Tony Giles in West Cornwall, Penlee House Gallery and Museum 2020 review

To give this review some context, I am a practicing artist who lives and has a studio in Penzance, currently attending Plymouth college of art studying an MA in painting and previously obtained a BA in Fine art at Chelsea college of art, having graduated from there in 2011. Making my living from making fine art based around the human/animal relationship, having moved from London to penzance in 2014. This introduction is to allow the reader to understand the lens through which Tony Giles’ work has been viewed.


Paintings, I always feel, should speak for themselves and bear viewing without the backup of statements and blurb. Tony Giles’s work does just that, I was taken in and charmed from the off. The bold reds of Penzance station 1989 pulled me in and then the language of simple train forms led me towards the sea and the horizon where a ship sits expectantly. A heads up that Tony was ‘into’ trains pervades, wrapped up in a naive painting style which celebrates the joy of Penzance in all it’s weird and wonderful grit and beauty. Some care and attention has gone into the yellow lines, the station’s superstructure and the town’s diminished view. Optimism entwined with love of place over space prevails, barely contained within the frame. Depiction of life and place, colours applied un mixed, energy over precision, his paintings are almost cartoons.


Although more tutored than Alfred Wallis, Tony’s style did remind me of Wallis’s boats and harbours, and with perfect timing the next painting was of Wallis’s grave in St Ives. Almost a sketch, bold in it’s delivery and showing boats chugging by in the grey blue sea, in a salute to Wallis’s first love, boats and sea. The graveyard in St Ives is always a wonderful quiet alternative to the St Ives summer streets crowded with four by fours and Tony Giles effortlessly foregrounds this tranquility.


The Stone boat Newlyn, was a change of gear for me in Tony’s style. The boats jostle for space, the foreground nestled in by the medieval pier, simply painted with only a handful of colours and layers. No area is dwelt on too long, a rhythm is maintained in the brush strokes, resulting in an energy which invites us in and sustains a longer viewing. Somewhere in this painting there is a sign of a more mature approach to image making.


There is a bridge in Tony Giles’ work between the figurative and the abstract, a transition I find problematic in my own work and often with the purely abstract work of others. He emboldens landscapes with shapes and colours which threaten to break into outright abstraction but don’t quite get there. Tony held no fears about leaping into the void of self expression, I envy this.


An ink sketch of the Scillonian enchanted me with it’s simplicity, but then for me the highlight of the exhibition were the bravura paintings made in and around St Just. St Just has been depicted by the cognoscenti of local painters as a granite town, often shrouded in mizzle and sea mist, with a long mining history, at sea in a sweep of undulating fields. Notably David Haughton (1924 – 1991), Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) and Peter Lanyon (1918-1964) have been inspired by the constant weather changes, a certain animosity between miners and farmers, but mostly by the singular look of the place.


At the end I returned to the blurb on Tony Giles, I came away, with my hunch that he loved West penwith, confirmed.  His love of trains and the nostalgia of childhood visits to West Penwith also chimed with me. Thanks Tony and the Penlee gallery for an hour of pleasure and a future of seeking out his work on my visits to auction houses and galleries. Please note that this review would have been longer, if as planned, I could have returned to the gallery for a second look. Covid 19 put paid to this, and let us hope that before too long we can return to galleries and recharge our aesthetic batteries.


Tony Giles, Penzance station 1989, private collection

More to explore