MEET MY WATERLOO…

plus several other famous historical battles through the eyes of a battle movie crazy youth…

The Stand of the Phocians (Thermopylae) – pencil drawing – 1974 Drawn when I was thirteen, it is intended to show the Phocian’s vainly attempting to defend Leonidas’ rear from the Persian Immortals.

In addition to the remarkable Mary Poppins (1964) the other two films that first set my spirits soaring – though in a markedly different way to Mr Banks’ joyous kite – were The 300 Spartans (1962) and Zulu (1964)*. Like most little boys growing up in the 60’s (and some little girls too in my experience of the time), I was thrilled by epic cinematic depictions of battle. But, whereas movies like Ben Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963) and even the extraordinary Spartacus (1960) did that Wagnerian thing of interspersing the brilliant battle and action scenes with boring half-hours of tedious “drama” (or so I thought as a child), The 300 Spartans and Zulu were vehicles for the (beautifully staged) battles themselves – Thermopylae and Rorke’s Drift respectively – with the drama, merely the filler. In other words, perfect films for little Adams everywhere.

The Charge of the Companions (Battle of Guagamela) – pencil sketch – 1975 – based on The Charge of Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville Jr (see below). I was fourteen when I did this, and even copied Woodville’s incorrect depiction of the horses legs (English-American photographer Eadweard Muybridge had yet to show how horses actually ran).

The most ambitious film ever made about a single battle was Sergei Bondarchuk’s enormous Waterloo (1970), which I first saw as a ten-year-old on its UK release. But even then, as much I was awestruck by the superlative battle scenes, I was irritated by the stodgy script (actually, just an endless seam of historical quotes) and the awkward caricaturesque acting, which lurched wildly between the histrionic French and the aloof British.

Waterloo – felt tip on paper – 1974 – This was all my own concept, and executed during an hour-long maths lesson when I was thirteen. Mrs Evans, my teacher liked the picture so much she merely shrugged her shoulders on seeing what I was doing and let me get on with it, muttering, “at least the boy is good at something…” as she walked back to front of the class.

With more modest budgets and far smaller casts, by canny use of camera angles, stunning photography, beautifully paced editing, and (certainly in Zulu’s case) thrilling musical scores, directors Rudolf Maté with his Spartans, and Cy Enfield with his handful of red coats, made films that felt far larger and much grander than they actually were.

A pencil sketch of Macedonian phalanx troops in a defensive position – not sure which battle, although the drawing dates from 1975. The poses are based on those of the British soldiers in Waterloo depiction by Félix Henri Emmanuel Philippoteaux (see below).

But perhaps the greatest testimony to the enduring appeal of all of the above is how well they stand up against their modern CGI equivalents. For example, Frank Miller’s 1998 Thermopylae film, 300 – allegedly inspired by Maté’s 1962 version – despite its having a virtual cast of millions and “authentic Spartans and genuine battle violence” is – apart from one or two scenes – utterly forgettable. Most interestingly of all is how “small” and claustrophobic the later, studio created film feels by comparison with its location-shot forerunner. And similarly, for all the earlier film’s wooden acting and heavily tableau’d dramatic interludes there is a dignity and humanity totally lacking in Miller’s animated comic book treatment.

Red Coats at Waterloo – pencil sketch – 1973. Based on Black Watch poses as depicted in The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb (see below).

The pictures presented above date from about 1970 – 75, and reflect the obsession I had as a 10-14 year-old boy for attempting to recreate the battles that had thrilled me so much on the cinema screen. Sometimes, I would base my pictures on famous historical battle paintings, using the figures in the original artwork as templates for my own infantry and cavalry, often for battles of different eras. Those wonderful “templates” – all of which influenced my childhood self almost as much as the movies above, are included below.

