There is a familiar tilt of the head, a bracing of limbs, in a George Large painting that puts you in mind of the pre-Renaissance. His extraordinary work has almost been that of the medieval masters in reverse: exalting labourers into saintly icons of the modern day, celebrating not the mystical or the divine but the workaday.
There is a certain old-world mechanism to his way of painting, too. Preparatory drawings, typically unpeopled, are squared up for translation, with figures drawn direct from Large’s imagination and inserted with great care into empty scenes. While his preferred watercolour is quite different from the tempera and linseed oils of the past, his work has always employed a Quattrocento workmanship: forever blotting and reblotting (with three-ply loo roll, rather than fine paper stock), building up layers of rich, textured colour. Contrasts of light and dark are consciously alternated, arms and legs orchestrated, the angles of a composition distorted to draw in and lead the eye through the frame.
His is work of great handicraft; and it is this – hard, manual labour, of every kind – that has become the stock world of his pictures. He has been a stalker of scrapyards, roadworks and dockland groynes. His pictures are scaffolded with telegraph poles, ladders, pipes, chains and wires. His people, with oversize shoulder caps, barrelled forearms and rounded backs, heave and articulate like the tools they wield, whether spanners, secateurs or musical instruments.
Everything in a George Large painting, like his subjects, works deliberately and with purpose – but the end result, like the old European painting he and his forerunner, Stanley Spencer, so admired, is transcendent. It is through the pattern, the entangled rhythm of figure and design, that Large finds life.
Now in his mid-80s and in ill health, George’s output has slowed. His success as an artist, past and present, here and especially in Malta, where his work has become considerably popular, has been remarkably consistent: paintings have continued to sell as he has made them, year on year, for almost half a century. Unlike many artists, there is no mounting backstock, no drawers full of unsold work. And so, this catalogue illustrates not just Large at his best, but Large at his last: it is unlikely the gallery will ever be able to exhibit as many of his paintings again.
‘George Large is the most astute watcher of our shared experience, of the exotica of the ordinary… He weaves his insights into rich figurative tapestries, a realm with which we may be superficially familiar, but which is re-made in his imagination, a place apart.’ David Whiting, 2015
‘His complex compositions, bursting with vitality and primary idiosyncratic colours, which ingeniously knit together the figurative and the topographical, always delight my critical eye. A painter who has fine-tuned his skills to give us paintings that are well-balanced, always full of dramatic impact and frequently imbued with his quirky sense of humour.’ Anthony J. Lester, 1998