‘Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day’. Winston Churchill.
‘Only artists produce for each other a world that’s fit to live in’. D H Lawrence
In the late 1760s a young Frenchman , Noel Desenfans, arrived in London to teach languages, later marrying one of his pupils, who came with a fortune that her new husband used to acquire important works of art. Such was Desenfans’ success in the field, that King Stanislaus of Poland appointed him Polish Consul General in England with a mandate to collect pictures for the formation of a National Gallery in Warsaw. In 1795, when Desenfans had already acquired a substantial number of paintings, Poland was rudely partitioned by its neighbours, Prussia, Russia and Austria and Stanislaus was invited by the Russians to be a permanent houseguest in St Petersburg. In 1799, Desenfans, whose art collection now included all the unpaid works he had acquired for King Stanislaus, offered the whole to the British Government. Fully occupied with another war with France, the Government declined the offer. On his death in 1807, Desenfans left all his pictures to his friend, Sir Peter Bourgeois, a Royal Academician, who in turn, in 1810, bequeathed them to Dulwich College, a South London school founded in 1619 for the purpose of educating twelve poor scholars of the parish, but which, by 1950, was almost entirely focused on teaching the sons of the better off.
A gallery to house the collection was designed by Sir John Soane and built in Gallery Road, Dulwich. It opened its doors to the public in 1817, seven years before the National Gallery began business in Trafalgar Square. For several years I lived in the same Gallery Road, a boarder at the school that owned the picture gallery. It was too convenient not to be incorporated into the school’s curriculum and on wet, weekend afternoons, when the cricket was called off, we formed a crocodile and marched to the gallery. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the collection was still mostly Desenfans’ original, largely Baroque, collection and the gallery was not the ‘vibrant, cultural hub’ it is today with its glass-encased cafeteria, shop, website and colourful, outdoor installations for children. It was heavy duty for a ten year old, but among the grim Velasquez portraits and dark, classic landscapes there was the odd, saucy work by Rubens and there was Van Dyck’s titillating ‘Samson and Delilah’ to store in the memory and take back to the dormitory. The gallery was a pointer as to how I would spend my future leisure time; art would come before sport.
At school most of us drew and painted in our leisure time. At home my mother was an unhelpful critic – ‘Very nice, dear’, she would say as I presented her with another page from an endless portfolio of spaceships and dragons. How do life-long passions for a particular pastime originate? If you are a painter, is it from the covers and illustrations of our earliest books, or the pictures on the walls of our childhood bedrooms? Ideally, a hobby needs to get you to the very end. Keeping fit is not a hobby. I take heart from those photographs of Renoir and Monet in old age, sitting at their easels in their gardens, Renoir with his arthritic hands bound with rags, Monet half blind, both kept alive by their hobbies. Two of the more minor criticisms of my character that popped up frequently on my school reports were ‘needs to try harder’ and ‘gives up easily’. Recently, it came to me that after all these years, in spite of countless failures, I’ve never given up hoping that one day I will paint a picture that more or less lives up to my initial expectations.
At my next school art was discouraged, buried in small print in the curriculum and listed after every sport and every dead language known to man. Those interested in art were treated like vegans at a Texas barbeque. Schools think their job is to prepare us for a career and forget that we have all that leisure time to fill, especially the lengthy, post retirement bit at the end. Not all of us are interested in a career. In spite of the lack of encouragement, my interest in painting was consolidated by three events, all independent of the teaching staff.
