obsession or INTERPRETATION?

Generally, one associates the concept of theme and variations with music. From Classical to Heavy Rock (e.g. Brahms’ wonderful takes on that tune of Haydn’s or more recently Leslie West’s fabulous live improvised versions of his own Swan Theme on the album Flowers of Evil) and all idioms in between and beyond, most composers have enjoyed playing around with a basically good tune (their own or other people’s) and taking it to new places.

This is the original photo of Dido in that doorway somewhere in the Alcazar gardens in Seville. This was our first trip abroad, soon after we met, and we could not have picked a more romantic city (including Paris!!)

However, this is hardly unique to musical composition and if anything, an exercise exploited far more by visual artists, and most famously by both the Impressionists (e.g. Monet’s Waterlilies) and then the post impressionists (e.g. Cezanne and Mont Sainte-Victoire).

This was my first take on the photo, in oils, using a palette knife…

The greatest distinction between the musical and painterly approaches is that in the former the variations are normally presented together within a single work, whereas in the latter they typically appear as a series of individual pictures.

My favourite of the four versions here (there were several more in other media) – a roughly painted gouache

As a regular practitioner of the latter painterly approach in my past life, I often mused whether or not I was merely obsessed – struggling for an unreachable perfection – or rather practising the artistic imperative of interpretation.

1989, was during the height of my poster phase – hence this version

In the end, I came to conclusion that it was a mixture of the two and that in fact, the secret of all good art, and good science too for that matter, is an obsessive love of a particular subject and the interpretive skills to channel that love into something coherent and meaningful. The four pictures shown here present my first ever paintings of Dido, before we were married, standing in a doorway in the gardens of the Alcazar in Seville: The object of my love, obsessively interpreted…


For some reason, the scenes I remember most vividly from books and films usually involve food and / or drink. The movie example which immediately springs to mind is The Ipcress File, which for me basically comprised just three scenes (and John Barry’s hugely evocative theme music of course): The famous coffee making opening title; the “champignons” exchange in the supermarket and finally; the omelette preparation scene with the girl. The rest of the film and its tortured plot line remains mostly visual white noise.

Perhaps the most famous cup of coffee ever made…(and that superb music!)

The author of the original book, Len Deighton was a gourmet who, like many good thriller writers, enjoyed building scenes around food and drink, seeing them as useful tools for creating mood and atmosphere. Deighton knew Ian Fleming who had an equal penchant for including food and drink in his James Bond novels. But whereas Deighton was a stickler for gastronomic and oenological “correctness”, Fleming could be more mischievous; his unorthodox Vespa martini – “shaken not stirred” et al – being the classic case in point.

Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) and the tin of champignons – sadly no video available.

Talking of Fleming, and all the many culinary delights enjoyed by his super-spy hero; the one which always stuck in my mind from the first moment I came upon it in the novel Live and Let Die, was soft shell crab with sauce tartar served up to him at the Regis Hotel in New York City. For some reason, the idea of this particular dish stimulated my mental taste buds more than most and I longed for the chance to try it one day, and naturally, Stateside.

Aspiration and reality rarely meet exactly as preconceived, and my first encounter with soft shell crab in America missed the mark in several details. For instance: for the Regis Hotel, NYC, read a spit and sawdust crab shack on Chesapeake Bay and; for tartar sauce, read an acrid powdered spice seasoning. However, I doubt that I would have been any more enthused by the crab itself, whatever the accompaniment, for soft shell crab turned out to be a fiddly, messy seafood with a sparse and disappointing meat. My long-held fantasy of replicating James Bond’s tucking into succulent, sweet crab-meat was instantly shattered together with the shells that littered our table.

This was actually the table next to ours (hence the lack of drained beer glasses), but I thought it created a still life that encapsulated our experience perfectly.

Nevertheless, that lazy, messy lunch on the Chesapeake shore remains a magical memory in its own right and my disillusionment with the crab was short-lived. A couple of long cold beers soon washed away the nasty taste of the industrial spice mix and the setting was as stunning as it was serene and remarkably photogenic, even the debris from the unfinished meal.