The British Squares Receiving the Charge of the French Cuirassiers (at Waterloo) by Félix Henri Emmanuel Philippoteaux – 1874 – oil on canvas
The Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville Jr – 1874 – oil on canvas
The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb -1881 – oil on canvas

*Other films which are worth looking out for as noble – if imperfect – examples of pre-CGI historical battle movies are: Clive Donner’s 1969 Alfred The Great – a turgid film, but with decent battles; Tony Richardson’s 1968 Charge of Light Brigade – marred by Richardson’s anachronistic, relativist, anti-war message, laid on with a trowel, but largely successfully staged, and a genuinely epic charge; Cy Enfield’s return to Natal for his 1979 (“prequel” to Zulu), “grittier and more historically accurate” Zulu Dawn – compares poorly to the near-perfect Zulu, only proving yet again, that grit and accuracy (and vast numbers of extras) alone do not guarantee a great picture. Worth seeing though, just for the British scouts first sighting of the massed Zulu impis (11,000 warrior extras) – an astonishing cinematic moment.

Guilt – The Lone Survivor of Thermopylae – watercolour on paper – 1972 This is me taking huge dramatic license with the story of Othryades, the soldier sent home to Sparta, and who then committed suicide at a later battle.

Plus, two more CGI fiascos to avoid at all costs: Oliver Stone’s 2004 Alexander the Great – should be retitled, Alexander the Petulant, and as for the cartoon-filled battles!; Also, the woeful 2004 – Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy – which has to be the leading candidate for worst adaptation of a great and immortal work of literature ever executed. Brad Pitt’s appallingly miscast, pouting, kung-Fu-fighting super hero, isn’t even the worst characterisation in the film!!

This was another piece done illicitly during a school class – around 1971 – this time a French lesson. Mrs Sable, lacking Mrs Evan’s broadmindedness made me stop the moment she saw what I was doing. Hence the incomplete chart…

Finally, one exception to prove the rule, although CGI is mercifully absent from the superb opening battle scene, is Ridley Scott’s exceptional 2000 film, Gladiator (actually, a close reworking of Anthony Mann’s terribly dull, 1964 Fall of the Roman Empire) – which introduced the historical battle movie genre to a whole new generation of little Adams…

Napoleon’s Last Victory (the Guard advancing at Quatre Bras) – watercolour on paper – Circa 1974 Quatra Bras was battle that immediately preceded Waterloo, as the allies attempted to halt the advance of the French northward to Brussels – I based these “Old Grumblers” on the actors from the 1970 movie.

WALKING AWAY – AGAIN

another look at the art of painting from photographs…

The two pictures presented below have both featured in previous posts (here and here), but neither with their template photographs. The “Walking Away” is particularly interesting to me as it has the penned grid over the girl drawn onto the photo itself. Generally, as far as I recall, I would use a sheet of tracing or acetate paper over the photo so as not to ruin it. But, for some reason I didn’t bother in this case. The fact that I only “gridded” the girl is reflected in the relative freedom of the landscape painting. The skiing scene mountain-scape by contrast is much more faithful to the original photo, in form, if not in tonality.

Both pictures present further evidence of what is possible using the humble snap, in terms of expressive potential and dramatic interpretation.

This was a large photograph, and thus atypical for me, as I generally preferred small snaps. I guess that in this case, I felt the figure to be central to the composition and so required the extra detail a larger photo offered. For those interested, the scene is just above the village of Ein Kerem, in the hills just to the west of Jerusalem. The Hadassah University Hospital is at the top left, famous for its synagogue adorned with Marc Chagall’s fabulous twelve stained glass windows, depicting the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
“Walking Away” – 1982 – oil on canvas
This was the more typical small postcard-size snap I preferred to use for making large “blown-up” paintings. The tight containment of the image helped my decision-making processes and prevented me getting distracted by extraneous detail. In this case, I only retained five of the skiers as I felt it accentuated the drama of the moment, and the moodiness is also increased by a tonal shift from a highly photographic cyan (almost indigo) screen to a deep gradation of (mostly) dark cobalt.
“Bormio 3000” – 1983 – Oil on Canvas

DRAWING LIGHT AND SHADE…

and the dramatic potential of the humble pencil…

My recent post on line drawing was so well received that I thought I would follow it up with this look at a set of my more studied drawings from 1996.

