Terry Grimley reviews two exhibitions devoted to the work of Black Country artist Robert Perry...
For this week only, you can see a remarkable in-depth overview of one of the West Midlands' best painters, Robert Perry.
At the Museum & Art Gallery his exhibition Remembering the Somme is on until August 27, but you only have until next Saturday to catch the retrospective which complements it at the RBSA.
Perry's work has had fairly consistent exposure in recent years, and his project documenting the battlefields and other significant sites of the two world wars has attracted plenty of media exposure.
But for once it's a case of familiarity breeding respect rather than contempt as the critical mass of his achievement steadily grows.
Perry is a traditional painter and draughtsman of exceptional technical gifts and his subjects - most often Black Country panoramas when he is not on the French battlefields - are not particularly ingratiating.
I can't say I'm that surprised that a couple of Scottish landscapes in the RBSA show failed to excite when briefly held up for the selectors of this year's Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, an incident featured in a recent TV documentary. You have to bear with Perry for the long haul to get the most out of his work.
The war work which began in 1991 has mainly concentrated on the Western Front of 1914-18, and particularly on the Somme and Verdun.
The Museum & Art Gallery exhibition, timed to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the ill-fated British offensive on the Somme (more British soldiers were killed in the first few hours than the US lost in the entire Vietnam War) contains work completed as recently as last month.
These paintings show Mametz Wood close-up and in darkness at 1am and 2am in the morning. The extent of Perry's dedication - all his battlefield works are completed on the spot - can be gleaned by an excerpt from his diary about painting one particularly large canvas among the remains of a trench system in the middle of a wood, slithering through mud in the rain to and from his specially adapted camper van parked on a nearby road.
The paintings fall broadly into two groups. Some are relatively claustrophobic close-ups of archeological traces of wafare while the others are panoramic views of the Picardy landscape as it is today. The latter - including one large oil but mostly small gouaches of amazing technical virtuosity - are full of air and sunlight, generally with some landmark on the horizon which connects them with the battlefield of 90 years ago.
I've commented before on Perry's habit of not only dating but timing his drawings and paintings, which seemed to me give them a particularly arresting sense of bearing witness. But the RBSA exhibition shows that he has always done this, and it is not confined to the war work.
After some student exercises the RBSA show starts with Neglected allotments at Clent for which a colour study is dated 5.30pm 1 April 1974. As a virtual "non-subject" this strikingly anticipates the recent Mametz Wood paintings.
As to Perry's nocturnal working habits, these have their roots in the late 1980s when the break-up of his marriage left him a single parent with three children and a job as head of art at the then Redditch College. He would work four nights a week between 11.30pm and 4pm, getting a couple of hours sleep before getting the children ready for school and going to work.
There are some drawing of nocturnal suburban streets from this period but I have fond recollections of paintings of motorways under yellow lights which are not included.
The Black Country panoramas are announced by a benchmark project from 1984. A painstaking drawing across four large sketchbook pages meticulously plotted the houses and factories, after which a series of colour studies was painted.
While there are other subjects here - two paintings of the Alps that immediately recall Turner, some stunning gouache Dutch landcapes and studies of boats in Amsterdam - the Black Country keeps recurring, most recently in paintings completed earlier this month.
But the Somme paintings are Perry's most remarkable achievement. In the Museum & Art Gallery exhibition they are poignantly complemented by a seascape painted in 1912 by a 16 year-old relative who was killed three years later in France, and a display case full of First World War detritus Perry has stumbled on, rather than actively hunted out, on his painting expeditions.
This collection of German and British helmets, grenades, bullets and cartridge cases, all transformed by time to a uniform rusty brown, has a ghostly eloquence of its own.
* Remembering the Somme is at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until Aug 27 (Mon-Thur 10am-5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm; admission free) Robert Perry RBSA: Retrospective and Recent Works is at the RBSA Gallery, 4, Brook Street, St Paul's Square, until July 8 (Mon-Wed, Fri 10.30am-5.30pm; Thur 10.30am-7pm, Sat 10.30am-5pm).