Glimpses of Eternity: The Chapter House Westminster Abbey
‘Glimpses of Eternity’ – an exhibition of paintings of the Abbey and precincts by watercolour artist Alexander Creswell, held in the Chapter House, March – May 2018. A private view was held on 16 March 2018. Picture: Ian Stratton, Picture Partnership
Glimpses of Eternity – Watercolours of Westminster Abbey Exhibition
The Chapter House, Westminster Abbey
Until 16th May 2018
“…for the first time in the Abbey’s history of more than a thousand years, we have a fine watercolour record of the church in its beauty and complexity.”
So writes the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall in his introduction to the catalogue of my exhibition now showing in Westminster Abbey. As I looked around the display in the evening light, just minutes before the opening ceremony with the works all finished, installed and lit in this magnificent setting, the achievement of the collection began to dawn on me. I had never seen all these paintings together before, a broad display of complex watercolours inspired by a monumental subject. The exhibition is on until 16th May and I am thrilled that all these paintings have been acquired by the Abbey Collection and will therefore remain as a record of the Abbey in history.
Please visit the show and take time to discover the Abbey. The exhibition is in the Chapter House (above), originally the 13th century meeting hall of the Benedictine order and later the seat of the King’s Great Council and the Commons, the foundation of England’s first parliament. Today the vaulted ceiling, which is supported on a single slender column, hovers far above with sunlight streaming in through the heraldic stained glass.
My display of watercolours is humbled in this majestic context, but the subjects depicted are able to stand up for themselves. The paintings offer a visual tour of the entire Abbey, beginning with the marriage service of the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge at one end and the sunlit Chapter House at the other. Around the central column, display cabinets show a selection of sketches and drawings which explain a little about my working methods. The exhibition leads around the Abbey, starting at the cloister door to the Nave, then along the north aisle eastwards to Statesmen’s Corner, into the intricate Henry VII Lady Chapel. The route then follows the south ambulatory to Poet’s Corner and into the Quire and Nave beyond, much as the visitor to the Abbey might process. At every point a new vista or intimate detail surprises the viewer, rays of sunlight find their way into the shadows to pick out a delicate carving or a noble inscription. Perhaps a long perspective reveals itself and draws the eye into the farthest distance, or a doorway close by opens into a silent chapel.
The paintings were done over a six year period during which I was given the great privilege of free access to the Abbey and precincts, to come and go as the light and weather suited me. I even spent an entire night in the Abbey – an extraordinary experience knowing that over 3000 people are buried or commemorated within, a number to be joined this year by Professor Stephen Hawking.
Early in my exploration at the Abbey I was daunted by the size, scale & complexity of the place, and early one morning I ventured into the Henry VII Chapel alone. A vivid sunlight electrified the space, the banners of the Knights of the Order of Bath were a kaleidoscope of colour, the intricate fan-vault a crescendo of geometric harmonies and the floor was a shimmer of shining reflections. I was the only person there to witness it and I was thrilled. I immediately embarked on a series of drawings and vibrant colour notes, done sitting on the floor. Together these sketches interpreted the power and the glory of the place, its fragility and the perfection of it. I believed then that I had found a way in. From that day on, I would try to work in the Abbey out of hours and on Sundays when the place regained its serenity.
I continued in the Henry VII Chapel before turning to the South Ambulatory and Poets Corner, all enlivened by morning sun. Details and wider views spoke to me in shafts of sunlight: God and nature revealing momentary treasures, all gifts gathered into a sketchbook and smuggled out under my arm!
In the light of summer the greater spaces reverberate bright sunlight and the air is shot through with rays of optimism. I aspire to float in space, to soar like a bird, high above it all. Great architecture, art and music enable me to do just that. In my early days I chose to paint the safer subjects – the tranquility of the Cloister, sheltering doorways and quiet corners. These gave me the strength to take on the sublimity of the place, and in so doing perhaps better to understand the glory of God.
These paintings of Westminster Abbey do not aim to chronicle exactitude. They might not need labels to identify them. A painting should be enjoyed freely as a glimpse of the spirit of the place which the artist had experienced. At first glance my paintings take architecture as their subject. Then they distort it and convert it into a barely-seen theatre of light, which might be exaggerated or even invented. Contrivance of light can be based on truth but is used to describe my sense of the place – the ‘genius loci’. A successful painting relies on a momentary light to illuminate and to give life to the subjects, subjects which are themselves all illusions drawn on paper.
