immediate area - his Tile Hill - crops up time after time in his great novels and his poetry. Of course, he desired to be buried in the local churchyard, next to the tombs of his parents, no-one would have expected anything else. Stumpy Thomas had roots! And those roots went deep into the ground he’d walked all his life.

But it didn’t work out quite like that. JM Barrie, the brilliant but peculiar Scottish writer who became world-famous following the success of
Peter Pan, was a great admirer of Thomas Hardy, and became a friend of the family. Through his influence, a surgeon was employed to cut out Hardy’s heart, which was duly buried in the grave of his first wife alongside his parents. And at Barrie’s instigation the rest of Hardy’s remains were laid in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. To a modern sensibility, that seems like an unnatural division.


Update, 2019. The recently published Yale catalogue (George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field) tells us that this last shown painting was done first, and others of this size of purely woodland scenes were supposed to follow. Instead, Shaw decided to carry on the motif in charcoal, coming up with the six huge paper works discussed at the beginning of this page. These charcoal images are discussed in some detail in Mark Hallett's chapter, 'Woodsman', in aforementioned catalogue.

Acknowledgement: The images of George Shaw’s works on this site are copyright the artist. Many of them appear courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, photography by Peter White.