My two favourite painters, Vermeer and Hopper, shared an amazing knack for turning unremarkable moments and scenes into images packed with dramatic nuance and eternal resonance. Their most famous paintings offer graphic testimony to the enormous power of the “small still voice”, where the importance of the message belies its volume.
Lacking those two gentlemen’s genius, and in common with most regular artists, I was typically more of a megaphone artist when attempting to get my own pictorial messages across, relying on devices like huge canvases and epic subject matter.
However, even an artist of my own normal abilities could occasionally succeed in imbuing the mundane and the ordinary with a little charm and presence, especially, when I resorted to watercolour. For me, watercolour painting was an antidote to everything else I did, in oils and even gouache – a therapy almost – a sort of breathing exercise with brushes and colour, whereby I visually inhaled a scene; processed the scene in the blink of an eye; and then exhaled the scene through my water-sodden brush.
The pictures presented here are good illustrations of how a few simply applied watery daubs can raise a mundane suburban sitting room into a theatre of colour and light. No overthinking; just a touch of keen observation and easy application, and the everyday is morphed into the exotic. These watercolours are the closest I ever got to successful whispering.
(Incidentally, I should mention that I still have the originals of most of these images from my old watercolour sketchbooks and I’m happy to sell them for £400 each, plus, they reproduce beautifully as digital prints on fine papers for £100 each, plus postage and packing. All images, original and repro’ about 25 x 18 cm)
Since the publication of my book, King Saul in 2007, I’ve occasionally been asked about my cover illustration and the inspiration behind it. I’ve even given talks to universities, and more recently an online presentation, to the Mosaic Reform Jewish Community in which the cover came up, although I never fully explained the thinking behind it.
When envisioning the first kings of Israel of the late 11th and early 10th centuries BCE we have very little archaeological evidence to help us, and that’s why I got so excited the first time I saw a grainy, black and white photo of the limestone bust below. The picture was in Moshe Dayan’s (otherwise unremarkable) book, LivingWith the Bible, and listed by him as possibly the head of an Israelite monarch – perhaps even king David. However, since then, the academic consensus feels it is more likely an Ammonite relic (Dayan obtained it from a dealer in Jordan), and of a deity, not a mortal ruler. In addition, whereas Dayan dated the bust to the late 11th century BCE, the scholastic majority decided it was of a later provenance – late to mid 8th century BCE.
Nevertheless, there remains a minority of respected academics who agree with Dayan, that this is indeed a “portrait” bust, of a very human king, and from the time of Israel and Judah’s first three kings; Saul, his son and successor, Ishboheth, and David. And although the majority of this minority maintain the bust is Ammonite, and not Israelite, there are a few voices who tentatively suggest this could actually be a likeness of one of Israel’s first kings.
Although, as an amateur biblical historian, I can add little to the debate over dating the relic (although I would say that the stylisation of the beard looks earlier than 8th century BCE to my eyes), as an artist, with a familiarity with the archaeology of the ancient Levant I can dare to say very firmly, that this is definitely a representation of a powerful human being, and not a god. And given that, and the fact it is indisputably Ammonite or Israelite, it must therefore be a likeness of anyone from Saul of Israel (circa 1020-1010 BCE) to Uzziah of Judah (circa, anything from 783-736 BCE).
A major factor in my identifying the bust as a human likeness is the headgear, which seems to me to be a typical ceremonial crown of the time and the region. In my book, I went so far as to describe it – with its central helmet and side-wings – a form of “double crown”, resembling the Egyptian “pschent” worn by the pharaohs, to symbolise their rule over Upper and Lower Egypt – but in this case, possibly symbolising the wearer’s dominion over All Israel – i.e. both Israel and Judah. More recently however, I’ve considered the possibility of it being in fact, and more obviously, a triple crown, with the helmet representing Israel, and the two wings, Judah and trans-Jordan Israel respectively. And in which case, given it’s Ammon-geographical provenance, combined with a consideration of the biblical/historical context (far too involved to go into here), I feel certain that we are actually looking at a likeness of Saul’s son and heir, Ishboheth.
At first, this realisation disappointed me. After all, I had so wanted this to be Saul, even adapting it for the cover of my book. But in retrospect, the irony of this being the bust of the one early king of Israel virtually no one has ever heard of, has it’s own level of satisfaction, and moreover, if Ishboheth looked like his father, which is highly likely, it does offer us a fair idea of what All Israel’s first king looked like too. In any event, given it’s general dating and where it was discovered, at the very least, it gives us a damn good idea of what Saul or David would have looked like, and to someone like me, this is a thrilling concept.