Watercolours can get a bad press. For me they conjure up an image of legions of Sunday painters out in the field with their Windsor & Newtons. It’s great for mindfulness and I would always be happy to join them, but don’t expect to be wowed by the results. Nevertheless, I threw my twee watercolour preconceptions out of the window and went to see Barbara Nicholls’ terrific show at The Turnpike in Leigh.
Walk into The Turnpike’s gallery and you cannot fail to be amazed. Nicholls’ paintings fill the walls. The sense of water is vivid and immediate. That the environment they create should feel so natural is not surprising. For the past two years, Nicholls, who studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths in London before receiving an MA and Doctorate in Fine Art from the University of East London, has been studying the landscape in which The Turnpike sits with a particular emphasis on the Pennington Flash. This is now a recreational park but the vast expanse of water there, the flash, is man-made. It is a water-filled hollow created by subsidence from former collieries. Yet again, The Turnpike reminds us of the rich history of coal mining in the Leigh area.
Needless to say, Nicholls, who has a studio in Bollington, has studied the geology of the area in detail. Not only has she spent time walking in the area, she has also examined the fascinating archive of colliery maps held in the Mining Heritage Centre in Mansfield where she studied the topography, examining what we can no longer see, what lurks in the incredible depths of the flash.
The works that have come out of these studies are monumental. Nicholls buys her paper by the roll, a roll which measures a metre and a half wide, and the pieces on display are three metres in length. The weight of the paper is 638gsm so, quickly doing my sums, each piece must weigh close to three kilogrammes (though I’m open to having my calculations challenged). They are gigantic yet these unframed paintings appear to float on the gallery walls. I asked Nicholls how this was achieved, and her answer was “with difficulty”. The technique involves batons and Velcro and a huge dose of TLC. The effect is startling.
I was there when the artist was in conversation with The Turnpike’s Hannah Gaunt, talking about her techniques and her practice. She creates lakes of water on the paper into which she introduces pigment. It seems appropriate that she sits on a fishing stool to work and from there she surveys the lakes of water and, like the fishermen (and women), waits patiently to see what emerges. She has electric fans around her as she paints which keep her cool as well as aiding the drying process. Nicholls has worked with these pigments for many years and knows what to expect from the colours although there is always the additional element of surprise and discovery.
In some of the works on display here she has experimented with slicing the paper, separating the pieces and creating her ponds of colour, and after the paper is dry reassembling them to create a feeling and effect that we are seeing deep into the strata of the landscape. The works have a wonderful sense of lightness while at the same time revealing the world that we can only imagine when we look into Pennington Flash.
Pennington Flash Country Park is a 30-minute drive from Manchester