The images here will be familiar to some, as they form the basis of one of my most successful and enduring themes, which I returned to many times over the course of decade or more. It all started with a casual photo-shoot on the sunny south terrace of our Spanish home, when my wife Dido (the blonde lady in these pictures) and Lynne, an old ballet pal of hers, performed a variety of impromptu poses for my camera. Mostly, they involved dance (see this related post), but they also acted these three, far more contemplative vignettes.

Unlike line drawing sketches, these take account of light and shade as much as form, giving them a more obvious dramatic content. But, as with line sketching, often, what is left undrawn, is as important to the feel of the picture as what is drawn. In the case of these works, it was my intention that the whiteness of the untouched paper in contrast to the painstakingly executed figures, and the shadows they contain and cast, would accentuate the feeling of the harsh Spanish sun, saturating the tender friendship of the two girls.

All in all, I think they succeed pretty well, and for me at least, remain precious moments captured in lead.

Dido and Lynne 1 – 1996 – pencil on paper
Dido and Lynne 2 – 1996 – pencil on paper
Dido and Lynne 3 – 1996 – pencil on paper

YEARNING FOR THE TUBE…

…and a nostalgia for drab normality

A fact of the current restrictions upon our normal lives is at once curious, obvious and virtually universal; that being the loss of, and consequent longing for, normal, boring, and even tedious everyday experience. Missing erstwhile unremarkable pleasures of life, like going to the pub, restaurants and concerts is bad enough, but when one starts to get nostalgic over things like hopping on and off buses and even journeys on the tube, it’s apparent that the present regime is really starting to bite.

This nostalgia struck me keenly the other day when I was trawling through slides of old sketchpads dating from the time of my commutes to art school (an incredible forty-plus years ago). And, as an artist’s sketchbook is often a tool for magnifying the seemingly mundane into something more meaningful, it occurred to me that the drawings from those old books might provide a peculiarly apposite reminder, for all its apparent dinginess and dreariness, of the glory of normality…

Buses – 1978 – (blue) pastel on paper This and the drawing below date from toward the end of my two years foundation course at Harrow School of Art when I travelled from my home North London suburb of Edgware to Harrow on the 288 bus. I rarely sketched on the buses as it was mostly impractical and nausea-inducing…
Friday’s Bus – 1978 – Charcoal on Paper …Judging by the folio case between his legs, I’m guessing that this guy might have been going to the same place as me…
Person in a Paddington Bear Hat – 1979 – Felt-tip on Paper (Gouache hat paint, added later) …Following my foundation course at Harrow, I began Saint Martin’s in the autumn of 1978. I swapped from the bus to the Northern Line tube for the journey from Edgware to Charring Cross Road (I can’t recall why I did what I did with the hat, or when)…
Spectacled Reader – c1980 – Charcoal on Paper …Although I was never as prolific a sketcher as I ought to have been, I did a relatively large amount of drawing on the tube...
Scarf with a Lady – c1980 – Charcoal on Paper …By going into school early and returning late (usually after a few pints and a frame or two of snooker at the Cambridge Pub), I managed to avoid the crush and could observe and draw in relative comfort…
Lady with Earring – c1981Biro (ballpoint pen) on Paper …I generally used whatever drawing implement I had to hand for sketching and I particularly enjoyed using a Biro. I think it was because a Biro is so unforgiving and tests an artist’s confidence and instinct to the ultimate degree…
Girl with “Two Mouths” – c1981 – Conte on Paper …Having said that, Conte sticks could also prove somewhat committing, as seen here. Of course, the girl only had one mouth! Unless my memory deceives me…
Girl with Large Book – c1981 – Biro on Paper …One of the paradoxes of using Biro was how one generally ended up with a strong likeness of the subject – again, most probably something to do with the way the limited medium forces the issue…
Lady with Large Bag – c1981 – Charcoal on Paper …The complete opposite of charcoal, where gesture and mood takes over from technically clean drawing, resulting in more drama, if less refinement.

