Monday, 11 April 2016

Route 66 and All That

  Last Chance - 51cm x 73cm Watercolour 

'Get your kicks on Route 66' - as the old Bobby Troup song goes. The USA has a romantic attachment to roads which the UK has never been able to fully share or quite understand – we don't have the distances and anyway the A66 from Workington to Middlesborough just doesn't have the same buzz as the old Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica. Of course times have changed and most of Route 66 is now Interstate 55 which is not quite the same thing either.

When I lived in the USA I liked to drive. I planned to drive the entire length of the I-95 from the Canadian border to Miami and then out to the Florida Keys but I only got as far as Savannah GA before exhaustion, boredom and the heat finally got to me.

Being English I naturally wanted to own a big old Cadillac or at least a convertible Ford Mustang but money and kind friends encouraged me to be more sensible and I ended up with a second hand Datsun that was cheap, tough and reliable if not exactly exciting or romantic. I used to cadge lifts in more glamorous cars and sometimes rented, or even borrowed, more interesting vehicles – Americans are the most generous and hospitable people and often I would be loaned not only cars but also houses or apartments to stay in en-route and even suitable clothing for the wilder places I wanted to visit. I once borrowed a 1970s Dodge Ram van (the American equivalent of a VW campervan) which my cousin insisted on calling a “pussy wagon” - I've no idea what he meant! I drove it one balmy Autumn to Nags Head on the North Carolina coast and then along the entire length of the Outer Banks from Duck to Morehead City before making my way back to Durham NC. It took six days but it was worth every moment and is high on the list of my best times.

The Outer Banks, off season, has got to be one of the best places. The bridge in this painting is the Lindsay C Warren Bridge across Alligator River heading out on Route 64 towards Nags Head. I was driving along with the cruise control set at 60mph - the speed limit was 55 but nobody stuck to that and the only time I was pulled over the highway police just passed the time of day asking dumb, dumber and even dumber questions just so they could listen to my 'British accent' – I was driving along, listening to the radio, minding my own business and wondering when the next gas station would be when a Rickie Lee Jones song came on the radio - “Last Chance Texaco” - and the gas station in the painting appeared in the distance. There was no thinking involved – I had to paint it.

Since then it's changed of course. A different oil company runs the gas station and the Outer Banks towns are bigger and less beautiful and new bridges are replacing the old. Even Ocracoke and Hatteras Islands have changed but my paintings are often of places that no longer exist - or in some cases never existed – it may look like I am recording something, a place, a scene or a view, but that's not the point of making a painting although, to be honest, I couldn't say exactly what the point is.

Just the other day I was driving along the A21 on my way down to the coast, passing signs that told me I was entering “1066 Country” and thinking about the time I came down this way for the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. It was 1966 and we, a motley group of art students from Croydon College of Art, had hired a coach to take us to join the celebrations but we got the date wrong and arrived the day after to find that not only had we missed the fireworks and everything but that the famous battle and its anniversary celebrations had actually taken place somewhere else entirely - the aptly named 'Battle' – a nice but unremarkable town just a few miles inland from Hastings - “I suppose 'The Battle of Battle' just doesn't have the same ring about it!” someone remarked as we climbed back on the coach.

But I digress - as I was saying - I was driving along the A21 thinking of nothing important when I noticed a roadside sign advertising a new transport cafe called unsurprisingly 'Cafe 1066'.

The sign read, “Get your chips at 1066.”

I didn't stop.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Let's Go to the Pictures

'Cinema' - Acrylic on Board

I've just heard that the 1930s, Art Deco, Regent Cinema in Lyme Regis has burnt down. Although it's been years since I was there, the news of its loss has upset me - I have always been a film fan and the Regent was one of my favourite cinemas.

Much of my childhood in Walton on Thames was spent at the pictures. My family had been connected with films and film making from the beginning. My maternal grandparents and a much loved maiden aunt had worked for Cecil Hepworth, the pioneer film maker, until his studios went bankrupt in 1923 and my father's family advertised the local cinema on hoardings outside their garage/petrol station in return for which they received free tickets. Using these my Grandmother would take us to see selected films at the Odeon and later on my brother and I became regulars at Saturday morning pictures at the Regal – sixpence to get in plus tuppence ha'penny for an ice lolly during the interval. As I grew older I would sometimes bunk off school in the afternoon to go and see a film – something I now regret - although, to be honest, my only real regret is that I didn't do it often enough.

At art school I ran the college film society. I even worked in films, albeit briefly. As an eleven year old schoolboy I had had a small part in an advert for Ribena, the blackcurrant juice drink, and later on I worked as a runner on a couple of films but by then the twin lures of fame and fortune had lost their charm and all I really wanted to do was paint.

After moving to Lyme Regis I soon became a regular at the Regent, happily sitting through even the crumbiest of films. In the holiday season the town quadrupled in size and the cinema did good business which probably kept it solvent the rest of the year. However at midweek showings during the long winter months it was not unusual to be almost alone in the auditorium. Occasionally the projectionist, whose concentration was variable, might allow the film to go out of focus at which point a member of the audience would have to go and ask for it to be sharpened up. I remember once when I was almost the only customer having to go and ask if he would put the Cinemascope lens on – which he had forgotten to do – and feeling guilty that I had not only disturbed him but also quite possibly woken him up.

