Fine Art Society Ltd

It’s one of those hot days when there’s scarcely a cloud in the sky and the sun, reflecting off the walls of the elegant shops and galleries of New Bond Street, is at its most intense. A good day for sunglasses. And a good day to walk down into the cool minimalist basement of the Fine Art Society to take a look at the remarkable work of Nina Murdoch.

You probably remember the name. Murdoch won the UK’s most lucrative art award (The Threadneedle Prize, worth £25,000) in September. The Threadneedle is billed as ‘the real Turner Prize’, given to artists who have a figurative element in their art.

It’s quite safe to say that you will never have seen any work quite like it. Nina works on wooden frames, up to six foot square in size, coated in gesso, onto which she applies layer upon layer of egg tempera mixed into myriad hues, scraping away and adding, scraping away and adding, creating images depicting shafts of light beautifying otherwise bleak urban spaces. When she’s finished (and she can only produce eight to ten works a year: each work contains up to a hundred layers of paint) she covers the image in a sheen of varnish. The result is quite stunning. When you first walk down those steps into this cool oasis of calm, it feels like the light emanating from the pictures is actually illuminating the room. Then you notice some striplights at the top, subtly aiding the process.

Nina’s dealer, Toby, is on hand to describe the artist’s modus operandi. “She spends an awful lot of time in what might be described as dodgy areas of South London,” he says, “waiting for just the right moment when the light inspires her.” She then either sketches or takes photographs of the scene, and uses these images as the basis of each picture.

There is, then, a certain bleakness to the works, completely bereft of flora and fauna, depicting walls and pavements, derelict ceilings and concrete floors. But this is offset by the intensity of the light, emanating from one small area of the frame, and casting its influence throughout the rest of the space, until subdued in the corners by inky blackness. In each painting light dances with darkness, infiltrating sombreness with joyful spirituality. The perspectives are stunning: her derelict spaces become momentary cathedrals.

The names of the paintings are interesting. While the piece which won the Threadlneedle Prize is simply named ‘Untitled’, the others have been much more carefully chosen. ‘Road to the Marsh’; ‘Peechy Garden’, ‘Torvan’s Farm’, ‘Little Hill Shot’, ‘Trap Ball Ground’. So how come such urban scenes have been given such rural names? “Nina has pored over old maps of when the areas she paints in, such as Battersea and Wandsworth, were areas of farmland on the outskirts of London,” says Toby. “She has used the place names which applied to the settings of the paintings in a very different era.” When the light didn’t have to infiltrate crumbling walls and holes in ceilings to dance that joyful dance.

Nina’s uplifting work is on exhibition until June 5th. The pieces sell for between £16,000 and £24,000, but you will have to wait some time if you’re interested in buying one. Her last three annual exhibitions have sold out on the opening night of the show.

Alex Leith

Alex Leith is a freelance writer based in London.