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
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
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
The Royal Wedding – Westminster Abbey
(Half-scale Maquette) Westminster Abbey – The Wedding of the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge, 2011
22 x 30 inches / 36 x 56 cm
At exactly this time last year I was working in the studio on this maquette, building up for an important piece which I had been given the opportunity of undertaking in Westminster Abbey. I had been fortunate enough to sketch on the day of the wedding – the 29th April – perched up in my special vantage point overlooking the crossing and the high altar, the best seat in the house and largely invisible from below. Outside, London was in festival mood and as the guests arrived cheers could be heard outside. The Abbey was serene and poised. The orchestra were tuning up in the cramped organ-loft to my left.
As part of my long-term study in Westminster Abbey I had been very keen to see the Abbey doing what it does best, namely the ceremonies of State. The Abbey’s function is widely varied, from the sombre burial-ground of monarchs and great men to the must-see on the tourist trail. It is a place of worship. History is made here and resides here. Westminster Abbey is England in a nutshell; rich, beautiful, varied, not always comfortable, challenging, aloof but protecting, benign yet didactic, overpowering and complex, and yet surprisingly intimate. I was about to witness the most intimate of ceremonies conducted with all the pomp and glory which makes Britain great, and nowhere does it better than Westminster Abbey.
I had been allocated a space in the Muniment Room, a loggia which opens onto the Quire and the south transept, Poet’s Corner. I had a clear view over the most important seats. I drew every detail my eye rested on, rapidly covering pages of a large sketchbook. The perspective was a challenge; a gantry of television lights partly blocked the view and the great stone pier divided the scene, but I could duck and weave to be able to include the altar, pulpit, and still see Statesmen’s corner and the north transept. The music built and the Royal Family arrived, then the groom and best man, flashes of colour amid a bright spectrum. At the arrival of the bride a great cheer percolated in from the crowds outside, moving, powerful. The service began. Feverishly drawing, I had no idea which moment I would capture in my painting later. The bride, the train, the best-man’s whispered glimpse over his shoulder, the Bride’s father offering the hand of his daughter to the future monarch. Powerful stuff borne aloft on deafening music, gloriously loud, the orchestra, organ and choir fighting to outdo the trumpeters. This is Westminster Abbey in full glory, and doing what it does so well.
I was grateful for my experience sketching at sea, drawing without taking one’s eyes off the subject, lest it should be gone. I drew the clergy in their colourful vestments, Dean, Archbishop, Bishop, the sermon, the prayers. On one page I scribbled “..and did those feet…” to remind myself of the towering climax of Jerusalem raising the roof, singing and drawing at the same time, not easy. The architecture was soaring upward in a gothic firework display of stone, exploding with flowers – white wistaria – along the reredos and in the triforium. Time passed rapidly.
When the service was over I stayed put, still drawing, trying to get every glimpse safely down on paper, downloading my eyes, as it were. I worked from a blur of fleeting visual memory, and later I covered more pages with watercolour notes, the colours of the vestments and dresses, the bright light in the volume of the space, the delicate flush colours of the Cosmati pavement, the gold reredos, the red carpet, the congregation, hats, pinks & greens, military uniforms, reds, blues.
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.
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.
TO BOOK TICKETS
May Painting of the Month – Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey, the Henry VII Lady Chapel. Alexander Creswell. Watercolour 30 x 40in
This is one of the finest interiors in Britain, an ecclesiastical edifice of breathtaking delicacy and a softness of spirit which is perhaps surprising at the epicentre of London. It is also perhaps surprisingly unknown.
I have been fortunate enough to have been sketching the interiors of Westminster Abbey since January, as the raking low light of winter explores the darker recesses in this treasure house of British history. As a touchstone in a hectic life, Westminster Abbey provides a constant and peaceful place of continued study and reflection, from a historic and an architectural point of view and also for its spiritual importance. Its busy interior is made up of a collection of delightfully intimate spaces, each part separately identifiable from the whole in the same way as were the individuals interred and commemorated there: king & queens, statesmen, poets and politicians.
It is a busy place, Westminster Abbey, both below ground and above. On Sundays between services I have found peace to explore with pencil and paper. By contrast I am thrilled to have the opportunity to see the Abbey doing what it does best, namely the pomp, pageant and ceremony of state. I will be sketching the Royal Wedding during the service.