Westminster Abbey is extraordinarily complex – a place of worship, theatre of state, resting place of kings and nobles, of statesmen and poets – a memorial to the great and the good. I found that I could best understand the Abbey when it is silent and empty. Alone, every footfall echoes in the stony darkness, the air is filled with whispered prayers and hopes, and with silent colours contrived by eager eyes. Isolated from lights, noise and society, our imagination is free to contradict the known, to seek out the unexplainable, to observe the invisible and to feel the uncomfortable. We can absorb the spirit of the place, the presence of God, the power to free us from those constraints with which we bind ourselves.
The Abbey has guided my own response to the monuments and places which commemorate human achievements so powerfully. Over my time working in the Abbey it has become a constant in my life, a ground anchor in the ebb and flow of fortune and the vagaries of exertion and contentment. I am delighted that I have had the privilege of freely undertaking this collection. I have been humbled by the gravitas of tradition safeguarded within the Abbey. I am thrilled to have seen and experienced parts of the Abbey which are accessible only to a few. I am extremely privileged to have witnessed great events of church and state, and to have been nourished by beauty elaborated by the hands of generations of artists and craftsmen to adorn this extraordinary edifice.
Alexander Creswell April 2018
The Chapter House is open to visitors free. Entrance is from Deans Yard Cloister Gate:
Monday – Friday 10.00 – 16.30
Saturday 10.00 – 14.00
For complete up to date information please visit:
New Exhibition: Glimpses of Eternity at Westminster Abbey, 17th March – 16th May 2018
I am immensely honoured to have had the opportunity to create a collection of watercolours of Westminster Abbey. The Abbey is far more complex than I had ever imagined. It is a place of worship, theatre of state, resting place of kings and nobles, of statesmen and poets, memorial to the great and repository of excellence. The prerogative of establishment is to safeguard history and Westminster Abbey stands as the central shrine of England’s provenance.
I am proud of the collection and humbled that these paintings and sketches are to be exhibited among the riches of the Abbey.
AC February 2018
‘GLIMPSES OF ETERNITY’ is an exceptional exhibition of 35 paintings (plus their sketches) created by Alexander Creswell during his residency at Westminster Abbey 2011-2017 and to be shown in The Chapter House at the Abbey. This is the first collection and exhibition of paintings of Westminster Abbey to be made since it’s foundation. The entire collection was acquired by The Dean & Chapter of Westminster Abbey in 2018.
For further details on visiting the exhibition click on the link to: Westminster Abbey 17th March – 16th May 2018 Open Monday -Friday 10:00-16:30 Saturday 10:00-14:00 Sunday CLOSED
Easter Opening Times Friday 30th March CLOSED Saturday 31st March 10:-14:00 Sunday 1st April CLOSED Monday 2nd April 10:00-16:30
Painting of the Year 2014 – New Horizons: A Ceiling Painting
After what has been a progressively uncomfortable year, I have both pleasure and relief in revealing a painting which has been the product of much thought, deliberation and soul-searching in the quest for a meaningful direction for my future: I take pleasure because the painting is almost finished, and relief because it seems to have been successful, at least as far as I had intended it to be.
A year ago I had an interesting discussion with a collector in New York who lamented his lack of wall space as hinderance to enlarging his erudite collection. Perhaps cheekily I had suggested that he had unadorned ceilings which could be employed to display works of art in the eighteenth century manner, in keeping with his collection of European paintings of the period. The resulting conversation concluded with a commission for me to undertake such a painting, in watercolour and on a significant scale. This would be a first, both for watercolour and for contemporary art. It would be new ground for me: I relished the idea and rushed off to Italy to consult the masters of the settecento.
In the first instance this picture – now almost completed – represents a new horizon for me, perversely for the simple reason that it has no horizon. Being a view upwards though an imaginary roof to an infinite sky, it has a perspective which relies on the third dimension of the vertical, a perspective cut free from the merely terrestrial. Secondly this view has no subject as such, no representation of reality other than the sky and sunlight above an invented architecture which departs from the observance of reality. Thirdly, and importantly for me, this view is not factually representational but borrowed in part from history, then adapted and invented. Fictitious in this architectural tableau is the population of what appear to be ghosts whose only function is to represent those tenets and disciplines of life which we, the viewers, might have taken for granted: faith, toil, sagacity and fecundity – in common parlance: confidence, hard work, knowledge and productivity.
