Work > Articles

Paintings 1995 Katharine Eustace



Last night in Notting Hill

I saw Blake passing by,

who saw Ezekiel

airborne in Peckham Rye

Christopher Logue


The matter of factness of the visionary poet allows us to accept the remarkable as an every

day ordinariness. At the same time he can gently remind us of the long tradition of such a

way of seeing. William Blake, Samuel Palmer, and Stanley Spencer all had this matter of

factness, this same everyday ordinariness, of Albion above the satanic mills, Eden in a

Kentish valley, or the Resurrection at Cookham in Berkshire.


Roger Wagner has always taken his theme from the Old and New Testaments. In his

earliest work this was largely in an historicising manner, his angelic Reapers in their shifts

might have stepped out of a seventeenth century chapbook, or down from a church

monument of the same period - one in Southwark Cathedral comes to mind. In later work,

however, his narrative is played out against backgrounds which, in their enormity, we take

for granted: the pastoral Abraham and the Angels (1984 and 1995) against the nuclear

power station Sizewell A; the Crucifixion in Menorah (1994) in front of the smoking

chimney and cooling towers at Didcot. Here in the muddy, waterlogged fields of lowland

Berkshire, Wagner's stateless persons arrive straight from photographic reportage of the

early stages of the Bosnian War.


In his translation of the psalms: The Book of Praises, Wagner mixes the historical and the

quotidian approach. In doing so he follows the traditional role of wood engraving as a polit-

ical medium, and takes us hard up against an urban, graffitied desolation. This is everyday

with a vengeance.


Most recently, in his Book of Job series, which we might expect to be calculated to draw out

the pessimistic ana the morbid, Wagner's work has taken a surprising new direction. It

would seem that here he has sought out the eye of the storm first seen in his Walking on

Water (1993 andl995), for a place for God and Job to meet. He is responding rather to the

poetic beauty and charm of their dialogue, than to the pessimism and misery popularly

associated with the Book of Job.


As a painter, Wagner has, in the past, set himself technical challenges on an ambitious

scale. These on occasions vied with the message or matter of the painting itself. Now he

has adopted a more emblematic, less narrative approach, which accords well with the

subject matter and with his own highly individual technique.

Wagner has consistently defied the currents of the times in technique and subject matter,

but has, nevertheless, quietly built up a following amounting almost to a cult - the

attendance figures for his exhibition at the Ashmolean in 1994 broke all records. This is

clear evidence of his having struck the same chord with that questing human desire for the

profound in our everyday lives that is at the root of The Book of Job.


Katharine Eustace, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.