PAINTING FROM PHOTOGRAPHS – mundane craft or true modern art?

Photography has played an ever-growing role in my picture-making since the first day of the second term, of my second year at Saint Martin’s School of Art. It was a bleak winter’s day in 1980 and I remember feeling particularity depressed about the direction – or lack of direction to be precise that my painting was taking. For the past four terms at the school I’d walked a wobbly tightrope between the pressure to emulate my tutors’ abstract expressionism, and my own innate passion for making representational images. The resulting stream of paintings echoed this dichotomy, rarely convincing as abstract or figurative; more often than not, a clumsy, unresolved mishmash of the two forms. If, as occasionally happened, I turned out a pleasing picture, it was always more by luck than by design, with me clueless as to how or why I had achieved this. 

THE COACH PARTY (detail) – 1980 – oil on canvas
This was the first painting I made after my talk with David. It was huge (the foreground figures were to-life scale) and liberating in equal measure. I was rarely happier or more stimulated when working on a painting.

Then, on that winter’s day in 1980, while I was pacing back and forth, dreading the coming weeks and months, a new tutor called David Hepher walked into my studio space, and my art career was changed forever. David, unlike all the other tutors at Saint Martin’s was a figurative artist and to this day I have no idea how he came to be teaching there, but for me, his sudden appearance was as timely as that of an Old Testament angel. I distinctly recall his expression as he first set eyes on my paintings – large canvases full of expressively, heavily painted figures of young people hurtling boldly through a romanticised Israeli landscape.

RESTING AT MONTFORT (detail) – 1980 – oil on canvas
This was the third painting in what I still think of as my “Hepher Series”, and I was already discovering, as he surely knew I would, that “copying” would provide its own form of interpretation…

A warm quizzical smile came across his face like that of someone unexpectedly bumping into an old friend. Then I remember that he sat down on my rickety paint-spattered moulded plastic chair. During the previous four terms at the school not one tutor had ever smiled this kind of smile when looking at my pictures, let alone sat down in my space. By the end of the ensuing conversation it became apparent that he was almost as relieved to see my work in that school, as I was thankful that he was now teaching there.

The Banyas Waterfall – 1981 – oil on canvas
One of my favourite spots on Earth; the source of the River Jordan, and almost believably, as the Macedonian soldiers believed two centuries before Christ, the birthplace of the god Pan. Notice the way I played with tonality and shadowing to create more drama…

The first thing he asked me was who my favourite artists were, and when I said Vermeer and Hopper he looked curiously at my wild and frenzied pictures. He then reminded me of Vermeer’s reliance on the camera obscura for achieving these perfectly painted captured moments and asked me why I didn’t use my own photos in a similar fashion?

CHURCH OF SAINT MARY MAGDALENE & GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE – 1982 – oil on canvas
This painting was commissioned, paid for and then returned back to me as a gift, when my patron’s new girlfriend took against it. It could even yet prove to be the first and only painting I sell twice!

While I’d already been using photographs for the past year or so as a form of rough reference, in the same way I worked from my sketchbook, David convinced me  to try something “bolder”, in his words, but hugely controversial; especially within such a temple of conceptualism and abstract expressionism as Saint Martin’s. He suggested that I take my favourite photographs and copy them as faithfully as possible in oils, like huge painted photographic enlargements. He felt certain that in this way I would find the inner artistic peace I was craving.

MOUNT MERON FROM SEFAD – 1983 – oil on canvas
In a similar way to the Casino painting below, I seem to have slightly shifted the angle of the tombstones, and altered the line of telegraph poles – I’m guessing to increase the sensation of being drawn down into the valley, before being swept up again toward the distant mountain.

And cutting a long story short, David’s empathetic advice proved successful, even though the pictures I went on to produce with this new method ensured that I would prove even more of a problematic enigma for most of his colleagues. Presented here are several of the large canvases I painted as a direct result of David’s tutelage. Some them have appeared on this site before, but never side-by-side with the “offending” snaps! 

