DEANLAND AIRFIELD; why am I here?

Tracking the journey that has lead me to be working as artist in residence at Deanland Airfield, East Sussex.

Winter 1973, Fiveacres Garden Centre, near Chichester, West Sussex. 

In the sitting room of the tiny bungalow on the garden centre where I grew up, we are in the middle of another power cut on a winter’s evening in 1973, sitting by candle-light and the coal fire which we have lit because the electric three-bar fire we normally use is suddenly redundant. There’s no power for the TV either so for entertainment, Dad is showing my sister and me an old photo album of strange black and white photos that look like bits of lace or netting. The photos are in pieces and glued next to each other and he explains that they form a bigger picture of the ground from the air, next to the photos are neat lines of old-fashioned writing in white ink on the black paper, which also seems very exotic and other-worldly.

I have never seen anything like these images before; in the days before the internet and satellite imagery you rarely ever saw photos like this, they could only be taken from a plane or balloon. In the candlelight, I find the photos magical. Dad explained how he would fly over to Germany in his Spitfire and take these photos so that the allied forces could plan out where to drop bombs on the enemy, they were looking for bomb-factories and enemy aircraft on the ground. At ten years old this information rather drifted over me, but I loved the patterns of the roads, fields and coastlines.

My understanding of WW2 at the time was sketchy at best. I sometimes watched a programme called ‘The World at War’ on Sunday afternoons with Dad. It was in black and white, silent film clips of soldiers and tanks that seemed to have happened a very long time ago. In reality, the war had ended less than 30 years before and only 18 years before I was born. I realise now that the memories of it were probably still fairly fresh in Don’s mind; he would add snippets of information to the soundtrack of the TV programme between Laurence Olivier’s lugubrious commentary. No-one else I knew ever mentioned the war, even Dad didn’t ever really speak of it unless something came on the telly like this, we didn’t learn about it in school and nobody else wanted to talk about it. It was over.

Fishbourne, near Chichester, 2011

I’m over visiting Dad who is unwell. We sit at the kitchen table poring over the morning paper, our limited conversation has run out as it tends to do after half an hour or so. Recently he has written his memoir of the war years between 1940 and ‘45 which he has had printed and bound in an RAF blue cover. I have read it and been astounded by how much technical information he is still able to remember about the mechanics and statistics of the planes he flew, as well as his evocative portraits of the characters he knew and civilians he met during those years. I’ve been thinking that it would be interesting to try and make some work about his experiences in the war, but don’t really know where to begin. I’ve tried to draw his portrait on a couple of occasions, but his self-consciousness and my nervousness meant that these never amounted to anything of interest. I ask him if we could have a look at the scrapbooks he showed me as a child with the aerial photographs, he nods and ambles off to his study. A few minutes later he shuffles back in with a box-file and a couple of old fashioned photo albums, both a bit worse for wear.

He lays them on the kitchen table and as soon as we flip open the first page he seems infused with energy and enthusiasm – providing a commentary and answers to my questions about the photos as we make our way through. The stories are endless, his recollections of specific shots he took are as clear as if he had just landed after a sortie. One airfield he photographed in Portugal is particularly memorable because he felt jealous of the lucky pilots who got to use its pristine geometrical tarmac – he himself had taken off from a dusty gravel runway a few hours before in North Africa and wasn’t looking forward to a smooth landing on his return. The Portuguese runway looked like a number 4, rotated forty-five degrees to the right. This became one of the first of the sixteen abstracted silkscreens that formed the ‘Reconnaissance’ series in 2012.

August 2016, Laughton, East Sussex.

Don died peacefully in 2014. About a year later we moved to Laughton from Hove and I find myself in the village shop and post office chatting with Steve the manager. On the counter is a pile of booklets with a photo of a Spitfire on the front and the word ‘Deanland’ underneath. It catches my eye – as much for the title as the image – ‘Deanland’ I think, ‘what a great name for an exhibition’. I pick it up and flick through and am stopped short by an aerial photograph showing a runway in a cruciform shape. My first thought is that its composition is remarkably similar to a silkscreen I made a few years before called ‘Pilot’ conceived as an abstract portrait of Dad. Always on the lookout for coincidences like this, I buy the booklet and take it back to the studio.

Later that day, having read the booklet about the history of Deanland, I’m on my bike cycling over to the site of the airfield in Ripe, which turns out to be only about three miles away from my studio. I prowl the perimeter fence wary of the ‘entry prohibited’ signs, take a few shots of the windsocks and some distant light-aircraft. I instinctively realise this is a gift to me as an artist and that it will be the beginning of a new series of paintings. Feeling energised I head back to the studio to find out who runs the airfield now and if I might be allowed on site to make some work about the place. Shortly afterwards my friend Jean tells me that she knows David who runs the site now and forwards me his email address, I arrange to meet him for a tour.

Laughton, East Sussex, June 2017

And so we come full circle, it’s five years later in 2017. With the discovery of the airfield, suddenly it feels right to follow-up on the work I made about Dad’s reconnaissance photographs and to continue the story. I met with owner David Brook and later Gerry Price at Deanland and have been accepted as a proxy ‘artist in residence’ to continue the story of the legacy of the airfield by relating what exists there now to the time that has passed.