In the summer of 1981 I was invited by one of the usherettes to attend a secret, midnight, pre-release, staff-only viewing of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' much of which had been filmed in the town. There were only a handful of us and, despite it being the height of summer, the cinema was freezing because the manager hadn't been told about the screening and no-one dared turn the heating on in case he found out. Consequently we all had to cuddle up together in the centre row just to keep warm.

The film enjoyed a long run in Lyme Regis mainly because almost all the townspeople had been involved in its making. One consequence of this mass involvement was that often during a showing one or more of the locals in the audience would point at the screen and whisper loudly to their companion, “Look - that's me!” I fondly remember one screening during which somebody spoke up during a quiet moment and - clearly referring to one of the locals over-acting her heart out as an extra in a street scene - said, “Look at her the silly cow!” at which point the woman herself who just happened to be sitting only a couple of rows in front, turned round and replied, “You can't talk, you fat, f***ing bitch!”

An undocumented but popular local belief was that another consequence of the filming of the French Lieutenant's Woman and the occupation of the town by its undeniably glamorous film crew was that nine months later there was a small but significant upturn in the local birthrate.

A few years ago I was commissioned by a fellow film fan to paint a cinema audience made up entirely of film stars from the 1950s and 60s (above). During its planning I was given permission by the manager to draw and photograph the empty theatre out of hours. In the finished painting most of the auditorium is invented, mainly because I had to make it bigger to accommodate all those actors, but the empty place at the front is a faithful portrait of one of the seats from the front row of the old Regent.

The cinema is now just an empty shell and that seat is gone along with the rest, although the latest news is that the owners have said that they will rebuild it - The Regent is dead, long live the Regent!

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Too Many Santas

Winter, Royal Military Canal nr. Winchelsea 14"x10" Watercolour


Well, someone has to say it and this year it's my turn.

I wasn't in the best of moods. It was the day before Christmas Eve and I was on my way to the Post Office to pay the surcharge on a letter that couldn't be delivered due to insufficient postage. Waiting to cross the road I was unexpectedly hit from behind and consequently almost stepped into the path of an approaching bus. Prepared to apologise for being in the way (as only an Englishman can in such circumstances) I looked round to see a young child wearing a Father Christmas hat and a cotton wool beard, holding a gun. He had been so engrossed in his running battle with another small Santa that he hadn't noticed me. I walked on.

As I continued I had the strange idea that the bus I'd just seen was being driven by Santa Claus. The next minute another bus came along towards me and, lo and behold, it was being driven by another Father Christmas in full costume: hat, tunic, beard, everything. As pretty much all the bus drivers in this part of the world are consistently miserable and unhelpful, the sight of two dressed in outfits inextricably connected with happiness, jollity and fun, jarred - it looked wrong - really wrong. I don't want to see a bus driven by a grumpy b*****d dressed as Santa – ever – and I really don't want to see more than one bus driven by him or her - it's doubly wrong. I passed several more Father Christmases en route – mostly out shopping or selling the Big Issue – so by the time I arrived at the post office my mood hadn't lightened at all.

I've mentioned the grumpiness of the local bus drivers but they are as nothing compared to the staff at the post office. They are so intimidating that there have been a couple of times when I was sorely tempted to have a stiff drink before visiting the post office. It can be a harrowing experience especially if the poor customer wants anything out of the ordinary such as postage for an unusually shaped parcel; postage to any country outside the UK; help completing an official form; etc. - basically anything other than buying a first class stamp. The only time they smile is when my innocent looking envelope touches the sides of the impossibly narrow slot used to decide between merely expensive or ludicrously extortionate postage. I don't have a drink, of course, because the golden rule of post office negotiation is to keep a clear head and a poker face.

Imagine my dismay as I walked in the door and saw that every member of staff was in costume. Two Santas and one elf. Not only jolly hats and costumes but also full make-up and probably boots to boot. Luckily I didn't have to speak. They took one look at the card instructing me to attend the local post office and pay the excess postage (plus handling charge) and sent me up the road to the sorting office.

I was charged £2 excess postage on the letter which was unstamped and addressed to 'The Householder'. It was from a local estate agent wishing me 'Season's Greetings' and asking if I wanted to sell my house. They will shortly be getting a similarly unstamped and oversized letter from me wishing them a Happy New Year.

Did I mention it was raining?

Happy Holidays!

Friday, 4 September 2015

Cilla and I

'Cinema' 50cm x 70cm Acrylic on Board

I fell out with Cilla Black in 1971. In fact she almost had me sacked from my job at the London Palladium. I was in my early twenties working as a theatre electrician, mainly as a way of getting a union card so that I could get into films. Among the shows I worked on was 'Aladdin' a classic Palladium pantomime starring Cilla Black.

