Alexander Creswell

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

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:

August Painting of the Month: ‘Redentore – A study of Fireworks’

Venice Redentore - Fireworks Study 3, Watercolour on paper 22" x 30"

There is a great sense of liberation when painting fireworks. Beyond the oohs and aahs is a curious profanity about the spectacle: at first you sense a childlike fascination with flashes and bangs, then as the spent sparks fall back to earth and the smoke clears, a carefree disregard for order and correctness fills the night.

Evidently Whistler felt this freedom in 1875  when he painted ‘The Falling Rocket’ and when Ruskin later accused him of “flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public” by exhibiting this painting, Whistler felt compelled to sue for libel, and to strike a blow for artistic freedom. It was actually a great painting, entirely free from the confines of veracity or what we would call photographic accuracy today.

I have been commissioned to paint a large portrayal of Venice lit by the massive firework display which marks the passing of Saturday night into the Sunday of La Festa del Redentore. Traditionally the people of Venice mark the day by giving thanks for deliverance from plague, crossing to Palladio’s church of the Redeemer on Giudecca island. To get there they would lash all their boats together to form a bridge across which the populace could walk. Now a floating bridge is installed, and the night before the festival the Venetians take to their boats to celebrate out there on the water, between San Marco and San Giorgio and along the Giudecca. It is the most important evening in the Venetian calendar.

Eagerly we got our little boat ready, stowing an anchor, torches, chairs, a mattress for sleepy children and a bucket…. also my drawing machine loaded with dark blue paper and some vivid crayons.  Then we loaded up with good Venetian dishes of marinated sardines, some crab pasta, pimento salad with pecorino cheese, plenty of wine and some grappa for emergencies (e.g. running out of wine). Then we dropped anchor in the best spot to dine and cheer with the locals as the sun went down, waiting for the fireworks to start at 11.30pm.

I had painted fireworks before in Venice but from on land, from rooftop vantage-points and once from the terrace of the Cipriani, but to be on the water right in with the action was breathtaking. I wanted a clear view which stretched from the Salute on the left, past La Dogana, The Doges Palace and around to San Giorgio on the right. This was a tough drawing which I worked on in daylight, with plenty of detail and accuracy necessary. But when working on the colour sketches and larger watercolour studies (such as this Painting of the Month), I discovered that the light effects and the drifting smoke of the fireworks allowed, even encouraged, a disregard for the detail. So the sacred reverence for architectural precision to which I had become entirely loyal in the development of my work, was beautifully corrupted by the profanity of light and colour. And no critic could accuse me of rendering the Doges Palace in the wrong colour, for example, or getting the light wrong on San Giorgio. I was free to do what I liked. And if I felt like leaving out some building or part of the view, I could obscure it with smoke or with the gouged flash of an explosion as another salvo of rockets fired off the firework barges. In short, Venice was merely the context or backdrop, the subject of the painting was light and colour. This was liberating! I scratched away with a razor blade slicing the exploding trails of fireworks across the night sky.

When I had been painting the ruins of abandoned country houses, twenty years ago, I had been similarly liberated. Ruins allow the loosening of the facts in order to place the emphasis on the mood of the painting. The absolute truth is rarely poetic, and reality is seldom lyrical. Turner reputedly berated a spectator who had been dismissive of one of his landscapes, suggesting that they had never seen a sunset such as the one Turner had painted; his reply was along the lines of “ah yes, but wouldn’t you love to?”.

If you’d love to see Venice as you’ve never seen her before, I should have the finished painting ready in a month or so. It will be the largest representational watercolour ever painted, at ten feet by five, just over three metres wide! In the meanwhile some more of these firework studies can be seen here.

Buona Festa!