‘Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future and time future contained in time past ‘– so wrote T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets. Indeed the sounds and smells of the airfield have changed very little over the years since the war in some respects although in other ways of course, it’s another world. I felt my job as an artist was to identify aspects of the airfield that have remained the same in the intervening seventy years; windsocks, wheel chocks, petrol canisters, oil stains on the hangar floors, corrugated iron and rust and to ensure these details were represented in some way, being in their own way just as much icons of twentieth century aviation as the Spitfires and Hurricanes that they attended.

The concrete of the original runway was mostly broken up after the war and the runway (only a fraction of the original cruciform shape) is now grass, but I have used the texture of concrete in the paintings, built up by stippling the paint, just as one stipples the surface of poured concrete with a plank, in order to give it some tread in icy weather. Hopefully, by combining the details I have chosen to represent with elements from Don’s photos and the landscape surrounding the airfield, I can get an abstracted impression of the place, perhaps something that the pilots who were based here in the war, as well as those who use the runways now, might recognise. Growing up in the shadow of the South Downs, I feel their swooping lines are in my blood already, Downland shapes appear quite naturally throughout my work, including that of Deanland, which is just how it should be.

Alexander Johnson, June 2017

 

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DEANLAND project

March 22, 2017

Working at Deanland Airfield in East Sussex, just down the road from my studio, I’m slowly building up a series of drawings on paper and oils on canvas. This work is a continuation of my interest in the legacy of WW2. I go out to the airfield periodically to sketch and soak up the atmosphere, like all airfields it has a beautiful feeling of space, added to this Deanland for me holds the history of what went on there towards the end of the war; Spitfires taking off to support the D-Day landings. My father Don Johnson flew Spitfires as a young man, I’m not sure if he ever flew from here but many like him did and some never returned. My intention is to evoke the invisible history of the place, combined with what exists today.

It struck me that, although originally built in 1944, there is little there now that provides testament to this fact. The original runway was a cruciform shape and fairly large, much what remains of the original runway is now broken up, some lying under the Deanland estate which provides housing for older people in static homes, some is now woodland. The current runway uses only a fraction of the lower half of the cruciform original and none of the original concrete is now visible, the runway is now grass, the original buildings replaced by new ones. There is a raised arc of turf which curves around the edge of the plot to the original fuelling point and concrete standing, nestling behind bushes and a couple of large oaks.

My problem was to find a way of using what is there now as a way of reflecting on what went on there in the past. It occurred to me that the trees in any rural landscape are often the only witnesses to what went on in the past. I like this idea. Human behaviour changes – I see girls on horses riding past the house, busy on their mobile phones while the horse beneath them trots along oblivious – but the jackdaws arguing amongst themselves in the trees were ever thus, their language and behaviour unchanging and changeless.

Most of the plants and trees surrounding the airfield now are low-level; managed woodland and brushwood, hawthorn and weeds. The exception are two large oaks, both overlooking the airfield to the side of the original runway. Each time I visited to sketch at the airfield I thought ‘if those trees could talk’….So I decided to use the oaks as a basis for some paintings, effectively giving them a voice. Measuring the circumference of the largest one, the online Woodland Trust calculator estimates it at 230 years old or thereabouts. It would already have been a mature tree during the time of the original airfield’s construction seventy-five years ago and would have witnessed pilots and Spitfires, laughter and anxiety. Perhaps pilots like my father leant against it smoking a Players cigarette while their plane was refuelled. So I imagined a time-lapse stretching back and rather than paint a landscape decided to go for a bit of magic-realism, placing what I imagine the tree must have witnessed within the structure of the branches. Suddenly the work itself began to take off and I felt I was beginning to capture some of the magic I feel at Deanland.

More recently I have placed myself inside one of the hangars looking out and made sketches that are framed by the doorway of the hangar. This creates a geometric structure to the painting and more importantly to me, a perspective that would have been the same seventy years ago, the shape of aircraft hangars has remained pretty much unchanged, though now they are made of PVC stretched over a metal frame rather than corrugated iron. To this structure I add visual clues to the past, pilots standing around waiting to scramble, aircraft taking off. I am trying to capture the spirit of the scene rather than a photographic-type record; a feeling of space, of excitement and trepidation. The pilots who fly from the airfield now are often milling around and I talk with them, explain what I am doing and hear their own experiences of flying small aircraft over to France and beyond.

The colours I’m using are muted to suggest a sepia-toned record, like the black and white photos I have of my father and his squadron. I am not copying directly from the old photos, having looked at them so often over my life, they are all entrenched in my memory, so I allow myself free hand to paint what comes to my mind during the painting process.

Documenting this work is photographer Joh Brockliss, who himself works mainly in black and white using only Leica cameras. He is producing a hardback book that will accompany the exhibition; shots of the airfield, the work process there and my studio practice turning the on-site sketches into paintings. I expect to be busy with this project at least until the end of 2017, excited to see where it will take me. As thew work is finished I post it on my website under ‘DEANLAND’ in the main menu. I also have a Facebook art page at FB.com/alexanderjohnsonart and twitter feed @alexart63. Always keen to hear comments on the work.

Alexander Johnson, March 22, 2017