A Good Eye for a Picture


Selected by William Varley, Writer and and Lecturer


Robert Soden is a bit like the friend who, on a holiday visit to the Parthenon, finds a discarded condom in the ruins. It gets worse. Far from recoiling from it, he shouts out delightedly,” It’s a Greek tickler!” This is not as far-fetched as it seems. Anyone who knows his painting is aware that his approach to landscape is about as unidealised and uncensorious as it gets. He paints a meadow but doesn’t edit out the stolen supermarket trolley lying in the long grass. He paints a Cruise missile insolently desecrating the Durham countryside as it trundles past Raby Castle. Decaying terraces are painted as if providing the backdrop to a Sunderland Echo headline saying “Two held after Hendon killing.” You can be sure, too, that the decaying Victorian terrace will be a mongrel mix of video stores, off-licences and chip shops. He loves them all. The late Alec Clifton-Taylor, doyen of architectural historians, rejoiced in the way in which English towns were a family of random historic styles. Robert, though, would feel punished if required to live in a sanitised heritage town. He says he likes the “thingness of things,” but the truth is that he especially likes the discordant, the thing that jars.

He paints landscapes as the mood and the subject take him. Sometimes he will depict a garden with all the fidelity of a Stanley Spencer. On other occasions the mood will become apocalyptic: trees (metaphorically) burst into flames and cars plunge off bridges. Like a visual delinquent he refuses to be constrained by the rules of style or theory and insists on telling us how it is – and feels. His pantheon of English landscape painters includes Spencer, Nash, Turner and, above all, Constable who famously declared,  “Painting is another word for feeling”. Feeling, of course, is not the same thing as sentiment, and Robert’s ineffable feelings about a place become the trigger to intuitive inventions of colour, form and composition. One finds oneself admiring, too, the instinctive energy of his handling of paint: dabs, smears, blotches and washes materialise in response to need. I tend to use words about it such as “fresh”, “confident” and “urgent”, not ones you can hear a lot of in the age of the installation and the video.         

William Varley 2005

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