But what is the purpose of this painting, I hear the muttered question tinged with cynicism? Well, I’ve been loyal to the representational for most of my painting life, faithful to place and light, to truth and to the actuality of the subject. Occasionally however the truth is awkward or uncomfortable. During my career I have painted beauty, elegance and grace in architecture. I have also painted fate as manifest in the destruction and neglect of ruins. Sometimes the inspiration comes from unlikely quarters: over the past year my path ahead has been at times tangled and obstructed, calling for diversion and courage, flavoured with sadness and reflection – a landscape of Dante as I am reminded. With encouragement I found the leap from the familiar to the unknown in this work to be daunting and yet inspirational. It required courage in the confrontation of possible – or probable – failure. Rather like leaping from a runaway train, escape was the principal motivation behind this painting.
Although not quite finished, today we installed this painting in the ceiling of my studio, in a proper place to test its efficacity before the final details are elaborated in preparation for its dispatch.
Some remarkable things revealed themselves: floating overhead the picture morphed into a completely fresh image, unencumbered by accuracy and correctness. Let me explain: we are accustomed to the terrestrial world with a horizon, we gape up at skyscrapers in Manhattan or peer down into the Grand Canyon, but from the safety of our horizon-based world – terra-firma. Everything is related to the horizon, our level, our balance. We might look out of the window of an aircraft at 35,000 feet but always with the horizon to give us a fixed point: remove that horizon and we suffer from vertigo, dizziness and disorientation. Looking up at a ceiling painting we can feel the ability to fly into it and soar like a bird, freely but with our feet still firmly on the ground.
Given freedom from our earthbound horizons we loosen our reliance on accuracy and on truth. We can twist and turn to look at this view from varying angles without questioning, simply enjoying the gift of flight, at least momentarily. We are looking at a picture which is not a view in the conventional sense, more of a virtual reality which we can enjoy without cynicism, not requiring the affirmation of being ‘correct’. As a representational painter I find this departure very exciting.
So what of this image on the ceiling? At worst it’ll be a talking point, a curiosity: maybe it’ll challenge the condemnation of representational art as somehow shallow and passé. Maybe it’ll start a trend. I would hope it might encourage other enlightened patrons to ask me to do more, far larger ceilings to be installed in places where they can be seen by the world.
Under the archway furthest from the sun in the painting, a cartouche bears the following inscription:
“Beviamo profondamente dal pozzo della tradizione e nutriremo l’arte del futuro”
(tr. “We drink from the well of tradition to nourish the art of tomorrow”)
The sentiment is entirely mine and the observant viewer may recognise a veiled reference to Andrea Pozzo whose huge fresco ‘The Apotheosis of S Ignazio’ adorns the nave vault of a church close by the Pantheon in Rome, which provided me with the inspiration and model for this painting, together with the courage even to imagine that I could actually achieve it.
I would be delighted if you forward this to anyone who would value the message or who might simply enjoy the painting.
With best wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and many thanks to those who have encouraged me through a difficult year.
Alexander Creswell, Christmas 2014
IMAGES on a Grand Scale
The Ruined Facade of San Sebastiano, Ferla, Sicily
Watercolour on Paper 84″ x 46″ – 214cm x 117cm
I am very pleased to have created an installation of the greatest milestones of my career – watercolours on a Grand Scale – in the huge showroom at Summers Place. The installation can be seen over the weekend of the 17th-19th May at Summers Place Auctions, Billingshurst, West Sussex, UK alongside the viewing for Summer Place Auction of Sculpture and Design.
Some of these works were exhibited & sold in New York, others were commissioned privately by enlightened patrons and have never been seen publicly before. Some may be familiar to you as previous Paintings of the Month. To make this show possible I have pioneered a method of creating facsimiles of these paintings on thick watercolour paper, life-size images which are being displayed exactly as they would appear in the studio, naked and frameless, powerful subjects suspended in space. They make a startling collection.
As the centrepiece of the show there is one special original watercolour depicting the facade of a crumbling church in Sicily. This large piece—without doubt one of my most successful—was sold to Ireland in 2007 and I never saw it again. Until last week when it became part of my collection once again. I’ve missed it and I’m proud to be able to show it oncemore.
Those that know Sicily will be familiar with its wonderful architecture, but few will know the charming facade of San Sebastiano in Ferla.
A little village hidden in the hills behind Siracusa, Ferla doesn’t even get a mention in most guide books. It has no less than four notable churches – modest, diminutive and charming. All carried the scars of earthquake and neglect, two have been restored but the largest—San Sebastiano—is boarded up, cracked and abandoned. It became my favourite subject, my friend, and I revisit it each time I return to Sicily. I am always apprehensive in my approach lest one day it will be gone, crumbled away in the hot sun.
