Monday, December 29, 2008

My painting XLIV

As at 23.12.08

Here as promised to myself (on target, on time though decidedly not under budget), at the end of 2008, is the first complete working of my picture. It stands like a newspaper chess problem awaiting some crucial endgame strategy. Like the Good News President I have to be black as well as white and make all the moves. So my new year's resolution is resolution itself: farewell to faintheartedness; dithering adieu.

Happy New Year to my shadow readers and as Yogi Berra said, if you see a fork in the road ahead, take it. Watch this space; things may proceed quite quickly as of now.

Friday, December 19, 2008

My painting XLIII

As at 16.12.08

The moment approaches when the whole surface of the picture will be finally activated. As in that last adjustment of a camera's viewfinder the entire image will suddenly be in focus and only then will I really know, without the distraction of untreated areas, what I shall have to do by way of revision and adjustment. I should reach this point by Christmas. Excitement and anxiety are mounting in tandem.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

My painting XLII

As at 5.12.2008

The scale of the bit-to-do-today, my giornato (see My painting XXVIII), has remained constant. At this stage of the picture, however, its size in proportion to the remaining area to be worked has increased enormously. At the outset, a year and a half ago, a section of fifteen or so square inches was little more than one four hundredth of the surface that lay ahead. Now, having (albeit deliberately) painted myself into a corner, each day's work is less than a tenth of what remains to be done. Soon it will be a fifth, then a half and then arrive at its own odd singularity. Which makes for nervous days. At that point the whole of the picture will be reopened and liable to revisits and revisions: the rules will change.

Friday, November 28, 2008

My painting XLI

As at end October 2008

Another stimulating month at Princeton. The Institute for Advanced Study was certainly the right place to see Dr Atomic in a live telecast from the Met. Much talk from those who knew Oppenheimer (notably Freeman Dyson) and fine film of the making of the atomic bomb (Wonders Are Many). I remembered the tiny triumph of finding authentic echoes of Hiroshima for A Postcard Century. Like most new operas Adams’s latest was a quarter of an hour too long but contained some brilliant episodes; and a masterpiece aria, Batter my Heart. Gerald Finlay was superb as Oppenheimer even though (according to the Institute Director Peter Goddard) he wore the wrong hat.

Mindful of all that, it was interesting for Tarik and myself to work with Jonathan Miller on a fragment of Heart of Darkness in an old New York synagogue on the Lower East Side.

In between bouts of writing about Akan Goldweights I stared at the print out of my painting pinned up on my office blackboard. In the last week of my stay I made some pencil marks on it, erased them, made some more... until I had an idea what to do next. Now back at the studio I have the painting itself to stare at. Things are somewhat promising and I’ve started tentatively attacking the last panel again.

Pencil over print out, late Nov 2008.

The day before I left Princeton I gave a short talk about making the Abbey Memorial. Part of the title refers to Baudelaire's marvelous remark that, whatever his circumstances 'the artist feels much like a prince travelling incognito'.

Monday, November 03, 2008

My painting XL

As at 31.10.2008

At art school we worked in silence. When eventually I graduated to independent studio life it occurred to me that listening to music would enhance the day: my LPs of Beethoven and Bartok string quartets could be just the thing. I was wrong. If I listened I stopped painting and if I painted I failed to listen, hearing just the first few familiar bars but only becoming aware of the piece again as the final cadence gave way to the hiss of needle on vinyl.

But priorities are priorities and I was always able to pay attention to the Test Match commentaries. Far from hindering concentration the spoken word seemed to take up the slack of a brain that would otherwise have inwardly burbled on about money and quotidien anxieties. When rain stopped play it was a double blow, although, as in winter, there was always BBC drama to look forward to after lunch.

Why not the mornings? Each day somehow seems a fresh embarkation with the chart to consult and a course to be plotted to negotiate once more the way out of dock and harbour. Towards the end of the morning (coincidentally when cricket also gets underway) the wordmind dwindles in its usefulness.

Changes in the wireless schedules drove the BBC plays to a less convenient time so I learned to record them for later consumption. Using cassettes brought me only a step away from the talking book, to which I am now addicted. Peckham library may be short on Trollope and Henry James but it is rich in literature I knew little about and I thank them for Elmore Leonard, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane and those others who have sustained the doze-prone artist through long afternoons.

