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

CHJ 3a

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.


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.


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.


11 thoughts on “Painting Made for Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.

  1. Stillness and startlement, precision of negative space and dissolution: I like the whole sense of things held in momentary tension here. And the sense that your work is a kind of linked chain, one work holding hands with another.

    Did you think at all of Wallace Stevens? I thought of the peacocks and leaves and the apocalyptic gathering of the planets in “Domination of Black.”

    Domination of Black

    At night, by the fire,
    The colors of the bushes
    And of the fallen leaves,
    Repeating themselves,
    Turned in the room,
    Like the leaves themselves
    Turning in the wind.
    Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
    Came striding.
    And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

    The colors of their tails
    Were like the leaves themselves
    Turning in the wind,
    In the twilight wind.
    They swept over the room,
    Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
    Down to the ground.
    I heard them cry — the peacocks.
    Was it a cry against the twilight
    Or against the leaves themselves
    Turning in the wind,
    Turning as the flames
    Turned in the fire,
    Turning as the tails of the peacocks
    Turned in the loud fire,
    Loud as the hemlocks
    Full of the cry of the peacocks?
    Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?

    Out of the window,
    I saw how the planets gathered
    Like the leaves themselves
    Turning in the wind.
    I saw how the night came,
    Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks
    I felt afraid.
    And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

    • Oh Marly, no, I’d never read this, and it’s beautiful. It has a stately tread, measuring like a pavane. I can hear music.

      For the most part I played Quartet for the End of Time over and over. And when I didn’t, I opened the window, because the birdsong this year has been spectacular. I’ve been working on this on the dining-room table, where the light is so good, and when the massive central bay-window-sash is raised you can step in and out of the room through it. So it was no surprise to see a hen blackbird standing just on the edge of the window-seat, surveying me as I worked. Painting birds while a bird watched!

  2. Mmmm…fabulous! I really love all that sensuous movement contrasted with the exquisite ‘stillness’ of the leaf images. Push and pull, movement and quiet…….wonderful! xx

  3. I’ve never felt compelled to write to another on-line forum. But your work continues to delight and astonish me. How do you do it? Beautiful arrangements.
    Sincere regards,

    • Thank you, Zoe. I wish there were time to produce more works for the concert. I’d hoped to produce four, but managed only three. However, now I’m in the zone I hope to make more work on the theme.

  4. You know, it’s a strange thing, but the word that leapt into my head was ‘flow’, as in a singing ’round’ or catch, which even these days may be heard being sung by young children. I also love the free, floaty feel it gives me, everything kind of ‘taking flight’; I’d quite like to be one of the leaves.
    Yours in a somewhat fanciful but EVER loving vein
    Bern xxx

    • Aw, sweetheart, thank you. Yes, it does suggest a gravitation-less space. I imagine the pieces shifting and floating apart. You should try looking at it while listening to Quartet for the End of Time. I painted the piece with the music on loop.

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