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
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
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…)
“The Basilica of Maxentius in Rome” – October Painting of the Month
Watercolour on paper 24 x 40 inches – 60cm x 100cm
On show at Watts’s Great Studio 12th – 23rd October
The purpose of my time spent working in Watts’s Great Studio during 2011 has largely been to explore the idea of magnitude in painting. G. F. Watts who painted some of his greatest works in this studio before his death in 1904, had built the space specifically to work on paintings whose magnitude had outgrown his London studio. Watts wasn’t afraid to tackle paintings whose size and intent were massive. The knowledge that he had carried out such work in this space gave me the idea that working in his shadow, so to speak, would enable me to think on a much bolder scale than before. The confines of my domestic scale working environment at home hadn’t prevented me from painting some very big watercolours in the past, but working in Watts’s studio would give me the opportunity to explore a grander intent in a larger space. Magnitude is the word of the year.
I had various subjects in mind, so as a family we went back to Rome in the early summer for a visit. There are several Roman buildings I had painted before and now wanted to explore again – the Pantheon, the Arch of Constantine and the Basilica of Maxentius. All are monuments to magnitude and I looked at them afresh. Too often we are distracted by superficial questions when appraising a work of art or architecture. How big is it? How long does it take? How much does it cost? Great works of art and architecture are quantified by lifeless facts while their artistic and cultural value are missed. Big and expensive are good, apparently. But magnitude is something else: magnitude is the impact of the idea rather than the scale of its execution. A large painting or building is not good simply because it is big, but maybe its intent or inspiration needs to be big in order to be good?
I tend to measure impact by the experience of the building or place or event. It’s the experience which first grabs my attention and causes me to sketch. If the sketch is good it doesn’t represent so much the place as the experience – the light, the movement, the beauty, the sensory thrill of just being there. That’s the inspiration. A work of art is capturing the experience not just the representation of the place. The character not just the face.
Since Rome I’ve been painting large scale explorations of the experience of the interior of the Pantheon, in the contained volume of light and air, and I’ve worked on these in Great Studio with increasing magnitude. I’ve worked on exteriors of the Arch of Constantine, with its detailed carved panels telling the story-board of the emperor’s conquests, which to me involve delightfully complex passages of light and shadow – cartoons in stone and light – also explored on a growing scale.
Here at the Basilica of Maxentius I’ve explored the dichotomy of interior and exterior in a subject which is actually both. Once a vast interior, these towering ruined vaulted apses are open to the air, like massive theatres of light. These apses are vast and echoing, hard to quantify unless you can see the diminutive archaeologist’s ladder propped up against one wall. In contemplation of ruins, we contemplates the future, the fragility of the present, and the futility of the past. In painting the Basilica of Maxentius I am contemplating magnitude as an element to inspire and uplift the human spirit. Magnitude, like beauty, can’t be measured but it can be missed. I think I understand what drove G. F. Watts in his time. For our time, I think I’ve realised what – together with beauty – has been missing for the last century. Magnitude.
The Basilica of Maxentius and other new works, together with some important commissions, both completed and in progress, are now on view at Great Studio from 12th – 23rd October. Please do come!
Great Studio, Limnerslease, Down Lane, Compton, Surrey, GU3 1DJ.
September Painting of the Month: “Pendennis Cup, Falmouth – Mariquita & Mariette”
A maquette, watercolour on paper 15 x 20 inches
August is holiday time. Time to get away from it all. Here in England much of the population rushes lemming-like to the coast, enduring serpentine traffic-jams in overloaded cars, greasy egg sandwiches and warm fizzy drinks on the way. The exodus is powered by reverence to a quasi-folkloric tradition and fuelled by an innocent optimism which is capable of turning grey skies blue. On arrival – finally – the cars disgorge their occupants who, with puppy-like enthusiasm overcoming tiredness, are immediately ready to plunge headlong into a pool of activities never undertaken at home in everyday life. Yipee it’s the holiday!
For our family Cornwall is the grail, the south coast, Helford River near Falmouth. Weeks of waterborne thrills replace the trudge and onus of the rest of the year. On anything which floats we escape from land-based reality and navigate the waters of adventure, doing, well, nothing really; picnics on a beach, exploring rock-pools, fishing and sailing, rowing to the pub, and back again. Boats and I go back a long way. My first boat (a 36-foot motor-sailer) had the foreign-sounding name Gafita. I took this name to be an omen of adventure and sailed her to France and to the Med and back. Much later I discovered Gafita was merely a prosaic acronym for Get Away From It All. I’d done that. For years I ‘d got away from responsibilities like work and earning a living. It didn’t work. I sold her in 1988. Ever since then I’d limited my sailing activities to vacation rather than vocation.
