Dissatisfactions and aspirations in pen and ink

A multifaceted artist’s monumental engagements with drawing


Deanna Petherbridge, The Debris of War (1983)

At the beginning of the present century, the artist, writer and curator Deanna Petherbridge took the very untypical decision to make a self-portrait. But in this drawing she is almost impossible to recognise. With a characteristically incisive attention to detail, Petherbridge shows her head packed with books, all clamouring to be read. She is also muffled with a bandage-like material covering her mouth, and her eyes gaze out through multiple lenses. As Gill Perry’s essay points out in this illuminating book, “if we seek to extract the ‘real’ artist from this mischievous self-representation we are likely to be frustrated”.

Although Petherbridge has written exceptionally well about art, most notably in her book The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and Theories of Practice, she refuses to let her own complex linear work provide any easy answers. Perry explains that we are “invited to decode her use of drawing as a complex material process, as a palimpsest of meanings, evocations and references—some erudite and others playful. Her drawings are not for the faint-hearted”.

Take Petherbridge’s immense work Vox Uccelli (1971), which was initially inspired by her fascination with the monumental organ pipes in Winchester Cathedral, all propped against the walls and columns while the organ was being restored. The pipes dominate Vox Uccelli but, as its title indicates, this drawing also pays tribute to the perspectival obsession in Uccello’s painting The Battle of San Romano.

Petherbridge has been stimulated by a vast range of art-historical sources. In his preface to Drawing and Dialogue, Antony Griffiths describes how, in the study room of the British Museum’s department of prints and drawings, she has in recent years been “the most diligent and enduring occupant of our tables”. Yet her eager appetite for the draughtsmanship of the past did not prevent Petherbridge from defining her own singular vision as an artist. Born in South Africa, she studied fine arts at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg before researching early Buddhist sculpture. But her decision to emigrate and settle in the UK brought her into direct contact with European art and architecture.

Petherbridge’s love of visiting historical sites, as well as museums and galleries, prompted her in 1967 to find a studio on the Greek island of Sikinos in the Cyclades. Returning there every year to work, she described the building as “my whitewashed house-of-the-winds”. Her essay in this book explores her prolonged involvement with the surroundings she cherished there. They gave her “ineffable pleasure” on the annual visits. Petherbridge was particularly captivated by a panoramic view of “the ancient Kastro or fortified village on the other side of the valley and way above it the Byzantine monastery, with its stepped path cut into the blue slate of the bedrock”. She attempted to draw the hill and the monastery, yet soon realised that “no linear representation could evoke the intense satisfaction of experiencing that taut curve and its built cessation”.

Even so, Petherbridge insists she is “not mourning the loss of the validity of landscape as a viable genre in painting and drawing. In an age where representation has been so radically challenged, undermined and rendered suspect, a straight up and down landscape rendition in paint or pencil seems de trop, even slightly ludicrous.” That is why she believes her drawings are “about the impossibility of drawing landscape and also about attachment to and social critique of place. Drawing is so close to writing: I believe that I draw/write both my dissatisfactions and my aspirations in pen and ink.”

The outcome of her dedication to drawing is illustrated with admirable fidelity throughout this book, which also contains fold-out plates to convey the full scope of her largest works. She is stimulated by the perpetual challenge of pushing her abilities as far as they can go towards monumental images. In his essay on Petherbridge, Roger Malbert emphasises that in 1991 she undertook one of the largest mural commissions anywhere in the UK. It was installed on the curved “drum wall” of the concert hall at Birmingham’s International Convention Centre. He describes how, extending “over four floors in a ziggurat formation narrowing towards the top, the drawing represents a ‘fictive architecture’ with a subtle tonal and colour scheme intended to orientate concertgoers in the surrounding foyers”.

Although the result exemplifies Petherbridge’s long-standing commitment to art in public places, this multifaceted artist is equally involved with her war drawings. Angela Weight’s essay eloquently describes how they “frighten and fascinate at the same time. They induce sensations of vertigo and claustrophobia, fear of disembodied power and the threat of violence. There is no safe ground, no way out, no reassurance.” Weight believes that, even when Petherbridge is not drawing an overt battlepiece, “conflict is frequently implied, and at times directly referred to, throughout her work”.

Her latest major drawing, The Destruction of the City of Homs, brings the illustrations in this book to a close. Its Syrian tragedy looks uncompromising, and Weight emphasises that “the lack of sentiment, the ruthlessness even, of these works makes them supremely relevant to our current disintegrating world order”. But she is surely right to suggest that the jagged band of white space slicing through the City of Homs drawing “is a refusal to close down meanings, a denial of dogmatic conclusions. Perhaps, somewhere, there is hope.”

• Richard Cork is a prize-winning art critic, author, broadcaster and curator. His recent books include Wild Thing (2009), The Healing Presence of Art (2012) and Face to Face: Interviews with Artists (2015). Four volumes of his critical reviews have been published (2003)

• Deanna Petherbridge, a solo show of the artist’s pen and ink drawings, is at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (until 4 June)

Deanna Petherbridge: Drawing and Dialogue

Deanna Petherbridge, with Gill Perry, Roger Malbert, Martin Clayton and Angela Weight

Circa, 192pp, £24.95 (hb)