This is blog number four of six:

The Beaney House of Knowledge and Art: The Front Room ‘Armchair Artist Residency’ blog.

Blog number four, December 2013:

I’ve installed an exhibition of my drawings and sketchbooks in The Drawing Room at The Beaney.  I managed to squeeze everything that is in the exhibition into a couple of large shoulder bags and lug the whole lot over to Canterbury on the number 8 bus.  The journey from Margate takes the best part of an hour and I’ve been doing this trip a lot since becoming the ‘Front Room Artist Armchair Resident’.  This journey has become an important aspect of my ‘Residency’ at The Beaney.  The bus takes me along a line in the landscape which has been there for centuries.  Upstairs at the front of the bus is a good place to sit and notice things and to let my mind wander as the bus draws me across the East Kent landscape.

My exhibition consists of twenty sketchbooks and sixteen loose drawings (I’ve posted a video tour of it on my youtube channel to give you an idea of it).  The loose drawings were done in The Beaney as part of the ‘Front Room Artist Armchair residency’ and the sketchbooks are all recent ones containing drawings of people.  When I installed the work I made the decision to place drawings so that they might subtly relate to each other or direct the gaze in certain ways.  There is no hidden message or overarching theme here.  I simply thought that their placing might bring something extra into play in the mind of the viewer – it is whimsical.  I offer my drawings as interesting things to look at and it’s up to the viewer to look at the drawings and notice things and let the mind wander.

None of these drawings were done for the purpose of being exhibited.  They weren’t designed as ‘Works of Art’ or with an exhibition in mind.  Each drawing was done separately and for its own sake.  If they share a theme, it is that they are all drawings that pay attention to the physical presence of things.  There are drawings of inanimate objects (made of marble, bronze and silver) that were made to look like people and there are drawings of real people being still.  It’s a wonderful thing when someone is happy to be still and let you draw them.  If I did nothing else with my life, drawing people would be a good use of a lifetime.  I wish I could do it more often.

Across the room from my drawings is a small oblong-shaped piece of vellum covered in neat pen-and-ink hand-writing: The Godwine Charter.  A thousand years ago it had a practical function as a legal document but now it has an afterlife as an object of contemplation in a museum.  We can appreciate it as a kind of drawing.  Hand-writing and the kind of lines you find in drawings are similar things.  Both of them are products of human touch and of the time it took to draw them.  That particular human presence and that particular moment of time are subtly replayed every time another person sees it.  It is both trivial and wonderful.  A similar effect can be felt in places too.  My bus journey to Canterbury traces a line in the landscape which was already old when that scribe’s pen was forming those letters on that piece of vellum which sits across the room from my drawings.

We change our minds when we draw.  ‘Objective Drawing’ is a process of continual revision (a good rule-of-thumb is that if your drawing isn’t going wrong then you’re just not trying hard enough!).  Drawings are the trace-evidence of a mind making sense of things.  They show us that someone was here and that they were interested in the presence of someone or of something outside of themselves.

You can watch a youtube video tour of the exhibition by clicking on this link:  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PHLRDUvEB0

 


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This is the third of six blog posts written for my ‘Armchair Artist Residency’ at The Beaney House of Knowledge and Art, in Canterbury, a few years ago.  

The Beaney House of Knowledge and Art: The Front Room ‘Armchair Artist Residency’ blog.

Blog number three, November 2013:

A couple of weeks ago I was allowed to go and have a look around The Beaney’s storerooms.  They are located in the centre of Canterbury in a building you might never notice which is situated half way down a road you might never walk down.  Outwardly there is nothing to tell you what this building hoards a huge collection of museum objects.  I suspect that its anonymity is deliberate and so I’m not going to let on where it is.  Sssh!