Working on this painting has clarified for me how much music is embedded in what I do and why its actual presence in the studio has never been a help. I have made drawing and paintings over the years that refer to music directly and even use the graphic devices of notation, staves, barlines, note-clusters etc. Sometimes as in Last Notes from Endenich these can arrive at a virtually playable score

Last Notes from Endenich, pastel h75cm x w150cm 1975.

and at others, using the same elements, as in Concerto Grosso, they evoke for me an imagined music that lies, for a technically limited composer, beyond my reach to realise.

Concerto Grosso, oil on canvas h91cms x w122cms 2002.

Quantum Poetics on the other hand, while it carries no such specific baggage, has deep musical roots that have spread strongly as it has progressed. All along it has had the feel of a symphonic structure with motifs and variations. Its soundscape has suggested a divided orchestra with the dark areas represented by cellos and lower wind instruments and the lighter background provided by the higher strings and woodwind. These, which never play together, are linked by a viola and horn continuo (with interjections sometimes harsh sometimes soft from the percussion) representing the intrusions and extrusions of the main calligraphy. I do not claim that this great orchestra strikes up whenever I start to paint but often it swims into the mind's ear. More than a few times I have sung along either in my head or out loud.

Now, just as I approach the final chimes of a cadence to mark its end, I am off again to watch the red and amber leaves fall on Einstein Drive at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. This will seem as if the conductor has suddenly put his baton down and quit the podium before the piece achieves its proper resolution. It is because, were he to turn the next page of the score he would find it blank. I hope to come back with the last few notes.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Erasures Exhibition

As at 17.10.2008.

To all my Canadian readers. If either of you finds yourself in Vancouver on Nov 1st you are invited to the opening of Erasures which features the whole of A Humument. See Events for details.

Friday, October 17, 2008

My painting XXXIX

Advances on the Western front of my painting have been slowed by diversionary manoeuvres in the studio as I grapple with the last stages of preparing the memorial for Westminster Abbey. As mentioned previously we no longer speak of war. Hence this Conflict Memorial will be unveiled, with much fanfare and bemedalled dignitaries in full uniform, by a royal personage on the 29th October.

After much sieving and grinding with pestle and mortar I have my pigment ready, a mixture of earth from the world's battlefields. It is tricky to paint on round sectioned wire with its four dimensions, back, front, sides and the bit-out-of-sight-one-always-seems-to-miss.

Meanwhile at the Abbey itself, locked in a little worker's lean-to, Phil Surey is chipping away at the cloister wall to carve the lettering that frames the metal centrepiece.

It is uneasily strange to be celebrating warfare (I have not yet learned to say conflictfare) but the artistic problems remain the same; of probity in design, truth to materials and the combination of these with propriety to the subject, to present a unity.

Asked to make a statement describing the work for the upcoming occasion I tried to imagine what would make sense for the bereaved (and the comrades and friends) of the fallen, for whom the memorial should carry most meaning.

This memorial takes the form of a text (adapted from that provided by the Armed Services Memorial committee) worked in welded steel so that the letters of which it is made support and strengthen each other in free space. With this structural interdependence and the presence of steel, the generic material of ordnance, a military metaphor is tacitly present. This is symbolically reinforced by the overall covering given to the metal which is made up from earth gathered world-wide (with the assistance of travelling friends) from various sites of conflict. These date from 1066 (Battle itself) via Agincourt, the Somme and onwards to the present day. Fifteen such earth samples were mixed and ground together to make a pigment bound in colourless acrylic resin. Thus, in an echo of Rupert Brooke's famous poem, "some corner(s) of a foreign field" are brought to an appropriate place to indicate the long ancestry of national courage. The not unexpected resemblance in colour and granular texture to rust could be thought quietly to voice the artist's hope of an ultimate peace. Framing the metal sculpture and beginning similarly with the all important word 'remember' is the motto of the Armed Services Memorial Appeal carved into the fabric of the Abbey itself, a stone that is the same as that used throughout the world by the War Graves Commission. The carving is made as deep as is practicable to catch the maximum amount of defining shadow.

The services and their dead are memorialised in bonded steel, camouflaged in the earth of battle, with a surrounding call to remembrance marked in sanctified stone.

I am of course invited to the ceremony though, looking at the embossed card I am not sure what, for an artist, 'full dress uniform without sword' might be.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

My painting XXXVIII

As at 1.10.08

An encouraging thing about the painting is that, for all its pleas for revision, it does begin to benefit from its barmy method of execution.

As I had hoped it really offers two distinct experiences for anyone looking at it. Moreover these almost contradictory perceptions cannot quite be had simultaneously. Thus it protects itself from at-a-glance appraisal by the casual spectator (or lazy critic).

