Christopher McVinish – Spirit of Place

Christopher McVinish – Spirit of Place

‘I believe at present we must paint nature’s rich and magnificent aspects; we need good cheer and happiness, hope and love.’
Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Visual artists have much in common with gardeners. Their materials might be different but each starts with a passion to create and an inner vision, pursues good composition by looking for harmony and balance, and takes risks which might bring about failure. They both have the tenacity to see their creation through to fruition. And the desire to share it with someone.

The gardens of Mount Wilson offer a Shangri-La of stunning beauty and variety arising out of volcanic soil, 40 minutes drive from Katoomba in the Blue Mountains (2 hours from Sydney), the township completely surrounded by the Blue Mountains National Park, a World Heritage Area. Open to the public, these grand and exotic gardens understandably attract visitors from all over Australia and around the world, particularly during Autumn and Spring when ablaze with colour.

It is these gardens which have provided a brand new theme for the celebrated realist painter Christopher McVinish’s latest exhibition: Spirit of Place, Paintings of Mount Wilson Gardens. Better known for his moody urban landscape paintings and portraiture (in a career spanning nearly 40 years he has won prizes and been a finalist in significant award exhibitions including the Wynne Prize and the Archibald Prize), perhaps it isn’t a surprise that a global pandemic might provoke a shift in his attention, to subject matter that is the embodiment of a mental and physical pause from urban life.

McVinish reflects, ‘I’ve always been into nature which was one of the reasons we moved to the Blue Mountains 12 years ago. But after the terrible fires, and then COVID, our local daily walks took on a deeper meaning; Nature is amazingly restorative. We’d always been fans of Mount Wilson anyway but visiting there took on new meaning as well – I was really inspired to capture the mood of calm embrace that gardens generate. And to celebrate the enormous gift these gardens are at a time when the world can feel pretty overwhelming.’

The subject is rich in compositional interest for a painter like McVinish, obsessed with capturing light. Commenting on his process he explains that ‘Even though I’m a realist painter, people are surprised when I say my paintings are abstract to me! – everything gets distilled into colour, shape and pattern and then with the infusion of light it becomes an atmosphere and a mood emerges out of that. With this new subject I’ve been thrown into a whole different complexity of elements. I’ve really enjoyed making a proper study of the shapes and colours of trees. And at Mount Wilson – and of course, in the mountains generally – there’s such a wonderful mix of romantic European trees and quintessentially grand Australian bush, stunning Eucalyptus… – and a million different greens! Not to mention the ravishing blossoms…”

These garden ‘rooms’ are lovingly depicted in all their moods with jewell-like colours and the artist’s characteristic luminescent light. McVinish draws our attention to the beauty of dappled shadows and light through foliage with a skilful use of contrasting broad planes of grassy expanses and hedges. He makes use of marvellous garden ornaments and figures to tell open-ended visual stories. Yet he also has the ability to imbue a garden seat with a presence even though it sits vacant, which take this collection beyond prosaic depictions of gardens to something more akin to portraits.

McVinish enthuses that a wonderful aspect of his project has been getting to know the owners of so many of these magnificent Mount Wilson gardens – as he puts it, each with their distinctive personalities, just like their gardens. ‘They were all so accomodating letting me come back again and again to roam around taking notes and using my camera to capture exactly the light I wanted at odd times. We had some great conversations – I’m in awe of what they achieve; they’re definitely artists too. But I also admire them for their great generosity in sharing their creations with the general public as they do. It’s such a gift to us all.”

This is a joyous series of works, full of the ‘spirit of place’. And like Mount Wilson, it offers us unique moments of beauty and quiet in a world that doesn’t stop talking.

Cynthia Breusch