File Note 19: David Thorpe - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Susan L. Stoops



Recalling ‘A Meeting of Friends’ Images References Biography Credits

Recalling ‘A Meeting of Friends’

In his 2004 book, David Thorpe: A Rendezvous with My Friends of Liberty, the London-based artist shared with readers his sketches and lyrics as well as a range of written and visual sources of inspiration by revered ‘visionaries,’ from turn-of-the-century England (the romantic and socialist reforms of C.R. Ashbee, the Arts and Crafts philosophy of William Morris) to 20th-century America (the organic architecture of Bruce Goff, the cosmic music of Sun Ra). 1 Chapter headings further convey the individualist spirit and social underpinnings of David Thorpe’s enterprise: Escape into the Wilderness; Independence and Transcendence; Self-Sufficiency in the New Kingdom.

Conceptually Thorpe’s work often has explored connections between English and American history. His preoccupation with colonists and settlements, utopias and countercultures has spawned visionary architectural designs, which he sets against a fictional wilderness. The epic character yet exquisite detail of Thorpe’s intricately constructed cut-paper landscapes — a combination of the awe-inspiring and pragmatic — allies them to the 19th-century American Sublime practiced by painters Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, and Martin Johnson Heade among others. The collision of culture and nature —  the meeting of American civilization with the wilderness — was a major preoccupation of American landscape painting throughout much of the 19th-century. The term ‘sublime’ attempted to describe the imaginative response to the spectacular American landscape as well as the potential danger and unknown.

When Thorpe accepted my invitation to exhibit his work at the Worcester Art Museum it was coupled with my hope of showing his collages in the context of 19th-century American ideas of landscape. His visit in October 2005 to explore the Museum’s collection sparked his interest in paintings of colonial America, especially those that depicted a vision of the domestic (and nostalgia for the comforts of England) amidst the reality of a New World wilderness. In A Meeting of Friends (his first solo museum exhibition in the United States), Thorpe’s collages and one of his screens were exhibited amidst six historic American landscapes of particular interest to him, offering viewers a compelling re-interpretation of the visionary and the sublime for the 21st-century. 

Painstakingly built and intimately scaled, Thorpe’s collages at times include pieces of veneer, dried flowers, bark, leather, glass, pebbles, or slate. They often depict dramatic, imaginary landscapes that are loosely based on representations of the American West — scenes of wilderness not experienced firsthand by Thorpe but inspired by the literary and visual accounts of others. Mountain peaks, towering pines, and vast skies become the settings for futuristic architectural dwellings — bunkers, watchtowers — that suggest loneliness, self-sufficiency, and solitude. These structures range from the sci-fi ‘rocket-ship’ in Life is Splendid and the omniscient ‘eye’ of House for Auto-Destiny, Imaginative Research, to the more organic and pre-industrial crafted buildings in Good People or Militant Lives. In Pilgrims helicopters close in on three hexagonal structures overhanging a cliff. Sometimes groups of tiny figures stand nearby, dwarfed by the vastness of their surroundings. Similarly Thorpe positions us below and at a distance, where we are left to marvel but also contemplate whether the apparent mystery spells peril or possibility. 

In the Worcester installation, Thorpe’s strategic configuration of objects resulted in a unique meeting between historic worlds and contemporary ideas. In the panoramic townscapes depicted in 18th-century American overmantels, such as the anonymous Overmantel from the Reverend Joseph Wheeler House, Thorpe saw “the colonists’ urge to build up communities during the time of transition from colony to nation.” 2 He responded to the way their strong desire to make this new world home not only inspired the paintings’ quaint subjects but also related directly to the way that the overmantels “functioned as furniture” like other decorative elements created to embellish domestic interiors. To Thorpe’s eyes these early images, with “their shallow or flat picture planes” were about “a closed world with no sense of a world beyond them, a closed perspective.”

