Alexander Creswell

The Birth of a Watercolour

Millenuim Gate, Atlanta

Painted in Great Studio, 2011.


Film produced by Art Below Ltd

Westminster Abbey – Overnight

‘Westminster Abbey – The Quire’, 2011
Watercolour on paper, 22 x 30 inches

They say that no-one has spent a whole night in Westminster Abbey other than the monks of old, but last month I was given the opportunity to do just that having been invited to an all-night event to mark the 400th birthday of the King James Bible. The 66 books of the Bible interpreted by contemporary writers, poets and musicians to be performed over 12 hours in the Abbey, Friday night into Saturday morning. This was to give me the opportunity to sketch through the night, experiencing the Abbey in its hours of rest.

A year ago I had embarked on a long-term project to paint at Westminster Abbey, providing a challenging seriousness, both as the repository for so much of our national history, and as a complicated subject to paint. It also appealed to me because it has been painted by few artists in the past. Refreshing when many of my recent subjects – like Rome and Venice – have been painted by everyone. I would be able to explore the spirit of the Abbey without seeing it through the eyes of others.

It is certainly peculiar, a Royal Peculiar – part church, part royal palace. It’s the final resting place of kings, the place of coronations and state funerals. It is the ancient seat of the church and of parliament. In short it is a massive history lesson. I had a lot to learn. Where to begin?

I had visited on several occasions over the last year, to sketch and paint while the Abbey is quiet between services on Sundays and in great contrast during the celebrations of the Royal Wedding last April. I had completed my first work, a large view of the interior of Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, quite to my satisfaction and had taken great pleasure in recording the Royal Wedding service in sketches and as a large finished painting. I also completed a few smaller paintings of details around the Abbey.

In truth I was uncertain about the overnight session. I felt that Westminster Abbey still wasn’t quite my place. Not yet. We weren’t on first-name terms. I had only prodded the creature with a long stick, so to speak.

We arrived wrapped in warm coats with pockets full of biscuits anticipating a cold hungry night.  In the nave a stage had been placed on the north side, with chairs arranged for the audience, three sides of a square. The lighting was subdued, spotlights on the performers and darkness hanging overhead. The vaults disappeared, night invading the volume of the tall space.  It was too quiet to start sketching, scratchy noises on hard paper. I rather wanted someone to play the organ loudly. I sat and gazed up, unsure how to begin an all night conversation with the great Abbey.