Portrait of Marguerite Kelsey – October 2005
The Artist’s and Illustrator’s Magazine – October 1990
Without exception, I have established a friendly relationship with the poets I have painted. I think I saw doing their portraits as the first stage in possible future collaborations, where I might base paintings on something they have written or take it as a starting point. I don’t mean straightforward narrative painting or anything like that, but I would like the sort of relationship I have built up with some of the poets to continue and create other paintings. Poetry sparks off a lot of things in the mind.
On the one level I feel that poetry and painting occupy common ground. Not when it is down on oil paint or once it is down in words, but when it is going round and round in the mind. One of the reasons I stopped writing poetry was because I thought it was occupying the same part of my brain as my painting, so I had to jettison one or the other. I am really a painter so the poetry had to go. I still jot down little notes all the time. I did some after I saw Ivor Cutlor and they came out like a poem, about the experience of seeing him. The basic idea I was getting at was that photographs are probably better at capturing the minutiae of expression, things that only last a fleeting moment, whereas when you paint someone for three hours at a time you build this sort of mausoleum in paint. The last line read: “paint is selfish”. Perhaps I was trying to say that the paint has an importance alongside whatever you are actually painting, whereas a photograph is much more submissive to the subject, a painting is still an object almost independent of the image.
My first memories are of drawing. I used to draw incessantly. I would never watch TV. Making images was a very natural thing. I used to try and do as much art as possible at school. Oswestry School was very traditional and trying to explain, at 13 years old, that you wanted to be a painter to people who thought Latin would be extremely useful in your future career was very difficult. I used to skive off to the art rooms when I was supposed to be doing either Combined Cadet Corps or Social Services, I eventually got out of both of them.
I realised quite late on that if you wanted to be an artist you usually want to art school. I was from a non-artistic background living in a non-artistic part of the world. That’s not such a bad thing for me. I still prefer to live in a community where people are just working on the land, you know, ordinary sorts of jobs. I don’t have any great desire to be surrounded by other artists all the time. It is great to come down to London and mix in but there is a side to me that likes to be out of it. When a painting affects me I can’t help but be influenced by it, so I need a certain amount of isolation just to consolidate what I am doing.
I went to Shrewsbury College of Art and Technology to do a Foundation Course and then to Gloucestershire College of Art and Design in Cheltenham. I had an extremely good first year there and, for the first time in my life, people thought I had something. But in the last two years, I suffered a bit. I don’t think I suited an art environment even though the tutors were great. Being in the figurative camp was also quite an important stance to take at art school in the mid-1970s.
My poetry writing started on my foundation course when I suddenly found the one artist who seemed to give me some sort of emotional drive. It was Wilfred Owen, who wasn’t a painter at all/ It was very confusing for me, I was trying to be a painter but the person I admired the most and wanted to emulate was a poet. I could identify with Wilfred Owen, since he came form a very similar background to me, and became obsessed with his life and work. In a way he is the person who made me think I could be an artist.
During the last two years at Cheltenham, my interest in Complementary Studies and poetry grew enormously. I had a tutor called Nick Wright, who was a poet although he kept it quiet. I would go to his house and drink his homemade wine and we would talk about poetry. That was one of the most important things for me at college; the one-to-one thing. I almost needed an emotional attachment to the tutor for it to work. That is what is important with the poets, that there is an emotional link which can be formed simply through knowing their work.
I was a great fan of Tiepolo at art school. I thought the way he portrayed women in particular was amazingly graceful. And Titian, the Venetian thing I suppose. When I was about six, a family friend gave me a book on Rembrandt and a book on Picasso and those were my two main art books as I grew up. Both artists entered my mind quite early on and both stayed there. I first came across Stanley Spencer when my mother got the book Point Counterpoint by Aldous Huxley and on the front was a portrait of Patricia Preece by Spencer. I cam remember looking at the cover of this book for hours. I was just a terrific piece of painting: the face was totally asymmetrical, one eye slightly higher than the other, the stripes on the jumper and the finding of all these flesh tones!