From any distance it reads as a relatively simple image of large calligraphic shapes floating in a variegated ether of lighter colour. Close up however it presents a continuum. Both light and dark areas are inhabited by ornament on a scale that keeps itself more or less a secret from even a few feet away.

A crucial part of the game (and every work must have the combative playfulness of a game) has been, from early on, to explore what Owen Jones described in the title of his unwieldy and wonderful Victorian tome The Grammar of Ornament. I have always regarded ornament as a high art - as distinct from decoration which is added to something rather than being the matter from which it is made.

Ornament often goes hand in intricate hand with script both in the great illuminated pages of Christian illumination and the masterpieces of Arabic art which respond to the restrictive anti-representational challenge of Islam.

One of my art school tutors said of some work I was doing that it was 'just like knitting'. He meant this to be caustically damning but, as time went by, I realised that what is originally seen as a fault in one's work can be its particularity; something that should be intensified rather than adandoned. So here I am, fifty years later, knitting again and with unflagging enthusiasm for the variations that can be performed on the themes of net and maze, interlace, foliation and meander. A thousand streams of influence come into play in this abstract vocabulary.

One such I am daily reminded of at the moment as I prepare my long delayed book (promised two years ago to Hansjörg Mayer) on Akan goldweights of which I have an embarrassingly large collection. These miniature bronzes, some figurative but most abstract, were used by the Asante (Ashanti) for weighing the gold dust that was their currency for many centuries. They exhibit a rich repertoire of ornamental strategies as in this sample group of the miniature boxes (cast via the lost wax process) for carrying an individual's tiny packages of gold.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

My painting XXXVII

As at 23.9.08

Approaching endgame on the painting. Nervous times. There is always the fear of the image merely falling off the eastward edge it has been surging towards so slowly and for so long. The last elements have to conspire not only to sustain the momentum but to make sure the viewing eye is persuaded to travel back into the choreography of signs.

The analogy with ballet is not inappropriate: the problem on the theatre's dancing stage is to perpetuate the action: the corps de ballet has to command the whole territory. Its larger actions head towards the wings with strategies for return.

Stage, force field, battleground, microscopic slide, astronomical image, book-page, monumental inscription, diagram, weather system, planetary surface, map, musical score... all these and other ways of imagining my picture in its boundaries occur to me. Most constant is the dialogue between the microscopic and telescopic; that I am visually inhabiting either a minute event in the subatomic world or a huge one on the gigantic slow cinema screen of the cosmos. The other analogy most frequently invoked is, as here, the dance.

I once saw the dance of life and death, briefly and by accident. Opening the wrong door in an apartment block in Havana I chanced upon a young couple in a completely bare room dancing the tango to a quiet gramophone. They did not notice my entry and I watched the grey clad figures seeming to flit through each other, merging as they parted, separating as they drew together; all noiselessly with unhurried speed. After a few minutes I quietly shut the door on that entrancement but have been haunted by their magic motion ever since.

Friday, September 19, 2008

My painting XXXVI

As at 9.9.08

My friend David S, who is trying to have his unofficial portrait painted, occasionally looks over at my picture. Once, glancing at it while sitting, he asked "What happens if you make a mistake?" The only answer is the standard philosopher's escape clause, "It depends what you mean by 'mistake' ".

Since the painting is an improvisation following neither drawing or (as in a portrait) objective event, mistakes are difficult to define.

On both the level of detail and of the larger design every mark compensates for the one before, nudging the balance this way and that, as instinct leads me. Each mark is in a sense a mistake that has to be corrected by the next. This, in turn, will be corrected by its successor to restore the equipoise of the part and the whole. Like tightrope-walking it is an endless sequence of adjustments (I recommend the film Man on Wire for those who want to see art in its final form and purest beauty of madness and risk.)

The whole painting is in one sense made of mistakes. One is reassured by looking at the Michelangelo crucifixion drawings done at the end of his life, when he faced the fact that outlines do not occur in nature. These little epics are battlegrounds of indecision in which the uncertainty principle visits art before it finds a home in science. They are compounds of truthful error that quiver before the eye.

Two other possible questions suggest themselves, one too metaphysical and the other too cruel to contemplate:-

What if the picture makes a mistake?


What if the painting is itself a mistake?

Yet David S is a part-time jazz trumpeter and is therefore aware that there are no mistakes in jazz - if one sounds a false or split note one immediately repeats it to show that it was deliberate. In painting as in jazz there is both need and room for creative bluff.

