Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Mike Tilling
Arts Correspondent
4:35 AM 25th October 2020

New Light Prize Exhibition - Brian Shields

There are few sculptures in the New Light Prize Exhibition. Easily the most interesting and eccentric, is The Patronage of Icarion John (John Clare poet) by Brian Shields.

The Patronage of Icarian John Detail - Mixed media 1580mm x 330mm. Copyright © Brian Shields
The Patronage of Icarian John Detail - Mixed media 1580mm x 330mm. Copyright © Brian Shields
The diminutive figure of a man in Nineteenth Century clothing sits on a swing in a parrot’s cage. There are miniature books on the floor of the cage and the figure has wings attached to his back and a long pointed nose. This is Shields’ vision of John Clare, the so-called ‘labouring class’, or peasant, poet.

From a life as a farm labourer, Clare’s overnight success as a poet wrenched him out of the village life he had been born into and thrust him into the turmoil of literary London where he was lionized by the great and the good. Unable to cope with such a contrast, he returned to working in the country, but became increasingly unhappy. Eventually, Clare was admitted to the Northampton County Lunatic Asylum where he wrote his most famous, and poignant, poem, .

Once in possession of the detail, Shields’ work may be seen as both a depiction of a tragic life and a comment on our own celebrity culture. There is nothing new under the sun. On public display and possibly, like Icarus, flying too close to the sun, celebrities manufactured in our times and in our name (albeit invariably possessed of less talent than John Clare) fall and decline into unhappy obscurity.

“If I hadn’t seen such riches/I could cope with being poor”.

The cage may be beautiful (it is a found item in Shields’ piece) but it is still a cage.

Shields has done a number of paintings of the character he calls ‘Avian John’.

Shields was born in North Yorkshire, lived and worked in Southern England but currently resides in Armathwaite, Cumbria. He lists as his influences the Gloucestershire poet and composer Ivor Gurney, W. B. Yeats and, of course, John Clare. Artistic preoccupations include conceptual art pieces exploring systems and methods of control, portraiture and Romanticism.

It is not too fanciful to see how all three come together in Icarion John.

Brian Shields has exhibited in the UK and abroad and won a number of prizes, including a joint prize for Cumbrian Artist of the Year, 2017. He is a member of the Lake Artists’ Society.

Without Icarion John, the New Light Prize Exhibition would still have range and diversity, but Shields’ vision gives an extra dimension that appeals to those of us who relish compelling and intriguing creations.

New Light is an organisation that exists in order to ‘celebrate and promote Northern art by supporting both well-known and emerging artists’ (introduction to the Scarborough Art Gallery catalogue). The Prize Exhibition runs once every two years and offers substantial awards, both in cash and prestige, to five of the exhibitors. In addition, public bodies and charities may borrow works of art from New Light at no cost.