© The Artist. Courtesy Wilkinson Gallery, London

ASH WEDNESDAY: 3.00 pm 2004-5

George Shaw (1966 – )


91 X 121 CM
Accession number


George Shaw was born in 1966 and grew up in a council house on the Tile Hill Estate, about three miles outside the city of Coventry, in the West Midlands. It was only in 1996, once he started his MA at the Royal College of Art, that he returned home, like a visitor, and found this to be his subject. The particular radius of Tile Hill has been his focus ever since and won him a nomination for the Turner Prize in 2011.

                The present piece is part of a series titled according to the time of day on Ash Wednesday. Shaw, brought up Catholic, would not overlook the significance of this date in the Christian calendar, the first day of Lent, which marks a 40-day period of abstinence – and introduces a note of penance to this image. Indeed, the scene is uninhabited by people: weather has taken its toll on the concrete surface of the semidetached houses, moss is sprouting on the roofs and the path is overgrown. The old tree trunk, with its wide girth, rooted in the centre of the lawn is a symbol of time passing, while its bare, young branches splay with a surreal kind of energy, as if hooked up to a Van de Graaff generator. This isn’t a scene of everyday life; it is a scene from Shaw’s former life. ‘I thought I’d go back to the place where I grew up and see if I could recapture something I’d lost. It was like getting on a train and it’s a journey I am happy to take. It’s a bit like being an archaeologist – the more soil I remove, the more I uncover about myself and my interests.’[1] By painting Tile Hill Estate over and over again, from photographs and memory, repetitive almost to the point of ritual, he is recording his changing relationship to the place. In this way his paintings of Tile Hill join together to form, he says, ‘one big painting’, which acts like a self-portrait.

                Shaw’s paintings are about end of an era: personally, since he left home, and more broadly, referring to the bigger picture of post-industrial decline. The city of Coventry, in the West Midlands, was the target of severe bombing during World War II, which destroyed the cathedral, three quarters of the factories and thousands of homes. The city was rebuilt in the 1950s and ‘60s with a pedestrianised centre and a modern cathedral. At that time the car industry was booming, but where it was once a thriving place to live, as production dwindled, so have estates such as Tile Hill. Shaw materially and conceptually unites his paintings by his use of enamel paint, specifically the sort made by British manufacturer Humbrol. Humbrol enamel paint is normally used for crafts, rather than fine art, and dries to a hard, glossy finish. It’s the stuff used by children and enthusiasts for the rather old-fashioned hobby of coating Airfix models of Spitfires and Hurricanes – those being the aircraft that helped win the Battle of Britain in summer 1940, when Coventry suffered the worst of the blitz.






[1] Catherine Vonledebur, ‘2011 Turner Prize: The Places that Inspired George Shaw’, Coventry Telegraph, 2 December 2011