Friday, 31 December 2010


Detail from Ben Johnson, Preparatory drawing for 'Looking Back to Richmond House'', 2010, superimposed on the geometry of Canaletto's The Stonemason's Yard © Ben Johnson 2010. All Rights Reserved DACS

NATONAL GALLERY Glad you liked it. Would you like to share?



There are just three paintings in Ben Johnson’s exhibition, Modern Perspectives, in Room 1 of the National Gallery. They are cityscapes of London, Zurich and Liverpool. Photographs taken from the rooftop of the gallery helped to shape the London panel, shown here. The geometry of the painting was also influenced by Canaletto’s Stonemason’s Yard  on display in a room nearby. Like Canaletto, Johnson manipulates the topography to create an ideal view. The cityscape is half real, half imagined.

A crowd of us stand quietly behind a barrier in this smallish room to watch Johnson and his assistants working, Each section is painted using an overlay of vinyl stencils which are cut out by a computer from drawings made by hand on the computer. The term for removing the stencils is 'weeding'. Although the preparation is a team effort, all the paint in his vast palette is mixed and applied by Johnson himself. As we watch he works away, drawing us in,  reminding us ‘that every work in the museum is the product of people getting their hands dirty and often the product of collaboration’.

I begin to feel restless. Watching an artist at work is absorbing, but how can I  get past the process and into the picture? ‘Stand in front of the painting’ Ben Johnson is quoted as saying, ’Approach the physical reality of paint on canvas with an open mind and a new subject should arise...a  subject or image should dissolve and be replaced with the reality of now – of being in the present moment using just paint and canvas as an object of concentration. The image is just an illusion. The experience of observing is a reality’. 

I can’t do that with work-in-progress because it’s too busy, so I turn away to the picture of Zurich hanging on a wall close by. The note says that the canvas took the artist and three assistants two years to complete. It’s a city I know and love, shown pure and true under a clear blue sky. It’s hyper–real, a term I first heard in 1993 when Philip Harris won the BP Portrait Award First Prize with his astonishing painting Two Figures in a Shallow Stream. Meticulous detail means that textures, surfaces, lighting. colours, all appear clearer and more distinct than in ‘reality’.
Nothing stirs in this Zurich. People, traffic, the changing shifts of weather are all absent and what is left is space, silence, stillness. I notice a 6-paned window half lit, half in shadow and feel the sheer pleasure of the warmth of the sun. A solid river Limmat, usually frisky, bisects the painting and flows into the lake.  Shimmering water it undoubtedly is but it is present, ‘there’, in a way which is difficult to describe.

            Johnson is quoted as saying his paintings are ‘an attempt to find that still point in the turning world TS Eliot searches for in the Four Quartets'. I think it's something most of us search for in our more reflective moments. 'The paintings are about orientation and grounding, about a certain contentment you feel in an exact place at an exact time under exact light'. 

Tuesday, 28 December 2010



 As I walk to Gimpel Fils the snow, which earlier had been floury and fluffy, has turned into pellets the size of pine nuts which settle on my faux fur coat. I see Irvin’s work every day because one of his prints, Merrion, lights up our living room.  When I met the artist some years ago at a Caroline Wiseman Gallery party, I asked him if Merrion was a Welsh name.
 ‘No, Irish,’ he said, ‘I named it after a Dublin Square I walked across every day when I had an exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Society and was living at Trinity College.’
A young man with a shaved head came up to us. He said he’d just bought one of Irvin’s paintings (not, like me, a mere print).  Irvin asked him ‘What do you do to keep the wolf from the door? ‘
 ‘I write software for banks'.
Irvin turned back to me, ‘As your husband is a man of the cloth, I can tell you a story I don’t often tell. There’s a Welsh clergy couple who are convinced I’m sent by God. I said I wouldn’t go that far, but they say ‘We love the energy and colour and beauty and vitality in your paintings. They remind us of what the world can really be like, what’s there if we have the eyes to see'.
Inextinguishable, acrylic on canvas. 214 x 305 cm  
A catalogue quotes  Henri Bergson's version: What was mobile and frozen in our perception is warmed and set in motion. Everything comes to life around us…we feel ourselves uplifted, carried away, borne along by it. We are more fully alive…’ .

