Friday, 22 May 2015

Tower Bridge from Bermondsey

As part of the process of collecting preparatory material for paintings for my solo show in London next year, I decided to take a walk along the Thames embankment at Bermondsey at dusk.

The view back upriver has Tower Bridge with the sun setting behind it, with the Shard to the left, and the dome of St Pauls appearing on the right the further you walk down the curve of the river bank.  I thought that this was an image which I'd like to explore, with the interplay between the natural and man-made landscape, and the lovely graphic elements of the buildings, the shoreline, the cranes, the boats and the water.

I like to take an 'essay' of photographs from which to refer, in this case capturing what it felt like as the evening progressed and the sun slowly set.  In doing this, I am creating a narrative of my own experience.  I was watching how the light and the colours changed, clouds moved, changing relationships between the passing boats and the buildings, exploring different angles and compositions, different textural qualities, the interplay of all the elements.  

When I am back in the studio I will be using these images as visual notes and reference points as part of the process of making the final oil paintings.

So come with me on a walk along the embankment at Bermondsey on a chilly evening in May.  it's very very quiet, and there's hardly anyone else around.....

Salt and Silver - Early Photography 1840-1860

"Photography has become a household word and a household want; it is used alike by art and science, by love,, business , and justice; is found in the most sumptuous saloon, and in the dingiest attic - in the solitude of the Highland cottage, and in the glare of the London gin-palace, in the pocket of the detectives, in the cell of the convicts, in the folio of the painter and architect, among the papers and patterns of the mill-owner and manufacturer, and on the cold brave breast on the battlefield."
 Elizabeth Rigby, "Photography" (1857, London Quarterly Review)

Today, you can't walk around London, or indeed any city in the world, without nearly getting your eye taken out by someone with a selfie stick.  

Photography is everywhere - a careless glut of self-indulgent instant image-taking that records in order to boast, to flatter, to make other people jealous of where you are, of who you're with, of what you're seeing and experiencing that they're not seeing and experiencing.  It records everything and nothing, is of huge social importance, and of no cultural significance.  It is, by and large,  a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, a record of the surface of things, of the veneer of lives, instantly and artlessly made, able to be deleted with a button.  Everyone is a curator of their own image, but conversely no-one gives much thought as to what they let posterity and the rest of the world have access to.

Back at the beginning of photography, 175 years ago, things were different.  Even when I started taking photographs as part of my painting practise, I worked with rolls of film with 36 exposures.  This meant that you had to think very carefully about the subject and composition of each photo.  Each was precious, conscious, considered.  You only had 36.  Then you had to change a roll of film, and that cost time and money.  You couldn't check the image or experiment in the field, and because of the investment you were making in terms of time and effort getting to the subject, you had to make sure that each exposure counted.

Salt prints were the first photographs on paper that still exist today.  Chemicals fix a shadow onto light-sensitive paper coated with silver salts, and until new techniques came in, these rare, sensual images captured modern life, the natural world and the human figure in rich, soft interplays of light and shade.  They are small and intimate images, whose subtleties can really only be seen when viewing the originals.

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Great Elm at Lacock, 1855

For example, in Fox Talbot's image of a huge, ancient tree, the salt print technique has a fine ethereal quality where the ends of the twigs reach tentatively into the surrounding air.  It's a giant, living organism touching the elements of its environment.  

A photograph was a significant and important thing, where time and effort and care, not to mention money, were lavished on its making.  This significance and importance therefore elevates the subject of a mere tree into a monumental portrait.

There are four exquisite rooms in this exhibition at Tate Britain, and although the technicalities are skimmed over, there are many memorable images.  The last of Georgian England and the birth of the Victorian age, survivals from medaeval and ancient times, architectural studies, images from the Crimean and American Civil War, and some startlingly vivid and intimate portraits.

Here is a stunningly immediate one, of a woman at the Crimea.

Roger Fenton, Cantiniere, 1855

Usually the wives of non-commissioned officers, Cantinières (women supplying food and drink to soldiers), played an important role in the support of French regiments in the Crimean War, running canteens and providing additional rations such as brandy to the soldiers.

A particularly poignant photograph is of Captain Lord Balgonie, a well respected soldier at the Crimea, but here recorded by Roger Fenton as a haunted, shellshocked and broken man at 23 - yes, 23.   He died at 25.

There are photos of Newhaven fishermen by David Hill and Robert Adamson.  It is striking just how self-assured and gallus these men are, striking a pose and filling the frame.  They take on the elemental sea and risk their lives every time they go to work, so a man with a new-fangled camera obviously holds no fear.  Here we are.  This is us.  Go on - take our photographs.

Thought to be a Mother and Son circa 1855 © Wilson Centre for Photography - See more at:
Thought to be a Mother and Son circa 1855 © Wilson Centre for Photography - See more at:
Thought to be mother and son, c1855 (c) Wilson Centre for Photography

The very fragility of the paper print also emphasises the fragility of the lives that they record, whilst at the same time expressing unspoken relationships between the subjects they depict.

