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.