THE OLD BRITISH CASINO – HAIFA – 1985 – oil on canvas
In some ways this is the most faithful photographic copy I made in the entire series of pictures (the removed fisherman notwithstanding), yet the subtle shift in angle and perspective is stark – and effective – I think?

NINE SAINTS OF SANTIAGO

MY PICTORIAL tribute to nine great kids

Regular readers of these posts will be aware of how prominently our 1991 trip to Chile has featured, and of its main purpose; for Dido to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool to support social integration and participation for children with learning problems. Thus far however, I’ve only ever touched upon that key element of the trip, focusing more on our impressions as first-time travellers to an incredible country (and-then reborn democracy).  

While it would be lying to say that whenever I hear a mention of Chile, my instant mental vision is not of mind-blowing epic scenery, it is also true, that this is always quickly followed by a starkly contrasting melancholy caused by memories of the faces shown here.

The plain truth is, and one of the main reasons I’ve avoided the subject as far as possible, despite the fact this happened nearly 30 years ago, there are issues of confidentiality which severely compromise my scope for description.

Suffice to say here, that with the cache of her Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship behind her, Dido was able to convince the relevant government authorities in Santiago to grant us access to a group of nine children (all boys in this case) with whom she could work. Nothing however could have prepared us for the circumstances in which the work would take place, for instead of a regular school, or, as we had naively expected, a special needs school, we found ourselves that first morning being driven through the security gates of a home for young male offenders – a borstal.

More shocking still, was that none of the nine boys – all of whom had either been orphaned or abandoned as babies and who all suffered from various forms of mental and/or physical disability – were themselves offenders or delinquents of any sort. Their only crime was to be born into a Chilean society, then-ill-equipped to properly care for them. Hopefully, during the years since, as Chile has developed into a more stable (the current, popular ructions notwithstanding) and socially sophisticated democracy, children born into similar circumstances enjoy a less bleak prospect.

Nevertheless, from the start of the week we spent with them, we were struck by most of the boy’s cheerfulness and sense of optimism, and their enthusiasm and excitement for Dido’s program of dance-based therapy. Despite some shyness and reluctance from a couple of the lads to begin with, by the end of the week all nine boys had become thoroughly engaged and were already showing significant progress with regards to their levels of creative social engagement.  

The idea had been for one or two carers and/or teachers working in the home to at least observe, and hopefully participate in the activities, and thereby learn to continue the therapy once we had left. Sadly though, despite their repeated assurances to the contrary, neither the government department who facilitated the project, nor anyone employed at the home showed the slightest curiosity or interest in what Dido was doing until the very last day, by which time, it was too late.

Thus, we left the boys for the last time with as much frustration as satisfaction, and saddened in the realisation that this week had probably been the highlight of their young lives rather than merely the beginning of a brighter future.

Following our return to England, and during the months which followed Dido often wrote to her Chilean contacts in an attempt to secure some kind of followup to her work – at least for the nine boys. Unfortunately, all her appeals went unanswered. The painting here was meant as both an expression of our frustration and also intended to insure that at least we would never forget those nine remarkable young individuals.

THE NINE SAINTS OF SANTIAGO – oil on canvas – 1992 – 100 x 78″ (254 x 198 cm)

This is arguably the most monumental of all my large paintings, and it is certainly the most deeply felt. The “missing” ninth lad, who suffered from schizophrenia, did not want to be sketched and is represented by the padlock in the centre of the painting. The padlock is obviously a metaphor for him and much more besides. The blues and lilacs represent the uniform they all wore.

The sketches above are all gouache on paper.

“WORKERS IN THE FIELD”

AND THE “LITTLE RED” ICE LOLLY

I think I’ve mentioned before on these pages how, very occasionally, I had my uses to the powers-that-be at Saint Martin’s School of Art. While generally I was shunned by most of the tutors for my work being “hopelessly representative”, every-so-often, when they required the services of someone with common-or-garden drawing and painting skills they came to your’s truly.

