Philip Braham: Keeping Time

Publication: The Times.  
January 2014 

It would be easy to label Philip Braham as ‘landscape painter’ ¾ but this is  only a partial description.

A cursory glance reveals landscape elements such as forests, fields, rivers, mountains and skies. The titles, too, often match these initial impressions. ‘Rapefield with Crows’, ‘Corstorphine Hill and ‘The Black Woods of Rannoch’ are among a number of works which seem to be direct representations of place. But dig a little deeper and you find a world full of metaphor, philosophical enquiry and literary allusion.

Braham studied under Alberto Morrocco at Dundee in the ‘80s. Morrocco, in turn, was a student of James Cowie in Aberdeen a generation earlier. Both senior painters were assured masters of composition, of colour and had a deft handling of paint. Although their works might be described as lyrical, they were also literal.  Braham acknowledges another set of important influences in The Wanderer, a tribute to the German Romantic painter Casper David Friedrich and in particular his famous 1817 work, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Clouds.

The title of the show, Keeping Time, is another indication of the depth of Braham’s concern.  This a common enough expression in relation to the accuracy of a clock, or in music, but the phrase also refers to the image as a moment in time, preserved.

Metaphors for Braham are deeply personal and each painting holds layered meaning as in Between Worlds which shows sky and branches reflected on the surface of water, while below are plants and leaves. A photograph floats on the surface;  in it, through the shadows and reflections, it’s possible to discern a couple standing. Braham reveals that this was painted shortly after the death of his father and thus holds a particular elegiac significance.

Another theme relates to Ophelia, whose puzzling death in Hamlet is reported but never shown. The image of the beautiful, doomed maid floating down the stream decked in flowers was rendered unforgettably by Sir John Everett Millais around 1851. Following this lead Braham has created a series of images which are by turns innocent, beautiful and discomfiting.  Ophelia Waiting, for example, shows a young women in white Edwardian underwear standing at the convergence of two tracks in a forest. Her inquisitive, inviting gaze looks back directly at the viewer.

It is impossible to see this as a wholly innocent image because it can only be seen through a prism of experience which includes current media preoccupations with paedophilia, prostitution and other forms of exploitation. The innocent girl becomes the coquettish Lolita and the foul-mouthed Ophelia. Braham offers a critique of the Victorian falsifiers such as Millais on the one hand and the exploiters of  innocence on the other. The truth is always somewhere between and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

It’s rewarding to see the work of this gifted painter mature. He transforms everyday experience into layered, beautiful metaphysical poetry.