Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Ornament, pencil 2011, 30cm diameter

Long ago I teamed myself up with Jessica Rawson to prepare an exhibition at the Royal Academy that would define and celebrate Ornament. We made a trip to the vaults of the Vatican to start the hunt for likely exhibits, and travelled to Vienna to continue the search. It was there over supper at the Sacher Hotel that we discussed in earnest what the show would say and what it might contain.

We questioned each other's choices of the previous days. It soon emerged that our concepts of ornament, its nature, status and role in art were quite different; in effect irreconcilably opposed. With tempers frayed we retired to our respective rooms.

I intended, before finally turning in, to jot down a few clarifying notes, but eventually sat up half the night composing a manifesto that I could read out to Jessica (and to Simonetta Fraquelli who was with us) over breakfast. I only half realised that this would mark the end of the collaboration and the evaporation of the project as a whole. It was this polemical pamphlet that some months later I presented at the RA's Architecture Forum.

Ornament frequently creeps into what I do, usually by way of borders and framing devices. That it was on my mind at the time can be seen in the drawings that obliterate the many agendas and minutes of Merry Meetings (D3 Editions 2005) including its cover illustration.

On my return from Vienna, remembering Derrida's contention that the margins are at the centre, I set about an ambitious exercise in pure ornamental mode. I soon got lost in its improvised and unsystematic convolutions and set it aside as unsolvable. My artistic performance had not matched my rhetoric.

I have now retired from the business of formal portrait painting and stepped down from committees. Taking advantage of new resultant gaps of time I could return to the drawing abandoned so many months ago. Unravelling and reravelling I managed at last to bring it off.

Duino Ornament, h42cm x w29cm, 2011

I made a smaller coloured version, making minor adjustments to balance the field of energy. To this I added, as if to challenge the ornament's autonomy, the opening words from Rilke's first Duino Elegy which kept running through my mind; with various translations forming and reforming as I worked. Not a title but an accompaniment. Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen? Perhaps this could be the official badge of the order of angels.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Vintage People on Photo Postcards

The transfer of my archive to the Bodleian Library might have felt like parcelling up one foot and posting it direct to the grave. But it has not been like that at all: the opposite in fact, for out of that arrangement has come new life for a long cherished project.

For twenty years I have been collecting real photo postcards of anonymous people. They all date from that period when portraiture suddenly became democratised. At the beginning of the twentieth century all manner of people, not just the wealthy, could for the first time in history possess their likenesses. What resulted was an inadvertent and unofficial visual census of the country.

Out of over a million of such cards that have passed though my hands I have brought together fifty thousand or so which now, in albums and boxes, crowd out what passes for my kitchen. They are grouped under titles that announce the obsessive typologist, Two Men, Tree, Pram, Bather, Nurse etc.

I exhibited a selection of these cards in 2004 at the National Portrait Gallery in a show whose catalogue, We Are The People should now be seen as a trailer to this current series of books published by the Bodleian itself. Readers was the natural first title in what promises to be an extensive but not expensive sequence produced by one of the world's great libraries.

Issued at the same time was Women & Hats. Weddings and Bicycles appeared soon after with the same generic rubric Vintage People on Photo Postcards. All four are now available and more are to follow. Watch this space: start clearing a shelf.