I have painted here several times, always in late morning as the early sun moves off the eastern facade, the shadows lengthening, animating the details. St Sebastian himself poses in a languid ecstasy in his niche with the last of the sun tickling his torso. He is flanked by female guardians and the contorted forms of Moorish slaves who are supporting giant volutes. The door itself is surmounted by a lavish noble eagle—subsequently decapitated by fate—representing, no doubt, the patron who enabled this lavish and surprisingly refined facade. In the frieze putti are seen dragging cornucopias of fruit behind them, while above the columns the masks of two angels are shown kissing. Such was the appeal of Heaven in this harsh and unpredictable landscape! The whole ensemble is charming and unexpected in this remote spot. I return day after day at the same time to see the light recede, to sit in the small square in front of the church drawing the details, my pencil caressing the forms and the sunlight nourishing the soul.
The church is boarded up, its interior is unsafe. I have never seen inside, but in my mind and on paper I have forced open the doors and depicted an interior of my own making: a heavy curtain is drawn aside to reveal a scene of gentle dilapidation, a Mannerist style of architecture of my own design, from a period earlier than the facade might suggest. In this space I have imagined broken pews, baulks of fallen timber and traces of gilding on the altar, all lit by fingers of sunlight piercing the broken roof. In this way, with pencil and paint one can possess beauty, smuggle it home in a sketchbook, and recreate it as one’s own. It’s a form of artistic Elginism! I have invented what I was prevented from seeing in reality and in so doing have created a place which is mine, inspired by but not tied to actuality and truth.
We would love you to see the show at Summers Place 17th – 19th, 10 – 4pm.
Summers Place Auctions,
The Walled Garden,
West Sussex RH14 9AB
Paintings & Patrons
Redentore Fireworks: 60″ x 120″, 152cm x 305cm
Just a few days ago we completed the installation of a major commissioned watercolour in its destination, in a private collection in Britain. The ‘Redentore Fireworks over Venice’ had been the result of a discussion between artist and patron, and blended beautifully the aspirations of the one with the opportunities of the other. It was to be the largest watercolour I had painted, conceived over a kitchen table in Sussex, born in my little boat in Venice and brought up in Watts’s Great Studio in Surrey. It is a work which I had wanted to get my teeth into on a pioneering scale but which I could never have justified painting speculatively for the open market. It is also a work which the patron would scarcely have imagined possible and would never have found in a gallery. The result surprised both of us. Such is the power of patronage.
A few weeks earlier I had made a last-minute dash to see the ‘Turner in Sussex’ exhibition at the National Trust’s Petworth House. The National Trust, as institutional guardians of our heritage, tend towards the cosy reassurance of our cultural identity rather than providing inspiration for its onward development, and this exhibition at Petworth House gave me a sturdy reminder of the role of patronage in art.
What leapt out at me on that cold grey day, was the set of four later Turners commissioned by Lord Egremont for the Carved Room, luminous sunsets over the park right there outside the windows. They shone out of the gloom, striking and incongruous in their modernity. They signal Turner’s mature departure from the merely topographical into the purely ethereal in painting. As the great aesthete Kenneth Clark said of this period in Turner’s work, “the idea that the world is made up of solid objects with lines around them ceased to trouble him”. Rather what I had felt about the Venetian fireworks. Turner had been aged 54 when he painted these, roughly my age, approaching the peak of his career.
The point of patronage, it struck me there in the Carved Room, was way beyond simply buying paintings, or commissioning views of interest to the patron, which are sometimes achingly dull to the painter. “Remember…” says a sign I once saw in a pub, “…Children & Animals are only of Interest to their Owners!” That applies to houses too, painted for pride not posterity. The powerful patronage that Turner enjoyed from Lord Egremont – his super-patron – provided an enablement where the artist was given abundant opportunity, hospitality, place, society and yes, money too. This enablement was benign and not proscriptive, in other words the super-patron enables the painter to pursue his own development, on a copious scale and, importantly, over a long period. The relationship between them generates immortality for both, certainly in the case of Egremont & Turner.
