Ian Houston


6–26 March 2016

Paintings may be reserved prior to the opening of the exhibition.

click here for the exhibition catalogue or scroll down for more images.



It was Plutarch who observed that ‘Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.’ Leonardo da Vinci believed that ‘painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, while poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.’ Poignant words indeed, and particularly meaningful for the outstanding ensemble of works assembled for the March 2016 exhibition at Mandell’s Gallery in Norwich of Ian Houston’s works. Contemplating them, I was suddenly aware of the relevance of these ancient thoughts, since Ian Houston’s own philosophy has about it a poetic eloquence, best expressed in his belief that the ‘inner journey’ within his mind creates a ‘fusion of consciousness with the outer world of reality.’

As a result, many of his paintings immediately bring to mind the thoughts of history’s celebrated literary figures. A special enjoyment for me on a freezing winter night is to look through one of the 1891 first editions of the complete works of Percy Bysshe Shelley that I inherited from my parents. As I recently reread his poems of 1817 through 1821, it was illuminating to realize how relevant many of his lines were vis-à-vis the art of Ian Houston. Thus both in Snow in Norfolk, a striking 24x36inch oil on canvas, and in Hythe Beach, a 10x14inch oil on board, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s words in his 1820 Fragment, A Snow Chariot, ring true:O that a chariot of cloud were mine!

I would sail on the waves of the billowy wind

to the mountain peak and the rocky lake…

The splendor of clouds for William Wordsworth was ‘unfettered’ while Percy Bysshe Shelley, echoing  Plutarch’s ‘poem that speaks,’ visualized a

Floating mountain of silver clouds,

From the horizon, and the stainless sky

Opens beyond them like Eternity.

All things rejoiced beneath the sun.

The ephemeral magic of sweeping clouds, with their airy lightness and glowing brightness, often combined with the benign tranquility of a bucolic countryside or marine vista, is omnipresent and becomes imbued with lasting permanence in the art of Ian Houston.


Ian Houston has spoken of how his ‘passion for landscape and seascape’ has always been one of the driving forces behind his art, and his superb Olympia Waterfront, Seattle, a 10x14inch oil on board, does ample justice to this belief. The painting is aesthetically exciting, and thematically absorbing, for two reasons. First, its virtuoso composition contains a curvilinear quayside providing an exciting visual contrast with the verticals of boats at anchor, and the city horizon in the distance – dramatically distinguished by the city’s classic dome. Secondly, to the best of my knowledge, Houston’s portrayal of this panorama is unique.


Often his paintings have historic, social and economic connotations. Thus, In The House with Five Cypresses, the stately manor on a Tuscan hill, flanked by elegant cypresses, is a redolent reminder of a continuing tradition of bygone days when the Lord of the Manor, then as now, would contentedly gaze down upon his  pastures and landholdings. Houston’s paintings are also especially moving when they bring to mind cherished personal moments, as in the case of the two paintings of Paris. These make an immediate impact, for several reasons. Paris Evening After Rain, a 12x16inch oil on board,  and The Parisian Booklover, an 8x12inch oil on board, are particularly evocative for everyone captivated by the magic of Paris, as I am. I lived for three years on the Left Bank on Place Jussieu, and a short walk to the river Seine regaled me with this view of Notre Dame, as I browsed among the bouquinistes above the Quai des Grands Augustins, searching for unusual books. Once, a sudden violent squall, with driving rain and fierce winds, soaked me – a mood suggested by this 8x12inch oil on board.        

These paintings, however, are far more than an exciting evocative composition ‘à la Recherche du Temps Perdu.’ Ian Houston’s seemingly impromptu, rapidly executed, often amorphous,  blocks of scumbled colour, create a very special mood that reveals – consciously or subconsciously – an ‘expressionist’ emphasis, with technical and stylistic aesthetics transcending specific thematic realities, in favor of a neo-abstract mood. The same mood is apparent in his superb 12x8inch oil on board entitled Flower and Fruit in a Hong Kong Market.


A key to this mood of neo-abstraction lies in Ian Houston’s own words regarding the fusion of his soul’s inner consciousness with the reality of the outer world’s motifs which he paints. To see how this particular style developed, we need to go back to chronicle his continuation of a great tradition. This began with Dutch 17th century artists who created lyrical portrayals of sea and land, continued on to 19th century France’s Camille Corot, Eugène Boudin and the Impressionists, and is epitomized by English landscape artists dating from John Constable to Edward Seago.

Where Ian Houston forges ahead on his own, however, is by the above-mentioned graphic distribution of spectacular masses of lights and darks, to such a degree that they almost approximate an abstract composition – especially if one takes the unusual step of contemplating a landscape painting in either the horizontal or vertical mode.

The 20x30inch oil on board entitled Evening in Florence is a case in point. One notes immediately how the graphic distribution of the light tonalities, composed of the sky’s luminous rose tints, and the shimmering Arno river, are juxtaposed with the dark purple-blue nebulous masses of the city. The result produces a special visual impact and compositional equilibrium.

Other works illustrate this pronounced penchant for moving into a neo-abstract mood. In both the 20x30inch oil on board entitled Tuscan Landscape, and the 16x20inch oil on canvas Dawn on the Marsh Fen, lavish brushstrokes create swathes of colour which trumpet their own autonomous visual identity, and do much to transcend their role as recorders of recognizable objects.


A final literary reference is inspired by the lovely 11x14inch mixed media on board painting of Portloe in Sunlight, with its hillside and delightful houses on the sands of Cornwall. My hope is that this panorama will exist for ever, unchanged and resisting  the encroachments of 20th century modernization just as Alphonse de Lamartine, in his 19th century poem Le Lac, paid written tribute to memories of his tragic romance with Julie Charles on the shores of Lac du Bourget in Aix-les-Bains, in penning these memorable lines:

Oh Time,

Suspend your flight and you,

Gracious hours, let us savor for ever

The aesthetic delights of these moments.                                                                                             

In other words: let the ephemeral last for ever! This is precisely the sort of poetic imagery that Plutarch and Leonardo da Vinci would have recognized as being synonymous with the motifs and themes of many Ian Houston paintings.

James W. Reid

Ian Houston’s exhibition is sponsored by:

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