Towner is delighted to present John Virtue’s The Sea, an exhibition featuring a spectacular new body of work by this renowned British painter. The 12 canvases, 24 paintings on paper and 70 sketchbooks, all executed in the last three years, will be displayed in our top floor gallery space, the largest in the South East.

This is the first time that the whole body of work will be seen all together – some of the works were exhibited in 2014 at Marlborough Fine Art in London and at Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.

The paintings are vast in scale and have a powerful presence, the black and white paint freely applied to the raw canvas surface with brushes, hands and rags. Virtue works solely in black and white: all his paintings are executed on canvas, using white acrylic paint, black ink and shellac. He abandoned colour – which he considers to be a distraction – for the monochrome palette that reveals the draughtsman as well as the painter.

In reference to Virtue’s exhibition, Towner is also planning an associated programme of talks, music, film and other events based on the theme of The Sea.

Trained at the Slade School of Art, London, from 1965 to 1969, Virtue worked as a postman in the late 1970s before devoting himself to his art in the 1980s. He has always worked from the landscape where he lives, initially from the moorland in North East Lancashire where his first works in black and white were created. For many years, he resided in Exeter, South Devon, taking the edge of Dartmoor and the Exe Estuary as his subjects.

From 2003 to 2005, Virtue was Artist Associate at the National Gallery, London – a period of intensive work based in a studio in the Gallery, scrutinising the London skyline. The sketches he made each day culminated in a series of grand paintings of the capital which were shown at the National Gallery in 2005, while a selection of the works on paper were on view concurrently at The Courtauld Gallery.

Two years living in Italy separated his time in London and his move to Norfolk, the latter prompted by a stay in Burnham Market, near Burnham Thorpe, the birthplace of his lifelong hero, Horatio Nelson. However, it was the view of the sea from Blakeney Point that inspired Virtue to live and work in North Norfolk in 2009 and, since then, he has produced these dramatic land- and seascapes.

Drawing remains a daily discipline and the exhibition features some 70 sketchbooks that testify to Virtue’s time on Blakeney Point – walking and drawing this stretch of coast each week, immersed in the sea and sky whatever the weather. From this part of the coast the uninterrupted panoramic views across the salt marshes and shingle beaches lead directly to the horizon.

For Virtue, this is a vast void, a state of nothingness, expansive and beyond comprehension. His connection with this place is communicated through the encompassing scale of this new work – some paintings spanning an astonishing four metres – combined with the artist’s extraordinary virtuosity with his medium.

His expansive gestures, the thick bold handling of paint, draws the viewer in to the image and the environment he captures, the intensity and turbulence of breaking waves. An admirer of the great English landscape painters, Turner and Constable, Virtue’s paintings have been compared to oriental brush painting and American abstract expressionism.

Works by John Virtue are represented in numerous public and private collections including Tate,British Museum, Arts Council England, Yale Center for British Art, USA, and the Queensland Museum and Gallery for Modern Art, Australia.

Sarah Cooper, Head of Collections at Towner, says:

“Two of John Virtue’s black and white landscape paintings dating from the 1980s and 1990s are held in the Towner Collection and are firm favourites with our audiences. We are now delighted to be working with John to bring to Towner his newest body of paintings, based on the sea, for this solo exhibition that will feature his large-scale canvases as well as works on paper and his sketchbooks.

“Inspired by his walks and relationship to the sea near his home in Norfolk, the paintings are full of power and movement despite, or perhaps because of, their monochrome nature. For Towner’s visitors on a cold winter’s day, they are a reminder of the seascape just outside the doors.”

A book of the complete paintings from the series, entitled The Sea, will be on sale during the exhibition in the Towner shop.