Fortnum's x Frank - The Art Season Has Arrived

Posted on by Lizzie Watson

You might think that it's the finest food and drink that gets Fortnum & Mason excited, but ART season, along with the arrival of their annual art collaboration with the formidable and charismatic art collector Frank Cohen is now an undeniable source of immense excitement too. 

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This year, Fortnum’s x Frank presents an incredible body of work by the distinguished modern British artist, John Virtue. This is the first time since 2005 that such an extensive body of work by Virtue has been seen in London. At the heart of this exhibition is a group of early paintings that Virtue created in the 1980s and 1990s, some of which have remained unseen for nearly 30 years.

 Fortnum & Mason is all about creating a sense of pleasure, and their wonderful in-house historian and archivist, Dr. Andrea Tanner, will be hosting tours of the Fortnum's x Frank exhibition at their Piccadilly home.

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While they usually focus on foods that taste amazing, it’s undeniable that the sensory experience of the Fortnum & Mason store is enhanced through art. It is after all, why former owner Garfield Weston used to collect pieces for the store on his lunchtime strolls. Impeccably curated once again by Robert Upstone, former director of The Fine Art Society and head of modern British art at Tate, the Fortnum’s x Frank show takes us on a journey through Virtue’s responses to the landscapes in which he has lived and worked – including an extraordinary and dramatic group of pictures of the North Sea - and the exhibition features more than 60 large-scale monochromatic works, arranged throughout the store. Within the works chosen, the viewer is also challenged to see beyond the paint to make out other landmark sites, such as London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, London Eye and The Gherkin. 

During the tour, historian Dr. Tanner will tell some of the key stories behind the work on show and explore Fortnum's long history with art and culture - before finishing with a glass of Champagne in The Wine Bar.

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The extraordinary world of British artist John Virtue

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John Virtue is one of the most extraordinary artists working in Britain today. Since 1978 he has pursued a singular and unique course of work in direct response to the English landscape. 
Virtue’s practice originated from his repeated walks in Lancashire and the extensive pen and ink drawings that he made along the way. These he began to formulate into large-scale tessellated paintings, with groups of drawings laid down on board in the studio and then worked over dynamically with acrylic, ink and shellac to produce a vibrating assemblage that hovers enigmatically and compellingly somewhere between figuration and abstraction. The intention is to communicate the distilled sensation of his experience, rather than in any way to record topography. In this way, his works retain links to the emotive qualities of minimalism and to abstract expressionism, two modern movements – one tautly controlled and constrained, the other gestural – to which Virtue was first exposed on a scholarship to America when he was just 16. Similarly, the monochrome rendering of his artworks emphasise their abstract quality, and he has worked using only black and white for 40 years. All colour is suppressed, focusing our attention on the form and expression of these complex pictures and intensifying our experience of the gestures. Yet Virtue is also attuned to the achievements of painters from past centuries, and the validity of their own expression. He speaks passionately of the intersecting art and life of Rembrandt, and of his excitement viewing Delacroix. 

Virtue is an intensely disciplined and hardworking artist. Shut in his plain, windowless studio in an industrial unit he works each day from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. without distraction. Friday is the day on which he undertakes the walk in which he records his experiences and responses. 

Virtue has lived in Lancashire, Devon, London, Liguria, Tuscany, and Norfolk, and in each of these places, there has been a specific route that must be followed. It is the same walk, repeated each week, a repetition he has described in terms of the successive performance of a ritual; a ritual that even in itself is a means of expression. It is also an embodiment of tenacity and grit, with what is a long walk undertaken whatever the temperature or weather conditions and which cannot be rescheduled. An anchor around which the rest of the week revolves. 

In North Norfolk, Virtue lives overlooking the sea, rising at 5:00 a.m. to view the sun appearing over the waves. Virtue has described how, when he made his first walk on going to work in Norfolk in 2009, he started in brilliant sunshine but, as he made his way out to Blakeney Point along the exposed narrow spit of shingle that vanishes straight into the North Sea; he reached the dramatic end amid a violent, disorientating storm in which it was almost impossible to see. The walk is a journey and, the ongoing accrual of finished works that result from it, is similarly a progression or diary of experience that elsewhere Virtue has described as ‘an armature for the whole psychological area in me’. It is a record of his experience of the landscape rather than his journey through it. 
The sea became a new source of fascination – it's endlessly shifting, limitless form, the subject of an extraordinary sequence of large paintings originally conceived to mark the equinoxes – and perhaps their associated restless, shifting tides – but which now have grown more extensive.

These are pure paintings, painted directly onto linen in gestures of paint that echo and transform the smack and spray and swell of the sea itself – and the impact of this elemental force on our perception. They are as much about how we feel and respond to the experience of the ocean, as they are – in any way – about how it looks. 

The Fortnum's x Frank exhibition runs from 10th September to 20th October with tours running from 20th September to 4th October.
Tours take place from 6.30 - 7.45pm and cost £30 per person.
Places are limited to just 12 per tour, so early booking is recommended to avoid disappointment. Book today.