Friday, September 05, 2008

My painting XXXV

As at 27.8.08

This coming week I am to meet a postulator... a new word to me, whose meaning I should not easily have guessed. It is the title of one who states the premises and investigates the grounds on which some already venerated figure might make the leap through blessedness to sainthood. In the present case it is Father Paul Chavasse of the Birmingham Oratory who is in charge of the soon to be expected (and not uncontroversial) elevation of John Henry Newman. Fr Chavasse will give the homily at the Mass which precedes the public blessing of my mosaic of Cardinal Newman. The announcement of the ritual does not mention the name of the artist. Perhaps this is a secondary postulation regarding the work itself as having, like certain of the ancient ikons of St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, miraculously come into being and therefore to be designated as 'not by human hand...'

However I am asked to be there, a shadowy presence at a bells and smells occasion much looked forward to. All readers welcome (See events).

Study for mosaic of Cardinal Newman, 2007.

Quite early on in the evolution of my painting, at the point where I decided to expand from the panel that seeded it early last summer (see blog July '07), it became itself an act of postulation. In short, not to be bashful, I postulated a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one by this all too human hand.

Masterpiece is a word that hardly dare speak its claim. It is the pcitorial equivalent of sainthood, alhtough it originally signified a work which proved to the guild of St Luke that one had graduated from apprentice to full membership of the profession.

Now as I near the eastern edge of my painting I see the gap between postulation and confirmation. Decisions have become more significant. The picture has acquired so much identity that any move that does not comply with its implicit rules and constraints, or that shows a misprision of its rhythm and dance, will break what spell it has. I now spend more time staring at the picture than actually painting it. Like John Henry Newman it needs a miracle or two.

Monday, August 11, 2008

My painting XXXIV

Painting at 11.8.08

My new best friend is Vandyke Brown. Rummaging in my paint cupboard amongst tubes with labels lost or obliterated, some with corroding metal caps and others containing esoteric colours briefly flirted with (including one dark orange bought in Adelaide twenty five years ago marked Australian Flesh Hue) I came across an almost unsqueezed tube of Roberson's Van Dijk Brown.

I spread some out. It covered well, as we say in the trade, and mixed generously with other colours adding rich darkness without smothering their identity. Here was the very gravy of art, the deep baritone Bisto of pigments I had always lacked. Thus it makes a late entry into the painting and an all too late addition to my compost heap of terminal greys.

Colour prejudice is rife amongst artists and old habits of mind are hard to change. The colours I favour still echo those nine or ten in the Reeves First Oil Painting Set, a Christmas surprise from my mother, lavish for our circumstances, which had me rushing up to my room to set out palette and palette knife, turps and linseed oil, and the small canvas on the easel that came with the kit: only a beret and a smock away from being a real artist.

Within hours I thought I had been the first to discover that burnt umber mixed with ultramarine provided a very passable black. Ever since, until now, I have been faithful to the umbers, raw and burnt, thinking I would need no other brown.

The pleasure of an affair with a new colour has masked to some extent current hesitations and difficulties I am having with the painting, of which more anon.

Friday, August 08, 2008

My painting XXXIII

As at 4.8.08

The ritual of augmenting the sombre rosters of Terminal Greys is the most frequent in my working calendar. It contrasts with the longest cycle which is the annual round up of 20 Sites just completed by sorting the slides (what's a slide, mummy?) into a first and second set (i.e. the best and next best photograph of each site). The first set is that now kept by the South London Gallery and presented here on the website ( The second, its shadow, is lodged with the Tate Gallery archive.

Quite early on (in the late seventies), as advertised in the above recyclable poster, the Tate started to host a lecture/performance by me of the piece as it progressed. This happened as the result of the support and enthusiasm of Richard Morphet and Simon Wilson, and continued biennially until 1995 by which time it involved the filling and refilling of many a perilous carousel in the projection room of the Clore Gallery. If the work should come into fashion again a lap top presentation (unimaginable in 1973) would be simplicity itself.

Here in 1973 and 2008 is site 3, my house in Talfourd Road, which is really a nest of studios which have gradually crowded out any sense of comfortable domesticity. The main studio, in which I am working on my painting, occupies the whole of the first floor. I am writing this in the nominal kitchen, an attic at the back overlooking a huge gingko tree which dominates the garden (a branch of which features in my portrait of Iris Murdoch). The smaller gingko seen here was planted in 1991 over my mother's ashes (for which, with the help of Jennifer Lee, I made a terracotta casket). This site alone features people I invite to appear rather than any random pedestrian. Here is Patrick Wildgust, friend, collaborator and currently the warden of Shandy Hall, passing by. His presence is appropriate since the house, in 2008, is acting as an outstation of Shandy Hall whose ghostly artist-in-residence I have mysteriously become. In this same kitchen I am at work on some new pages of A Humument to be shown at Shandy Hall in September (see events etc.). Patrick is, as it happens, in London today for the performance of Heart of Darkness at the Linbury Theatre of Covent Garden Opera House. This marks the end of a week of workshop sessions which have (opera swallows all) kept me from my painting and, more tragically, from the first two days of the Oval Test Match which in itself has been a ritual event in my life since 1948 when I witnessed Bradman's all too brief last test innings.

