Obituary: Michael Embden, landscape artist
MICHAEL Embden, after a career as an illustrator of many books, became a landscape artist with a beguiling touch that captured the very essence of the countryside: he called the countryside “a major preoccupation. I had a passion for the natural world.”
Michael Embden, landscape artist. Born: 12 September, 1948, in Surrey. Died: 21 August, 2012 in Brighton, aged 63.
He painted mostly in his native Sussex Downs but, in the last 20 years of his life, Embden became fascinated with the scenery and light in Scotland.
He regularly visited the Highlands and the west coast and painted evocative watercolours of much elegance and charm.
Nothing better demonstrates Embden’s abiding love of painting in Scotland than a lengthy explanation of a painting, Highland River, which he completed more than a decade ago. “I am rather excited about a new painting I have recently completed, one that I have been working on for a long time,” he said.
“The subject is dear to my heart; the North Western Highlands of Scotland. It contains all the elements that to me make the area so special: a beautiful river (A’Ghairbhe) ,which runs from Loch Clair into Kinlochewe River at the foot of Ben Eighe.
“The banks of the river are studded with ancient Scots Pines, a remnant of the vast Caledonian pine forest that once dominated the area. In the background there is a majestic mountain (Scurr Dubh) lit by the early morning sun.
“But the real subject is the light: it is a fresh, bright and frosty morning in January and there is a breathtaking clarity and sharpness in the quality of the light. I have been trying to capture this elusive quality in paintings, but I think I have got a little closer with this one.”
Michael Harvey Embden was brought up in Hove and after attending a local school studied graphics and illustration at Brighton College of Art in the mid-60s.
On graduating, Embden spent more than a decade working as an illustrator of book jackets, advertising material and posters. These were published in Britain, Europe and the United States.
In 1981, he gained widespread recognition when he illustrated Rider Haggard’s swashbuckling adventure She. One painting from the series was bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
It was in the 80s that Embden decided to concentrate on landscape paintings and for some years he subtly captured the beauties of the Sussex countryside in changing seasons and light with a keen eye for detail.
For Embden painting was a lengthy process. He took painstaking care with every picture and all aspects of its creation.
That meant that his output was not large, but he brought to each and every work an intensity and honesty that was immediately apparent. Embden conjured up a sense of inhabiting the landscape and making it very recognisable, while still exploring its beauty.
Over the years, Embden developed a fluency and style that allowed him to explore the way light plays on the hillside, the frosty fields or across a still loch. He often concentrated on depicting the vibrant clarity of the early morning light: he was, for example, fascinated by how the light plays on objects and casts mystical shadows.
His meticulous technique ensured he only used pure watercolours – no white or body colour. Embden carefully then built up layers of transparent washes to bring a fine sense of luminosity to the picture.
It was that interest in the clarity of light that brought him to “the wild places of Scotland whose landscape provides infinite richness, variety and a more rugged kind of beauty”.
Such qualities were magnificently demonstrated recently at an exhibition at the House of Bruar Gallery in Perthshire, which included three pictures Slioch, Red Birches and Coastline, all of which captured the radiance and beauty of their subject.
But Embden painted widely in Scotland – his view of Glen Etive is spectacular with the single track road weaving its way to the forbidding mountains and Caledonian Reflection captures the stark hills reflected in the glacial loch. There is a scrupulous honesty about Embden’s work that is totally enhancing.
Away from painting, Embden enjoyed listening to music and it played a large part in his life – and as an inspiration. In the Classics, he loved Mahler and Vaughan Williams but he was also a great lover of contemporary and classical jazz.
He had met Pamela Huck while they were both students in Brighton and she greatly assisted in the success of Embden’s career. She also nursed him through his final troubled years after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009.
She and their three daughters and a son survive him.
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