The inside is like a hoarder’s house but with the addition of a cataloguing system.  Objects are systematically clumped together according to type.  I saw a cluster of old bicycles, a little line of dusty vacuum cleaners, boxes of flint tools, lots of stuffed animals, shelves of pottery, Saxon spearheads, odd little incomplete glass vessels, samplers sewn by eight year old girls two-hundred and twenty-five years ago… a list of the various types of objects would go on for ages.

Objects have a power to draw meanings and associations to themselves because there is always a wider context in which even the most ordinary object has its place; there are always multiple stories attached to each and every object that has ever been made.  Often, museum objects were unremarkable things in their own ‘lifetime’ (when they were known to someone) but they become objects of contemplation when they are separated from their original context and classified as museum objects.  Collectors and museums grant them an afterlife as objects of contemplation.  Contemporary works of art, on the other hand, are specifically made to come into being as objects of contemplation.

I’ve been working on a series of drawings of plastic toy soldiers (such objects could very easily become museum objects one day).  They are just plastic toy soldiers and my drawings are just drawings; but then objects are never just objects, with singular meanings, and drawings are never just hand-made pictures of things.

The starting point for some of these, ’Dancing Toy Soldier‘, drawings are mass-produced plastic toy soldiers.  This ongoing series of drawings began with a number of drawings of a model soldier falling backwards after being shot or hit by shrapnel.  It happens to be a toy soldier that I used to play with as a child and it was lovingly ‘painted-up’, by my Dad, as a Second World War German soldier (the model actually depicts a British infantryman from the late 1950s or early 1960s).  It shows an imagined final moment of life.  It might also be re-imagined as a depiction of someone lost in an ecstatic moment of dancing.  The figure is at the cusp between balancing and falling.  This serious and dramatic little toy stands about 45mm high and my drawings are equally tiny.

More recently, I have extended this series to include other toy soldiers which could be imagined as if dancing.  One in particular is a model of a ‘Red Indian’ dressed in a bird costume and performing a dance.  Already there are a few real-world associations that are brought to mind.  Few people would use the term, ‘Red Indian’, these days and I’m not sure if anyone makes ‘Cowboy and Indian’ toys anymore.  In its clumsy way, this delicate little toy brings the idea of an ‘exotic’ culture into play.

Recently I have become interested in the use of silverpoint as a drawing medium.  This is a drawing medium with a history going back way to before The Renaissance.  Silverpoint drawings are made by drawing a piece of silver wire over a surface prepared with gesso.  The resulting mid-grey lines cannot be erased.  The grey slowly turns a brown colour over time.  The drawings are worked on and into thick layers of gesso which allows me to scratch and sand back into the drawing so as to be able to repeatedly re-draw each drawing time and time again.  The revision and redrawing allows knew ways of seeing the object to be played out in the drawing.  The figure is re-imagined each time it is redrawn.  Etching needles are also used to draw into the gesso.  There is never really a definite end to these drawings; they are just left as they are at some point and then occasionally they are framed (to protect their fragile surfaces) and put on display for others the look at and contemplate.  I’m not sure how this work will progress in the future or if this series of work has, for now, come to an end.


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This was the second of six blogs from my ‘Armchair Artist Residency’ at The Beaney House of Knowledge and Art, Canterbury.

 

The Beaney House of Knowledge and Art: The Front Room ‘Armchair Artist Residency’ blog.

Blog number two, October 2013:

 

I continue drawing objects in The Beaney.

The Epstein portrait of Hewlett Johnson (The Red Dean of Canterbury) continues to draw me to it.  Stylistically, it is a typical Epstein portrait with all his signature mannerisms (you’ll see a ‘family resemblance’ about the eyes and lips in all of his portraits).  And yet, this work is believable as a portrait of a particular person with a personality.  It feels alive.  Perhaps part of its aliveness comes from the way in which the viewer is made to complete its form in the mind’s eye.  Its surface is made up of scored lines, clumps of material and deep hollows that catch the light and create shadows so that the sense of the form is partly a figment of sight as well as the presence of the actual physical form.  The slightly fragmented character of the surface generates a sense of unsettledness and movement.  We have to make a little effort to reconcile the various layers of depth and surface details to see its completeness and this makes looking at this portrait an intimate experience full of subtle and surprising moments of recognition and sense of completion.  I like this sculpture and I feel that I like the person it portrays.