For the first four years after I left college, 1978-82, all my money went on oils. I used to paint on little bits of wood because you could pick up plywood very cheaply. I just slogged away really. But in those years I felt I learnt more about myself than ever before. I mainly did self-portraits, where I used an image of myself as a starting point to work from. They were learning paintings and I almost felt it was more real than what I’d done at college. The only thing of any consequence that happened to me during this period was that Sir Brinsley Ford bought a very small self-portrait on wood at the banquet before the private view of the 1980 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. And the only reason it was in the exhibition, was that a friend of mine took it along and put what I thought was a wacking great price on it.
In 1982 I was offered a one-day teaching class with a nice bunch of people. I must have been an exasperating teacher. I I did give them a clue it would be a least three clues of how to do it, because in my own mind I might approach it in three different ways. I’ve never held to any dogma, or preconceived ideas. When I paint, if something happens then I follow that line, or if I get frustrated I will throw on a bit paint, break up the surface and start painting again.
If I could walk into a caf© and chat with my choice of painters around today I would like to chat with Auerbach. I have a lot of respect for him. When I first came across his paintings it was quite a shock. I felt almost indignant. “God, there must be around £50 worth of paint in that lump! I don’t make that in a week!” I eventually recognised he is saying something about the surface of a painting that I needed to take in. Certain of the abstract painters have also taught me something about how important a painting is as a surface and as an object.
The Ivor Cutler painting, which ended up as one of the most precise straightforward figurative paintings, actually began as completely abstract. There is a strip down the right-hand side that’s left of the original painting underneath. It’s just swirls of quite think white paint and blue background. I really let that painting just come along. I became familiar with Ivor Cutler’s work then I met him and we hit it off, almost like like-minds. I did my drawings, sketches and photographs which were all rather tremulous and we had a nice meal he cooked up in his flat. But when I got the material back to the studio I could see no way of getting a painting out of it. That’s why I think I started off with this abstract.
This thing about being called a ‘portrait painter’ is a cop-out in a way. My pictures are a private view, a personal definition. Each one of the poets is a reaction to everything: where I’ve been, how I feel about them, what I know about their work. It is important that it doesn’t just become an exercise in likeness. In the portrait of the Liverpool poets I actually felt that I broke that down for myself. With this painting, and the way I brought the light in, the canvas was working independently. This is where, I suppose I have recognised Turner’s influence, the way he controlled light. I thought I came up with something that meant something to me and hopefully something to others. The portrait of Roger McGough in particular is one of those I’m most pleased with. For me it’s completely Roger McGough but it’s not as anyone else would have seen him.
I started painting with poets in about 1984. I let the poets come up with everything given in the sittings, where they would sit and what they would wear for example. I take over when I am on my own putting the big paintings together, that is my work, that is my bit of poetry. A lot of people would disagree with me, but when I am actually there in front of them, looking and putting down, I see it only as a stage of a painting. I find it very hard to see that as the final thing. It’s what you do back at the studio, bringing all the elements together and being in total control. I enjoy that process. It’s what keeps you going year after year, spending so many hours on your own.
I still do a lot of sketching when I am out and about, but I do it on the backs of envelopes and notepads. For some reason if I’m doing it on a sketchpad that I know I am going to keep and display, I find it incredibly inhibiting. It’s this thing of being almost too self-conscious; you have to lose that bit. Not to say I don’t keep them always, I’ve got bags of scraps of old jottings and things.
I live in a part of the world, North Shropshire, which is a landscape painter’s dream. This is one of the contradictions I like because I don’t paint it much. I’ve done landscapes in the garden with a big mirror with me in the middle, just to have a figure to put the landscape around. I suppose, to a certain extent, I would go along with what Auden wrote in his letter Lord Byron:
All Cezanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.
I don’t think Auden meant to be dismissive of Cezanne but I know what he is getting at.
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