MIDNIGHT SUN, 2023
In the high summer of 2017, Christopher Baker took his board-bound sketchbook, 23 kilos and over a metre long, to Cummingøya in the Norwegian Arctic. Film on YouTube shows this bulky man labouring under its weight like a dung beetle in a crisis.
It was late June, but still temperatures could fall to minus degrees centigrade with wind-chill, and in any event Baker had to work very fast indeed before his paints froze.
These are conditions that Christopher Baker will embrace when working on a series of paintings. By comparison, the hours he has spent painting on The Trundle near Goodwood, or on the beach at Climping, might look easy - but they're not, for in all his choice of subjects the common factor is Baker's mental and physical energy and, one has to say it, his bloody-mindedness.
This exhibition, inserted like a ship in a bottle into the domestic proportions of the Osborne Studio Gallery, comprises a small group from the sixty or more Climping landscapes and one eight-footer of Arctic subjects that Baker made in his Sussex studio following his Cummingøya expedition.
There is an explosive energy in the Climping canvases where even the expression of a quiet day by the sea reveals nerve-racking broody undercurrents. A sudden sunblaze, slapped down during its momentary appearance, can burn the retina.
These paintings are neither impressionist nor expressionist, but collected ruminations of a contemplative mind caught in a restless body. They are offspring of thought and feeling.
We might cast about for parallels - Turner made comparable physical demands on himself; he knew the natures of extreme and discovered the sublime in creative chaos. 'I never lose an accident', Ruskin heard him say, while the protean Constable tells us that 'painting is but another word for feeling'.
While Baker says that, for him, 'painting is a way of life', he adds confusingly 'but I don't call myself a painter. I don't want to be in control. I want it to control me.' A pause is followed by a flash of insight which only the line Baker quotes from All's Well that Ends Well can illuminate: 'Simply the thing I am shall make me live'.
In a moment of revelation in the short film 64 Days, tracking 23 January to 30 March 2012 when he climbed every day up The Trundle, Baker said 'I'm nothing if not competitive'.
His aim then was to paint the landscape from the same spot every day whatever the weather, a purpose repeated at Climping, Cummingøya and elsewhere. The competition was with himself, and by means of this slow drumbeat of repetition, 'the outer eye is withheld'.
Baker goes on to say in his film's voiceover, 'instead I reach for an inner vision that is only felt. Delaying. Gradually what was seen through the dark is brought forward, brighter, whiter, more intense, pure hues, that shine inwards from the outside.'
The Cummingøya sketchbook, all 23 kilos of it, contains Baker's expression of the rock, snow, ice and water that forms that forbidding ancient terrain. His dancing brushes, the one spark of life in this wilderness, evoke its emptiness, and makes manifest the enormity of the tasks that Baker has shouldered.
This is vividly expressed in 64 Days when his distant figure challenges the slope from the bottom right. In that image he is like nobody so much as the brave, lonely and determined ploughman at the bottom right of Turner's painting Rain, Steam, and Speed.
Christopher Baker may at times be lonely, but his determination to embrace his subjects the hard way is an exemplar of the essential courage of the landscape painter. He demonstrates what is all around us, demanding we look at it, and see it, and experience its vitality.
These are not pictures, they are paintings.
James Hamilton, 2023