the Origins of ‘Startled Peacocks’

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The painting has its roots in earlier work and interests. I’ve always been drawn to images of animals, and Stubbs is the master. His Horse Attacked by a Lion of 1769 has lodged in my mind since first I saw it, and it stays there still, appalling and sublime.

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Stubbs was working from classical models, as artists throughout history have done. The herbivore brought down by a carnivore is a potent metaphor for power unleashed upon the vulnerable, recognised and understood across cultures.

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In my painting The Barbarian Brought Down by a Lioness (collection of MoMA Mach), based on an episode drawn from the fragments of a Renaissance altarpiece at Christ Church Picture Gallery depicting the Lives of the Desert Fathers, I showed a man being mauled by a lioness, his limbs broken. Here’s a detail of her claws raking as she embeds her teeth in his abdomen. Her back is knotted with muscles. She’s as elemental as the heaving waves in Amlwch Harbour behind her.

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I drew on many models that had caught my eye, particularly Romanesque carved capitals of beasts attacking men.

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Lions have featured extensively in my work, though never in terms of studies from life. I’m interested in their forms and how they fill the spaces of compositions, and of course in what they can represent. Here’s a painting titled The Lion in Winter, made when lions were densely populating my imagination and sketchbooks. He stands on a pedestal in a snowbound landscape, the ruins of a Welsh slate mill behind him.

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The drawing for Startled Peacocks began with the Stubbs image so deeply etched in my imagination. Those wide jaws clamped down hard, haunt me.

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I listened to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time throughout the process of making the painting. The horror of my subject matter, a metaphor. Beauty and strength (the winged horse) brought down by brute force. Christ scourged and crucified.

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I worked by daylight with the large sash-window to my left thrown open, and after dark by lamplight. The images of the work in progress vary in colour because of the light conditions, though the photograph at the top of the post shows the painting as it appears when viewed in person. It was scanned for me in the photography department of the National Library of Wales, and the reproduction of its colour is spot on.

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I enjoy the images of the work in progress in all their variation, from the blue cast loaned by dusk to the gold washed across from the anglepoise  lamp I use after dark. Paintings, once framed and out in the world will be seen in light conditions beyond my control, so I like to see for myself how the effects of light of many types affect the images.

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Painting Made for Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.

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Daniel Broncano, who’d invited me to work on the Messiaen project, had written to me about the prisoner-of-war camp in which the composer had been incarcerated while he wrote the piece. The music had been first performed in the camp by inmates, and so I began my initial work by expressively exploring the physical environment and conditions of the music’s making. I worked in black and white. But then Daniel wrote again, this time suggesting that I read the biblical texts Messiaen had been inspired by. He also explained why he thought I should work in colour. I stopped what I’d been doing, took some time to think through Daniel’s ideas. and started afresh.

I often find that an earlier piece of work can kick start a new process of creativity. On this occasion I looked to my print series on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’d made a design of foliate scrolling and peacocks as an embrodery pattern for the caparison of Gawain’s horse, Gringolet. That became my starting point for Quartet for the End of Time.

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The composition advanced quickly from there. I thought not so much in terms of solid colour, as building a picture from textures, transparencies and the prismatic effects sometimes see in the sheen of insects’ wings. I used maquettes of a winged horse and a cat-like beast to build the composition.

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I’ve frequently used cats both wild and domesticated in my compositions, and this one became a hybrid, built from a lion, a tiger and a leopard. Its tail sprang leaves, blossom and fruit. Massed and layered textures swarmed over the composition. The beasts’ pelts writhed with mark-making and the background became an inky sea of gouache, the matt density a pleasing contrast to the polish of the heavily worked pencil rendering of flora and fauna. I played with the joints of the maquettes, emphasising them to suggest layers of making. There’s a sense of imminent dissolution, as though all the pieces are about to drift away. I like the borderlands where representation collides with the artificiality of a construct. Increasingly in my work it’s where I’m most comfortable.

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Flow

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Progress on my painting based on the movement Louang à l’Immortalité de Jesus from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. However, for the purposes of exhibiting the work in a gallery, I’m titling it Flow.

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The work is on paper that isn’t absolutely flat, and is consequently almost impossible to photograph well. On Wednesday I’m taking the painting to be scanned, after which I’ll be able to post a full image of it here.

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Catriona on May Day Morning

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I remember my friend Ian telling me that he and Catriona had risen in the dark of May Day and driven from their home in Caerleon to Oxford to be present in time to hear the choristers of Magdalen College choir singing Hymnus Eucharisticus from the Great Tower. The adventure would have been a seed sown by Catriona and made into a reality by Ian, her champion, life companion, lover and organiser. The journey would have been carried out in the spirit of delight and celebration for all things green and renewing. But the weather was not great, and Catriona later recounted that far from the rapturous experience she’d imagined, all youthful voices ringing through the crystalline spring air in the city of dreaming spires, instead a desultory crowd huddled against the damp grey morning, straining to hear the distant, muffled and not terribly enthusiastic account of the music given by the sleepy boys, dragged from their beds and herded up the tower to signally fail to sing out glory. All a bit of a damp squib, she mocked, and hardly worth the bother.