A different kind of portrait bust can be found in the ‘Materials and Masters’ room.  I spent far too long trying to draw this, Neo-Classical style, marble portrait of a man from the early nineteenth century whose identity is not known to us today.  I wondered if I could conjure a sense of what he might have been like in life from spending time drawing his marble portrait.

This object was carved more than a hundred years before the Epstein portrait was modelled and cast.  The light on its smooth, and hard-to-like, shiny surface made it difficult to see its form; and its style, with its ‘classicised’ treatment of surface and detail, made it hard to get beneath the surface to feel the presence of a personality.  As I spent more and more time making drawings of it I found myself liking it less and less.  The ‘Classical’ stylisation of the eyes made them especially unrewarding to draw.  Given more time, and if I had the will to make the effort, I’m sure I could make something of this.  I look at my drawings and I can see hints of ideas to come.  Drawing works like that; the things we learn when we draw can’t always be recognised at the time but we get a slight sense of something interesting coming into play.  In the case of my drawings of this object I can see that there is something about the use of fine contour lines that might bare fruit in some future drawing.

As you draw in museums you can’t help but over-hear the things people say.  At one point a couple approached this sculpture and I heard one of them say something like: “Oh look at this, it’s a Roman Emperor” and then, as they got nearer: “Oh, no, it says here that it’s an ‘unknown’ man.” and then they walked away without looking at it.  If the person who paid for this portrait wanted future people to look at it and have nice thoughts about him, he was diddled.

The Latham Centrepiece continues to intrigue me.  I remember seeing this when it was part of The Buffs Regimental Museum (my mum would sometimes take me to Canterbury on the bus and we might go to The Cathedral, The Westgate Tower, The Pilgrim’s Hospital or The Buffs Museum).  The Latham Centrepiece isn’t a fine work of Art but it is dramatic and its purpose was to pass on a story of Lt Matthew Latham’s bravery and self-sacrifice at The Battle of Albuera in 1811.  It succeeds in this perfectly.  It shows Latham, having already lost an arm, grappling with a cavalryman for possession of a ragged flag.  We might quibble at the inaccuracy of the uniforms but another inaccuracy is the way in which the true gruesomeness of his injuries has been left out in order to tell the story visually.  The reality of the event was that, even before he received the wound to his arm, Latham had been slashed in the face and had lost part of his face and his nose.  He was left for dead on the battle field but managed to survive and in 1815 the Prince Regent paid for him to have reconstructive surgery to restore his nose.  A medal was especially designed for him as a tribute to his loyal bravery and he continued to serve in The British Army and eventually retired and moved to France.  In a letter, published in The United Service Gazette of 25th April 1840, it was noted that he “lives at this moment in a secluded part of France, where for years he has remained, unnoticed and unknown.”

These objects were made to tell us about people and perhaps to transmit feelings about them.  As I continue to draw in The Beaney I also continue to work at my other artwork.  All of my drawings feed into to each other in ways that can’t be predicted.  A recent piece is a small (less than half A5 in scale) portrait of my mum (drawn in silver on gesso).  It is based on an unused photo booth image from a strip of three that is dated on the back (in her hand-writing which I have copied on the drawing): Tuesday 22nd November 1983.  It’s part of a projected series of small silverpoint portrait drawings based on unused photo booth images.  In this drawing, as with a lot of my work, I have included text as well as drawing.  It’s an object that, like the ones I’ve been drawing in The Beaney, will go into the future and might or might not mean something to people there.

 


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A few years ago I did a residency at ‘The Beaney’ in Canterbury and I posted six blog posts about my time there.  These posts are no longer available on their website and so I thought I’d re-post them here.  In this post I make a start by drawing in the museum and wondering if angels would approve of drawing.

