Roger Ratcliffe: Country & Coast

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Thanks to the remarkable series of scenes David Hockney painted in East Yorkshire for his ‘A Bigger Picture’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2012 we can all view the landscape with new eyes. He taught us to see deep purples in the gloomy shadows of a winter’s day, straw bales standing like shiny coins in the stubble fields of late summer and trees as red as strawberry lollipops in autumn.

Hockney usually requires just a single splash of colour or the faintest suggestion of shape for his exaggerated, over-saturated sense of vision to make everything leap off the canvas. But even he could do little with the soft pastel shades and delicate filigree of the countryside in early April. In that brief window between the silhouettes of winter and the explosion of springtime colour he found nothing to amplify or distort. He admitted things only really took off for him at the start of May when, “the cow parsley seems to grow a few feet in about a week.”

Last week, walking along a Wolds lane painted by Hockney, I felt for him. Dark clouds leeched all colour from trees and fields. When the sun did burst through everything was glared. I imagined Hockney sitting there at his easel, grinding his teeth and stubbornly vowing to return the next day. Which is probably why his series of paintings creates the impression of time-lapse photography.

I cannot think of another landscape so transformed in response to light and season. The Wold tops or floors of those secretive chalk valleys do not have the lavish grandeur of the Lakes or the Dales, but it is their ever-changing, beguiling appearance that makes this the favourite landscape of many. Why they have no special protected status is beyond me. Across the Humber, the Lincolnshire continuation of the same chalk seam is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Yet I’ve found nothing there to trump the beauty of East Yorkshire’s Thixendale or Millington Dale.

Wildlife also seems richer in the Wolds. The western slopes are quartered by red kites, brown hares run in the fields, otters and water voles feed in chalk streams. The steep-sided valleys have remained uncultivated and unsprayed, supporting a riot of colourful flowers peculiar to chalk downland in spring and summer and demonstrating why Hockney is so drawn to this landscape.