Sarah Longley is a young representational artist whose subject matter is thoroughly conventional, even conservative. She shows still lifes, views of gardens, self-portraits and nude figure studies, making drawings and paintings with pencil, charcoal and oil. Yet there is nothing calculated or ingratiating about her choice of subject or the nature of her work. It comes across as truthful, direct and exploratory.
Technically, there is no slickness to her approach. The surfaces of both drawings and paintings are worked and worried over, built up piecemeal from lots of small, provisional marks rather than from, say, the brisk, confident lines and bold swathes of colour exemplified by Matisse or Dufy.
Temperamentally, Longley is closer to Bonnard, though she is a northern European Bonnard, at home with sullen winter light and the northern sensibility. Her images, with their uneasy surfaces, their refusal of facile effects, have a kind of moody truculence about them.
In her flower studies, particularly, she explores colour. Here, her handling of oil paint, in thin, fluid, translucent layers, almost as though it is watercolour, owes something to Neil Shawcross, but where he goes for pure, vivid colour, she is invariably inclined to bring it down several tones. She is, in fact, a predominantly tonal painter, not quite at ease with intense colour, and her drawings are also tonal: hardly linear at all.
Hence her liking for shadows. In her almost invariably contre-jour figure drawings, her subject, usually sprawling and relaxed, is built up in expanses of soft grey charcoal shadows (she is noticeably more comfortable on a large scale in her drawings than in her paintings). Head, torso, hips and thighs are dark, concentrated masses, accentuated by folded or extended limbs. These subdued, intimate studies impart a sense of melancholy isolation typical of the work as a whole.
It is there, for example, in her fine, understated self-portrait studies and garden compositions. These, she mentions in a catalogue note, are based largely on views of the Royal Botanic Garden from the windows of her Edinburgh studio.
They are the most spatially complex things in the show, their interlocking patterns of light and shade setting up labyrinthine pathways for our eyes to negotiate. Often, there is a tiny figure or two tucked away in the composition, and the scenes are charged with a slight unease, a sense of vague foreboding.
All this is achieved by virtue of Longley's patient application of a careful, descriptive method as she traces the precise shape of spidery tree limbs or, indeed, depicts each species of tree as a distinct individual. The strength of her work rests not only on her assiduous attention to the demands of each area of subject matter, but also, very much, on the consistency of her dark-edged vision. It will be interesting to see which direction her work takes in the future.