Twenty years on, that all changed. I started painting classic yachts racing alongside my usual subject of architecture, discovering the vigorous similarities between the two and enjoying the challenging differences between them, the static and the active. It had been in Cornwall, on holiday – getting away from it all – that this discovery had presented itself; the first regatta for the Pendennis Cup was in full sail in Falmouth Bay and I’d followed these beautiful yachts – huge over 100 foot in length – bouncing along in a RIB while trying to sketch. The resulting watercolours were shown in London and New York to great acclaim. Last year the second Pendennis Cup took place and I played a more active role presenting a number of works as prizes to the class winners in the regatta, while also showing paintings at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth and at the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes.
As a result of the Pendennis Cup I was asked to put together a set of paintings of the big classics racing in British waters, a group of large watercolours which would form a narrative of iconic images in the great tradition of British maritime painting. These were commissioned as a group by a family. Like members of the family the paintings would be closely related to one another even if they don’t all live in the same place.
This Painting of the Month is one of the small maquettes made to establish the form of the set. It shows the beautiful Mariquita (who celebrates her centenary this year) being pursued by the schooner Mariette, four years younger but equally sprightly. They are shown charging downwind in a north-westerly with Pendennis Castle in the background, a wonderful English summer scene, Cornwall at her best. I am looking forward to working this collection of paintings. It’s unusual to create a family of works which will remain together, related, of the same blood.
I love to work with my subject and being in Cornwall is where it’s at; with the smell of the sea in the nostrils, blustery showers rattling the windows, maybe a little sail on the Helford in the evening to feel the tug of the wind. A fresh crab from my pot for dinner perhaps. Just as fish tastes better when eaten in sight of the sea, so these paintings must be shown in sight of Falmouth Bay. They’ll be an impressive collection. Maybe we’ll show them at the 2012 Pendennis Cup where I will be chasing these beauties again and with them the J Class who will be in Falmouth. We’ll certainly show them on the website. Meanwhile the set of maquettes will be shown in my October exhibition alongside work from my recent Italian adventures to Rome & Venice.
Fine Art Connoisseur magazine – ‘The Art of Alexander Creswell’
Watercolour and the World: The Art of Alexander Creswell
BY PETER TRIPPI
The British wastercolourist Alexander Creswell (b. 1957) does not permit grass to grow beneath his feet, so this month finds him opening his latest exhibition at New York City’s Forbes Galleries.
A defining feature of Creswell’s art is his lifelong desire to explore the world, which surely began the day he was born in the British embassy at Helsinki, where his father served as ambassador. He grew up shuttling between various capitals and his boarding school in England, Whinchester College, where he discovered his passion for art.[…]
LIVING LINKS WITH THE PAST
This season Creswell has finally found the perfect space to execute large works. His benefactor, oddly enough, is the once-renowned Brtish academician G.F. Watts (1819 – 1904), who lived and worked in the village of Compton, Surrey, a 30-minute train ride south of London. Following a sensitive renovation and expansion, the Watts Gallery is set to re-open to the public on June 18, filled with the master’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Just across the street is the Great Studio, and this April Creswell became the first painter to use it since Watts’s death in 1904.[…]
Fortunately, American admirers can see nine Creswell works from The Forbes Collection, plus a dozen others, at New York City’s Forbes Galleries between May 6 and September 10 2011.
To read the full Fine Art Connoisseur article: FAC_Creswell_article May 2011
Art isn’t necessarily about truth
Canaletto and his Rivals – The National Gallery
The Grand Canal by Canaletto
The opening of the Canaletto show at the National Gallery, London, coincided with my own at the Portland Gallery, London. Rachel Campbell-Johnson at The Times trashed the former in a pre-review saying ‘Don’t see the show, buy the postcards’. Harsh, I thought. The implication was that Canaletto’s paintings were little more than souvenirs churned out for the itinerant milords on their Grand Tour, images of Venice to adorn the walls of their stately homes. True in part possibly – market forces have always existed in art, but that condemnation rather misses the point. Canaletto and his followers are entirely responsible for the global immortality of Venice and it’s huge popularity today.
Canaletto worked during the last decades of the Republic, the heyday of La Serenissima portraying a glorious, ceremonial and at times languid paradise of cities. We do not see the squalor, discomfort and poverty of the time – the truth of actuality. But art is not necessarily about truth. Instead we see a triumphant vision which has lured all those who tramp in pilgrimage to this outlandish city believing it to have been the truth. It was of course no more true than (more…)
Exhibition now open! A collection that blurs the boundary between sketch and painting.
Wednesday 13th October saw the opening of my ‘EN PLEIN AIR’ exhibition at the Portland Gallery, London. (more…)