The first was the decision to abandon watercolours and switch to oils. It was like parking the Vespa and slipping behind the wheel of a Ferrari. Watercolours are tiny, the domain of lavender scented, Victorian ladies; they prohibit the bravura brush stroke and lack the colour intensity and oozing beauty of a coil of oily pigment. Squeeze out some paint from a tube of New Holland and you will understand why Vincent liked to occasionally tuck into a tube of ultramarine. Watercolours are odourless; oils appeal to our senses. Although the smell of pigment is quite subtle, a good quality turpentine, distilled from the resin of Mediterranean pine trees, a heat-thickened linseed oil or a fine varnish deserve to be sniffed as you would an ancient cognac. Over time I have become addicted to resin and its Greek wine derivative, Retsina. Watercolours only require water, maybe a little gum arabic and a sable brush while oil painting requires a fascinating array of paraphernalia. My spare bedroom studio resembles Merlin’s cave, with its rows of bottles of siccatives, thinners, varnishes, glazing materials and gessos, forests of flat, round and filbert brushes, bundles of charcoal and selection of palette knives. Then there’s the romance behind the oil paints themselves, in tubes since 1841 when American painter John Goffe Rand patented the collapsible, screw top tube, without which, as Renoir pointed out, there would have been no impressionism. JMW Turner was a technical advisor to Winsor & Newton when they opened for business in 1832 but today their paints seem a trifle industrial compared to another, new British art supplier, Michael Harding. Charvin opened its doors in 1830 on the Cote D’Azur and has a very South of France spectrum. Try their Veronese and Prussian blue and you will be using the same paints that Cezanne used in his landscapes in Provence and around the Mont Sainte Victoire. Bonnard also squeezed his paint from Chardin tubes. Being French, Charvin likes to be different, using poppy oil instead of the cold pressed, extra virgin linseed used by most other suppliers. The Rolls Royce of oil paints is Old Holland, created in 1664 when a Dutch painters’ Guild began manufacturing its own paints. Rolls Royces don’t come cheaply and the more expensive pigments come at the same price as a box of Monte Cristos. Acrylics are an attempt to bridge the divide between oil and water, but the finish has a plastic, artificial feel and the colours lose the vibrancy as the paint dries.
Leave it to the French to sum up the subject in a few lines:
La peinture a l’huile
Est bien difficile,
Mais c’est beacoup plus beau
Que la peinture a l’eau.
A second epiphany occurred while reading a biography of Toulouse Lautrec, my first experience in linking a painter’s life with his work. As soon as I had put it down my future suddenly seemed bright and the road ahead clear. I no longer had to agonise over whether to seek a career in the army or join a sea of clerks in the City; I was going to be a painter and live in Paris. The Place du Tertre, a sort of open-air, art supermarket near the Sacre Coeur, seemed the ideal spot to set up an easel. The quality of the art work I had seen there was conveniently poor, mainly pictures of the façade of the Moulin Rouge or the old windmills that still stood in Montmartre. Most importantly I had a career objective that didn’t require the sort of swotting needed to become a brain surgeon or actuary.
Lastly, there was a visit to the National Gallery. At the end of one term, taking the special train that the school laid on for the sons of those parents too busy to collect their children, I left Charing Cross intending to make straight for Soho but instead, for motives I have forgotten, crossed Trafalgar Square and entered the National Gallery. Three paintings I saw that day I have never forgotten. The first was by El Greco, the Mick Jagger of Renaissance art, whose swirling lines and rebellious colours resurface in the later works of Van Gogh.
Next was a peaceful, Dutch, 17thcentury landscape and the last an interior by Fujita, a Japanese artist and print maker who joined the international brigade of Modigliani, Soutine and others in Post Impressionist Paris. Epiphanies mainly happen while you are young.
Years later, still determined to live dangerously, I planned to enroll at St Martin’s School of Art (located conveniently on the edge of Soho), but doubts soon entered my mind when I explained my intentions to my flat mate who had just signed up to become a Chartered Accountant. Accountancy was a mystery to me at the time, and still is, but listening, I could see that here was life insurance with the whole premium paid up-front and a ticket to anywhere. Plus, I still wanted to shop at Harrods. My mistake was thinking that accounting was something to fall back on if the paintings didn’t sell. Once a clerk, always a clerk.
The day came when I was freed of my accidental clerkship and transferred to the firm’s Paris office as a newly minted Chartered Accountant. I knew the instant I emerged from the Gare du Nord just how Vincent must have felt when he arrived in Paris, fresh from the dung-coloured potato fields of Belgium. Out with the Sepia, the Burnt Ochre and Van Dyke Brown, in with the Ultramarine and the Cadmium Yellow. Clerkship in Paris was not unpleasant and I was both unhurt and unsurprised when occasionally clients or new acquaintances were stunned into incredulity or laughter when I announced my profession. And then, while painting one weekend in my apartment, a thought suddenly struck me – Is this not what I had planned all those years ago at school, to paint in Paris?
