Oration for Honorary Doctorate
Neil Canning is a distinguished painter who has held solo and group exhibitions in top galleries throughout Britain and Europe. His work is held in major public and private collections across the world. Described by many as an abstract painter, he has nevertheless been deeply influenced by the landscape tradition of his adopted home, Cornwall. He is renowned for his stunningly energetic use of colour and shape, and for the circles and intersecting lines across the canvas. ‘Landscapes of the mind’ are what his paintings suggest, with evocations of volatile weather, light on land and sea, together with a spiritual and emotional complexity.
Neil Canning was born in Enstone, Oxfordshire in 1960. He began painting seriously under the rigorous tutelage of a local painter, Betty Bowman (herself a pupil of Stanley Spencer), and at life classes in local colleges, where he honed his skills in drawing, perspective and tone.
A precocious teenager, he sold his first paintings while at school, and at the age of eighteen sold every painting at a local gallery show. Indeed, his work’s accessibility appeals to a very wide audience and has led to many public and commercial commissions, for example from Cardiff Council, London Hospitals Trust, the Bank of England and John Lewis. Selected for the Royal Academy Summer Show when only 21, at 23 he became the youngest artist ever elected as Associate of the Royal Society of British Artists, and in 1994 he won the Bronze Medal at the Paris Salon.
Canning’s early work was representational landscapes, but he soon discovered the excitement of American abstract expressionism. He moved toWales where he formed his artistic vocabulary, and then to Cornwall – drawn as many before him by the dramatic coastline, colours and weather patterns of the St Ives area, and influenced initially by the St Ives School – Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, Sandra Blow and others.
‘My move to Cornwall had a tremendous emotional impact on my work,’ he said. ‘It is not simply the light – there is a definite feeling of being on the edge which signifies space and a loss of gravity.’ The presence of Tate St Ives has of course been crucial, and Neil was included in the Tate’s 2007 ‘Art Now Cornwall’ exhibition.He lived in Hayle and St Ives for the first ten years, then moved inland to Relubbus near Marazion, where he works from a splendid new studio and has shifted direction – using softer, warmer earth colours in his painting, and recently experimenting with sculpture.
Susan Daniel-McElroy, Curator of ‘Art Now Cornwall,’ describes Canning’s work as evolving in an area of tension between figurative and abstract art – something echoed by other curators who see in the work a profound understanding and love of landscape painting as well as superb drawing technique. Daniel-McElroy describes his construction of ‘a formal, visual abstract language using amorphous forms such as roughly drawn circles and spots, explosions of colour and intersecting lines to suggest landscape structures affected by great winds and the atmospheres.’
Neil Canning has been a long-term supporter of the University’s fine art collection and now of the Arts and Culture Strategy. In 2001 he held an exhibition at the Streatham Campus Northcote House Gallery, from which the University Fine Art Group purchased his painting ‘Axis’. This now graces the refurbished Senate Chamber. He has generously loaned several works to the Vice Chancellor for his official residence and Northcote House. In 2008 Neil donated to the Tremough Campus his painting ‘Rising Spirit’ (‘Sperys Dasserhy’ in Cornish), and this wonderful work now hangs in Tremough House, a reminder of the environmental and sustainability emphasis of the campus and its new Institute. As one of the SouthWest’s most successful and dynamic artists, Neil has kindly agreed to work with us to shape and influence artistic work across our campuses. He is a member of the first Exeter Arts and Culture Panel which will advise on and help create opportunities for emerging talent in the region.
The Cornish painter Mark Surridge said of his friend and fellow artist: ‘When I think of Neil’s work it is the positivity of his paintings that springs to mind, vibrant, dynamic with dramatic colour and full of life affirming movement.’ Susan Daniel-McElroy echoes this:’It is a world in constant flux … in a ceaseless state of gleam and glow, air and transparency.’ So, dynamic and dramatic, gleaming and glowing, Canning’s work is truly inspirational and uplifting.
Professor Helen Taylor FRSA FEA, Humanities Arts and Culture Fellow
and British Association of American Studies Honorary Fellow, University of Exeter.
Truro Cathedral 25 July 2011. Neil Canning and
Baroness Floella Benjamin, Chancellor, University of Exeter.
By kind permission of Ede & Ravenscroft