Friday, July 25, 2008

My painting XXXII

As at 25.7.08

Time for a new brush, a ritual moment which, like the advent of the new ball in a test match innings, gives hope of fresh attack. The current brush will now be pensioned off for less exacting tasks in a process of demolition that leaves it in the end stiff and splayed; and ultimately binned. It has lasted two months but now shows signs, when shaken, of only reluctantly forming a point.

There are not too many jobs a valetudinarian fine brush can do, whereas a worn bristle brush can serve out its time at the scrubbing stages as here in the underpainting (now all done). These are the brushes seen sticking out of jars and pots in every photograph of an artist's studio.

One such is at the moment resting in white spirit for another ritual, the regular Saturday application of this week's Terminal Grey to one of the plank-like canvases that I have covered serially for forty years with the mixed palette scrapings of the week. Each of these mixtures in isolation looks like a murky grey with a bias towards warm or cool according to what colours I have most used; or paradoxically, put out but not used. However dull the blend of these colours seems it gains life by association with the other greys on which it rests or under which it lies.

Terminal Grey in progress, 2008.

Quantum Poetics (to remind myself of my picture's title) is now virtually the sole source for these salvaged pigments. Until recently it has acted in consort with various portraits on the go (notably those of Jeremy Isaacs and most recently of John Boyd that for me marks the pleasant end of my career as a painter of official portraits).

Sir John Boyd, 2008, Oil on canvas.

Part of the genesis of the Terminal Grey paintings was the desire to enjoy paint in and for itself - the pleasure of matière. Since the paint is often drying it does not go on smoothly and the final accumulation of twenty one layers of colour at the bottom of each can often be crustily rutted and richly pustular (a kind of muted homage to my mentor, Frank Auerbach).

Most of these canvases belong to Massimo Valsecchi in Milan though the Arts Council owns the first group. One, mysteriously, has found its way to the Fine Arts Museum of Budapest.

Terminal Greys, oil on canvas, 122 x 20.5 cm each, 1971-92

Whatever aesthetic virtues these paintings may or may not possess they must surely merit, as green exemplifiers of prescient recycling, some Gordon Brownie points for prudent economic management.

Friday, July 18, 2008

My painting XXXI

18th July 2008

I begin to sense that my picture as it now creeps towards its eastward edge will, like a protracted game of patience, finally 'come out'. It seems to be heading for an equilibrium, a state not unlike a perpetuum mobile in music, where hidden symmetries might allow it to end without an end; capable of extension in all directions as I had hoped... an excerpt, for better or worse, of its own eternity.

If this is so it would represent for me a minor victory in that, after almost fifty years of failed attempts, I shall have transposed into a world of colour and paint what I have only been able to achieve in terms of virtually monochrome drawing.

The abstract adventure of which this is a part started within weeks of my leaving art school in the early sixties. I rented the dingy upstairs room in a humdrum terrace house in Shenley Road (Site 2 in 20 Sites n Years) where the kindly landlady, as well as giving me tea and biscuits twice a day (all for £1.50 a week), allowed me to leave the windows uncurtained.

Shenley Road in 1973 and 2007.

The first work I started there was a drawing using those dialectical materials charcoal and an eraser, that had served me for endless hours of life studies. I wish I could remember how long I spent grinding away on what seemed to me then a large piece of good paper... certainly for more than a month. The paper seemed to know better what to do than I did. Two constraints were established: firstly that erasure is as much drawing as drawing is, and secondly that rubbing out, wiping down, redrawing gives three basic tones to work with (plus the tone of the paper itself). These elements, much transformed, also rule and inform the present painting.

Language drawing, charcoal, 1964. h50cm x w75cm.

Luckily (though it did not seem so at the time) the drawing remained, like everything else on show, unsold in my first exhibition in 1965. It hangs here in the bedroom still, the first thing I see every morning and the last thing I see each night. I miss it when it leaves the house to become part of a touring show.