Having clerked and painted for many years, I have learned that art requires courage, clerkship a clean set of numbers. ‘I believe to create one’s own world in any of the arts takes courage’ said Georgia O’Keefe, echoing Churchill who claimed the first quality needed in a painter is audacity. I still sit in awe of each clean, new canvas, convinced the first mark will eventually condemn the whole project to the dustbin. When you get going fear can make you hesitant; agonising over a brush mark will result in loss of spontaneity and will show up in the finished work. To show a completed painting to others is to risk exposing a lack of taste; exposing a lack of talent is less damaging. I start off each painting with a clear idea of how the finished work will look but with the certainty that I will not be able to attain the perfection of the original conception.
There are artists, like Gauguin and Van Gogh, who pursue their own feelings and own self satisfaction and expect audiences to come to them. And artists, such as Scottish painter, Jack Vettriano, who exploit the desire of the audience to be wooed, amused and entertained. Vettriano, one of the world’s richest contemporary artists, only began painting in 1987 when he was 36, channeling Gauguin by leaving his wife and job in educational research to apply himself fully to his art. Success came in 1992 with The Singing Butler, which last sold in 2004 for US$ 1,340,640.
Reproductions on posters and greeting cards are reputed to earn Jack a similar amount annually. Called ‘the Jeffrey Archer of the art world’ and ‘a purveyor of badly conceived porn’, Jack’s paintings are shunned by the galleries but popular with the public and celebrities with taste like Jack Nicholson and Elton John. So satisfy yourself before others. Still, Vettriano does follow one rule and that is to attach a story to a painting. You do need a point of view.
What is the purpose of art; does it need a purpose, by what standards do we judge it? Is graffiti an art? In the Gaza Strip it’s politics, in London’s Mayfair it’s vandalism, in Hamburg it’s an art movement. John Fowles (author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman), who knows about these things, writes in The Aristos that it is the artist’s job to describe the outer world, to express his feeling about that outer world and to express his feelings about himself. The explanation of self by the expression of self. At least that was the old way of looking at it; the principal gauge of art is now STYLE. Style is acquired by painting subjects about which you have a point of view, trying different techniques until you find one that you are comfortable with. If you spend your life copying you will never find a style and you will never experience the pleasure of composition or choosing your own palette.
Has my painting suffered from not going to art school? Yes, because some important techniques like paint mixing and draughtsmanship need professional instruction. Many may disagree, but if you can’t draw you will never produce great art. Rothko with his two fields of intense colour, Jackson Pollock and his whirligig drippings, both began as master drawers. Dribbling liquids haphazardly onto a ground, swirling them around until you find, by chance a likeness of aurora borealis will produce no more than a bit of harmless fun.
I have also learned to avoid sport as a subject to paint; it has never been a topic for great art. A notable exception is the Panathenaic Amphora depicting athletes at the Panhellenic Games in 530 BC.
If horseracing is a sport, paintings on the subject by Degas and Toulouse Lautrec may also be exceptions. It’s the horses that tip the scales; men and women engaged in sport present too trivial a subject to be represented in bronze or oils. Honey bee draws my attention to the mosaics in The Room of the Gymnasts in the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily. Art, like the Amphora, it undoubtedly is -and I put this anomaly down to time, the length of survival of an artifact, which becomes a factor in its beauty: survival in time seems to add beauty and interest.
‘Movements’ are a convenient way to study art history and satisfy our urge to categorise everything. What movement are we in now? There have been countless art movements over time, but most are short lived. Take Dadaism, an attempt to intellectualise art by adding a moustache to the Mona Lisa. Duchamp had the sense to resign from the movement and take up chess after The Society of Independent Artists unsurprisingly rejected his urinal as not being art. The urinal was not art but a statement about art and a forerunner of those future statements featuring a pile of bricks or an unmade bed. Dadaism and all other movements are mere footnotes to the two ‘big bangs’ of art, the Renaissance and Impressionism. ‘Art requires the right space’ claimed Rothko and we are fortunate that most Renaissance art is to be found in the places intended for it by its artists, that’s to say the churches and historic palaces of Italy. In the Uffizi I came across a painting of Madonna and Child. It was a circular canvas, freshly restored and sitting on an easel, just where Raphael, the Prince of Painters, would have wanted me to see it. It is the first painting in my collection.
