Toby Ward



Toby Ward is known in the art world for skilled portraits (including the Duke of Edinburgh), for clever nervous portrait drawings and for being the son and pupil of John Ward RA. His first show with Gillian Catto takes his work in new directions. These are oils mostly made in France and Switzerland and they escape from portrait painting into groups. I didn't count, but in fifty paintings there must be nearly 2000 heads. Mysteriously, all are People Who Do Not Exist. They often appear in Places That Don't Exist and in Events That Never Happened.

Why doesn't he paint real people? "I'm more interested in types than individuals. As a portraitist, I see enough individuals anyway," he declares. Stare at the faces that tumble out of Toby Ward's fantastic imagination and you notice: they are all happy. Pain seems far away. It is no accident. "A portrait is always most difficult to make when a sitter is unhappy or when something close to them is wrong, like a divorce. If so, their essence is changing, or there's no essence there at all; all you find to paint is unhappiness". So the Ward world at Catto is a genial place, where happiness is found on ski slopes, or in bars, or at cycle races, or on promenades but always in groups. "I come from a large family. I have always had people around, I've always lived in crowded places. I'm very interested in painting people together."
The people in Ward's mind are mostly imagined in France or Switzerland. To high degree he paints them passing time.

"They're people passing through life. A lot of life is passing time," says Ward. So there are Ward's people sipping coffee, playing boule, using mobile phones, cheering on cyclists, jogging, shouting at goals on TV, hurling frisbees, skiing down slopes, parading every form of early 21st century leisure They are affectionate pictures. "I do not paint from dislike."

These look like action people but Ward is studying their inward life. This artist is absorbed by the fact that much of life is thinking nothing and doing nothing "and yet at the same time we are living through all that." A century ago we called this genre painting and we called artists like Ward boulevard artists, on the model of Jean Beraud in Paris. Ward spends lots of time in France and ascribes to the French a genius for creative idleness at all levels of society. "I like cheap bars in northern France," he asserts, "I like the people who drink there, I like the unfussy pleasure of an evening in an uncomfortable room with two types of beer and a red wine, I like the casual companionship and the passing of time."

This sounds casual. But Toby Ward, like his father, is a highly educated artist who is fascinated by the complex problem-solving in arranging crowds and groups of heads and who studied depth and perspective in Mantegna, Brouwer, Pieter Breughel and Steen. He lists other influences as Seurat, Balthus, John Nash, Nevinson, Gertler, Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson, Spencer and Lanyon. This is not bad for a man who went late to art school at age 26. Toby learned much from the revered John Ward, one of Britain's best loved living artists. "Technically our works are similar but there's no confusion" — not least because the father paints from models, the son so much from imagination. Their shared skills are high, not least the assurance of line, the perfect turning of heads and bodies and suggestion of weight and volume.
The skill conceals skill. Toby Ward is versatile on the grand scale, as three dozen drawings and watercolours of members of the Athenaeum showed in 2004. He's still young and going far.

Godfrey Barken, October 2005

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