The only Christian work is good work, well done.
Ask: “Who is the greatest figure painter of the late twentieth century?” The answer on this side of the Atlantic is likely to be Lucian Freud. Across the water, the choice is hardly so clear cut. Euan Uglow (1932-2000) is one of Britain’s most distinguished—to many, the most distinguished—painter of his time. Ten years younger than Freud, he died too soon.
Uglow was an austere, luminous practitioner of direct observation. He brought to modern figure painting the clarity, composure and reticence that is the soul of classicism. Linear probity, the hard-won prize of a steadfast eye, is the rock beneath his magical tonal shifts marking the faceted planar structure of organic forms.
Uglow’s rigorous methodology militated against speed; some poses had to be held for years. Consequently, his production was relatively small. He shunned publicity and ignored contemporary fashion in both subject matter and materials. While his contemporaries were experimenting with spray guns, acrylics, masking tape and photographic projection—plus the theatrics of self-expression—he devoted himself to the quality of his materials, to discipline and method.
I cannot look at his nudes without brooding over what might have resulted if Uglow had been commissioned by a church to design a modern expulsion from Eden. If ever there were a human figure whose loss paradise might mourn, it is this:
Uglow endowed his still lifes, too, with the same considered weight. In his hands, even a common watermelon stands in testimony to the dignity of the material world. The Piero-like poise of his work derives from his insistence that drawing is at the heart of image-making. Tony Eyton, his friend and fellow painter, describes their stringent training as students at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts:
We were taught the discipline of how to give some certainty to looking. We called it certezza , a certainty through measuring, in the way that Piero della Francesca and the great Italians had done, by different means perhaps, but the same rational approach.
Dying of an inoperable cancer, Uglow was desperate to make a final pilgrimage to his favorite paintings. He went to Italy with friends to see Piero’s Resurrection in San Sepolchro and his frescoes in Arezzo. (His friends bought all the tickets for the half-hour visit so he could have Piero to himself for the allotted time.) He traveled, too, to Colmar for his very first look at Grünewald’s Crucifixion . Georgia Georgallas—model for the first painting illustrated above—recalls that visit: “[It was] as if it was an appointment he’d always meant to keep. The last drawing he made in his sketch book was of that.”