Impressionism began in France and spread like a tsunami both into offshoots (Neo, Post and Fauvism) and geographically into, among other places, Bloomsbury where it spawned the Omega Workshop and ended up in its textiles. A hundred years later forgotten pockets of Impressionism were still popping up. The works of the Scottish Colourists, like a rare Bugatti found in a barn, were rediscovered the 1990s.
The Founding Fathers of Impressionism, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pisarro and Cézanne gave us those illuminated and brightened landscapes which were partly due to their research into the physics of colour. They also gave us a new painting method, alla prima, a quick, wet on wet technique that opened the door to we amateurs. I have chosen a Cezanne for my collection, Still Life with Onions, which I thought made a nice change from apples. Impressionism was all about the outdoors and still life paintings were unpopular at the time but Cezanne said ‘I will astonish Paris with an apple’ and he did.
Cézanne set the stage for the Fauvists, a group of wild beasts comprising the Dutchman, Kees Van Dongen and the Frenchmen, de Vlamink, Marquet, Matisse and Derain. I’m choosing a Van Dongen portrait – Woman with Large Hat (and bare breasts).
Some painters fail at the end, something goes. Van Dongen had the chance to go out on a high when he painted the portrait of French Goddess, Brigitte Bardot. Brigitte fed it to her cats. One wild beast, Georges Rouault, set me off in the direction of the German Expressionists and to the work of Ernst Kirchner. I’m finding a spot for his deeply disquieting ‘Self-portrait with Model’, painted in the atmosphere of insecurity that preceded WW1. When the Nazis launched their ‘Action against the Un-German Spirit’ in 1933, Kirchner was one of the first to have his work deemed ‘degenerate’; a few years later 600 of his paintings were destroyed to protect the morals of the German people.
To be a collector with money and taste in Paris in the early years of the 20thcentury must have been Heaven. Most painters then seemed to congregate in two Montparnasse cafés, La Rotonde and Le Dome where, for the price of a glass of absinthe, you could take home a Modigliani sketch. There were so many wonderful artists in Paris at that time – Soutine, Lautrec, Matisse, Chagall, Vuillard, Utrillo and two very talented ladies, Suzanne Valadon and Berthe Morisot. I’m not adding a Picasso to my collection; he did remarkable things and stood against fascism but he was unkind to his chauffeur and to his women. The sheer ubiquity of Vincent has cooled much of my former enthusiasm; I’ve seen his art on too many coffee mugs, tea towels and mouse pads.
Tourism had yet to be invented when I arrived in Paris. There was no waiting three months for a table at Maxim’s and if you were visiting the Louvre you needed to wake a sleeping attendant and ask him to turn on the lights. In the department of the museum devoted to the Romantics you will find The Death of Sardanapalus, painted in 1827 by a 29 year old Eugene Delacroix.
Based upon Byron’s 1821 poem of the same name, it depicts the death in 876BC of the last king of Ninevah, who, to avoid humiliating defeat by his enemies decides to kill himself after destroying all his prized possessions, including his concubines and horse. There are references to Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and the painting blazes with the sensuality and colour of a Rubens. You can feel the heat and excitement coming off this canvas; you won’t need central heating. Delacroix also provided the cover art for Coldplay’s album ‘Viva la Vida’.
Delacroix’s Spanish counterpart and fellow Romantic, Francesco Goya was caught up in the twin horrors of the Inquisition and the invasion of his country by Napoleon’s armies. The result were Goya’s breathtaking pictures of bandits and succubi, devils and dwarfs, witches riding on cats and women trying to pull out a dead man’s teeth after a hanging. I would like one of his macabre etchings but it might frighten the children so I’m choosing La Maja Desnuda, painted for Manuel Godoy, the Spanish Prime Minister.