This was the Catriona I loved and admired. She was a romantic in spirit but she wouldn’t make a pretence when things failed to measure up. The notion of the Magdalen Tower tradition, she claimed, was so much better than the event. It was this refusal to pretend that made her such entertaining and bracing company. That said, she would delight in small things, gilding the everyday with insight and her ability to appreciate. While the May Morning recollection made her scornful, she could wonderfully describe her memory of taking a nap in the crogloft of our cottage one peerless summer afternoon, drifting in and out of sleep to the distant sound of children playing and dogs barking on the beach, and stirring herself to the noises of preparation in the kitchen below. She said there was no sound sweeter than waking to the low murmur of voices she loved, and the tinkle of china cups and spoons being laid for tea.

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In her final year, when the illness that would take her from us had her in retreat and yet she was still well enough for Ian to bring her to join Peter and me at Aberporth, Catriona and I – plus Jack – would sit on the bench in front of the low, whitewashed cottage, and listen to the birds, observe and greet passers by and wax lyrical over the burgeoning garden, so many plants of which she and Ian had brought to us and planted. Intolerant of puff or any form of self aggrandisement in herself or others – and she could be merciless in her lambast when roused – yet she could make you see the transcendent in ordinary things. The old bathtub at the cottage that I’d determined to change because of a dislike of coloured baths, was forever transformed for me when Catriona cast her eye over it for the first time, exclaiming on the beauty of its pale, washed-away blue, ‘Oh how lovely. Taking a bath in here will be like taking a bath in the sky!’ And so it’s there still, and is still as blue as a sky washed after rain.

Catriona died on May Day 2005. She came into my life when I was lost, and held me fast until the moment had passed. She changed the way I see the world. I miss her still, every day.

Catriona Urquhart was the author of The Mare’s Tale, a series of poems that she wrote about my father, Trevor, who she knew and loved in his later life. At the core of the series is Trevor’s childhood encounter with an apparition that terrified and thereafter haunted him intermittently for a lifetime. The book was published in a numbered edition by the Old Stile Press in 2001, designed and printed by Nicolas McDowall and with illustrations by me. It was the only book of poems by the writer published in her lifetime. Copies are still available from the Old Stile Press, signed by us both in pencil on the colophon page. You may find it:

HERE

Catriona Urquhart, 1953 -2005.

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‘l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps’

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Sequential images of a drawing in progress, one of three that will accompany a concert of Oliver Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at the 2017 Música en Segura festival in Andalusia. In this one an angel with a trumpet is carried by a winged lion.

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“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire.”

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My thanks to festival director, Daniel Broncano Aguilera, for this fascinating and challenging commission.

Drawing the Music: preparing for Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor de la Fin du Temps’

 

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This Summer at Música en Segura in Andalusia, a performance of Oliver Messiaen’s Quatuor de la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) will be given, accompanied by some projected images that festival director, Daniel Broncano, has commissioned me to make.

In June 1940 Messiaen was captured by the German army and imprisoned in the prisoner of war camp, Stalag VIII-A. Some sketches for Quartet for the End of Time had been begun before the composer was incarcerated, but the work was completed during his captivity, and rehearsed and performed in front of an audience of about 400 inmates and guards on 15 January 1941. The instruments were poor and rain fell on the musicians and the audience. The composer later recalled: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension”.

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Messiaen wrote in the Preface to the score that the work was inspired by a text from The Book of Revelation (Rev 10:1–2, 5–7, King James Version):

“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….”

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The eight movements are:

i) Liturgie de cristal

ii) Vocalise pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps

iii) Abîme des oiseaux

iv) Interméde

v) Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus

vi) Danse de la fureur pour les sept trompettes

vii) Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps

viii) Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus

Daniel and I first had conversations about the use of some of my existing work from the Mari Lwyd series. But as the conversations went on it became apparent that he favoured the idea of me producing new paintings, using Messiaen’s notes on the work as a guide.

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Daniel wrote in an e-mail to me:

“Messiaen was a notable synesthetic composer. Sound triggered colour in his mind. He often mentions colours on his scores and was an admirer of stained glass church windows.

In the preface of the work he lists the birds, angels, rainbows, Jesus, trumpets, and also blue-orange chords in the 2nd movement.”

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Daniel requested four artworks, images of which will be projected alongside four photographs of the Stalag VIII camp. My iconography for the compositions draws on the traditions of Romanesque art and has been boiled down to images of birds, foliate scrolling, a fight between mythic animals, the Angel who announces The End of Time and a portrait of Jesus Christ. The latter, a traditional representation, is a first for me. I’ve only painted Christ once before, and then the image was contemporary. Here I’ve immersed myself in something I would usually balk at: marks of the scourge, crucifixion and spear wounds, thorn perforations and death’s lividity.

The images are formal, densely patterned, intended to be contemplative. I’m at the drawing stage as I wanted to complete the four compositions before beginning to paint, the better to work quickly with my brushes. Time is short.

