As the only painting and the largest work in the show, George Shaw’s ‘The End of Time’ (2008-9) is hard to miss: it confronts you as you enter the space. If the barren patch of land seems ordinary at first, it reveals itself as a poignant reflection on the effects of time on our lives. Shaw has spent the best part of his 30-year career meticulously painting various areas of Tile Hill, the post-war council estate in Coventry where he was raised. Each painting, painstakingly created with tiny pots of Humbrol enamel, offers a glimpse into the architecture and urban landscape of a specific moment in British history, as well as into Shaw’s life growing up there. To most outside Tile Hill, the disappearance of the ‘Woodsman’ pub depicted in ‘The End of Time’, would have gone unnoticed. Yet to Shaw, this pub was a major part of his life. The pub — previously called ‘The New Star’ — was his mother’s workplace and his father’s occasional haunt.
That Shaw has chosen to depict this site three times over the course of ten years is telling of the affection he has always held for it. In its earliest iteration, ‘Scenes from the Passion: The New Star’ (1998), the pub is still intact; it is burnt in ‘Scenes from the Passion: The New Star’ (2002); and finally demolished in ‘The End of Time’. Interestingly, the increase in scale of each painting runs counter to the gradual disappearance of the pub: the less visible the building, the larger its depiction. The photorealist quality of the most recent version, accentuated by its position between the photographs of landscapes by Armando Andrade Tudela and Paul Seawright, foregrounds the subject matter as an actual place. Yet the closer you get to the work, the more abstract it becomes. The bleak shades of greens, greys and browns, combined with the glossy sheen of the enamel paint, afford the work a hazy, dream-like quality. The empty patchwork of concrete and grass is eerily quiet and takes on an air of the sublime. All that remains of the pub are Shaw’s memories, now embodied in this painting rather than in the physical place of their origin. In this sense, this painting both pays homage to a significant place and time in his life, and serves as a symbolic substitute for its subject matter. To take in Shaw’s work completely requires standing away from it and experiencing it as an atmosphere. Its large format belies its profoundly intimate and nostalgic meaning.
This blog post has been adapted and republished from the exhibition booklet, available for free at The Courtauld Gallery.