One of my stage jobs was to 'page' Cilla's microphone cable. Paging a cable was basically keeping any trailing wires from tripping the performer. To do this I had to stand at the side of the stage, out of sight of the audience, with the microphone lead coiled in my hand. When Cilla moved towards my side of the stage I had to reel it in and when she moved to the other side I had to let it out. Simple. At least it should have been simple. Except that sometimes she would run across the stage – and fast. 

The sequence in question was near the end of the show; a filler to give the stage-hands time to prepare for the next big scene. She was good at working an audience and in this five minute section she would get them to sing along. To make it more entertaining she would get one half of the crowd singing one thing while those on the other side sang something else. To encourage the audience Cilla would run, full pelt, from one side of the stage to the other. At this point I was either furiously reeling in the microphone cable or letting it out as quickly as possible.

Although they couldn't see me I could see the audience. I loved watching them, their total concentration. Adults and children immersed in wonder. They were the embodiment of Coleridges idea of 'suspension of disbelief' so completely were they taken in by the spectacle before them. The audiences were, quite simply, beautiful. I often thought about painting them. In fact many years later I was commissioned to paint an audience; a cinema audience full of 1950s and 60s British film stars (see above).

But you don't want to know what I was looking at or thinking about – you want to know what happened next.

Cilla was running across the stage away from me when the microphone cable slid under a piece of scenery and stuck fast. The cable went taught, her arm was pulled out straight and she came to a very sudden stop. The force was so much it was a miracle that the microphone and its cable stayed connected. Somehow she stayed upright and kept hold of the microphone. The audience, who thought it was part of the act, loved it but I got a look from Cilla from across the stage that told me I was in deep trouble. There was nowhere to run and when she came off stage I got the full force of her anger. I can't repeat what she said but the gist of it was that I was an extremely low form of life at a very low position in the pecking order and that I would never work in the theatre (or, if she had anything to do with it, anywhere) ever again. She said this using the minimum of words - four, if I remember correctly, two of which were new to me.

In those days even the smallest human error was a sacking offence, no second chance. Amazingly the stage director, Tommy Hayes - a fearsome man who ran the stage with an iron fist in an iron glove, took me to one side and told me it would be OK if I just kept out of Cilla's way for the rest of the run. Which I did.

So I survived to page another cable another day which was, if I remember correctly, that of the, even less predictable Tom Jones...but that's another story...

Monday, 27 July 2015

What Do Artists Do All Day?

Giotto - The Last Judgment - Arena Chapel, Padua - 1306

A recent BBC Four television series asked the question 'What do artists do all day?' and repeatedly came up with the not very surprising answer that, on the whole, artists spend their day making art. Even so it's been a fascinating series - at least it has been for other artists.

In 2014 I became the 15th President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours which has given me a lot of things to do other than making art, the most enjoyable of which has been the opportunity to spend time with other artists talking about what we do. What has been surprising and enlightening in this is not the diversity of what artists do all day but the similarities, the shared experiences. It seems that while the making of art varies in many technical respects there is one universal constant - the thorny and intractable problem of how to turn an internal idea (a thought) into an external piece of art (a physical reality). Pier Paolo Pasolini sums it up beautifully in his 1970 film of The Decameron. The artist Giotto, played by Pasolini, appears during the film as a link between the stories taken from Boccaccio's book. Throughout the movie he and his assistants are seen working on a fresco in the Santa Chiara Church, Naples. Near the end of the film Giotto dreams of the Last Judgement which he will later paint in the Arena Chapel in Padua (see above). At the very end of the film Giotto and his assistants have finally completed their work in Naples and while they and the monks are celebrating he walks away from the group towards the painting and, standing alone, speaks to himself the final words of the film - "Why make a work of art...when it is so good just to dream?"

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Oars Number Two

Seafront II  6" x 11"  Acrylic on Paper

 This is the second of the two paintings of my set of oars (see previous post). The oars are in exactly the same position as in the other painting.
 The oars were for Kate's boat, a two person inflatable dinghy designed for use as a tender for getting to and from a yacht but used by us for messing about on the rivers that surround Rye. I bought the boat on the internet. It being too big to post I arranged to meet the dinghy's vendor in the car park of a vast shopping centre near the Dartford Crossing in Essex, a half way point for each of us. When the hand-over was completed the seller asked me, "What boat have you got?" (meaning what sort of yacht, etc.). Not thinking I replied, "This one!" pointing at the inflatable he had just sold me. He turned around, got in his Range Rover and drove away without saying another word.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Oars Number One

Seafront I  6"x11"  Acrylic on Paper

 This is the first of two paintings of a set of oars. They are my oars, I had just bought them and wanted to paint them in all their aluminium and plastic glory they also just happened to fit well with the stainless steel railings in the picture.
 I bought Kate a boat for her fortieth birthday, an inflatable. When I collected it, it had everything apart from oars. The first oars I bought were wooden and beautiful but too heavy and not very efficient. These were the second set which I found on the internet. They are very light, fit neatly in the boat and are very handy when the battery of its electric outboard fails.
 Of course it is really a homage to Paulo Uccello.