Life on the edge
Life can be full of interesting and rewarding challenges, they say. I say that it can also be hard work, and that for every bonus there is an onus. This is my story so far.
Having always been interested in science as well as art, I always wanted to do something practical that would combine my many and varied interests. Having a ‘grasshopper mind’ is not the traditional mind-set of an artist, so the cliché goes, so this is not a tale of single-minded determination to paint from the age of five followed by a steely commitment to art for art’s sake. My route to becoming a full-time artist is different. It’s a rather more convoluted yet interesting tale of an accidental apprenticeship in a series of fortuitous circumstances and of having the luck to work for or with a number of amazing people.
This short narrative starts in the usual place, a brief spell at art college, but that wasn’t helpful in any way so I left early in order to take a different path because it was in the last years of the 1970’s when fine art had completely drifted away from where it should be, founded on solid craft skills. They weren’t even interested in teaching proper drawing skills let alone any kind of traditional painting, so there was no point hanging around. Before too long I found myself working as a designer and product developer for Lesney Limited. Here I found myself immersed in the sometimes surreal world of designing giftware, executive toys and electrical goods. It was a start, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy me, not least artistically.
During this time I also pursued various leisure activities and hobbies, which included painting copies of ‘old masters’ and the study and practice of the science and craft skills associated with art restoration. As well as this ‘hands-on’ approach to art, I studied the history of European art with increasing fascination, not formally, but as a voracious reader of a rapidly growing collection of books on the subject. I have since made a particular study of 17th century Dutch art; with a Dutch mother, this heritage was literally in my blood. Neither my knowledge of this subject (and other fields of art history) or my collection of art books on it have ceased to expand to this day. As with so many other periods and subjects in history this isn’t a dry academic exercise if one applies this knowledge to what’s going on in the world today, the parallels are surprising.
History, art and craft have always enthralled me. Knowing how something was made was just as important to me as why it was made and by whom. History is often best understood by examining the works of art and craft from bygone ages, so by extending this tactile way of learning to actually making things I was able to understand more. For example, because of my passionate interest in early music, I made and played copies of historical musical instruments and was - for a while - the only professional maker of historically accurate percussion instruments in the UK. However, there wasn’t much money to be made at this, so I had to look elsewhere to put such seemingly disparate skills together to make a living.
Eventually in 1980 I went to work in the Conservation Department of the British Museum, specialising in making high quality one-off replicas of various objects in their collections, usually for other museums or for foreign governments. I have been privileged to handle and work on some of the British Museum’s most famous treasures.
In the museum I learnt a great deal about traditional sculptural techniques and materials by working with some of the best experts in their fields (including the legendary Derrick Giles). All through my time at the British Museum and afterwards, I researched and eventually invented some unique methods and materials for replicating sculpture. Experimentation is crucial to developing and learning from any craft. I treasured my time at the Museum, but the time came to move on.
In 1986 I went to work for Plowden and Smith Ltd, probably the largest company of fine art conservators and restorers in the UK. I was in charge of a department making one-off replicas for a variety of well-known individuals and institutions. In 1989 I left Plowden and Smith to become self-employed and start my own business specialising in making high quality one-off replicas of a wide range of works of art, from jewellery to paintings, coins to sculpture. [Go to web page on ‘Sculpture’]
In parallel with my ‘2D’ (painting) and ‘3D’ (sculptural) work, in the late 1980’s I began to make appearances on television and talk on radio programmes, usually either demonstrating some aspects of the techniques of the ‘old masters’ or talking about art history or fakes and forgeries. I have since appeared on many UK television programmes including Newsnight, Art that Shook the World, The Divine Michelangelo, the epic BBC1 series Leonardo, several programmes in the ‘Private Life of a Masterpiece’ series on BBC2, as well as appearances on various European, American, Canadian, and Japanese TV programmes. My contributions to UK radio programmes include Today, Tuesday Lives, The Afternoon Shift, You and Yours and PM. By the way, Radio is a much better medium for the visual arts than most people think because it is a glorious way to fire up people’s imagination! [Go to web page ‘TV work’]
Painting was and is the main thing that drives me. Following on from research into 17th century Dutch seascapes, I have in recent years pursued a fascination with the history, technology and art of old sailing ships, which has resulted in several paintings inspired by great marine painters such as Willem van de Velde the younger and, latterly, Montague Dawson. The history and development of aircraft has also been an important interest of mine, not least aesthetically, because many of the most beautiful aircraft through the ages have taken their form from the needs of aerodynamic performance; nature’s gracefully dictating chisel. It begs the question - what artist can compete with nature? Answer – a bold one like me, a Don Quixote with a brush. Some novel and dramatic paintings of classic aircraft in flight are in progress [Go to web page ‘Current work’].
On rare days off, inevitably, the distinction between work and leisure is sometimes blurred. My leisure interests are, of course, everything to do with the visual arts, as well as maintaining my continued love of music, not just early music, but also music of other times and places. One eclectic pursuit has been the music of Brian Eno, which itself has fed back into my work as a painter because it has directly inspired some of the more atmospheric paintings I’ve done, for example the series of paintings I’ve called ‘The Other Side’ (q.v.).
Life is too short to pack in everything that interests anyone with an open and curious mind; ‘curious’ in this instance meaning inquisitive, that is, not peculiar! Having said that, as far as I know I am the only person in the world who is a member of the actor’s union Equity, The Bagpipe Society and The Mastermind Club, so you may want to make a judgement about the definition of ‘curious’. Perhaps ‘eclectic’ would be a kinder and more accurate word.
Finally, and seriously, there is so much out there to interest and inspire us all. Nothing is boring to those with wits and seeing eyes. Because of this fact I’d like to particularly thank all who have made me see and think about things in new ways, particularly all my talented and knowledgeable friends from whom I draw particular strength and who have helped or inspired me in different and unexpected ways. Bless you all.