An England flag flutters over sharp, spear-like fence tops, in front of a roof as bleak as a bunker, in George Shaw’s painting Someone Else’s House. Painted in 2018 as we stumbled towards the Brexit crisis that is now upon us, its title seems plain enough. This is a remainer’s alienated view of Brexit England as a strange, bigoted neighbour skulking behind a nationalist fence. Yet there’s a twist – or two. The red cross on the flag is the cross of St George, and it’s been painted by a man called George. There is a white cross inside the red one – what does that mean? This may be a more private and quirky symbol than we know; perhaps it is even religious. Since Shaw, who was raised Catholic, makes similarly subtle religious allusions in many of his paintings, that does not seem a far-fetched interpretation.
In other words, Shaw is not outside the scene. He’s not looking down on people who choose to put up a flag, shuddering at the millions who voted leave. On the contrary, he’s the artist of the left behind, in more ways than one. He paints left-behind people and left-behind cats and dogs. Or rather left-behind pubs, lockups and care homes, for there are no people in most of Shaw’s scenes. The only human figure in his mini-retrospective at Bath’s Holburne Museum is the artist himself, pissing against a tree in his picture The Call of Nature.
Shaw’s style, too, is left behind. A survey last year produced the interesting claim that leave voters are more likely to prefer old-fashioned realistic art while remainers like abstraction. If so, Shaw may be the only person who can reunite Britain. He has been shortlisted for the avant-garde Turner prize, yet the exactness and attention to detail of his paintings ought to satisfy the most conservative eye. Painting does not get more proper. Shaw has something of the outsider artist about him, so innocently and arduously does he pursue his calling. He uses Humbrol aircraft modelling paints that give an enamelled sharpness and shine to his art. His stylistic sources, you suspect, include the meticulous portrayals of Spitfires and Lancasters he’d have seen as a kid on model aircraft kits.
Yet his meditation on what the art historian Nikolaus Pevsner called “the Englishness of English art” goes deeper than that. Shaw revisits the landscape art of Gainsborough and Constable that is so often taken as quintessentially British, or English. He haunts the same kinds of woodlands they did and shares their eye for nature; the trees in his paintings have such vivid personalities they can stand in for the absent people. Blossoming in spring or bereft in winter with black finger-like branches twisting against the sky, they are witnesses to his state of mind.
And what a troubled state of mind it is. John Constable said he was inspired to paint by his “boyhood scenes”, and so is Shaw. But while Constable grew up in the Suffolk countryside that his paintings immortalise, Shaw grew up in the 1970s and 80s on Tile Hill estate on the outskirts of Coventry. This is the place he obsessively paints. He depicts the house where he lived as a child, a tree he could see out of his window, and woods close to the houses. Tile Hill was designed as a pastoral blend of nature and modern planning. As it has decayed before Shaw’s eyes, it has become a monstrous landscape of disillusion and betrayal.
The Age of Bullshit has a perfect title for our present moment, but this painting of a derelict modernist pub dates from 2010, the year David Cameron became prime minister. The Tile Hill pub was once a symbol of – planned – community. Now its roof has gone and its gutted shell is fenced off. This is just one of the images of decline and decay that fill Shaw’s ruinous pastoral. In Scenes from the Passion: The Fall a row of tatty lock-ups, unloved and partly disused, is reflected in muddy puddles and overshadowed by winter trees against a yellow sky.
Shaw’s childhood world has been left behind not just by time but social change. His most frightening paintings are of forbidding walls closed against the world: The Back That Used to Be the Front is a boarded-up facade covered in hostile graffiti. The sealed-off house that sports the flag of St George is another of these images of aggressive exclusion. And where have all those people gone?
When George Shaw started to paint Tile Hill and its environs in the 1990s, modern Britain was being hyped as a happy place with a glowing future. His paintings, however, stank of rain, mud and misery. Now we know the hype was a lie. If the EU referendum and its aftermath have proved anything, it is that much of Britain feels as fed up, short-changed and bereft as these paintings make it look. Yet there is hope in Shaw’s vision. This sensitive, loving artist is not an ironist. He’s utterly sincere. Catholic imagery keeps welling up. His Ash Wednesday paintings portray moments of redemptive promise among spring trees and silent houses. Is that the shadow of Christ cast against a wall by a gnarled tree? Shaw has an alternative vision for Britain. Like William Blake or John Ruskin, he thinks we can be better than we are. Salvation is close at hand, if we could open our boarded windows and let in the light.