The Congregation of Birds
Acrylic on Panel. 112 x 82 cms. 2009
Click on the image to see a high definition version that you can zoom in on.
Today I think I may have finished the painting of Saint Francis preaching to the birds. By the time I was done the sun was setting and I was too tired to do more than take a snapshot to post here. A proper photograph of the entire painting must wait until I have the time to set up the lamps. For the present this detail must suffice.
Next on the easel is Tobias and the Angel. My terrier Jack is to model for Angel Raphael’s dog. Jack is very amenable to being painted, having already modelled patiently for Green George. He has a basket in the studio and chooses to spend a lot of time up there. I think he likes to keep an eye on me.
It’s Boxing Day and I finally managed a few hours in the newly cleaned and reorganised ‘Battery’ to tackle the calves and feet of Saint Francis. I completed the last of the falling oak leaves too, but I’ll spare you those. Enough that you’ll see them in context when I post a photograph of the finished painting, hopefully within the next few days. Just the head and hands to go now. I’ve no idea why I left them until the last. Normally a head is the first thing I’ll paint when working on a figure within a composition. I guess with this painting the birds took all my early attention.
… and a final trawl through the archive to find another painting of a Staffordshire dog, this time with a little boy riding the spaniel’s back. The setting is the ruin of Ynysypandy Slate Mill, and this is about as seasonal an image as I can produce, with the landscape swathed in snow. I’d like to thank everyone who has been supportive of this new blog. Your visits and your comments are greatly appreciated. Merry Christmas to you all!
I’ve always loved those Staffordshire china representations of children with outsize dogs. In the early days of my painting career I frequently turned to Staffordshire as subject matter for still life paintings, placing the figures within landscapes. In the trawl through the darkest reaches of my archive to find another painting to offer in these last days before Christmas, I came upon this fairy-tale-like pastel of a girl with a spaniel larger than the average pony, standing in a mysterious night time landscape. (Carn Euny in Cornwall.) Another painting that I think might have appeal for a child, though perhaps rather more haunting than yesterday’s image. It has a feeling of an M.R. James supernatural tale. Not surprising as I love his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, which are entirely in keeping with these long mid-winter nights. I seem not to have recorded the title of it, though The Girl and Her Dog rings a bell for me. The work was made in 2004.
Season’s Greetings to you all.
Painting for a Child’s Bedroom. 2006
So here we are a couple of days away from Christmas and I’ve trawled my archive for an image appropriate to the season. This little painting of Oystermouth Castle perched overlooking the sea on the Gower Peninsula has been fancifully composed with the addition of a still-life on a round table. (I much favour round tables in still-life compositions.) On the table are interesting objects. A glass filled with fennel leaves, a toy theatre that I’d made as a Christmas tree decoration… I made loads of them one year, each about 5 cms square… and a small oval box I’d decorated with a painting of a clipper. Outside the castle wall is a ruined medieval pigeon house and in the foreground a stand of one of my favourite plants, Jerusalem Sage. A boat chugs across the bay and a jaunty orange plastic ‘float’ lies beached at the shore-line. Each item in the picture chosen because I knew I’d enjoy painting it.
I’d had it in mind to make a picture that might appeal to child. As a boy I liked book illustrations with landscapes viewed from elevated perspectives so that I could see the lie of the land and wonder what lay over that horizon or just around that bend or through that archway. I think at a young age this painting would have held appeal for me.
I’d have kept it if I could, but as is so frequently the case when preparing for an exhibition I was a bit short of work for it and put the painting in to make up numbers. It sold. I’ve often thought that I might make another version of it for myself, but of course there hasn’t been time for such a luxury.
So, not a traditional Christmas scene in the sense of one with angels or a Robin Redbreast or shepherds or holly, but traditional in the sense of Christmas being a time for children. Certainly a time of constructing worlds for them to delight in. Season’s Greetings to you all.
Earlier this year my friend Marly Youmans persuaded P.S. Publishing, the U.K. based company publishing her new novella Val/Orson, that they might do worse than take a glance at my website. They did so and then enquired whether I might provide artwork for the new book’s cover and dust-jacket. (I’ve been occasionally asked to permit paintings of mine… or details from them… to be used for covers, but this has been my first commission for a purpose-designed book-jacket image.) Although I was in the thick of many other projects this was just too good to turn down. It also meant that I got to read the book ahead of publishing, and indeed did so twice in order to get into the spirit of the story. It is the most compelling and beautifully crafted work of fiction. Afterwards I put my thinking cap on and produced what you see. The cover designer was Robert Wexler.
The upshot of all this is that Val/Orson has just been announced as ‘Book of the Year’ by Books & Culture Review. John Wilson who selected the list of finalists wrote of it: ”More than any other book I read in 2009, this one insistently came to mind.”
Before Val/Orson Marly had produced a moving sequence of five poems, The Book of Ystwyth, based on some of my existing paintings. For me to produce a cover for her was a complete reversal of that collaborative process. I greatly enjoyed both experiences.