 So I’m standing on a frosty morning in Gimpel Fils in Mayfair. There’s no one there. Even the office/reception is behind a split wall. But the place is a riot of energy. Spectacular paintings are exploding round the room on the pale walls, changing, becoming, moving, growing . Irvin gave up painting big canvases some time ago but here he is back again. It looks like the work of an extraordinary young energetic artist who is truly in love with painting. He has no assistant and has to rely on his own muscle power. It took three months to paint.
Back at the party I went to a few years ago, the gallery owner joined us and announced to Irvin that in New York she could sell anything done by the YBAs (Young British Artists).She smiled and said ‘Shall I turn you into one?’
Irvin is eighty eight years old, but the spirit within him is truly inextinguishable. › News › Obituaries          
Paul Moorhouse in his Albert Irvin: life to painting said that  'walking into a room of Irvin’s paintings is like entering a crowded restaurant where you immediately sense the atmosphere – lively, celebratory- but where do you sit? That’s the moment you’re drawn in…'
Mary Rose Beaumont: Albert Irvin: the complete prints 
Fiona Maddocks; article in the Royal Academy magazine (Winter 2010)


Monday, 13 December 2010


After a celebratory family lunch at the British Museum, two of us slope off to find some contemporary art...this feisty driver and his dashing moustache and his tram are exactly right. The colours are pure and bold, the shapes abstract – it’s a flag-waving sort of picture. 

And why is this plate in the British Museum? His tram is the kind which revolutionised Russia’s transport system in the 1920s and the plate is here to celebrate it. In 2004 the Vice President of Moscow’s Integrated Energy Systems (IES) visited the Museum and was so inspired by its splendid collection of commemorative plates dating back to the 1920s, that he commissioned twelve new ones. A year later they were ready to mark the 85th anniversary of the electrification of Russia, linking current achievements with the past.

So where is the 1920s set of plates? We find them at the other end of the gallery where there’s another surprise. The plate on the right will already be familiar to many because it's Number 96 in The History of the World in 100 Objects. (By chance Number 97 is Hockney’s In the Dull Village, about which I’ve already blogged). It was designed by Mikhail Adamovich in 1921 and shows a purposeful man, clothed in red, in his hand a hammer ready for any nonsense, his feet trampling KAPITAL on the rocks, thus releasing the dynamic forces of industry for the benefit of workers.

The story of the plates begins after the Russian Revolution in 1917 when the Imperial Porcelain factory at St Petersburg was nationalised. Before then its products had gone exclusively to the Imperial Court. If you turn to 

you will discover the intriguing reason why Adamovich's plate is so special and why it was chosen.
The art director appointed after the Revolution had the factory painters retrained and called in new designers. He welcomed different artistic traditions such as Russian folklore, classic history painting, and Futurism from Italy. The new Suprematist style of abstract shapes and pure colours drenched in feeling was introduced by the artist KazimirMalevich. There’s a collection of medals nearby too, paying tribute to advances in power, energy and engineering around the world. People who work in those areas are often invisible until something goes wrong. It’s good to see them in such spectacular limelight.

Monday, 6 December 2010


Victoria  Rance has been involved for some years on works of art for St Andrews, a community and worship space opened in 2006 by Princess Alexandra. It’s on the site of one of several Waterloo churches destroyed by the blitz in World War II. Last week I heard Rance say that in some ways a church is better than a gallery for an artist. Why? Because in church you are expected to respond to what you see. But unlike traditional church art, contemporary art doesn’t force itself on you.

In setting up the commission the vicar, Richard Truss, had stipulated that any art work had to be free standing and movable, as every space would have many uses - worship, community activities, orchestra rehearsals, parties, youth work and theatre rehearsals (the church is in Southbank).  He visited Vance’s studio with Rosa, the oldest member of the congregation, who noticed a sculpture woven from fishing line which she liked. You can see the end result: an upturned boat made of forged steel which has been sprayed with hot copper to add warmth. Blue glass balls are woven into the pattern, hinting at fishing floats and the sea itself (St Andrew was a fisherman). The upturned ‘boat’ also echoes a mandorla, a niche found in church walls which frames figures of Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints in traditional Christian art. The window is Rance's too.
These are the drawings for the other outstanding work: the baptismal font placed in a small walled courtyard outside the worship space. It is mysterious,  neither flower nor fruit nor seed pod, but that curve is tactile, warm and mysterious. The fluted top is at arms’ level – just right for handing a baby over. It’s unusual to have christenings outside. ‘What happens if it’s raining?’ ‘We get wet, which seems not inappropriate for a baptism’. Everyone files out and in that intimate space each person, even the children, get to see both the font and the action. 

