Tuesday, December 13, 2011

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Heart of Darkness and A Humument fifth edition

Photograph Catherine Ashmore
Heart of Darkness was premiered with some success at Covent Garden’s Linbury Theatre. Reviews were generally enthusiastic about Tarik’s richly inventive score as well as the staging and set, the excellent band and the strong cast (especially Alan Oke as Marlow). Many reviewers also singled out for a mention (as does not always happen) that shadowy operatic drudge, the librettist.

Herewith a link to the Observer’s account (not on this occasion by their chief critic since one cannot be blown by one’s own strumpet) and one from that independent and often contentious blogger who sidles to his seat under the name of operacreep.

Tarik and I gave talks before the shows and it was he that pointed out that the first email exchange about the project was in 2002. Not quite ten years before the mast but a long haul. It already seems unlikely that this will be our last collaboration.

With the opera launched, Cicero published, and the Olympic Coin minted, time for fresh woods and pastures new: in this case to join those who have stumbled at the wide brooks and the high fences of translating Rilke. But this is an even longer venture hoping to have text and pictures for all the Duino Elegies (which the loftiest poet of the 20th century started in 1912) ready in a couple of years.

Meanwhile, the longest term of all my projects, A Humument heads for its fifth revised edition in the New Year. I have written a new introduction that has now come through a protracted battle with copy editors who do not like semi-colons. There are more than fifty newly revised pages. Although these were delivered with the introduction to Thames & Hudson only last week, the book has already appeared on Amazon.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Coin for the Olympics

Design for 2012 Olympics Silver kilo coin, 2011, watercolour.

Gutted by yet again being passed over for a place in our Olympics table tennis team I had resigned myself to having no role in the 2012 Olympiad. A phone call from Kevin Clancy at the Royal Mint changed all that, with a request to design a silver coin (face value £500) weighting a kilo to celebrate the games. Thus I was paired with Tony Caro who was making a gold coin of the same weight in the novel Olympic event of synchronised coin stamping. Luckily the theme of my own design was team sports which let me off the business of the inevitable action images of multicultural sportspersons. Apart from a drawn out dispute as to whether it was XXX Olympiad or Olympiad XXX, in which I came out the loser, all went smoothly.

The coin features bunting (which as a wartime child always signifies to me a mood of celebration) to form a sun and, in negative, a multiple Olympic flame. This motif is surrounded by a verse I made to recall the original ideal of the games UNITE OUR DREAMS TO MAKE THE WORLD A TEAM OF TEAMS. Obliged to incorporate the ghastly logo of the London Olympiad I managed to shrink it to the size of the full stop which punctuates the text.

Sir Anthony Caro and Tom Phillips, 2012, photo David Parry.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011


When you meet someone you haven't encountered for sixty years you shouldn't be surprised to find them changed utterly. So it is in my case with Tully, as Marcus Tullius Cicero was always referred to  by our classics master. I well remember the long feared exposure of my shaky grasp of Latin when singled out to stand up in class to read out and translate a tortuous paragraph from the Orations.

Almost a caricature of pedagogic dryness this teacher never once hinted at Virgil's epic swagger or let on that Horace was a cunning and sexy satirist. They were there, it seemed, to show that Latin was horrible and hard; with Tully the toughest of the bunch.

Horace and Virgil yielded to later reading but the idea of revisiting Cicero was like being summoned once more to stand outside the headmaster's door, awaiting reprimand or punishment.

The opposite, as Cicero himself might have said, would prove to be the case. Having riskily agreed to accompany some of the Orations with pictures (illustrations doesn't somehow seem to be the right word) I plunged anew into the once detested text.

I was amazed to find that today was two thousand years old. Same cast, same evils. The knuckle-rapping invective sometimes read like a rediscovered Pompeian copy of Private Eye: only the barmy army of religionists was missing. All the crime, corruption and political skulduggery of the age of Bush and Blair was well matched. In the Rome of today, the outrageous Silvio Berlusconi whose lifestyle and morality as a statesman were pre-echoed blemish for blemish in the Philippics against Mark Anthony.

Dissatisfied with the translations that I looked at I found my dim Latin was just enough to illuminate the wit and invention of the prose and to recognise all those verbal strategies of orators I have heard in my lifetime, from Churchill to Obama.

I took the most famous tag of all, O Tempora O Mores, as a kind of leitmotiv... the best translation (if one adds an exclamation mark) being Trollope's title The Way We Live Now. This I made into a mosaic, variously interfered with to produce O Amores, O Mores etc. Making guest appearances in the book, in addition to Berlusconi, are Fidel Castro, Mick Jagger, Catullus, Christine Keeler, Julius Caesar, Dante's Beatrice, Agatha Christie, The Elgin Marbles, Vincenza Foppa, Mussolini and a London smuggler of antiquities who shall remain anonymous.