The story of my mural in Covent Garden was the most high-profile example of this expediency, but there was another occasion when my usefulness to the school was probably far more significant.

Apple Pickers at Rest – oil on canvas – 48″ x 72″ (122 x 183 cm) 1980 – the painting that caught the attention of the Chinese delegation…

It was shortly after the Easter break in 1981 when St. Martins received a visit from a delegation of Communist Chinese dignitaries from their ministry of culture, led by the minister himself. Although I was blissfully unaware at the time, the visit was part of a drive by China to open up access for their top students to elite academic institutions in the UK and North America. I subsequently discovered that their “shopping list” of British institutions comprised, Oxford and Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College, the LSE, the Royal Ballet School, and (incredibly to me at least) Saint Martin’s School of Art. I was equally ignorant of the fact that the visit mattered at least as much to my school as it did to the visitors, as even back then, foreign students were a lucrative source of revenue.

…A detail from the painting, with the ice lolly “mistaken” for a Little Red Book at the top of the image…

Thus, in effect, I was an unwitting cultural/commercial ambassador for St. Martin’s. The fact that my work was the polar opposite of everything that St. Martin’s stood for mattered not. That it was “safe”, accessible, “good of its kind” and most important of all, unlikely to be considered “decadent” by our communist guests mattered a great deal. When I later asked my head tutor John Edwards, why they didn’t simply visit the Slade School or the Royal Academy Schools, where nearly all the art was like mine, he pointed out that St. Martin’s was “so much more than a mere school of painting”. And that its fashion and film departments, in addition to its art and sculpture “made it uniquely attractive” to the Chinese. “In truth”, he added, “the art department was the least significant element” of the school and the main thing was “not to rock the boat”. As things turned out, not only did my work prove the steady ship my superiors had hoped, one of my pictures actually ended up pleasing our visitors more than anyone could have predicted.

“Workers in the field…” – actually local Druze hired labour – with ice lollies.

On the afternoon of the visit, the art department was cleared of students except for me, and the delegation was brought up directly to my studio. There were about ten Chinese, all men and all wearing expensive English-cut suits, and they were led into the room by John Edwards and the principal of the school, Ian Simpson. After some words of introduction from John, the visitors began to notice my pictures, which wasn’t difficult, as at that time I was working on a series of monumental canvases. However – and it’s a moment I shall never forget – as their eyes (and I mean their eyes, for they turned their ten heads as if a single organism) landed on “Apple Pickers at Rest” they let out a collective “ahhhh…” and all broke into broad smiles. Then, the leader of the delegation (the minister himself as it later turned out) looked at me and asked, or perhaps stated, “workers in the field yes?”. I think I just nodded. He then walked up to the picture, and pointing at one of “workers” contemplatively holding a raspberry ice lolly, he turned to me, and grinning and nodding enthusiastically queried, “Little Red Book, yes?”. Before I could respond, he’d already uttered something to his compatriots, to which they all responded with an even bigger collective “ahhhh…”, followed by more smiles and nods of approval. Finally, after each shaking hands and bowing their heads to me in turn, the principal led them out of my studio to continue their tour. The last person to leave was John, who, as he walked out the door, turned around and gave me a big thumb’s-up.

I was left feeling peculiarly frustrated, having been completely unable to explain what the painting was in fact depicting – a scene of Druze labourers, hired by the kibbutz on which I was a volunteer, enjoying a rest from picking apples with a refreshing ice lolly (ice pop). In retrospect, my being tongue-tied was a blessing, as Ian later informed me that the minister had described their visit to my studio as the highlight of their tour of the school and even inquired about the possibility of purchasing the painting. I declined this however, when it was made clear all the proceeds would be pocketed by St. Martin’s. After all, I thought, I had already done more than my bit for insuring the future prosperity of the school!

The eternal mystery of how?

or, getting it right and not knowing why…

I began drawing when I was a young boy. Not because I ever enjoyed it, or got any particular satisfaction out of it, but simply because I always could and it helped me get through the many school lessons I found otherwise pointless and boring – specifically maths and French.