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The Boy Who Made a Map in his Head

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Davenport’s Magic Shop, back in the days when it was in Gt Russell Street.
When I was a kid attending a theatre school in London that didn’t board, I lived with my aunt and her husband in Dulwich Village. Amy and J.L. were busy people who travelled a lot. The upshot was that on many weekends I was left to my own devices, usually alone in the house. But with so much to explore on the doorstep, I never felt at a loss with what to do with my time. I’d catch a train to central London. Once there I walked everywhere, criss-crossing the city to visit my favourite museums and places of historic interest.
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In the process I discovered shops that were survivors of another age. Benjamin Pollock’s in Scala Street, with its museum of toy theatres housed up a rickety stairs that for me was like climbing to heaven, and Cornellisen the ‘artists’ colourmen’ in Gt Russell Street, where the darkly varnished interior was lined in glass jars displaying powdered pigments as rainbow hued as a tropical sea. Davenport’s in Gt Russell Street was conveniently situated opposite the British Museum, and I would save my magic-trick purchasing for a post-museum treat. Hours spent blissfully drawing in the Egyptian galleries followed by an hour at Davenport’s, was for me, Saturday afternoon perfection.
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The Theatre Zoo by John Griffiths for Motif magazine, September 1959
The Theatre Zoo was another of my haunts, where masks crowded the shelves and sticks of hard, waxy Leichner greasepaint, a stage make-up even then almost obsolete in the West End theatres all around, were displayed under the glass-topped counters. (I had a well-stocked Leichner make-up box and was much in demand for transforming friends for a lark, using mortician’s wax, crepe hair and Leichner sticks to create the monsters of old Universal Pictures horror films!) I collected a hit list of eccentric shops in the maze of narrow streets behind Covent Garden, the ones with interiors more like museums. I made a circuit, marked on the A to Z of ‘special places’ stored in my head, that on weekends I would delight in navigating, taking in my favourites. Long before I became a painter I was purchasing French varnishes, mahl-sticks and gilding-papers that I had no use for beyond the fact that I loved the shops I found them in. I relished the sense of ancient crafts, the language of forgotten skills, the scents of resins and rabbit-skin glue and scenic-fireproofing, the graphic loveliness of the packaging of vintage stock. I wandered, a boy in a trance in love with I knew not what.
I took a weekend job in Berman & Nathan’s theatrical outfitters. I’d sit cross-legged on a counter sewing buttons on Pearly King and Queen costumes, or re-stitching worn eyelets that held the laces of corsets worn by ‘doxies’ in musicals. (Ever noticed how many corseted loose women appear in operas, ballets and musicals? Those corsets take a lot of maintenance, and for about a year, I was the boy who spent his Saturdays repairing most of them!) With my pay I’d purchase cheap tickets in the ‘gods’ to see some of the productions I’d earlier delivered costumes to after repairs at the B & N workshops.
There was a shop that sold pens of all types, from mapping-pens to fat and satisfying-to-hold fountain pens. I wish I could remember its name. Concerned with the shop’s slowly diminishing stock of products, I took to saving my pocket money to make purchases. No weekend was complete without carrying off a paper bag of some treasure that had caught my eye because of the old-fashioned graphics on its battered packaging. I was addicted to the old stock of French perfumed inks lining one shelf, produced by the venerable Paris manufacturer, J Herbin. The labels on the the bottles were as tantalising as those on fireworks (I recall a stunner called ‘Lotus Bleu’), and I took to writing my letters home in inks that gave up the unmistakeable scent of flowers. One had the powdery scent of violet cachous, and I can’t imagine what my parents must have thought when envelopes started arriving addressed in the scratchy/spidery scented penmanship of mapping nibs dipped in perfume! My letters must have smelled like the insides of old ladies handbags!
This was the London of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. But I was a tad young for all that, and my heart lay not so much in the trendy emporiums of Carnaby Street, as in the wonderful survivals of a past fast vanishing, though I didn’t know that at the time.
A few weeks ago I had a meeting in London that required an overnight stay with my sister-in-law in Blackheath, and I reserved the following day for a visit to the Pollock’s Museum, still in a corner property on Scala Street. Alas, although I’d checked the business hours, when I arrived mid morning the door marked with an ‘open’ sign was locked, and remained so for the hour I hung around hoping that someone would turn up. After that disappointment I traced the old map, still in my head, of the shops I’d once loved. None of them save Cornellisen and Pollock’s have survived, or at least not in the places they had once been. (I know that Davenport’s Magic Shop is still in the hands of the family, though re-located somewhere close to Trafalgar Square.) The walk felt like I was straddling two realities, the bright and vibrant one in my head, and the lacklustre reality of what the West End and Bloomsbury have become. There’s no room left for the eccentricities and unlikely post-war survivals that I had witnessed the tail-end of. The economics have changed in ways that the old communities could never have envisaged. The dusty shops with ancient stock and courteous proprietors are now only in my memories. I guess that’s where everything ends, eventually, in the realm of ‘once upon a time’.
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