Cicero: Orations is soon to be published by the Folio Society. Copies may be purchased in their online shop http://www.foliosociety.com/orations

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Ornament, pencil 2011, 30cm diameter

Long ago I teamed myself up with Jessica Rawson to prepare an exhibition at the Royal Academy that would define and celebrate Ornament. We made a trip to the vaults of the Vatican to start the hunt for likely exhibits, and travelled to Vienna to continue the search. It was there over supper at the Sacher Hotel that we discussed in earnest what the show would say and what it might contain.

We questioned each other's choices of the previous days. It soon emerged that our concepts of ornament, its nature, status and role in art were quite different; in effect irreconcilably opposed. With tempers frayed we retired to our respective rooms.

I intended, before finally turning in, to jot down a few clarifying notes, but eventually sat up half the night composing a manifesto that I could read out to Jessica (and to Simonetta Fraquelli who was with us) over breakfast. I only half realised that this would mark the end of the collaboration and the evaporation of the project as a whole. It was this polemical pamphlet that some months later I presented at the RA's Architecture Forum.

Ornament frequently creeps into what I do, usually by way of borders and framing devices. That it was on my mind at the time can be seen in the drawings that obliterate the many agendas and minutes of Merry Meetings (D3 Editions 2005) including its cover illustration.

On my return from Vienna, remembering Derrida's contention that the margins are at the centre, I set about an ambitious exercise in pure ornamental mode. I soon got lost in its improvised and unsystematic convolutions and set it aside as unsolvable. My artistic performance had not matched my rhetoric.

I have now retired from the business of formal portrait painting and stepped down from committees. Taking advantage of new resultant gaps of time I could return to the drawing abandoned so many months ago. Unravelling and reravelling I managed at last to bring it off.

Duino Ornament, h42cm x w29cm, 2011

I made a smaller coloured version, making minor adjustments to balance the field of energy. To this I added, as if to challenge the ornament's autonomy, the opening words from Rilke's first Duino Elegy which kept running through my mind; with various translations forming and reforming as I worked. Not a title but an accompaniment. Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen? Perhaps this could be the official badge of the order of angels.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Vintage People on Photo Postcards

The transfer of my archive to the Bodleian Library might have felt like parcelling up one foot and posting it direct to the grave. But it has not been like that at all: the opposite in fact, for out of that arrangement has come new life for a long cherished project.

For twenty years I have been collecting real photo postcards of anonymous people. They all date from that period when portraiture suddenly became democratised. At the beginning of the twentieth century all manner of people, not just the wealthy, could for the first time in history possess their likenesses. What resulted was an inadvertent and unofficial visual census of the country.

Out of over a million of such cards that have passed though my hands I have brought together fifty thousand or so which now, in albums and boxes, crowd out what passes for my kitchen. They are grouped under titles that announce the obsessive typologist, Two Men, Tree, Pram, Bather, Nurse etc.

I exhibited a selection of these cards in 2004 at the National Portrait Gallery in a show whose catalogue, We Are The People should now be seen as a trailer to this current series of books published by the Bodleian itself. Readers was the natural first title in what promises to be an extensive but not expensive sequence produced by one of the world's great libraries.

Issued at the same time was Women & Hats. Weddings and Bicycles appeared soon after with the same generic rubric Vintage People on Photo Postcards. All four are now available and more are to follow. Watch this space: start clearing a shelf.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Word Cross

Word Cross, wire 1997

One of the strange aspects of an artist’s job is that most of the time you are doing something no one has asked you to do; things that, since they do not as yet exist, no one could ask you to do. Sometimes they may of course be things that no one will ever require you to have done. It is a chancy life of uncontingent imperatives.
I first exhibited this Word Cross at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1997. Caroline Gould, a parishioner of Farningham, a small village in Kent, showed a great interest in securing it for her church, even though it is an expensive and doctrinally controversial object. I can only too readily imagine what efforts of planning and persuasion led, after many months of discussion, to its eventual acquisition this year. There was just time for me to have it shipped back from New York where it had been on show, and delivered to Farningham church on the Thursday of Easter Week. Luckily the installation (at a spot we had worked out together with the help of paper models) could be effected in the few hours before the appropriate Good Friday service for its dedication. The picture shows that it will soon look as if, simultaneously modern and mediaeval, it has always been there.  At a time when the artworld has become a bloated thing like a celebrity based branch of the stock exchange, it is very satisfying to make a real and seriously thoughtful transaction.
They also serve that only stand and wait...

Word Cross at St Peter & St Paul, Farningham 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

Nothing like a regular client...

Rima's Song, comic book collage, 2005

Fifty years ago I sold (for £12) my first picture to a proper collection, that of the JCR of Pembroke College,  Oxford. This was a watercolour called The City. Last month this same Junior Common Room made a second purchase, slightly smaller for a slightly higher price. In their now splendidly hung gallery these two works, though separated in time by half a century hang merely inches apart.

My present self remembers painting The City as an undergraduate in my Walton Crescent lodgings but my past self could not have imagined making Rima's Song... and would probably not have been able to identify it as mine, or even to have 'understood' it.

 The City, 1958, gouache.

