Alexander Creswell

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

Paintings & Patrons

Redentore Fireworks

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

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

http://www.hirschlandadler.com

All At Sea : July 2012 Painting of the Month

Historic Rivalry – J-Class Yachts Ranger & Hanuman, 2009Image24 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.

DON’T MISS the sketches and drawings please visit  www.alexandercreswell.com

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Painting of the Month – J. M. W. Turner’s “The Falls of the Reichenbach”

J. M. W. Turner “The Falls of the Riechenbach”

Over the holiday we took our children to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie “A Game of Shadows” . The thrilling denouement of this film takes place at the brink of the Riechenbach Falls in Switzerland, a stage-set just as exciting in the film as it was in this 1804 watercolour by JMW Turner. I was happily reminded that this painting was a huge influence on my training as a watercolour painter. I remember seeing the painting in the flesh at ‘The Great Age of British Watercolours’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1993. That’s the same Royal Academy which has just appointed Tracy Emin to the post of Professor of Drawing.

At that time I wrote an essay for students at the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture where I was teaching, a piece which explored the development of watercolour – “that great underrated medium”. In that essay I wrote that ‘The Great Falls of the Reichenbach’  “shows more than any other work what Turner was capable of doing at only the age of twenty-nine. This is not just drawing or sketching, this is the highest form of watercolour painting, up there with the best of oil paintings. This waterfall was a popular tourist attraction in the early 19th century, providing a glimpse of towering rocks and thundering water which embodied the whole concept of the sublime, making the viewer feel vulnerable and insignificant” (as movies endeavour to do today). “Turner grasped this subject because it represented everything which excited him: raw, magnificent and overpowering.”

“Turner’s technique had developed to handle this intensity of work, his skills already superior to his contemporaries with their more static and considered views of topography and the picturesque. (more…)

December Painting of the Month


‘A Mountain Farm, Slovenia’

Watercolour on paper 11 x 15 inches, 1998
In the collection of HRH The Prince of Wales

A few weeks ago the Dean of Guildford and I gave a joint talk – a colloquium – which explored the subject of ‘Spirit of Place’ in buildings of faith. One of the images which found its way into the slideshow was this little watercolour of a group of humble farm buildings in Slovenia. It seemed rather out of context in a presentation mainly about monumental cathedrals, mosques and temples – the stoney hallelujahs which punctuate the history of civilisation. With the approach of Christmas, though, this image seemed to allude gently to the real origin of the jangling season of goodwill and frantic shopping.

The image of a simple cattle-shed at dusk, a warm light emanating through its open door and the gaps between the weatherboarding suggests the way in which we should consider the Christian nativity; with simple humility for a commonplace occurrence which had been elevated to become the most important event in the Christian faith. This humble birth would of course also be responsible for the creation of many of the great edifices of faith which we had been discussing that evening and which constitutes a large part of my subject matter in painting architecture through the decades.

The painting reminded the Dean of the Adoration of the Shepherds by Rembrandt, an intimate painting in which the holy family is shown in a womblike pool of light within a barn surrounded by massive enveloping darkness and old beams. I understood what he meant, and these farm buildings took on a more elevated feel.
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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.
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