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 Portraits and presentiment (part 1)


       The Mij Oil on canvas 76x56cm 2           The Marmoset Oil on board 73x49cm 2

          The Mij, Oil on canvas 76x56cm                    and                        The Marmoset, Oil on board 73x49cm                  

 Two new portraits presented themselves unbidden, and presented me in the process with renewed sombre misgivings about modern commercial art. [By ‘commercial’ I mean art produced for the marketplace] These misgivings conspired to see me destroying some old works, not because they haven’t sold but because they presented other misgivings: some technical and some personal. Since my first career was in zoological science, it’s perhaps relevant that curiosity weighs heavy with me and I will discuss this more in the second part.

That out of the way, portraiture must be the severest, most profound test of an artist (be they painter or sculptor) – something most avoid on account its unforgiving and unrelenting scrutiny: both of the practitioner of the model, and of the beholder of the practitioner.

Over the last 12 months and more I’ve been debating with myself (there being no-one else really) about the path work takes and to where. You may (or may not) find these experiences a) interesting, b) helpful, c) provocative, d) irrelevant or e) just plain boring, so skip ahead if you don’t wish to read of someone else’s toils (but, as humans, don’t we enjoy some schadenfreude?!

2013 then is the background for a year of misfirings:

  1. My Structured Landscape exhibition produced all the inevitable doubts that such ventures always produce – one could do, think, arrange, select, price, publicize and invite better etc;
  2. The loss in early February of a dear friend and collaborator on some books, the great bird illustrator Malcolm Ellis              Paradise Park Garden Party 08vi06 3
  3. A disappointing talk to North Devon Arts at The Broomfield Sculpture Park fell well below the standards I'd normally set myself; for some reason, the slides in transfer to their computer got muddled, which doesn't sound disastrous in itself but the thumbnails were displayed on the enormous screen while we re-ordered them - a bit of a spoiler which took time to correct meaning I had to cut out some hilarious (or so I like to imagine) anecdotes;
  4. This was followed by the misfiring (for me but it would seem for no-one else) of Open Studio Art Trek;
  5. Then there were laborious preparations (e.g. thematic, selection, doubt, framing, pricing) for my Autumn show The Constructed Female at The Plough Arts Centre, and the incomprehension and misunderstanding it seemed to create for some;
  6. Distressing and disturbing ecological consultancy duties involving (inevitably) badgers and bovine TB – which I’m unable to avoid, and consequent on those…
  7. … thwarted attempts to reprint my 1986 book The Fate of the Badger (Batsford) despite some demand from affected caring people;
  8. My novel 'The Children Who Wouldn’t ...' ( set on the Isles of Scilly was published. Ten people have read it, or at least, bought it (for an impressive 77p, 99c in the US - and I just got a royalty statement from Amazon USA for 36p, mind you they withheld 12p for tax, I hope they spend it wisely).  On top of these distractions…
  9. there's been a frustrating and disillusioning failure to find a venue for an altruistic exhibition of 12 paintings of 1940s pin-up ‘Land Girls’, done with the co-operation of some lovely mums in Cheshire, to help raise funds for ‘Help For Heroes’ or some other human warfare related charity. I had once confidently hoped I could arrange this to coincide with Centenary Commemorations this November – which is now unlikely.

While some of these tribulations are amusing and petty they conflate to such an extent that I found myself in the deepest doldrums since emerging blinking from a 5 year PhD in Glasgow and an ensuing short but disillusioning career teaching in Primary Schools and one ghastly private school. [Can doldrums be deep? Perhaps I’m just a lousy teacher]. The thesis, incidentally, of >300 pages, ca.100,000 words and gawd knows how many tables, figures and statistics remains I imagine unread and unused apart from by my sponsors down in Cornwall (  [The RSPB cannot even acknowledge its existence.] Of course it was not all awful, I had a good and rewarding year working in Cornish schools for the RSPCA, and a delightful two years lecturing and getting up and running a new FE College outpost in the grounds of Paignton Zoo, Devon.

However, outweighings prompted re-evaluation; so I destroy old work and find furious cathartic satisfaction in it.  All of which brings me back to the portraits – inevitably a substantial element in The Constructed Female exhibition.

The two portraits I mentioned at the top had an underlying cause - partly to convince myself after nearly a year of scant activity that I could still paint. The first was of a model from Cheltenham who contacted me via Twitter, and has since become an engaging and feisty ally, and the second of the beautiful and long-suffering Mij whom I have of course painted many times and who has crept unbidden into other portraits (or so I’m told by people; and they can see it and I can’t).

What I can see (and maybe what I can’t) follows.

- 25 March 2014 at 20:58

You had a downer of a year in 2013.

Your words about destroying work reminded me of a programme I listened to on the way back from teaching in Sussex. It was about literary estates and who actually 'owns' creative work. In your case, as you're happily still with us, it's clearly you. But afterwards? Who does it really belong to? There are some dreadful stories of literary works being thrown on the bonfire as being inconvenient to an executor's or a family's view or interests. Sometimes this was contrary to the author's wishes. And sometimes the author's wishes to destroy were ignored.

I think your website is looking good, by the way. Sorry I haven't trotted over since you set it up.

I too have been having a turf -out, by the way, but mostly of textiles I've collected which I no longer need. The Red Cross will probably be the beneficiary.

- 26 March 2014 at 13:55

Yes, one reason - but only one - for the 'getting-rid' is not wishing to leave my family with a burden of work... "What the hell are we gonna do with this lot?"! They say that's silly but I don't believe 'em! But being thick with oil paint they should burn well, I hope my positive actions for the environment will balance out any pollution I cause.

Thanks for responding so politely, I'd feared these postings would be seen as just one big whinge but to counter that I felt I had to be honest if anything at all.

Someone has contacted me privately saying my writings are a nice antidote to the Christmas Lets-big-ourselves up Round Robins. So that's good.
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