Monday, 31 August 2015




Eliza by Michael Gaskel, Acrylic on Board 370x270mm (c) the Artist
Michael Gaskell has been selected five times for the BP Portrait Award, and won second prize for the third time this year. This  portrait is of his niece Eliza, who agreed to sit for him in early 2014 when she was 14, having first sat for a portrait for her uncle when she was a very small child.

‘I hope this painting conveys a sense of Eliza’s growing confidence as she develops into a woman’, says Gaskell, ‘but retains some of the self-consciousness which was also present at the time’.

There are many portraits of women in very different situations in the current BP Portrait Award show: naked or clothed, angry or anxious, fragile or determined, submissive and suspicious. But here we have no distractions. There are no props or background clues to feed a thread of story into our minds.  And while the glitzy London shop windows surrounding the National Portrait Gallery change their minds monthly as to what colour is or is not desirable, the artist focuses on one. To describe it as 'blue' is like saying a castle is a house. Blue is the colour reserved for the Madonna and the angels by Renaissance painters, using lapis lazuli, the most scarce and expensive pigment of the time, mined in Afghanistan under dangerous, even deadly conditions. 

The artist tells us that the primary influence in painting Eliza was the work of the fifteenth-century painter Hans Memling, especially in the lighting and the composition.

Memling's painting Virgin and Child  (1487) is next door in The National Gallery. 

The judges remarked, We agreed that this is a highly accomplished portrait, revealing the influence of Vermeer and Dutch seventeenth-century paintings while also having a seemingly modern, timeless quality.’
Sir James Lovelock (c) NPG

 In 2012 Michaael Gaskell was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint a portrait of climate scientist Sir James Lovelock whose career included the formulation of the Gaia theory, his highly influential hypothesis that the Earth is a self-regulating, single organism. Other commissions include a painting used on the poster for Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom. 

In an essay in the small illustrated book accompanying the exhibition, Neil Gaiman writes
 The joy and power of portraiture is  that it freezes us in time. Before the portrait, we are younger. After it has been created we will age or we will rot.
The link below will take you to a slide show of paintings by Memling and owned by the nation. It includes Virgin with Child

Sunday, 23 August 2015


 Thompson's Gallery, New Cavendish Street

I live ten minutes' walk away from the London Eye, here silhouetted against a genteel fading sky. As I write on a very sunny Sunday afternoon I know that the Thames will be ablaze, not with coloured lights, but with the jazzy excitement of people of all ages from all over the world who have chosen to come and stroll along the promenade. There will see the open-air-theatre,  cafes.  jugglers, bookshops, an aquarium and, if the tide is out, the magnificent sand sculptures  made - and washed away - on the 'beach' below. I also know that in a few hours' time it will be a fairyland of colour and reflection and dazzle  on land and water. Which is why I chose this picture.

The artist writes 'my path has lead me inexorably, like so many others before me, to try and capture that elusive quality of light, that only a shimmering sunset, dawn of a new day, dazzling sparkle of reflection off both sea and river presents to one who is prepared to both look and see'.

I love the way that this painting is 'expressive' not 'instrumental'.  In other words it does not faithfully represent an architecturally accurate record of the Thames and its banks. Instead the colour, the edginess, the spirit of the Thames  glows.

The Distance Between
 The artist again: I contemplate the landscape with amazement as it changes hourly, yet remains fundamentally the same. This is a concept I love to explore in my paintings - a blazing sunset reflected in a calm sea carries the implication of impending darkness, while heavy clouds in an overcast sky might predict an imminent storm... 

Saturday, 22 August 2015


St Paul's Cathedral 


Martyrs shows four individuals, across four colour vertical plasma screens, being martyred by the four classical elements: earth flies up to entomb, winds slash and tear, flames engulf and water cascades with deadly accuracy. 

But Bill Viola's work opens with  stillness. The man in a white shirt sits calmly with head bowed, hands on knees.The man on the right is first shown shackled and crouching on the floor.  A woman in a slim white dress hangs suspended by ropes, ankles tethered to the floor. 
Then the  crouching man is gently uplifted, feet first, until suspended and the torrent begins. At the same genteel pace  a single flame descends from on high to settle near the seated man - then two or three or a hundred until a fireball blazes. The work lasts 7 minutes. It has no sound.

Some find the images too graphic and ask what business St Paul's Cathedral has to show such suffering. Others stand and, through tears, pray in front of the work as they  see the suffering of their own community reflected there. On the other hand for some the images are too anodyne, too safe, too picturesque.  The man is in flames, but is not being burnt.

We are used to watching violence in films or crime reconstruction or sports fixtures. There may be a replay in slow motion, but the media controls the viewer. Here it is different. As  the action is slowed down and the story unravels, our perception and understanding is deepened. These pieces bypass rationality. They touch our inner capacity to attend patiently to the nuances of real feelings. And to stay in the here and now, however terrible. Many people watch it more than once then walk quietly away.

Years ago I saw Viola's video The Visitation  at the Haunch of Venison Gallery. It features the moment when two pregnant women - Mary the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth her cousin -  embrace as they meet. It moved me to tears. The paradox is that we know we are watching actors, we know that they are feigning emotion. But Viola’s work is charged with a peculiar energy. We are no longer spectators.

In the face of dignity and resilience we may reflect on our own gift of life, of being, and the gift we could give in who we become, and how our lives and death may transform the world Bill Viola

The installations have been given to Tate, and are on long-term loan to St Paul’s Cathedral.The good news is that anyone can see them for free, without paying what, for some, is a somewhat substantial fee for visiting the cathedral.  Just turn up at 11.30am or 2.15pm Monday to Friday. You get a BILL VIOLA sticker on your lapel and can in fact see much of the interior of St Pauls as you walk to and from the installation.

In Art and ChristianityMark Oakley, Canon Chancellor at St Paul's Cathedral, reviews The Unspeakable Art of Bill Viola by Ronald Bernier, 'a short, intelligent and accessible introduction to Viola's work'

Bill Viola Quintet of the Unseen (Blog 60)