Thursday, September 8, 2016

Portrait of an Arachnophobe

oil on canvas 91x91cm

No music this time, but here’s some birdsong to accompany the picture. It’s a lark. Life is short and it’s a long post, so let’s get on with it…

Two or three years ago I’d been reading about a group of Renaissance intellectuals in Wiltshire, one of whom was a Dr Moffett. He studied insects, especially spiders, and had a daughter - possibly the original Miss Muffet. I thought it might be interesting to work the story into a pastoral landscape, but I hit trouble fairly early as I couldn’t pin down how she was to run away, and the whole thing became stupid and pointless. However, I became interested in the idea of the subject not actually being there at all – an absence at the centre - even though that might require a lot more effort on the part of the viewer. 

If the landscape looks familiar it may be because it’s the one I was working out in last May’s ‘Downs Prep Sketch’. I used more recent sources for the nearest stuff along the bottom edge; the daisies are from Bruntsfield Links, just up the road. It wasn’t mentioned in that post, but there are three landscapes stitched together here, which I shall explain.

When future archaeologists dig me up and analyse my teeth, they will conclude that I spent my earliest years on the clays and chalks of London. From our house in Croydon, with good binoculars, you could look north and westwards along the North Downs edge into deepest Surrey. I would’ve loved to have used a view from the clearing in the woods behind us – ‘my’ playground - but the only source I have is wintry. In the painting, the central dry valley featured is actually the Devil’s Kneading Trough, in the South Weald in Kent. I’ve flattened it a little, but as a dramatic stand-in it works fine. 

The island in the distance is Arran. I was sent off to school in Ayrshire, and Arran was clearly visible from the upper floor, and from the Tarbolton road when we had to do exercise runs. The peaks were part of everyday life, and were the first real mountains I had ever seen. Scotland seemed a very different place from South London - I didn’t know strange words like ‘burn’ and ‘ken’*, and didn’t understand why I was being corrected by my pals when I referred to Britain as ‘England’ (I’m sorry, but I didn’t know any better).

The darker area this side of the water is the Edinburgh/Lothian section. It’s based on the view from the B7007 as it emerges from the Moorfoot Hills – a fantastic downhill cycle if you ever find yourself there; with the wind behind you, you’re freewheeling all the way to Middleton. This section features Arthur’s Seat, the castle (slightly exaggerated), the Pentland Hills to the left, and some modified high ground to the right. I have ruthlessly vaporised Corstorphine Hill - I needed to use the sea behind it and get a bit of light going on the left. There’s no compositional fault-line dividing the Lothian and the Southern landscapes; there’s quite a lot of inventive blending of the two sources, which I think works well. Edinburgh is not that big a city, yet the world comes to it. My family migrated north here in the 1960s, as did Madam twenty years later, from USA, and I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up here.

Now, I have to draw your attention to the bottom right hand corner, where there lurks an interloper. It’s no great secret that I feel distinctly uncomfortable around a spider, especially a large-ish one – it’s entirely irrational, but there you are. This was not an easy piece of painting to do. Just sourcing the spider images on the web was tricky - I very much wanted to see them, but at the same time I very, very much didn’t. I was flicking my eyes at the screen in little bursts of focus while turning my head away as if I was kid at the dentist’s. Painting the damned thing wasn’t easy either; I had a reference image eight inches across on the laptop screen, and I was making it appear a foot away from my face. It was the last element I added, and two days before I planned to start on it a large spider appeared in the kitchen. The next evening Madam and I were up the road watching the Festival fireworks and a similar spider took up residence on the kerb just beside my foot, which spoiled my concentration a bit. I really don’t know what the spider gods were trying to tell me.

This painting took an awfully long time, not because of technical problems, but because I didn’t really believe in it. I felt that it was overblown and only got drawn in once the surfaces got going. The whole thing is really about negative space – specifically, the negative space within the bowl of the valley and in front of the central plain. This is roughly the space which would have been occupied by the subject had he actually stayed put for the portrait. I even desisted from developing the cloud forms more fully because I felt that they would actually detract from the aerieness. Some of the paint is quite pleasing - I still quite like the sunlit central area - but I think the most effective bits of paint are where the distance goes back over the left chalk ridge, over the next shadowed ‘Lothian’ rise, and back yet further to the Pentlands, and Arran beyond. The annoying thing is that I barely thought about that section at all – it all came together very easily.

So, as it turned out, the original nursery rhyme idea ended up being an obtuse self-portrait - using elements of personality, historical geography, and a little wit. For all I know, it’s probably a recognised form, and frankly, it’s a wonder I haven’t done this before, seeing as how I regularly combine different landscapes. Ah well, there is nothing new under the Sun, as they say, and I’m now happily moving on to the next set of projects.

None of which involve small, harmless, scurrying things…

* In Scotland, a ‘burn’ is a small river, brook, stream, or beck. ‘Ken’ is an old Norse word meaning ‘to know’, and is also available in Northern England

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