Have a look at the relationship between these two people.  This mother's face clearly expresses something about her fear for the future of her child.  Has she lost other children?  There's something very tangible behind her anxious look, and also about the way that she holds her child's arm and looks up at him.  It's as if she's relying on him on some way, she needs him.  Maybe he's her only son, and she's relying on him purely to keep on living.  In any case, he's clearly her world, and she focusses on him alone.  All the folds of her clothes emphasise her twisting awkwardly around to hold on to him, as if she's afraid that he'll float away like a lost balloon.

He, on the other hand, looks outward, and has a far more complex expression.  What is it?  I guess he's around 11 or 12, and with his carefully smoothed hair and cravat tied sharply under his chin, he looks as if he is there under duress as he leans against the chair.  He looks up, straight at the viewer, with an oddly intense, confrontational stare.  There is a dimple at the corner of his mouth on his left that suggests a certain petulance, as if he is pursing his mouth, somewhat fed-up with the smothering and wants to rebel.  He looks as if he'd like to walk away and slam the door.

The salt paper print was also a very sensitive,sensual medium for representation of the nude form, allowing the softness of skin to be suggested. 

Mariette, Felix Nadar (1855)

The woman standing in front of the lens here is Marie-Christine Roux ('Mariette') (1820–1863), a professional model who earned her living in the ateliers of Paris. Her career ended tragically 8 years after this photograph,  when she drowned in the wreck of the Atlas, a steam ship on the way to Algiers. 

'Mariette' was one of the first paper photographs to represent the figure unclothed.   This isn't a perfect classical sculpture or an idealised painting, this is a real woman with underarm hair and the mark of her recently removed garter still on her right thigh.  However, she is still artfully arranged, revealing her naked body but covering her face, although with a somewhat confrontational elbow thrust out at us.  It's a tangle of life and art, truth and artifice.

Do go and see the show if you can, it's lovely.  Salt and Silver at Tate Britain 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Paintings at the 20 21

Here's a couple of photos of my paintings on the Duncan R Miller stand at the 20 21 art fair this week at the Royal College of Art in London.

Here's my paintings of the white sands at Camusdarach on the west coast near Morar (top), and the beach at Ayr with the isle of Arran in the distance (bottom).

These are tulips from my garden - unfortunately, due to the very mixed weather, there wasn't a very good show of them this year. They didn't seem to like the alternating spells of warm and cold weather.  Mixed in amongst these tulips photographed last year are the purple flowers of honesty.

Here's a close up of my Ayr beach painting.  The problem with photos is you can't see any of the juicy texture of the surface. There's a lot of paint goes into making those waves!

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Presents from Whitby

Here's some paintings from my trip at the end of last month to the Yorkshire Coast. - I thought you might like to see them.

These two are from the clifftop at Whitby one evening, with the moon reflected on the sea.  The night was cold and clear, and the sea quite still.

Moonlight on the Sea (Oil on linen, 12 x 12)

This is a larger version of the same scene.  There was still a glow in the sky from the sunset.

Moonlit Shore, Whitby (Oil on linen, 20 x 30)

This is a little further along the coast, looking back towards Whitby.  You can see Whitby pier in the distance at the far top right.

Sandsend (Oil on linen, 16 x 16)

Queen of the Night

Now, regular readers will know that around this time of year, I post a picture of my favourite tulip making her welcome spring arrival.  It's my magnificent Queen of the Night bulb, which I await which much eager anticipation.  

Here's how she looked on 2 May 2012...


29 May 2013..


23 April last year...


and 13 May this year...


I think the Queen may have abdicated... :-(

Monday, 11 May 2015

Exhibiting at 20/21 International Art Fair

I'm going to have paintings on display in London this week, at the Royal College of Art near the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington.

The 20/21 International Art Fair is held there annually, and this year runs from the 14th - 17th May.  

With dealers from all over the world, the fair exhibits top names in modern and contemporary art, such as Graham Sutherland, Duncan Grant, William Gear, David Hockney, Sir Peter Blake, Henry Moore and the Scottish Colourists such as Cadell, Peploe and Fergusson and Modern Scottish painter Joan Eardley.

I will as usual have work with Duncan R Miller Fine Arts.

Poppy Field, York (Oil on linen, 26 x 32)

For two free tickets to the show which you can print off, click here.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Accepted into Paisley Art Institute

I've had two pieces accepted into the annual Paisley Art Institute exhibition, so that's great news.

Here's one of them, a painting from the beach at St Ives in Cornwall, with Godrevy lighthouse in the distance.

October Sea, Porthminster Beach (Oil on linen, 26 x 32)

The show opens runs from Saturday 23rd May until Sunday 28th June at the Paisley Museum and art Galleries, High Street, Paisley.