Drawing, for all its tediousness was a survival strategy for me at school in a way similar to reading the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) had been for me in Synagogue – the main difference being that I actually found elements of reading the Bible genuinely thrilling (see my previous post).

I rarely got into serious disciplinary trouble at school, but the little opprobrium I did attract from my teachers was normally because of my drawing in class. Fortunately I suppose, my maths and French teachers regarded me as a hopeless cause, and often liked my sketches, and so they generally left me to get on with it undisturbed. I remember one episode in particular, when I must have been 12 years old, my maths teacher did finally loose her patience with me during an algebra class. She marched up to my desk at the end of the hour-long lesson intending to scold me until she saw what I had drawn… an epic depiction of French cavalry assailing the British infantry squares at the Battle of Waterloo. Instead, she simply leaned over my shoulder and marvelled at my felt-tip representation Napoleonic military mayhem.

Of the thousands of drawings I did, over nearly forty years, this is one of a handful which I feel is accomplished. It’s a pen sketch of an art school friend, and I like everything about it, including the foreshortening, the sense or weight and the hands. It’s something to do with instinctive decision making, but sadly, unlike the greats, from Da Vinci to Watteau, I never learned to bottle “it”, whatever “it” is.

Ultimately my drawing led me to the art room in senior school, where I learned the rudiments of painting, and which in turn led on to a foundation degree and then to a BA. It was all an oddly thoughtless and ill considered career path which was never really planned, but rather just happened to me.

Thus it is, that the vast majority of the thousands of drawings I did over the best part of 40 years are of distinctly average quality, and perhaps more interestingly, that I cannot begin to explain the hows or the whys of the half-dozen or so decent sketches I did manage to pull off.

All I can offer as a theory, is that practise really does make perfect, very occasionally.

VARIATIONS ON THEMES

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…

THREE DAYS IN DUBLIN (or mental ramblings from a bar stool) – Day 1

Art and Fish
(National gallery of Ireland)

Simon entered the gallery together with no fewer than three large groups of primary school girls. Giggling, squealing, pushing; their teachers straining to maintain order. One group wore tartan skirts, another wore tracksuits of royal blue and the last were in grey cardigans and slacks. As they entered the vestibule all together there was a moment when the three groups intermingled in seeming chaos, but then separated like so many distinct shoals of fish.

            Thus, they swam the morning long, throughout the galleries and halls, occasionally hovering before paintings deemed worthy of consideration by their smiling, earnest teachers.

           He remembered this unchanged ritual from the days of his own youth. A ritual, like so many school customs, with the noble intention of stimulating curiosity and enthusiasm in the hearts and minds of the young, yet in reality, sure to have quite the opposite effect. The bored expressions on the children’s faces were a constant and uncomfortable reminder to Simon of his own half-hearted presence in the gallery; the presence of a professional artist on vacation in a great city with too much time to kill and no excuse not to visit its national galleries and museums.

           Then it happened:

           Simon found that he had drifted into the neighbouring Yeats Exhibition, and in spite of himself he was instantly hooked by its presentation of the evolution of Jack B. Yeats’ genius and his work. Traversing along the limped, fluid surfaces as they gradually, naturally evolved from grave lucidity to pulsating abstraction, he felt for a moment that his life had begun again. The graphic exposition of the artistic momentum and imminence of Yeats’ painterly development reminded him of the sublime possibilities of art.

            One picture in particular seemed to radiate this quality. It was of a window, somewhere in Italy, thickly applied paint, like butter, with a half-inch palette knife. Beyond the open shutters, a warm, summer light, primrose and white.

            Standing before it, Simon smiled for the first time that day, virtually squinting at the muted brightness. The daubed light itself seemed to laugh gently, echoing his mood, and then, as he stepped back from the painting, tartan fishes once more engulfed him. A happy, excited shoal now, equally rejuvenated by the peculiar power of these truly great paintings.

            Perhaps, in the future, one or two of those little fish would return to this particular ocean by choice? After all, he had.