Saturday, 4 December 2010


This is Arcadia 1 2007, one of two exquisite wall paintings in the current exhibition Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Work at the National Gallery. It floats on the wall, boundless. Not bundled  up into a neat rectangle. It’s vital, free, and exuberant. The imagination rides the waves, soars over the landscape colours. Indeed the wall itself looks less than solid.

Yet the paint is flat, matt, uniform, and utterly still. If you go to see accompanying films in the Sunley Room cinema, you get a close up of her assistants painstakingly applying paint centimetre by centimetre and you hold your breath in case a hand should waver ever so slightly.
Riley wanted to demonstrate the relationship between her work and the National Gallery Collection so she asked for a selection of paintings from the Gallery’s collection to be included. They are  Mantegna’s Introduction to the Cult of Cybele to Rome (1505–6), Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1507), and three studies by Seurat. It was the Mantegna which gave me the same sense of optical illusion – I had to stand by the gallery wall to look back along the painting to make sure that I was looking at something two-dimensional painting, not a relief with carved or modelled forms. 

Mantegna reminded me of Movement in Squares 1961, the first painting I saw of Bridget Riley’s - black, white, straight lines, repetition, what was there to like? But I knew I would never forget it. Each step you took gave you a new view so there wasn’t ‘a picture’ to see, but myriads of them. In 1996 I used the design (with permission) as a catalogue cover at Church House, Westminster.  
One critic looked back at ‘the queasy fizz of 60s’ painting', but Bridget Riley describes what was really going on:
(In the 60s) We looked back to an imaginary past long before the war, & it was attractive, so we endured the war by colouring in a picture book of dreams & longings about the future .The  60s provided a present where temporal tensions were released. The result was an explosion of confidence & optimism, elation & drive which at the time seemed completely normal  
READY, STEADY, GO, Painting in the 1960s, Arts Council Collection 1991

Three years ago the Hayward show ‘How To Improve the World: 60 years of British Art’, looked back on what was ‘arguably the most fertile era in British art’, when artists made a global impact by registering changing attitudes to politics, economics and culture. Movement in Squares was there. Fifty years later Arcadia demonstrates Riley's gift for  creating a distinctive vocabulary of shapes and colours that is continually evolving. › ... › Hayward Gallery Exhibitions › Past

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


  CHARING CROSS UNDERGROUND STATION 1.12.10... awash with art. Its walls are covered with large images and uplifting words from the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, both close by. Even better, when it was refurbished in the late 1970s, the artist David Gentleman was commissioned to make a 100 metre mural to commemorate the building of the first Charing Cross, dedicated to Queen Eleanor.

 Eleanor married very young and was crowned Queen of England at her husband Edward I’s enthronement at Westminster Abbey in 1274. One chronicler said about Eleanor of Castile, "To our nation she was a loving mother, the column and pillar of our whole nation". The records show they were a devoted couple - she even accompanied him on a crusade in 1270. When she died in 1290 at a village near Lincoln, the King was grief-stricken. He wrote of a wife "whom living we dearly cherished, and whom dead we cannot cease to love." He ordered a cross to be erected wherever her coffin had stopped on its funeral procession to London, the last of which gave Charing Cross its name. 

Gentleman researched  the methods, materials and tools used in the 13th century wood engraving to produce a mural which shows step by step - as if in a strip cartoon -  how  the original cross  was built. He starts with quarrying the stone (which came from Corfe in Dorset and Caen in Normandy) and finishes when the topmost pinnacle is set in place. In lively and graceful groups, workers carry out their daily tasks: quarrymen, rough hewers, masons, mortarers, layers, carpenters, thatchers, scaffolders, labourers, falcon or crane men, apprentices, hod-men, drivers, horsemen and boatmen. Women are there too.  Now each day thousands walk along the Northern line platform also going about their daily business, with job titles just as varied but unlikely to be so graphic.

Gentleman celebrated his 80th birthday this year with a show at the Fine Art Society in Mayfair.  It included some achingly beautiful watercolours. Over the years he has given us lithography and wood engraving as well, logos, postage stamps, coins.His daring  political and environmental protest posters are also well known, though not necessarily the name of the artist who designed them.  Three books of his books are among my most treasured possessions: Paris (Seven Dials), Coastline, and Britain  (both by Weidenfield and Nicholson).