Friday, 30 December 2011

The Arnolfini in Bristol

I went to Bristol yesterday to see a friend and took the opportunity to visit the Arnolfini, the city’s contemporary art gallery. Bit of a nostalgia trip too – used to visit the gallery regularly when I was at art school just across the bridge in Wales.

There are two exhibitions on in celebration of the Arnolfini's 50th anniversary. The first is Museum Show Part 2 which was a collection of ‘museums’ with titles such as the Museum on Non-Participation, the Museum of Television and the Museum of Forgotten History. This is the second part of a sort of survey of museums created by forty artists from around the world and consists of installations including a wide range of objects. The above image is the one I found most pleasing.

The second exhibition is Self-Portrait: Arnolfini by Neil Cummings; a series of water droplet-shaped patches with text on them arrange throughout the foyer and up the stairs of the gallery. The text gives various facts about the history of Bristol and the gallery starting from the Bristol Riots of 1831 through to 2061, 100 years after the gallery opened, as well as details of world organisations and advances in technology. The shapes are colour-coded: pale blue for the history of the Arnolfini and art in general, olive green for social and financial organisation and purple for technological innovation. The whole forms an elaborate timeline based on fact and flowing off into speculation - which actually drew me in more than I thought it would. Where the text which is purely speculative is laid out in exactly the same way as that which is historical fact, it's very easy to be sucked in to believing all is truth.

The Museum of Museums left me cold I’m afraid, as it seems most conceptual art does these days. I’ve been thinking about why this might be, having had a keen interest in it in the past. I can only assume that it’s because that brand of art is so far removed from my current situation, irrelevant to my life as it is now. I guess I just don’t have the time or mental energy to ponder these things anymore. Give me a painting by Vermeer or a Paula Rego etching any day - not that these aren’t thought-provoking of course; they most certainly are. They give me something conceptual art doesn’t though.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011


Over the last few months I’ve been thinking on and off about beginnings and endings, birth and death, and how development is affected by external factors. I was weaving this into an etched self-portrait but as my etching mojo seems to have taken what I hope is just a temporary leave of absence, I need to rethink and carry this work in a new direction and in a new medium.

Foetuses are a rather obvious place to start as an emblem of new beginnings, but start there I shall. The drawing above is in the process of being transferred to a wood engraving block and will, I think, be surrounded by some text.

Finished frog

And here he is, tidied up. Just took out some of the odd bits that I missed before proofing. Amazing what a difference that makes, although obviously, still pretty rough. I'd be embarrassed to show it to a real wood engraver. It was fun to do though.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

First proof

Took the first proof off my block yesterday and here it is; pretty rough around the edges but not as bad as I thought it would be... although possibly looks more like a wood cut than a wood engraving. Needs some tidying up. Oh and I need to order some relief ink as my tin had completely dried up (had to print it using etching ink) – shows how long it’s been since I last did any wood engraving!

Block size: 750 x 500 mm, 3 x 2 inches

Sunday, 4 December 2011

New glasses can wait

It seems I've found the solution to the problem of not being able to see what I'm doing on my wood block. Forget the new glasses; look what I found lying around in the studio (inherited from my father who was always making something and was very long sighted). This magnifying lens on a stand is the perfect size and shape – my sandbag fits exactly underneath. Working on the block this afternoon has been much easier. Well, from the point of seeing what I’m doing that is.

The image is very slowly taking shape – hope to be able to take a proof soon. My main problem is bruising the edges of the cuts with the bottom of the tool. I need to take some advice from Someone Who Knows about this and what I can do to stop it. I’m a bit embarrassed to show the block to a real wood engraver though as it’s so rough and badly done. Ah well, I’m not planning to use it for anything – it’s just for practice.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

I may need new glasses

Having made a start on a wood engraving, I am reminded of how fiendishly difficult and slow-going it is. I’m struggling to see what I’m doing too. After working on the block for an hour this afternoon, I scanned it and blew the image up large on my computer screen – what a mess! Shudder to think what’s going to come out when I finally get to the proofing stage. I’m beginning to regret adding the text – really fiddly. This is a maple block, 75 x 50 mm (approximately 3 x 2 inches).

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Back to life

It’s funny how time stands still when you’re ill… time out of time. Life goes on around you and you sort of feel yourself slipping behind; whilst everyone else is hurtling towards December, I’m just shuffling into November. Back to work this week though, and it feels so good to be back in the world again, even though I’ve lost a month.