For me the art is in the creation, not just in the idea. Creation has to have inspiration, love of the subject, knowledge and commitment. And ability of course. But art needs a midwife, someone who brings it into the world safely while looking after its creator. That is the role of the patron. So what qualifications does a patron need? A sensitivity to beauty, a hunger for excellence and sufficient knowledge to identify excellence when he or she sees it, a willingness to gamble perhaps and an interest in immortality. Oh, and adequate money! Roll up, roll up!
We hung the ‘Redentore Fireworks’ in the hallway of its Elizabethan house, a former carriage entrance enclosed to make an entrance hall with a modern staircase built of glass. This was never intended to be a traditional watercolour, framed conventionally. Instead we enclosed the 5 x 10 foot sheet of paper between two sheets of oversize glass and suspended it a few inches away from the wall, the deckled edge of the paper casting its own shadow, the only ornament in the space. Stark modernity, bold and striking. Finally we stood back to see the painting in its intended space, the fireworks shooting up the stairs to the right and the calm of the full moon beckoning towards the dark courtyard on the left. It was the final keystone in the project. Painter and patron delighted, I realised it was one of the most important milestones in my career, to date.
So what’s next? I have in mind a triptych of very much larger watercolours which will enable me to push the boundaries of expression and of technical ability. I am also researching the composition of a large architectural ceiling painting in watercolour, and exploring the possibility of an expedition to Central Asia to tread the dust of the Silk Road. The next few months should reveal some exciting new work! We shall see.
View Redentore Sketches
Films of the Creation & Installation of the Redentore Fireworks
A Hidden Great: Painting of the Month January 2013
Patio de los Leones, Alhambra
Watercolour on paper 60″ x 137″ (152cm x 348cm)
A true painting of the month this one, now exactly one month since I first confronted the huge piece of unmarked watercolour paper stretched out on my drawing table. A month (save a few sleepless nights and a gentle family Christmas) of dedicated application to the greatest challenge of my career, the most complex subject and the largest watercolour I have ever attempted.
This major commissioned work began in June last year with a three day sketching trip to Granada, Spain. I had chosen this subject from the memory of a visit long ago with my father. I remembered the sunny courtyard, the linear rills of trickling water which bisect the floor plan, and the central alabaster basin held up on stylised stone lions. I remembered the delicate colonnades, the intricate carved filigree of stone arabesques and Kufic inscriptions. I remembered this outlandish, exotic Arabian architecture deep in the heart of Andalucia, a strong whiff of the orient in the part of Europe which gazes to the East just as much as it genuflects to the West.
A hard-won special ‘permiso’ allowed me to sit alone in the shadows in the Alhambra, away from the hoards of tourists, to draw this harmonious yet complex subject. The balance between intricacy of detail and simplicity of mood, strong sunlight and calm water, dusty light and reflective shadows, would dictate the character of the painting. The most recent large work I had painted was the dramatic and noisy fireworks of the Redentore festival in Venice, a riot of colour and abstract effects, gashes of light and deep feral colours: this would be the opposite.
This commission had called for a stage-set in a confined space, a trompe l’oeil in the lobby of a lavish new superyacht. I had in mind a virtual courtyard, a glimpse into a secret sunny glade seen through a forest of slender columns and screens of pierced stone filigree, with gentle breezes and dusty rays of sunlight, a trickle of water at the feet. It would be a space that only the eyes could inhabit, a room created by the imagination. A dream.
That was the theory. Standing in front of that huge piece of paper as rain lashed the studio windows I wondered what I had let myself in for. How to begin? I felt like a tightrope walker confronting the delicate line before him and the consequences of inadequacy over intent. I had prepared months of drawings, compositional studies and diagrams, axes, vanishing points and golden sections. Once these were all transposed onto the huge piece of paper, with giant rulers, set-squares and string lines, and the detailed sketches had been digitally scanned and blasted out of a projector, the paper was no longer so precious, so pristine. That first step is the toughest, the most daunting.
My first washes of watercolour had been mixed beforehand in large pickle jars – still smelling faintly of onions. Earlier I had mixed the histrionic bright colours for the underpainting on a quarter-scale maquette. This was now pinned to the wall as a reminder to be brave with colour. In watercolour it is easy to tone down something too bright, but impossible to breathe life into something dead.
After the first week I felt I had the basics established safely: composition, drawing and first washes. Daily I was posting photos of the work in progress on my Facebook page; not to elicit compliments but to ensure that I felt committed enough to the progress I was making. Once the underpainting was dry I felt I was getting somewhere: Facebook followers commented that it was great – “leave it as it is”, some urged. No, there was a long way to go – fifty-five square feet of detail yet!