Friday, July 11, 2008

My painting XXX

As at 11.7.08

Now back to more normal studio life, after long operatic immersion during which I had more occasion for sitting and staring at my painting than physically getting on with it. That is a necessary part of the job, just looking and surmising: yet it is a long way from theory to practise, even though the distance between chair and picture is only a few steps. Nerve can fail in that gap.

Thus as soon as I start to make marks I reenter the realm of the image and my intentions are subject to the tug and push, the twist and bend, of its gravitational influences. Although the painting inhabits only two dimensions the masses and intervals of shape and space behave as if they have a three dimensional existence. Attempts to go in this or that direction are urged off course and charmed away from planned paths, as dancers in a ballroom make and are made by the dance.

So really I am back in The Magic Flute, where the beasts must yield to Tamino's piping and the brutish slaves of Monostatos, unable to resist the chimes of Papageno's bells, move to their music. I should have known that art after all is all one thing.

Friday, July 04, 2008

My painting XXIX + The Magic Flute

The Magic Flute is now afloat in Holland Park. Even the accident prone first night was well received and moderately well reviewed: one or two critics went so far as to mention the design. Opera deals in magnified emotion both on and off stage. Behind the scenes, in rehearsasl room and workshop, blunder and wonder alternate with alarming rapidity. In the final few days containable crisis turns to panic: my own nightmare was to be left with two huge and prominent sections of platform which had been inattentively miscrafted at the scenery store. I got them both moved to a makeshift open air studio by the auditorium and sent for tins of colour.

This was my Charlton Heston moment, straight from The Agony and the Ecstasy, working at speed with brushes unfamiliarly large and visited from time to time by Simon Callow (in the role of Pope Julius II) bringing coffee in cardboard cups.

I finished the second of the nine foot long sections just as the orchestra were taking their places for the public dress rehearsal. A lot of earlier problems with costume and set had been solved by Billie Achilleos whom I met a year before at her graduate show at Wimbledon College of Art where I offered her the work experience as helper and gofer. Luckily she revealed all kind of talent and ingenuity and was properly designated Assistant Designer by the time the programme was printed.

Here is her photo of the initial Act One set and of myself and Simon after the harrowing first night - guess which one of these two is an actor. The image should have included our conductor Jane Glover who made sure that whatever went wrong on stage we were never without the full riches of Mozart's miraculous score.

My Painting

The comments above explain why my picture has not moved on very much. This is the current state of play. I am hoping for a quiet summer of consolidation in good light, with few phone calls and cricket on the radio.

Beginning of July 2008.

Friday, June 20, 2008

My painting XXVIII

Painting at 17.6.2008

A sprained groin keeps me away from Magic Flute rehearsals. Apart from the occasional painful twinge I am best off sitting at the easel; a willing prisoner.

Last month in Florence in Santa Croce's wonderful space I wandered from fresco to fresco. Occasionally a shaft of light picked out the boundaries of the separate areas of plaster prepared for each day's work. Such a patch was called a giornato, the expanse which would have to be painted that day since, in buon fresco, fresh plaster had to be used. Many of such sections were imposingly large, ready for two or three square metres of limbs and complicated folds of drapery. Even the smaller surfaces, enough to encompass a face or two, were substantial.

At the end of today I somewhat ruefully compared my own giornato which measured barely three square inches, less than a thousandth of the area a good professional would have expected to cover six centuries ago.

Suddenly, however, I remembered that only a mile away the team at Capital Scenery was painting 150 square metres or so of my floor design for Act I of The Magic Flute. Also, north of the river, near Red Lion Square, the finishing touches were being put to a mosaic of Cardinal Newman that I designed some years ago for Westminster Cathedral.

So (quantatively at least) honours are, for once, more than even.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

My painting XXVII

Progress at 10th June 2008.
re Jeremy's comment.

Yes, it would be good to have a flickering account of the picture's evolution and (for some while) I've been bearing that in mind. It would not be the first time I've made such a record... Drawing: A Film was the most ambitious attempt in 1976 (see Works & Texts p.93). It occupied the same space on the same wall of the studio that now hosts these painted panels. With improved technology, and expert monitoring by Alice, this work should make a better-told story when organised as a film.

Crisis weeks on The Magic Flute (not helped by discovering I've been working to the wrong measurements) means slow progress on the painting. But I look at it from time to time each day.

Friday, May 30, 2008

My painting XXVI

As at 30th May '08

My 71st birthday, and a couple of days off spent with F in Florence in the splendid apartment of generous friends. Sitting here on their terrace I can see among the famous silhouettes the top of the building that I drew sixty years ago when, propped up in a hospital bed, I copied an illustration, itself no doubt fairly crude, of Giotto’s tower from a book. I still remember the excitement of having a fine sheet of white paper on which, with a mapping pen and sticky Indian ink, I followed the fascinating lines of the decorative façade. I suspect it was the first thing that I had made that I thought of as art… a special piece of paper with something special on it.

