Phillip Hughes: Circles in the Landscape

October 2008


The acts of drawing and observation are closely linked. To create mimetic representation the artist must look carefully and translate this to a surface using his chosen medium; it’s a craft that must be learned and one which usually almost improves and evolves over time. Philip Hughes is an artist who links his interest for place with his skill as an observer and recorder. Hughes’ chosen medium is pencil on paper and this, combined with his practice of working en plein air, enables him to record a direct and immediate response to his locale.


Hughes has long been intensely interested in landscape; often the unpeopled topography of Iceland or Australia or other ancient terrains where the touch of humanity has faded and become assimilated as part of the environment. He has travelled widely but no more extensively than in his native British islands where over many years he has drawn a number of the ancient Neolithic circles which stand as silent witness to the religious practices of our ancestors.


It is fitting therefore that Orkney, famous for its rich archaeological heritage, should act as the venue for a major showing of Hughes’ drawings executed over the past twenty years or so. The islands’ stone circles at Stenness and Brodgar are both represented as are Callanais to the west and Stonehenge, Arbor Low and a number of other sites to the south.


What strikes one immediately about Hughes drawings is their sparseness and elimination of extraneous detail; sometimes they include clouds or walled fields but the primary focus is always the stones themselves. These are pared down observations which focus the viewers’ attention on shape, form and the spatial relationships not only between the stones themselves but also their place in the landscape. Hughes completes his drawings in situ, and works sitting at a drawing board. Thus the perspective of these drawings is from a low angle which serves to augment the monumental scale of these mysterious structures.


The most recent work, ‘Brodgar: from the Loan Stone 18th Sept 2008’ foregrounds the Loan Stone, an isolated element in the circle. The strata of the rock and the erosion enacted upon by the elements are clearly visible while its lopsided angle only serves to reinforce its power and presence. In the background, long distant, is the rest of the grouping linked to the outrider by a sinuous path. A much earlier work, ‘Rollright Stones: The Full Circle’ from 1991 is a larger piece executed on two parts on separate sheets of paper and forms a panoramic view of the structure. Here there is more detail in the depiction of the individual stones while all other background elements have been eliminated; the work has a sketch-like quality which leaves the viewer wishing for a little more context or even subjective comment. How do these complex and mysterious structures make Hughes feel? Are these records of a place or of an experience?


For all their sparseness and delicacy Hughes’ work can sometimes feel overly controlled, even clinical, so that one feels that by removing excessive detail the artist has expunged