The basic painting was established in those first feverish hours, one week’s work at most. But, after this first intensity and months of preparation, there were at least three weeks of working up the detail, undramatic methodical hard work to introduce carefully all those elements. Like flavours in a meal, these are the ingredients which are only noticed if they’re missing; they take time to produce and none at all to consume.
I continued to work up the painting, eager to go into the studio each morning, picking up where I had left off. Every evening I reviewed the progress and posted online, as each little detail of carved stone emerged like embroidery on a canvas, as patina transformed colour into surface, and shadow learnt how to describe volume and space. I particularly enjoyed stone against sky, reflected sunlight lifting arches, stains and veins turning stripes of paper into marble columns. Gradually the nuances no longer showed up quite so dramatically when posted online. There is a fascination with pulling images out of blank paper, conjuring space out of surface, three dimensions out of two, dreams out of facts.
Here’s the irony: this painting, possibly my greatest yet, lives only in the making of it. We should have filmed its birth as an artwork in itself, because its life will be confined to near-monastic exclusivity. As a painting it may as well not exist. In the next few weeks it will be installed in the superyacht, in the most securely guarded of today’s fortresses. There it will be seen only by the privileged few. It is unlikely ever to be exhibited publicly, nor examined critically, not broadcast nor reproduced.
That makes me sad. But I do get a wry pleasure from the fact that it’s birth took place on the verges of that most casual highway that is social networking: I invite you to go there now, have it to yourself – ‘like’ my painting (and my facebook page) for free before it disappears. Then at least I’ll know that it has many friends long after the cheque has cleared and the gangplank has been raised.
Click Here to see the creation of this painting online
New York Calling: September 2012 Painting of the Month
Washington Arch, New York, 2012, watercolour on paper 40 x 30 inches
After the dullest British summer in living memory, I begin to understand why landscape painters often used titles to describe the weather or to make excuses for light conditions. It suggests that these might not have been entirely natural or believable, or that they were contrived for theatrical effect. Turner and others added epithets such as “sunrise after a blustery night” or “thunderstorm approaching at sunset”. Weather is always at the forefront in Britain; never to be taken for granted, frequently surprising and often hostile. We keep a close eye on it and we discuss it freely with complete strangers.
‘Fire & Light’ is the title of my forthcoming show in New York which opens on the 13th of September. This title describes less the conditions in which the subjects find themselves, and more the elements of which they are made up, a true description far from the purely geographic label, and a hint of what the painting is really about. Washington Arch, here, could well support the title “Late Sunlight reflecting off Glass Towerblocks” because that is indeed the case. When looking at a painting we think we need to be told what the subject is, even though in this case George Washington is clearly recognisable there on the plinth, and the Stars & Stripes is a clue. The fact that it’s an arch, in reverence to the triumphal precedent of ancient Rome, is also fairly obvious. The title becomes a distraction to the nub of the painting, which is the interplay of light on surfaces.
Also in this exhibition I have a sequence of paintings of Rome, details of ancient stonework, highly refined designs carved by craftsmen, eroded by centuries and animated momentarily by fleeting effects of light today. These are glimpses which I have chosen deliberately, and at times waited for expectantly at particular times of day, returning again and again to get the moment right. Some I had journeyed specifically to witness and to paint, as seen in a series inspired by a firework display over Venice, part of the annual Festival of the Redeemer – Il Redentore. It matters not when the festival takes place, nor indeed that it’s Venice; what these paintings are about is the extraordinary explosions of light generated by artifice and the effects on the architecture and water below. These works have the titles of “Sound Study 1” or “Nocturne 3”. No need for anything more. They are not about geography.
On a recent expedition to the north of England I was anxious to set eyes on those subjects depicted by Cotman, Girtin and Turner – the “rough-hewn matter” of sublime landscape which is now bypassed on the motorways. We enjoyed places with names like Snake Pass, Gordale Scar, Hardraw Force, Dunstanburgh, all painted by Turner, Girtin and others. What impressed me was the monumentality of it all: ruined castles, gorges, waterfalls, and dramatic weather and light, not the names. Of course those painters had exaggerated what they saw, inspired to develop their feelings of awe at the sublimity of the subject as they saw it. None of their subjects is disappointing in reality today, but what we see through the lens of a camera or a car windscreen, is sterile. Reality needs a title, because the smell has gone, the spirit is inaudible and the genius has evaporated.