It was a one day wonder in the ward and considered by nurses and fellow patients to be amazingly (I remember the word most often used) ‘lifelike’.

I’d no doubt blush or smile to see it now. But what would my eleven year old self think were he to open his future studio door and see the painting that he is doing in 2008? He might well be amazed, even dismayed, though 'lifelike' would be the last word he would reach for.

Lifelike, however, is a term that has gained in amplitude. Our image bank now contains the galactic choreography revealed by the Hubble telescope and the organic dances that, in miniature parallel, are presented by electron miscroscopy.

We begin to apprehend a unity in the cosmos at the visual level. Open any scientific journal and it is hard to tell without reference whether any illustration is of an infinitely large or infinitely small event; especially since they are made cousins by the current taste for schematic colour coding.

To be armed with this larger license as to what is lifelike becomes as frightening as it is exhilarating. Even the panels supporting my picture teem with inorganic activity as, in all directions and without end, subatomic particles ping and caper about through its inert-seeming fabric. On top of this my picture is a battleground in which delicate manoeuvres in suspended combat combine to describe a hesitant moment of a situation in flux.

Photo. D.S.

Looking again across to Giotto’s tower I register that it is itself lifelike. Its austere intricacy, perfection of marble interval and balanced dialogue of dark and light, mirror platonically something of the structure of the world.

Having called these notes (as republished in Turps magazine) The Biography of a Painting, I have implied yet another version of lifelikeness. The history of the picture’s making is the story of its life, its moving through time to a close. Since I am edging on to the final panels it more and more resembles my own life which has a great deal more past than future. Unlike human existence however it invites revision and, at the end of the last panel (having closed off in one sense the future) I can go one better than nature and reopen the past.

Friday, May 16, 2008

My painting (XXV) & The Magic Flute

As at 9th May '08

Over the next few weeks progress on my painting will slow down as more studio time is taken up with The Magic Flute, now only six weeks from opening night.

The long all-licensed time of fantasy is over for director Simon Callow and his designer when they could hoot and bray and throw their toys out of the playpen. Now the Real People take over, the technical team armed with hammer and needle, tape measure and plan. Impressionistic schemes must be turned into reliable structures and scribbled drawings develop into feasible costumes.

Sketches like these have to be carpentered and painted to make practical doors in a firm wall.

First study for back wall with nine doors, Act 1

First study for back wall with nine doors, Act 2

Making proper working drawings which answer the questions, how thick, how high and what precise colour, is my current task.

Somehow panic strikes every production as if it were a necessary ingredient to theatre. Keeping up with Simon's quicksilver shifts of notion and scheme has provided the excitement so far. Now all must be transformed into low budget reality.

So it must have been with the mercurial Schikaneder, the performer, librettist, director and impresario whose original show this was. Who else would, within the first five minutes, have a Japanese prince attacked by a snake and rescued by sinister veiled ladies, then left to exchange existentialist repartee along the lines of Waiting for Godot with a man very like a bird.

Sarastro's emblem

Some details can be fun to do. Here is (for the Parsifal aspect of this multi-faceted piece) Sarastro's emblem of office, a freehand drawing to be enlarged and printed on cloth. As a perk of the job I will get the wardrobe dept to produce a T-shirt similarly emblazoned to add gravity, power (and maybe some magic) to my ping pong.

Friday, May 09, 2008


Here with the two boys and their schismatic teddy bears, Mahomet and Ali, is the companion card, My golliwogg’s called Jesus. The double ‘g’ at the end of the word is the original spelling in the illustrated stories of Florence Kate Upton published just before the end of the nineteenth century. Bears existed as dolls at that time but were named Teddy after Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 when he seems to have spared a bear on a shooting trip (during which presumably he killed lots of other things). Both gollies and teddies were at the height of their popularity when these photographs were taken by their anonymous postcard photographers around the time of the First World War. I had one of each as a child in the Second World War, among other worn, handed down dolls, three of which are described in Curriculum Vitae I.

Curriculum Vitae I, Oil and acrylic on board, 150 x 120 cm, 1986-1992

Except for CND marches in the fifties and, during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa (when I joined a group which showed internationally under the heading Artists Against Apartheid), I have not been much of a political activist.
Slegs Vir Almal (Reserved for everybody), Silkscreen, edition 50, 1976.