Famous for the insolent way the little minx stares out of the painting at you as if to say ‘so what’ and the whisper of pubic hair (reputedly the first artwork to show this), La Maja was hung in Godoy’s ‘boys room’ alongside Velasquez’ Rokeby Venus and a score of other paintings of female nudes until it was raided and closed down by the Inquisition.
Whether you are painting, collecting or just looking, your choices will be bound up with your childhood memories. Mine are of the artwork of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Heath Robinson and later of painters Stanley Spencer, John Piper, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Peter Blake and Howard Hodgkin:
and David Hockney:
In 2018 Portrait of an Artist sold at auction for US$90.3 million, the highest amount ever recorded for a work by a living artist. Thankfully it is a painting that replaces the previous holder of this distinction, one of Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog sculptures, which to me always give off the same message – ‘Look at this trashy world we live in’.
If you are an Aboriginal artist your palette consists of charcoal, kaolin ochre, white and black because you’ve grown up with Nature in its dead, burnt and crispy state. If you grew up in the lush, English or Irish countryside your palette will be green, blue and yellow. The mood is peaceful and nostalgic, as in Constable’s The Hay Wain painted in 1821 and left unsold at that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It had better luck in the 1824 Paris Salon, where it won a medal and was praised by Gericault. The house on the left is still there today. The wain stands stationary in mid-stream to cool the horse’s legs and to soak the wooden wheels that can detach from the metal rims when dry. This is a painting about those ‘blue remembered hills’.
In 1999 English artist, Tracey Emin entered an unmade bed for the Turner Prize. My Bed failed to win the prize, pipped at the post by Steve McQueen and his home made video, but the fact that it was short listed caused a sensation. In 2014 it sold at auction for 2.5 million pounds. I didn’t bid as I was sure Honeybee would want to change the sheets. Between 1984 and 2019 only 6 winners of the Turner have entered paintings, the other 29 a mixture of videos, sculptures and installations prompting the question ‘Is painting dead, replaced by pseudo technology?’ In 1830 it was assumed the arrival of photography would kill off painting but it merely pushed artists, like Vincent, into distorting nature and using unnatural colours. Dadaism was once thought a brief threat but perhaps it’s back; maybe painting is not a medium that can express the amount of existing discontent. I’m quite unconcerned; I can always look at my own, un-made bed in the morning before I get behind my easel.
And then one weekend in Norfolk we lunched at the Gunton Arms in Norfolk, an 18thcentury estate, once used by Edward VII for naughties with Lillie Langtry and now restored and converted for hospitality by art dealer Ivor Braka. Ivor has decorated his hotel with an art collection that saves the locals a trip to London’s Tate Modern. There are David Bailey prints in the bathroom, a Lucien Freud painting in the TV room, a Damien Hirst hanging in the bar and in the corridor a Tracey Emin painted sculpture. Avoid this if you are about to go into the dining room for lunch.
Later I came across an exhibition of Tracey’s drawings at the Musee D’Orsay – think Egon Schiele in monochrome – convincing me that, out of bed, Tracey is a talented drawer.
The mention of Lucien Freud makes me think about how life imitates art:
The Venus of Hollywood, 2019
We only have a small apartment but I can squeeze in one more painting and it will have to be a Gauguin.
What stories exist, both in his own quest to find some nobility in life and in the paintings themselves! Hardworking, eternally poor Gauguin was only 54 when he died. If you wish to get near him you should visit the small Breton town of Pont Aven where he, Emile Bernard, Paul Serisier and others painted in the mid 1880’s and where cloisonnism was born. He also had some important advice for us amateurs: ‘L’art est une distraction. Tirez-la de la nature en rêvant devant et pensez plus a la création qu’au résultat’.
In 1916, thirteen years after Gauguin had died in the South Pacific, Somerset Maugham travelled there to research the exotic life of the French artist. The result was ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, published in 1919, which tells the story of a bank employee who, in middle life, abandons career and wife to devote his life to painting. After struggling for years without recognition he sets out for Tahiti, settling down with a young Polynesian woman in a hut whose walls he covers with astonishing paintings. Before dying of leprosy he instructs his companion to destroy his work after his death. Only on the discovery of the canvasses he had tossed aside in Europe does the world of art realize that it has lost a genius. It’s the story of a painter who was a clerk.