Reality is not art. Art is what you do with reality. Turner & others interpreted the monumentality of British landscape because they were unable to travel freely across the European landscapes of Claude and Poussin. Napoleonic Europe had been enemy territory then. Instead the rugged discomforts of northern England would be elevated to Arcadia and imbued with the mythology of history. Turner’s Dunstanburgh Castle is a gaunt tower at dawn standing guard over a rocky shore, or the backdrop to a foundering ship vainly being towed off the rocks by a steamer. His paintings are about poetry and sublimity, not history. In my latest works I have depicted the sediment of history animated by fire and light. Enjoy the exhibition but please don’t bother to read the titles!
“Late Sunlight reflecting off Glass Towerblocks” and other recent works will be unveiled at my New York show:
Alexander Creswell: Fire & Light
Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York September 13th – October 13th 2012
To view Fire & Light: www.alexandercreswell.com
All At Sea : July 2012 Painting of the Month
Historic Rivalry – J-Class Yachts Ranger & Hanuman, 200924 x 40 inches / 60 x 100 cm
The last week in June saw the first gathering of the fabulous J-Class yachts in British waters since the America’s Cup Jubilee in 2001. A fleet of four of these iconic racing machines have just been battling for supremacy in Falmouth Bay. One of these is a 1930‘s original, the others more recently-built replicas. In 2001 there were just three survivors from the golden age of gentleman’s yacht racing, but the sight of them had sparked a resurgence of interest in the class. Now, out of seven possible entrants, there only four at Falmouth. Sadly two of the yachts pulled out, depriving the world of a sight never seen even during the heyday of the 1930’s. And I was deprived of the opportunity to immortalise the sight in a very serious painting.
Hanuman, a replica of Sir Tommy Sopwith’s Endeavour II, was one of the yachts which pulled out of both the Falmouth regatta and its sequel in the Solent a few weeks later. She had been launched a couple of years earlier and I had flown to Newport, Rhode Island, to witness her maiden race. It was suitable that she should be racing against Ranger, the replica of her erstwhile rival. In 1937 Ranger had won, and in Newport Hanuman won by a whisker. An historic moment indeed.
I am very conscious of my enormous privilege in painting historic events such as the Royal Wedding, The Diamond Julbilee Thames Pageant, and more recently a crowded Westminster Hall when Aung Sun Suu Kyi addressed both Houses of Parliament. In the year of the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, a great race of J-Class yachts in British waters is a triumphant celebration and a historic moment, even though only one of the yachts – Velsheda – is British built.
The legacy of paintings of great events is that they form a precious permanent record. The Royal Collection, for example, demonstrates this by maintaining an ongoing tradition to commission works of art to mark great events, be they happy or sad. Paintings are not just a visual record of the facts or a pretty picture, but a representation of the spirit and the mood of the time. At best they are a portrait of the subject and through paintings the subject achieves immortality. On the canvas the moment is made legend, the fleeting made permanent and the trivial elevated. The paintbrush achieves what money alone can’t: and J-Class yacht racing is a rich man’s sport, the apogee of power, grace and beauty.
Personally, I salute the owners of the J-Class yachts who raced in Falmouth and who will be racing in the Solent later this month. They are an incredibly beautiful sight, elegant and serene on the one hand, adrenalin pumping on the other. An iconic fleet racing around the Isle of Wight, across the choppy green-grey water of the English Channel – as I imagine it – the sky above scudding with clouds, raking sunlight and the occasional shower, probably. They will be sailing the same course that the original J-Class raced for the 1851 Cup which later became known as the America’s Cup – now that’s an immortal name.
I shall be out there with my drawing machine, preparing for my painting, my contribution to history. I’m just sorry that Hanuman and Endeavour won’t be in the painting, nor Shamrock V or indeed a new British-built J-Class which might have been. But that’s the history book: either you’re in or you’re not.
As I send out this Painting of the Month, I am setting off for Falmouth to my favourite regatta, The Pendennis Cup. The Cup this year boasts 13 great yachts battling it out, Falmouth Bay will be graced by the classics, Mariquita, Eleonora & Mariette, the jewel Mikado, thoroughbreds Tomahawk & Firebrand, plus superyachts Adela, Athos, Bare Necessities, Bequia & Breakaway, Unfurled & Velacarina. This is a fantastic event for owners, crew and spectators alike, and particularly for me!
