Alexander Creswell

“The Basilica of Maxentius in Rome” – October Painting of the Month

Watercolour on paper 24 x 40 inches – 60cm x 100cm
On show at Watts’s Great Studio 12th – 23rd October

The purpose of my time spent working in Watts’s Great Studio during 2011 has largely been to explore the idea of magnitude in painting. G. F. Watts who painted some of his greatest works in this studio before his death in 1904, had built the space specifically to work on paintings whose magnitude had outgrown his London studio. Watts wasn’t afraid to tackle paintings whose size and intent were massive.  The knowledge that he had carried out such work in this space gave me the idea that working in his shadow, so to speak, would enable me to think on a much bolder scale than before. The confines of my domestic scale working environment at home hadn’t prevented me from painting some very big watercolours in the past, but working in Watts’s studio would give me the opportunity to explore a grander intent in a larger space. Magnitude is the word of the year.

I had various subjects in mind, so as a family we went back to Rome in the early summer for a visit. There are several Roman buildings I had painted before and now wanted to explore again – the Pantheon, the Arch of Constantine and the Basilica of Maxentius. All are monuments to magnitude and I looked at them afresh. Too often we are distracted by superficial questions when appraising a work of art or architecture. How big is it? How long does it take? How much does it cost? Great works of art and architecture are quantified by lifeless facts while their artistic and cultural value are missed. Big and expensive are good, apparently. But magnitude is something else: magnitude is the impact of the idea rather than the scale of its execution. A large painting or building is not good simply because it is big, but maybe its intent or inspiration needs to be big in order to be good?

I tend to measure impact by the experience of the building or place or event.  It’s the experience which first grabs my attention and causes me to sketch.  If the sketch is good it doesn’t represent so much the place as the experience – the light, the movement, the beauty, the sensory thrill of just being there.  That’s the inspiration. A work of art is capturing the experience not just the representation of the place. The character not just the face.

Since Rome I’ve been painting large scale explorations of the experience of the interior of the Pantheon, in the contained volume of light and air, and I’ve worked on these in Great Studio with increasing magnitude. I’ve worked on exteriors of the Arch of Constantine, with its detailed carved panels telling the story-board of the emperor’s conquests, which to me involve delightfully complex passages of light and shadow – cartoons in stone and light – also explored on a growing scale.

Here at the Basilica of Maxentius I’ve explored the dichotomy of interior and exterior in a subject which is actually both. Once a vast interior, these towering ruined vaulted apses are open to the air, like massive theatres of light. These apses are vast and echoing, hard to quantify unless you can see the diminutive archaeologist’s ladder propped up against one wall.  In contemplation of ruins, we contemplates the future, the fragility of the present, and the futility of the past. In painting the Basilica of Maxentius I am contemplating magnitude as an element to inspire and uplift the human spirit. Magnitude, like beauty, can’t be measured but it can be missed. I think I understand what drove G. F. Watts in his time. For our time, I think I’ve realised what – together with beauty – has been missing for the last century. Magnitude.

The Basilica of Maxentius and other new works, together with some important commissions, both completed and in progress, are now on view at Great Studio from 12th – 23rd October. Please do come!

Great Studio, Limnerslease, Down Lane, Compton, Surrey, GU3 1DJ.