Alexander Creswell

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.

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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.

April Painting of the Month – Ranger and Windrose chasing Velsheda

Ranger and Windrose chasing Velsheda, 2009, Watercolour on paper 30 x 40 inches

The Caribbean reagatta season begins in earnest this week, with the first gun of the St Barths Bucket on Friday 25th March. Fabulous superyachts shaking out the caution of winter for an exuberant, competitive and often dangerous melee in the azure waters of the French West Indies.

For us Europeans it is a welcome relief from the long gloomy winter, even as the first tinges of colour appear in the trees back home. Elusive green shoots of economic springtime, however, are easily forgotten in A-list St Barths with over a billion dollars’ worth of the world’s greatest yachts chasing each other around the capricious rock-strewn coast in a gorgeous symphony of excess.

The names and the superlatives are all there. The biggest, Maltese Falcon & Mirabella V. The fastest, Leopard. The most beautiful, J’s Ranger & Hanuman. The most elegant, Elena. The coolest, P2 &  Twizzle. The newest, Christopher.

But not me. Sadly this year I’m not there to immortalise it all in charcoal and watercolour. Painting of the Month shows the great J-Class yachts Ranger and Velsheda, with Windrose of Amsterdam leading the field at Antigua. The location’s different but the spirit’s the same. No, I am focusing on architecture, on terra ferma, for now. I am moving into the revered surroundings of GF Watts’ Great Studio the very day the Bucket is won in St Barths.

I am embarking on a series of monumental watercolours, superworks the likes of which have never been seen before, breaking my own records in terms of size and impact,  I will be unveiling my own symphony of excess later in the year  – the biggest, fastest, coolest and newest – watercolours the likes of which the world has never seen. Then I’ll deserve a trip to St Barths next year!

AN ARTIST’S IMPRESSION – SuperSail World

12 SuperSail World 1.5mb

‘Alexander Creswell chased the fleet of glorious classic yachts at the Pendennis Cup in Falmouth to capture the action at close quarters in chalk and charcoal. He offers his own particular perspective on the racing:’

PENDENNIS CUP 2010 by Alexander Creswell

It’s what we’ve grown to love about Cornwall in August: two days of sea mist, drizzle and sou’westerlies, then reluctant spring sun giving way to resplendent summer for the last days. I was here at the Pendennis Cup for five days of non-stop drawing of beautiful yachts in Falmouth Bay.

The azure Mediterranean and Caribbean are wonderful, of course, but in Cornwall we were to have the broadest variety of conditions and the water was a symphony of greens, greys and blues. I was chasing in a RIB and, whatever the weather, drawing to record the action, the spirit and the sensation of classic yacht racing  – power and grace right up close, hearing the grunting of the easing sheets, the shouts of the crew, the roar of displaced water as they powered though the seas.

Racing started on the first day with a flurry of protest flags as the Big Class jostled across the start line, spars almost touching.  The murky grey gloom was alleviated by Adela’s crew shirts making dots of bright red in the gloom. At the top mark her ‘Big Red’ kite was hoisted for the downwind run and she was soon lost in the mist as Mariette and Mariquita rounded behind.

Skippers and tacticians were on their mettle laying for Gull Rock as the turning mark, a jagged reminder of the hostility of this coast. What a way to begin a regatta!  Adela rounded first in the mist, then the ghostly silhouette of Mariquita appeared, slicing the water in streaks of white and indigo. She broke the eerie silence with cries of heave! and ho! as the sheets were hardened in without the benefit of winches to put her on the windward tack, followed by Mariette and Velacarina.

Danger was not far away and the Sparkman & Stephens ketch Tomahawk had broken her mast at the first mark and was taken for repair into Pendennis Shipyard. She would reappear before the end of the week but for now her classmate Pinuccia, a local classic owned by the Tresanton Hotel,  was on her own.

I had succeeded in making a series of wet, splashy sketches in smudgy charcoal for sky, water and sail alike with white chalk in streaks for the cresting seas and foaming bow-waves. My drawing machine provided me with a ten-metre roll of dry paper, tinted to allow the use of white chalk. So far I had needed only grey.

That evening the Royal Cornwall Yacht Club hosted a barbecue.  Drizzle wrapped itself around the crews, owners and guests, a  cool Cornish welcome from the sky but inside the scene was more colourful, a feast that set the tone for a week of fun and fierce, exciting racing.  (more…)