Alexander Creswell

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

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…)

Not to be missed – 8th September

Watts-Gallery 2011, Hanging 'Peace & Goodwill'. copyright Alexander Creswell

On Thursday 8th September I will be in conversation with Mark Bills, Curator of Watts Gallery. The talk will be in the newly restored Watts Gallery surrounded by Watts masterpieces. Mark and I will be considering and discussing G.F. Watts as an artist of today and exploring my work in context. It will be a great opportunity to look at the Watts collection in some detail and it will be fascinating to Mark’s knowledge to hand.

Thursday 8th September. 7pm.

Watts Gallery, Down Lane, Compton, Surrey, GU3 1DQ .  BOOK TICKETS

In conversation with Oliver Everett – Thursday 30th June in Watts’s Great Studio

This Thursday 30th June I will be in conversation with Oliver Everett, Royal Librarian Emeritus in Watts’s Great Studio, Compton, Surrey. This will be the first of three colloquia to mark the re-opening of the Watts Gallery and to celebrate my tenure in Great Studio:

30th June 2011: Creswell Colloquium with Oliver Everett, Royal Librarian Emeritus
Watts’s Great Studio, Limnerslease, Down Lane, Compton, Surrey GU3 1DJ
Drinks at 7.30pm followed by a talk 8 – 9pm

Windsor Castle – St Georges Hall after the Fire © H. M. The Queen 1993

This is an extraordinary opportunity to hear two renowned speakers Alexander Creswell and Oliver Everett, Royal Librarian Emeritus in conversation; they will be exploring the legacy of the Royal Collection and the historic commission for Creswell to record Windsor Castle after the fire and restoration in a remarkable series of watercolours and touching upon the connections with G.F. Watts.

Oliver Everett CVO is Librarian Emeritus of the Royal Library, Windsor Castle where he was Librarian from 1984 to 2002. Oliver knows Windsor and the Royal Collection extremely well, has written the official guidebook and audio tour as well as contributing to books and television on aspects of the Castle and the Collection.  His knowledge of the Royal Collection’s 485,000 objects spanning the reigns of Henry VIII to our present Queen is superb. He is highly sought after as a speaker at home and abroad; lecturing on all aspects of the collection, the Palaces and their Royal occupants and the relationship between the Monarchs and their collection and much more.

Before becoming Royal Librarian Oliver Everett was Private Secretary to Diana, Princess of Wales, 1981-83, Assistant Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales, 1978-80 and served in the Foreign Office 1967-78, including postings to India and Spain. He was educated at Cambridge University and undertook post graduate work at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA; and at the London School of Economics.


“Spirit of Place & Places of Spirit” – Ely Cathedral

On Friday night last week I had the great honour of presenting my lecture ‘The Spirit of Place & Places of Spirit’ in a setting that could not have been more appropriate: right under the Octagon of Ely Cathedral in front of the High Altar with an audience of over 200. This launched the series of prints of my paintings of Ely Cathedral. It was a sublime experience to be speaking about my work from inside the subject of one of my paintings.

Ely Cathedral – The Choir (more…)

Ely Cathedral – A weekend of lectures

It is only a matter of days until I visit Ely Cathedral where I will be lecturing for the weekend. Ely Cathedral is a beautiful and iconic subject which I have painted several times in the past to help raise funds for the Cathedral. What a delight therefore to (more…)