Sadly, the above frogs are all I’ve managed artistically during that time. I have a hankering to do some wood engraving or linocutting; just can’t seem to settle back into etching at the moment. I have done both before and found it really challenging as it’s a very different way of working and thinking. It doesn’t naturally suit my images which are well-rooted in intaglio techniques so it’ll be good for me to adapt my work accordingly. Interestingly circular as I started this blog to record my progress with wood engraving.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

What does it say?

Should all art have something to say? What does that actually mean - having 'something to say'? I was talking to someone at a gallery earlier this year who made the comment, 'I like art by artists who have something to say' and I've been thinking about it ever since.

Obviously there's a lot of art which has a clear message, whether political, social, cultural or personal, but there's also much which is more ambiguous. Surely that must still say something to someone. Doesn't all art say something, even if it's just the artist showing what's in his/her head; another human being's experience of the world?

I really don't know. And I've lost sight of what my own work is saying, not least because I'm not really making at the moment. Maybe this isn't the best time to be pondering such questions; maybe the best thing is to just get back in the studio and do.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The perfect is the enemy of the good

As I look at the dodgy nose and badly-rendered mouth on the above sketch, I’m thinking about the following passage on perfection from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

‘If you think good work is somehow synonymous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble. Art is human; error is human; ergo, art is error. Inevitably, your work (like, uh, the preceding syllogism…) will be flawed. Why? Because you’re a human being, and only human beings, warts and all, make art. Without warts it is not clear what you would be, but clearly you wouldn’t be one of us.

Nonetheless, the belief persists among some artists (and lots of ex-artists) that doing art means doing things flawlessly – ignoring the fact that this prerequisite would disqualify most existing works of art. Indeed, it seems vastly more plausible to advance the counter-principle, namely that imperfection is not only a common ingredient in art, but very likely an essential ingredient. Ansel Adams, never one to mistake precision for perfection, often recalled the old adage that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, his point being that if he waited for everything in the scene to be exactly right, he’d probably never make a photograph.

Adams was right: to require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do – away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since not to work is not to make mistakes. Believing that artwork should be perfect, you gradually become convinced that you cannot make such work. (You are correct.) Sooner or later, since you cannot do what you are trying to do, you quit. And in one of those perverse little ironies of life, only the pattern itself achieves perfection – a perfect death spiral: you misdirect your work; you stall; you quit.

To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept. For Albert Einstein, even the seemingly perfect construct of mathematics yielded to his observation that “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” For Charles Darwin, evolution lay revealed when a perfect survival strategy for one generation became, in a changing world, a liability for its offspring. For you, the seed of your next artwork lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece. Such imperfections (or mistakes, if you’re feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides – valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgemental guides – to matters you need to reconsider or develop further. It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art into the real world, and gives meaning to both.’

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Pen drawings

I recently bought a couple of fine-nibbed drawing pens. I used to draw in pen a lot; there’s something quite liberating about it. Not being able to rub out your mistakes means you don’t have to be precious about the drawing… it’s going to be a sketch rather than a finished piece. And somehow, that makes me draw better. Small, quick portraits like these. Freer, more energetic. The last was particularly interesting to do because this is a relatively new face, one I’m not that familiar with. Surprising what a difference that makes. Surprising how the features of a familiar face flow from the pen so readily. Maybe it’s not surprising at all; I’ve just not thought about it before.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Flea

Here’s a doodle I started a couple of weeks ago in an effort to kick-start some etching (it hasn’t worked so far). The cat had issues with fleas last month – sorted now thank goodness – so a flea print had to be made of course. A friend suggested illustrating John Donne’s rather racy poem The flea; interesting metaphysical mind games. So here’s the beginnings of it. Needs more work however. Maybe I could market it as a Valentine card…

MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.
John Donne

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

I was Vermeer: the legend of the forger who swindled the Nazis

I Was Vermeer by Frank Wynne is a biography of Han Van Meegeren, the ingenious Dutch art forger who managed to install, albeit unintentionally, one of his fake Vermeers into the private collection of Hermann Göring.  Arrested for treason in 1945 – selling national treasures to the Nazis being highly illegal – he was vilified as a traitor by the press.  However, once it was proven that he had painted it himself, he became a national hero; the humble painter who duped one of Hitler’s right-hand men.  Van Meegeren’s own work is quite collectable now and he has somewhat of a cult following.