Links: The Pendennis Cup The J Class
Diamond Jubilee Pageant: June 2012 Painting of the Month
The Procession of the Diamond Jubilee Thames Pageant, 2012
24 x 40 inches / 60 x 102 cm
Not being a person who likes to miss out on a spectacle, I was thrilled to be able to witness at first hand the glorious Pageant on the Thames in London to celebrate The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. And not being one who enjoys a crowd, I was particularly happy to be able to sketch the event from the deck of the lovely yacht Mariquita (19m gaff cutter by William Fife of 1911), moored just below Tower Bridge.
In the days leading up to the Pageant, efforts to get my last-minute security clearance provided a strangely exciting frisson of uncertainty which ensured that the thrill of actually getting on board was an achievement in itself. That and the disappointment of a lousy weather forecast made the odds on my being able to produce a painting of the event fairly unfavourable. With my drawing machine, watercolours and a set of dry clothes I clambered aboard Mariquita at 9.30am. The procession was not due to begin for another six hours. I settled down to sketch my surroundings: downstream the replica of Cabot’s 1497 ship, the Matthew, then TS Royalist, Amazon and Belem. Upstream the three-masted schooner Kathleen & May, then the Jubilee Sailing Trust’s tall ship Tenacious which was moored further into the river.
I had been anxious to avoid referring to Canaletto’s concoction of a pageant of 1750’s, a painting which had become the yardstick with which to measure the impact and drama of today’s pageant. Canaletto had been meticulous in his accurate portrayals of architecture but had not been shy of twisting the truth when it suited his composition. I wanted to capture the mood and spirit of the Pageant rather than be bound by documentary precision.
When the Pageant had begun and the flotilla’s approach was heralded by the drone of low-flying helicopters beyond Tower Bridge, I began to realise the full complexities of the event. There would be no one moment to record. It was going to be a visual story-board, with hasty glimpses of boats, people, flags and colours, all urgently noted. And rain.
The first boats rounded the corner from the west as a heavy curtain of rain moved in from the east, meeting at Tower Bridge. At the head of the flotilla was an armada of rowers led by the beautiful gilded Queen’s Rowbarge Gloriana. The sight of this phalanx passing beneath Tower Bridge with its bascules as yet unraised, brought a lump to the throat. A mass of small boats; skiffs, canoes, gondolas, dragon boats, fours, gigs, wherries, shallops and surf-boats, all brightly coloured, and flying flags some larger than the boats themselves and with everyone in elaborate costumes. This opening flotilla provided an image so intricate as to be impossible to draw fully in the time it took to pass by, and yet I realised immediately that this was the image I needed to paint. The rain soaked my paper and blurred the vision as I worked feverishly in ink and watercolour. Once again I knew I would have to store all this in my eyes until it was possible to get it down safely on paper.
I continued to sketch in wet charcoal on dripping paper. Next came smaller Trinity House launches, naval cadets, escorts and picket boats before the over-festooned prow of the Royal Barge hove into view. This ungainly elongated tripper boat dolled up for the day to carry the royal party – caravan dressed as fairy carriage – drifted slowly beneath the now fully-raised bridge and performed a long and clumsy pirouette mid-river before mooring delicately on the north bank from where the Sovereign would view the passing pageant.
I sketched the Dunkirk Little Ships proudly flying the cross of St George, the coal tugs belching steam accompanied by whistles and pips of excitement, the Black Country narrow boats and Cornish fishing luggers which steamed and shantied, gilded slipper launches gliding past in Edwardian elegance, muscular river tugs and workboats rumbling by like thugs off to a football match, aloof MTBs and gunboats sliding past like spooks. A fireboat wailed and squirted water like a clown and a retired ambulance boat nee-naah’d to the amusement of the crowd, while anything that could make a noise was blown or let off and the air wafted with the smell of coal smoke. Orchestras, bands and choirs passed by as it rained harder, but nothing could dilute the sheer pleasure of the spectacle. At the end, a great glass covered bateau-mouche housing the London Philharmonic Orchestra hove to opposite the Royal Barge and played a crescendo medley of ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Land of Hope & Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ as the crowd roared as one in accompaniment, with rain and tears running down their faces.
My painting evolved later from my drawings and memory, aided where necessary by the BBC’s footage. The image it represents is not slavishly accurate but it recalls the spirit of the day, a truth of experience rather than actuality. To paraphrase a saying my father enjoyed, “rules serve to guide the wise man and to bind the fool”, I would want to replace ‘rules’ with ‘facts’. Painting is not photo-journalism. I wanted to paint my experience of the day and the pleasure of being there, soaked to the skin.
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