I had a mini-Malta fix last night in Didcot, Oxfordshire’s Great Western Railway town where the train tracks from Oxford and Swindon meet before hurtling on into London. It sounds unlikely, I know! However, Didcot’s Cornerstone Arts Centre is currently hosting an exhibition of work by Graham David Woodall (1950-2015), an artist who grew up and spent most of his life in Oxfordshire but enjoyed his last years in Malta. Woodall moved to Malta to become artist-in-residence at St James Cavalier in Valletta and then finding wonderful light, colours and friendly people he stayed on in the country in which his wife grew up. This retrospective exhibition encompasses the span of his artistic practice from paint to paper sculpture and ceramics.
Just stepping into the bright airy white gallery space from the dark chilly evening outside, I could feel the Mediterranean sun seeping into my bones. An avenue of Sandarac pines greeted me – they stand, apparently, along the narrow rural road from Birguma to Salina but put me in mind of the tree-lined route from Gozo’s Victoria to Ghasri. The gnarled tree trunks grow a pale silver-grey, over a bleached and dusty open road, light summer shadows falling from the dark evergreen foliage.
Trees were always important to Woodall – he trained as a gardener before turning to art – and it is interesting to see the contrast of the bright Maltese landscapes and the earlier Oxfordshire depictions. The latter, despite their brighter ‘deciduous’ leaf tone, are dense with dark shadows in brown and purple on earth that absorbs light rather than reflects it, and the difference between the series of the two countries is symbolic of Woodall’s psychological state in these different chapters of his life.
There are portraits and everyday scenes too, including an ‘advert’ for Malta: Learn to Play Golf in the style of the classic Railway posters, which made me smile because, as there are no railways on the Maltese island, its golfing green image actually seems more at home in a gallery alongside giant engine sheds!
These hang alongside interesting representational abstracts in strong hues: deep green, pale sand, orange-rust, brown, turquoise and vivid blues. Woodall has taken the colours of the Maltese archipelago and intriguing naturally-occurring patterns and chaotic arrangements, and created absorbing peaceful pieces with a charming 1970s simplicity in which colour and form is key. Each is rich with the flavour of the landscape, the sea and the environment, from the water to the square block sandstone buildings that are so typically Maltese and now tower along the Sliema waterfront. I can’t wait to go back there for real.