I don’t know whether I read that or discovered it for myself. It doesn’t matter either way. It’s a truth that underlies everything I undertake in my daily work. What goes on in my life gets carried to the easel. If the subjects I paint have universal themes, the particulars are drawn entirely from my own experiences.
When I first set eyes on Peter I thought him the most amazing looking man. I still do. Our friend the portrait painter Eugene Fisk asked Peter to sit for him twice, claiming later that he reminded him of a Medici Prince. It’s true there’s something of that in him. Dark, dark eyes, almost black when he’s being unknowable, which he often is.
The drawing below was done not long after I first met him. Peter as Bluebeard. At the time I didn’t have the confidence to believe I would ever make a painter but hoped I might hack it as a jobbing illustrator. I briefly flirted with a stylograph pen, fashioning drawings entirely out of pin pricks of ink, a pointillist technique that took patience and damned near perfect vision. The drawing was for my never-to-be-completed ‘illustrator’s’ portfolio. It’s long since gone into a private collection, hoovered up in a sale of my early drawings. I fear I made him rather fleshy and cruel looking. Of course he’s neither of those things. Artist’s licence!
The Conté drawing beneath it was made last year, one of many studies of Peter produced for Equus in which I used his likeness for the psychiatrist Dysart.
Places need to sink in with me. I find it difficult to do justice to a landscape or building, no matter how impressive, unless familiarity has rendered it a part of me. The paintings set at our cottage, both the still-life works and the images of the garden overlooking the sea, are illustrative of my compulsion to strip back extraneous detail until I reach a sort of minimalism.
Catriona Urquhart was the guiding hand behind creating a sunken garden protected from the sea winds where we could grow more tender plants. Regularly she and her partner Ian arrived to spend weekends with us, their car stuffed with mature shrubs, rare iris corms and old French roses. The last breakfast Catriona ever cooked for us was taken on a peerless Spring day in the garden she’d masterminded. She’d brought her two brothers to help out, and chemotherapy notwithstanding she’d marshalled us like a general directing troops to do her bidding. All day Saturday we’d dug and arranged things to her liking until we were all fit to drop. For breakfast the following morning she rewarded everyone’s exertions with melting, buttery scrambled eggs and a pungent tomato, garlic and basil salad. Perfection.
After Catriona died I made the painting of the sunken garden with its rose pink brick paths and bamboo tee-pees for sweet-pea to scramble over. Its title, The Gardener is Elsewhere.
Jack regularly turns up in my work. The painting above shows a detail from Green George in which he accompanies the virgin/sacrifice awaiting the outcome of the battle between Saint George and the Dragon. Traditionally she’s accompanied by a lamb, reference to all things sacrificial. However with Jack as her companion I feel as though she’s taking matters into her own hands. If George comes a cropper in the fight, then she has a second line of defence in her fearless Jack Russell terrier. He’s alert, interested and ready for the fray if required. Jack would take no nonsense from a dragon!
And here is Ludo, Jack’s son, memorialised in an image of blind Saint Hervé cradling his dog.
In the story the starving wolf comes down from the mountains and kills and consumes the Saint’s dog. Thereafter in some mysterious act of contrition the animal sacrifices his wildness to be Hervé’s companion for life. I painted Leap just weeks after Ludo had been killed by a too-fast post van while he was joyously racing about with his father and grandmother on our friend Pip’s drive. He was six months old. I completed the entire painting around a void at the heart of it where the puppy would be, knowing that it would be distressing to make his likeness. And of course it was, almost unendurably so. When I couldn’t any longer put the moment off I painted in a blaze of grief, conjuring as best I could the puppy tenderness of his belly and the complete surrender to sleep he enjoyed at the end of a busy day. I hadn’t painted him before and I’ll never paint him again. This is it.
Paint what you know. Paint what you love.