The book starts off with an account of Van Meegeren’s arrest in July 1945, then goes back to his childhood.  Born in 1889 in Deventer, Holland to an overbearing father who made him study architecture instead of fine art, it’s easy to see where Van Meegeren’s resentments started.  He was a talented painter and very sure of his own abilities.  Once finished with his architectural training, he painted full-time and exhibited.  He wasn’t able to make much of a living from it though as his subject matter and style didn’t fit what was going on in the art world in the 1910s.  Dealers and collectors considered his work out-of-date.  Van Meegeren and his family (by now he had a wife and two children to support) were constantly in debt.  It was a combination of his association with some dodgy characters and their nefarious art world dealings, his own overblown view of his talent and the festering resentment he nurtured against the Dutch art world for not recognising such that gave him the idea of painting a Vermeer himself.  

And this is the focus of the book.  Wynne gives a very detailed account of how, familiar with the X-ray and chemical analysis techniques the experts used to authenticate works of art, Van Meegeren painstakingly researched Vermeer’s pigments and painting structures to produce a work which would fool the art world.  It took him ten years of very dedicated work to achieve this – and all his efforts paid off with The Supper at Emmaus.  He had cleverly created a new Vermeer which conveniently fitted into a recognised gap in the painter’s oeuvre.  It was heralded as a masterpiece, perhaps Vermeer’s greatest, by Abraham Bredius one of the foremost Dutch art critics of the time and sold to one of the country’s top galleries. 

Originally his plan had been to create just one painting; when it was declared as genuine, a newly discovered work by the great master himself, and hanging in the Rijksmuseum, Van Meegeren would come clean.  Confess and embarrass the art world for they’re gullibility.  He had always had a taste for high living however, and went on to forge other works by Vermeer and some of his contemporaries, amassing huge wealth in the process.  It wasn’t until he was forced to confess in 1945 that his career as a forger came to an end.  Even then, the authorities didn’t want to believe him so he was tried, rather bizarrely, by ordeal; he spent two months painting a replica of one of his fakes whilst watched constantly by a rotating shift of lawyers, prison guards, art critics and journalists.  At the end of this period it was no longer in doubt that Göring’s painting was a fake and Van Meegeren’s status changed from despised traitor to heroic rogue (Göring had given the art dealer a large number of other Dutch paintings as part payment for the fake Vermeer; these were restored to the nation).

Frank Wynne is a journalist, not an art critic; I find it hard to describe quite in what style the book is written.  Wynne recreates conversations and makes assumptions about what Van Meegeren was feeling and thinking and presents these as fact, blurring truth with fiction.  He uses the present tense at times to build tension and atmosphere.  These elements make the book a quick and easy read; no impenetrable art theory here.  It doesn’t even read like a biography really, more a tale of true life crime, particularly as Wynne tries to build a psychological profile of the painter.  Even the title is a bit cheesy!  This isn’t really what I look for in a biography but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  If you're interested in art forgery and after an enjoyable, light read, give it a go.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Tinkering with drypoint and etching

These are some recent drypoint doodles just for something quick and easy to do.  the second pull is actually better I think - the first is a bit too dark.

This etched pinecone isn't finished yet, needs more tone to 3D it up a bit (technical term).  Maybe more line work, maybe some aquatint.  Looking a bit lip-like at the moment.  It's actually part of a larger image which I'm working on so the foul bite will be taken care of. 

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Sussex doodles

I’ve just returned from a peaceful week in the East Sussex village of Herstmonceux. There was much walking (and some falling down in the mud) through fields, countryside and surrounding villages; most refreshing.

My plan was to mak
e a drawing every day. Easier said than done for someone who’s not really into landscapes or buildings. I did manage it but they ended up more as doodles of things I picked up along the way.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Lucian Freud: The Painter's Etchings

‘Etching’s not drawing exactly, but it’s a sort of drawing.’
Lucian Freud

I’ve just realised that it’s three months since I last touched an etching plate – well, worked on one that is. Three months. THREE MONTHS! That’s a quarter of a year. Way too long. I’ve been drawing and painting a bit during that time, so not completely idle creativiely, but it’s definitely time to get back to my core business.

I’ve been thinking of making some etchings with just line work; working more quickly and energetically, straight on the plate without preliminary drawings. I think I became bogged down with the process of aquatinting and with working and working and working the plate… the last few images have taken three or four months each to complete. I need some quick-fix-instant-gratification etching – not that etching is ever quick-fix exactly.