The Beaney House of Knowledge: The Front Room ‘Armchair Artist Residency’ blog.

Blog number one, September 2013:

I’ve made a start with the Beaney’s Front Room ‘Armchair Residency’ by drawing some of the objects there.  I’ve always loved wandering around museums on my own.  Museums are the places where the nation’s collection of souvenirs, bric-a-brac and broken things are carefully preserved and displayed.  They show us the evidence of ourselves as cultured beings.  Our museums are purpose-built for the business of noticing things and for letting the mind wander.  Objects arrayed in museum cabinets overlap in our line of sight and likewise our lives and the lives of others past and present overlap in the company of these things that had a place in other people’s lives.  We pay careful and open-minded attention to the presence of things when we draw and Drawing is what I expect to spend most of my ‘Armchair Residency’ doing.

As you walk up the stairs to the main museum area you can’t help but notice two big leaded windows made up of scores of carefully arranged fragments of 17th and 18th century Dutch stained glass windows.  These fragments hint at the loss of bigger pictures and of other places.  It is a joy to look at them.  Picture-windows compel us to take pleasure in the act of looking and of noticing.  If it could speak this object would say: “Look!”

I’ve been drawing numerous objects in the ‘Explorers and Collectors’ room (previously home to The Buffs regimental museum) and the ‘People and Places’ room.  Two objects in particular have attracted my attention.  These are: The Latham Centrepiece (the silver model depicting a moment of amazing heroism during the Peninsula War) and the Jacob Epstein bronze bust of Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966), otherwise known as ‘The Red Dean of Canterbury’ – so called because of his political beliefs.

Epstein’s Red Dean looks thoughtful, humorous and kind.  He could be just about to say something or laugh at something.  I put aside my inclination to learn about him and I avoid seeking out images of how he appeared in photographs; I want to look at this carefully formed lump of bronze and draw what is actually there and see what my Drawing makes of it.

When we draw we change our minds.  We look and we make our mark and hope that, at some point during the drawing process (a process of constant revision), a good resemblance takes shape on the paper.  I say ‘on the paper’ but I could also say ‘in the paper’ as when we draw an object we are trying to get to know its form (its presence as a thing in a relationship of proximity to us).  The paper becomes a virtual three dimensional space.  When we draw something, from direct observation, we realise that the visual world isn’t just a pre-existing and fixed picture which we simply have to ‘get right’ by copying it like a photograph; rather, the visual array is a world full of physically present objects, subtle movements and the spaces between things which we get to know and reconstruct through Drawing.

Whenever I draw I am hoping for something new and unforeseen to come into play.  There is an interesting description of Drawing, by Leon Kossoff, quoted in Robert Hughes’ book on Frank Auerbach in which Drawing is described as:

“…endless activity before the model or subject, rejecting time and time again ideas which are possible to preconceive …it is always beginning again, making new images, destroying images that lie, discarding images that are dead.  The only true guide in this search is the special relationship the artist has with the person or landscape from which he [sic] is working”.

People who are in the habit of drawing will know what is meant in the use the phrase, ‘images that lie’, and they will also intuitively know when a line or a mark is ‘good’ – often they’re the one’s that could not be preconceived.  There is a lovely moment in the Wim Wenders film, ‘Wings of Desire’, when the character played by Peter Faulk (a.k.a. ‘Columbo’) describes to an angel, who he cannot see but knows is somewhere close by, about the pleasures of simple things and he chooses to describe to the angel (trust me, it’ll make sense if you see the film) what it feels like to draw.  He explains that you “Draw!  You know, you can take a pencil and you make like a dark line, then you make a light line and together it’s a good line”.

If angels really existed I’m sure they would approve of Drawing because Drawing is a humble, careful and affectionate act of paying attention to something outside of your self and being open to the possibility of changing your mind about what you think you see and what you think you are in the presence of.


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