Thursday, 18 September 2014



Playtime, 2013, oil on canvas, (c) John Kirby, courtesy Flowers Gallery London and New York

Is this maiden, clad in a frock the colour of a buttercup, with her pristine white socks and collar, a little girl - or a doll clutching another doll? Indeed the one eye which peers directly at us from underneath a hand has more life and spirit than the girl's deadpan face. She is giving nothing away. Her picture does not look like an image snatched by a  photographer who caught a moment's stillness from a child, who in the next breath is going to run off and play. Nor is it a reminder of school photographs of rows of bored children temporarily on their best behaviour. Perhaps she is more like a Victorian child required by adults to face the camera however long it takes, until given permission to move? But this painting digs deeper than that.
A Doll's House, 2014, (c) John Kirby, courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and New York
Here is another haunting image. Like the girl above, this boy's clothes are from another more formal age. What have boys to do with dolls anyway?  But the house is empty, so with a bit of male cunning he could even set it up as a toy garage. The boy himself looks uncomfortable, wary, poised in a half squat from which he could leap up if discovered. by a disobliging adult. The girl, in the earlier picture, doesn't even have a leg to stand on.

John Kirby worked at one point in a children's home run by Mother Theresa in Calcutta, and later became a social worker and a probation officer. He gives us a glimpse of a childhood of best clothes and best behaviour, of literally being seen and not heard. But this girl and this boy are being squeezed into rigid stereotypes as they move  into a confusing, frightening and alien world. Above all, they are alone, set against a background  as cold as a cell, possibly a reference to a nun or monk's religious cell rather than a prison. As you walk past  Flowers Gallery window and into the Gallery itself, this effect is very powerful.

As a child John Kirby saw a great deal of religious art at home and in  church. It was this influence, he surmises, which drew him to be a figurative artist. He reminds me of two of my favourite artists: Rene Magritte and Edward Hopper.

B/W image of Edward Hopper's Summertime

The Living and the Dead by John Kirky (Flowers publ)  £13.95

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