Rima has quite a role in fiction. She is not only the jungle girl of W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions but the heroine of H. W. K. Collam's Come Autumn Hand, from which came the idea of my largest drawing, Rima's Wall. Her name is also, by nice coincidence, an anagram of Irma, the femme fatale of A Human Document (and hence A Humument). I was more than delighted, rummaging in a New York vintage comics store, to come across her again, once more a jungle goddess in tales like Safari of Death from Rima a short lived DC comics series from the seventies, brilliantly drawn by the enviably named Filipino artist Nestor Redondo.

 Rima's Wall, 1991-2, pastel, h220cms x w1150cms

The Rima in Collam's story is less exotic, and cherishes an album of esoteric postcards. Using material from the DC comics I echoed them in a series of postcard-sized collages. Rima's Song is one of these, and one of my many attempts to convey the look and feel of music by means of an abstract notation; a song without words or specified tones. All the tiny fragments that make up this miniature metascore come from Redondo's harmonious colours and fine-tuned marks.

I was very impressed when the young committee members lighted upon this small and unassuming piece. To be truthful I was almost dismayed since it is a favourite thing I had half intended to keep. But it has found a good home not far from the Ashmolean which contains quite a comprehensive collection of my drawings, and the Bodleian which houses my archive. Fifty years ago the committee's predecessors chose the best thing on offer and their present members have more or less done it again. Artists be warned: if the Pembroke people come knocking at your door, they have very sharp eyes.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

App for iPhone

To celebrate the appearance of A Humument App on iPhone I shall shortly add a dozen or so newly revised pages. The first to change will be page 1 (which is what one sees on opening the app) in its original version done in 1967 not long after textual intercourse, for me, began. The standard introductory phrase of a would-be epic, the Virgilian/Miltonic I Sing has to remain of course. What most cried out for change was the somewhat tentative surround. Here it is in its new livery as trailer for adaptations to come.

The strangest affect of my possession of an iPad (I do not have an iPhone) is that I have become my own consumer. Each night after midnight when the daily page first announces itself I consult, somewhat furtively (even though alone), the Oracle that I have made. I am often surprised by pages made long ago and almost forgotten, as well as by the sometimes uncanny predictions they offer their maker.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Remains of the Day (My Painting Epilogue I)

The Remains of the Day, 2011, recycled acrylic palettes on board, h41 x w76.5cm

It's all Daphne's fault. Meeting my friend the admirable portrait painter Daphne Todd at Green & Stones in the King's Road (the last true artist's shop in London) I saw that she had bought a pad of disposable palettes. She said she always used them... so practical, no more cleaning palettes at the end of a working session etc. I said I thought they were meant for amateurs but I would give them a go; and anyway I had just used up my three wooden palettes making Beckett Again and had been about to buy a new one.

So, for the whole of the reworking of Quantum Poetics I used them for mixing colours and for making the cumulative mix for the current Terminal Grey canvas. Always aiming to be the Compleat Recycler I did not however dispose of them but let them pile up and dry in the corner of the studio.

Nor did I discard the sturdy tray that Andy had made to house the panels of Quantum Poetics as I was painting them, and on which I cleaned my brushes as I proceeded.

One day looking at these curling, flimsy but paint laden palettes I had a taste of that epiphany that visited Kandinsky a hundred years ago when he observed that the mixtures and random conjunctions of colours on his palette were perhaps more exciting than the picture he was painting.

I could see that the verve of the brushwork and the sliding and colliding (often called 'painterly') of colours were events that had largely eluded me in my work, as was the physical presence of paint itself that French artists call matière.

How to harness this observed energy was the problem. Boulez (quoting Sibelius) says that, to compose, 'one must take delirium and organise it'.

I got Andy to make a single panel that would exactly fit his tray frame (now itself covered in streaks of paint, plus the odd brushed-in memo or telephone number). I made a border for the panel of square sections of Terminal Greys gathered from the palettes, to link it with my original recycling project started over forty years ago. This made a frame within the frame. Then I started to build an improvisatory mosaic of choice fragments of colour and texture, following where the emerging shapes led, sticking down the little rectangles piece by piece with acrylic medium. Scissors, scalpel, straight-edge and glue brush was all the equipment I needed, and, once stuck down the pieces remained with no revision allowed.

I call the picture The Remains of the Day, a recycled title from Ishiguro's novel which would appear to be in turn a recycling of Sigmund Freud's Rückstände des Tages, the daily residue of impressions that make the basic recipe for a later encoded dream.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Brushes with the future

Having downloaded the Brushes app on my iPad I was keen to try it out. An evening at the venerable London Sketch Club armed with no other drawing tools put me nicely on the spot.

With half hour poses being the order of the day I had four chances to make a fool of myself (since being so oddly equipped made me an object of curiosity). Luckily I could quickly press the bin ikon and trash my first three attempts which went sadly out of control. By the last pose I was almost getting the hang of it and produced something like a drawing I could honourably leave on the screen. So I count this my first effort. Certainly in terms of new technology it is a Sketch Club First, though essentially it seemed old fashioned as I held my reminder of a child's tablet to work on. Drawing with my finger, moreover, seemed virtually prehistoric.