I mistrust all ideology and even managed, though strongly influenced in matters musical by Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury, to dodge the Red Dawn Rising Over Luton. In fact the only card-carrying political affiliation I have had is with Clapham Young Conservatives having early discovered that their ping pong facilities were much superior to those of the Young Socialists.

Ping pong diplomacy did not end there. Salman Rushdie, at the height of the fatwa, adopted a deliberately irregular routine, with much cloak and daggery in the coming and going, of portrait sittings combined with ping pong and pizza. The story of the teacher and the teddy bear brought back memories of that passive activism; of painting Salman, sometimes with an armed guard in the studio and always with heavy back up outside.

Salman Rushdie, Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm, 1992

When illustrating my translation of Inferno I also made a picture of both Mahomet and Ali, to whom Dante gives such short and brutal shrift in Canto XXVIII. That was in the early eighties and then one hardly needed to give it a second thought.

Current Islamic orthodoxy bans depictions of the prophet. This applies to Moslems of course, but cannot to those who hold other religious beliefs (or no belief at all). Why shouldn't other faiths, sects and cults claim equal rights to make their rules apply to all? Overwhelmed with a Swiftian deluge of observances we might soon be struggling to remember if the Ammonites decreed that we should wear a funny hat on a Tuesday or if the Theodolites commanded that we should not eat turnips in June.

My painting XV

As at 9th May '08

I return to my painting, if only to note ironically that it shows the clear influence of Islamic calligraphy. It was precisely these strictures against description of the natural world that made the finest Islamic artists probe the expressive possibilities of script and bring an often sublime inventiveness to enrich to the art of the world.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

My painting XXIV

Early May 2008

Although I shall still put 'My Painting' at the head of these instalments in the biography of a picture I have, at long last, found a title for it. Of the many words that have been churning around in my head two have come to rest together and seem to sum up what I think I am trying to do. QUANTUM POETICS is a juxtaposition which may even contain or conceal an unexpected truth. Unfortunately 'quantum' is a term much thrown about these days and needs to lassoo a tough qualifying companion to validate its use.

It would not take long to write out what little of the little that is understood of quantun dynamics I myself understand. Luckily however, in my own world, thought is often pictorial and imagery occupies the place of verbal or mathematical analysis.

Daunting explanations in print and conversation, while indeed enabling me to have a partial grasp of actualities, generate at the same time more freely formed embodiments in visual terms. These often link to the intuitions of the past which, in pattern and design, for 70,000 years have expressed things that were not ripe for use or available to knowledge.

Thus I am reminded again of how much human thought has been secreted over millennia in the rich resource of ornament. It was there for example that abstraction waited patiently for the twentieth century to discover and realise its riches.

Perhaps an imaged response might even have a modest purpose. What it can do is to try to articulate a part of that field of wonder that recent science has revealed, and which the art of the past had fragmentarily intuited. This picture is but one hesitant attempt at such a non verbal commentary, a contribution to the beginning of a poetics of quantum theory.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Periwinkle Diary III

On the last day of April I drew the seventh and final periwinkle of this year’s Periwinkle Diary (see Blog April 2007) started in 2006. Nothing like a quietish pencil drawing from nature to steady the mind and hand. Now that I have more or less retired from portrait painting I think to get back to life drawing (where all the ladders start); when I find the right model. Meanwhile the periwinkle is an uncomplaining substitute that needs neither rests nor cups of tea. All these periwinkle flowers are, for the first time, homegrown (tended by Megan in the front garden), so no raiding Ann's display up the road. Here are four of the current crop.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My painting XXIII

Late April 2008

Peter K asks whether I’ve found a title yet, having noted my reticence about that problem lately. Well, almost, I think, as the work itself moves quietly on. Strangely enough while this picture stands in need of a title I spent most of last Sunday at the Bloomsbury postcard fair with a title that is in search of a picture.

In the vein of the exhibition We Are The People, where I showed a sample of my embarrassingly large collection of old photographic postcards, I have one card which shows two anonymous boys with their teddy bears, which I want to use for half an evenhanded diptych. It will be entitled ‘Our teddies are called Mahomet and Ali. They are always fighting’. This refers of course to the glum affair in Sudan where a teacher was imprisoned for allowing her pupils to call a teddy bear Muhammed, the world’s most common first name.

The other half of the diptych calls for a postcard image of a similarly anonymous girl holding a golliwog, the title of which will be ‘My golliwog’s called Jesus’.

I did in fact find one card that may be right. In case a better turns up I’ll wait to put it up until the next entry at which time I will also divulge the title of my painting, on which multiple cliffhanger…