By comparison Thorpe was fascinated by the way several 19th-century paintings “move beyond the comfort of the overmantels and their sense of ‘being here’ to looking beyond and asking, ‘what lies ahead?’” For example, in Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom, Thorpe saw a “transitional painting, outlining general themes of peace and a new home.” Ralph Earl’s Looking East from Denny Hill points “towards the sublime landscape tradition of the infinite horizon, embracing exploration and the idea that there is something beyond the actual physical and maybe the intellectual boundaries of their settlements. “Civilizing the wilderness,” Thorpe explained, “is accomplished pictorially in Sun Angel Hummingbirds on a Branch Near Two Orchids by Martin Johnson Heade and Yosemite Falls by Albert Bierstadt. Their compositions not only impose order onto their subjects but turn the sublime into the picturesque, removing the sense of fear that the wilderness once had, leaving it open for settlement.” 

Installed together, Worcester’s historic paintings and Thorpe’s image worlds presented a complex picture of the relations between the domestic and the wilderness, between the appeal of solitude and the need for community. Thorpe’s inclusion of The Impenetrable Friend, one of his Arts and Crafts-inspired handmade screens of painted glass and dark wood, extended pictorial connections between subject, scale, and time into the architectural environment of the gallery. Its horizontal expanse signifying both intellectual boundary and physical barrier, strategically separated the Museum’s historic landscapes from Thorpe’s own while also “providing points of entry and resistance, penetration and privacy.” 3 With its earthy palette and mountain-like peaks incorporated into a furniture-like format, Thorpe’s screen ultimately domesticated any lingering nostalgia for a natural frontier. 

One can see the Worcester project as part of an evolution toward the Camden Arts Centre installation, The Defeated Life Restored, where distinctions between media and worlds fall away. The workman-like clarity and earnest hand built materiality of Thorpe’s early collages is now experienced as a complex environment where multiple screens articulate a self-contained space complete with star-sculptures and botanical studies. Collectively, Thorpe’s fantastic elements embody the artist’s insistent romanticism and optimistic belief in the possibility that “we can transcend all limitations.” 4


1 David Thorpe, David Thorpe: A Rendezvous With My Friends of Liberty, ed. Christoph Keller (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 2004)

2 All of the artist’s remarks about the Worcester Art Museum’s historic paintings are from unpublished correspondence with the author, January 2006

3 Tom Morton, Call of the Wild, Frieze, Issue 88, Jan/Feb 2005, p.85

4 Artist statement, 2000, ArtBasel/Miami Beach 2002 catalogue, p.360

DH Lawrence Rainbow (1915)

Charles Burchfield Charles Burchfield’s Journals (1993) State University of New York Press

Abiezer Coppe A Fiery Flying Roll And A Second Fiery Flying Roule printed by Giles Calvert, London (1649)

Joseph Salmon Heights In Depths And Depths In Heights Or Truth No Less Secretly Then Sweetly Soaring Out Its Glory From Under A Cloud Of Obloquie printed London by Tho. Newcomb (1651)

William Morris News from Nowhere (1890) Kelmscott Press

Sun Ra Friendly Love (1973) Evidence Music Inc

Aguirre Wrath of God dir. Werner Herzog (1980)

Heaven’s Gate dir. Michael Cimino (1980)

The Outlaw Jose Wales dir. Clint Eastwood (1976)

Utopian Craftsmen Lionel Lambourne, Van Nostrand Reinhold (1980)

Utopia Britannica Christopher Coates, Figures and Dreamers  Publications, London (2001)


David Thorpe was born in 1972 in Woolwich and lives in London. He studied for a BA Fine Art at Humberside University in Hull (1991 – 94) and for a MA at Goldsmiths University (1996 – 98). He has had solo exhibitions at Worcester Art Museum, USA (2006) and at Tate Britain Art Now Space (2004). He has participated in many group shows including Sleep of Urlo, (curated by Goshka Macuga) at the A Foundation, Liverpool (2006); Blake & Sons —  Alternative Lifestyles and Mysticism, The Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork; Ideal Worlds, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt; The British Art Show 6, Hayward Gallery Touring Exhibition (all 2005); Drawing Now: Eight Propositions, MOMA Queens, New York (2002); Future Perfect: art on how architecture imagined the future (2000); CVA Cardiff and touring; Heart & Soul, London (1999); and Die Young Stay Pretty, ICA London (1998).


Susan L. Stoops is Curator of Contemporary Art at Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts, USA.

Supported by Stanley Thomas Foundation and The Henry Moore Foundation.