Still the Heaney poem haunts me and I produce yet more work based on it. (Click on the image to view a high definition version that you can zoom in on.)
The mug in the painting is one of a set made for us by our friend Pippi Koppel. As I have my morning tea or coffee in it, this one turns up frequently in my paintings because invariably it’s to hand in the studio at any given time. (See another painting featuring it here )
It was back when I was producing a lot of still-life work that I learned the lesson that I’m better at what I do when I paint the things I love. The breakthrough was a small still-life made just after my father died in 1999. The subject was the little mug I’d given him that he drank his tea from. I called the painting Journey’s End. (Click on the image to view a high definition version that you can zoom in on.)
Marly Youmans wrote a wonderfully evocative poem after the painting that can be read here.
Yesterday while cleaning the studio I glanced out of the window, startling a swallow from the ledge below. It flew off over the roof of the barn to the paddock beyond. The swallows that nest and rear their young at Ty Isaf leave for their Winter feeding grounds in North Africa at the end of the Summer. It seems unlikely in the extreme that one is here still. I assume that it hadn’t fledged well enough to fly with the others a few months ago. I’ve been out to look for the bird this morning as it snowed overnight. No sign so far. I’ll do a trawl later of the Summer nests to look for fresh droppings below them. It says something about the mild weather we’ve enjoyed that the bird has survived this long. We’re past mid-December and yet there have been flies, midges and mosquitos in the garden and in the house. Not many, but clearly enough to keep the little chap alive so far. However there’s still much of the Winter to go. The cold spell we’re having now is not going to be kindly to a bird equipped only for summer’s warmth.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the bird today, pondering on whether this tiny scrap is evolution’s way of pushing the envelope, hurtling it into the vortex to see if it can survive this far north without making the great migration. And if it does then perhaps it will be among a few that pass on the genes of adaptation to a new race of Winter swallows that don’t have to make that epic journey half way around the world twice a year. But perhaps that thought is too fanciful.
I feel a great affection for our population of swallows. The detail above is from a painting made here. I painted them as they swooped and darted just a few feet from the open studio window. (Click on the detail to see the painting.)
I’ve also been thinking about Oscar Wilde’s heartbreaking fairy tale of The Happy Prince. The statue of a Prince high on his plinth loves his companion the swallow. The bird holds back from migrating in order to stay with the statue as the Winter storms encroach. It ends badly!
The toy theatre was made by Pollock’s, although I decorated the proscenium arch myself with lions and a representation of the house. It has a ‘grave-trap’ with sliding doors in the stage, so that pantomime Demon Kings and vengeful apparitions can appear as though from the bowels of Hell! (Click to zoom.)
Palette and brushes standing ready for work. The lens is a clever aid. When I view a large work through it the glass reduces the image so I can see how the painting will look from a greater distance than that available to me in the studio. It’s especially useful for envisioning hanging arrangements when I’m exhibiting in large galleries.
The small, framed looking-glass is very early. It gives up a soft, freckled reflection. I use it to view my hands when working at the easel. (Although I use models when available, a mirror is an ideal studio aid for working out how I want a bird’s nest to rest in the palm of a hand, or to figure how the fingers of an angel might close on a wand of Mountain Ash.)
A jar of sea-shells and a ‘Mari Lwyd’ made of porcelain, another piece by Meri Wells. The ‘Mari Lwyd’ is a Welsh mummers’ tradition that both Meri and I have explored in our work.
A maquette of a dragon’s head used for the painting Green George. (Click to Zoom.) The head of a boy at the top is a print proof made by Nicolas McDowall of the Old Stile Press when we were experimenting with techniques for the illustrated edition of Equus. To the right of that is a drawing of the God Hermes that I later used to make a three dimensional portrait.
My mother when a teenager.
Drawings and maquettes taped to the door to the ‘Stack’, behind which are stored framed works. Every surface in the Battery gets covered in this way, at which point I take everything down, file the lot and start again. For nearly two years the walls were covered in hundreds of Equus studies and drawings.
I love this wistful photograph of Peter when he was a boy. Just visible bottom right is a photograph of me taken when I was at primary school. (Click to Zoom)
I enjoy being surrounded in the studio by photographs of family and people I love. In this last one I’m on my father Trevor’s lap while my sister Jacqueline smiles shyly for the camera. My mother Dorothy sits profile to the camera. Everyone looks so happy. The man behind the camera was my Uncle Len, and his wife Doll can be seen just to the left of my mother. It was a Whitsun Bank Holiday garden party. I don’t know where. I’m spellbound by the image of this family group gathered on a formal lawn. The way only Jacqui looks directly at the camera. My father’s downward glance to me as I reach out to my mother. And she with her beautiful posture, self contained and enigmatic within the composition. Like the best paintings, it seems to be full of unanswered questions.