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

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