As a prelude to this, never being one to rush into things, I’ve been looking at Lucian Freud’s etchings. Fantastic things; beautiful, skilful, intuitive, sensitive, atmospheric… most definitely inspiring. Here are some for your delight and edification. And if you want to investigate further, get Lucian Freud: The Painter’s Etchings. An excellent book.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Pine cones and gravestones

Here are some of this week’s doodles from my sketchbook. I picked up some rather satisfyingly shaped pine cones whilst vising the old military hospital cemetery at Netley. I love this place; it’s so peaceful and quiet. Perfect when one is feeling in need of solitude, which is ironic really considering it’s pretty crowded underground. They don’t say much though, the dead.

These drawings made me really scrutinise this little piece of the natural world; so intricate and well-made. Lead me to think about Uncle Henry and his passion for flora and fauna – and how understandable that is. All this natural stuff around us, even in a built up city… we so easily take it for granted. We don’t even see it half the time.

Seeds and gravestones. I could go all philosophical about the juxtaposition between beginnings and endings, birth and death. But I won’t.

Legion of gravestone sundials
Row upon row, uniform, solid, stationary, silent;
Shadows diurnal creep.
Dead soldiers in eternal ranks.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Henry Guermonprez: Victorian collector

On Saturday I travelled down to Portsmouth Museum to see the Birds, Beasts and Bugs exhibition; a collection of over 10,000 items (apparently) belonging to Henry Leopold Foster Guermonprez, my great great uncle. These items include stuffed birds and animals, pickled fish and other sea creatures, case upon case of insects pinned in orderly ranks, plus many of his tools. Nets, microscope, jars, test tubes, his water colour set and many, many records and letters. Most of the specimens were collected by Henry himself in Sussex around the Bognor area but he also had a trail of people bringing dead creatures to his door and he occasionally bought more unusual specimens already preserved. He kept meticulous records of where, when and by whom each specimen was found and carefully labelled each with the information.

Henry was born in London in 1858. His father, Jean Henri Guermonprez, came over from Belgium in the 1850s and married an English woman, Charlotte Sarah Foster. The family moved from their home in Chelsea to Bognor in about 1892 and by 1897, Henry was married to the long-suffering Clara Sophia Phelps. I say long suffering because by all accounts, she – along with the rest of the family; Henry’s four children and his sister Harriet – was roped into Henry’s escapades with dead things. One of the display boards at the museum tells of how Clara stood on a chair holding a swan by its legs whilst it was skinned. Of course, there’s no evidence to suggest that Clara was an unwilling participant, even though she does look rather severe in the couple of photographs there are of her in the exhibition. Clearly Henry’s enthusiasm for flora and fauna was infectious; the children collected specimens for him and he had them and his sister making drawings and water colours of plants, fish, insects and birds – anything that (had once) lived. Henry carried out most of the taxidermy himself and mounted the stuffed birds and animals on pieces of cork float washed up on the beach from local fishing boats.

Henry and Clara had four children, Harry (my family connection on my father’s side), Jean, Walter and Stella. One can imagine them all tramping through the fields and along the shore always on the lookout for an interesting new something for Father. The exhibition displays many watercolours made by them and Henry, who was himself a proficient water colourist. Harry, the eldest son, my father’s uncle, went on to develop his own, quite different enthusiasm for amateur film making and co-founded the Bognor Regis Film Society (see my blog post of 9 May 2009).

Although trained as an architect, there is no evidence that Henry ever actually practiced. Legend has it that he stayed at home to look after his parents as the family was independently wealthy. Certainly these responsibilities didn’t stop him from having four children and spending much time on his interests. He did exercise his architectural training though in drawing up plans for an extension to Dalkeith (the family home) to house a small museum. These plans are on display at the exhibition. The extension was never built; however his home was open to anyone who wished to view his collection. There's a sweet letter from a schoolboy who wrote to express his thanks for having been shown around the collection by the master of the house. He dabbled in archaeology too and was involved in the discovery of the remains of a 13th century chapel at Manor Farm (Barton Manor), Nyetimber. He also had a hand in the discovery of a number of Bronze Age axes or palstaves in Bognor.

It all seems quite idyllic to me; an eternal summer. My overall impression of this distant relative, this typical Victorian collector, is that he was someone who was overflowing with a passion for natural history which he managed to communicate to those around him. I'd like to think that his family and friends benefited from his enthusiasm as much as those he invited into his home to see his collection, and indeed those who will enjoy it for years to come.