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Art Matters

Everyone has an opinion about art.  There are the scholarly interpretations of the art historians, critics and municipal gallery curators, the business interests of commercial gallery owners, auction houses and art mandarins such as Charles Saatchi and the views of the art loving public.  All of which are affected by fashion, whimsy and political trends.  

Twenty years ago I was standing beside a professional employee of Paisley Museum and Art Gallery in front of a small still life of pale pink-white hydrangeas by the Scottish painter John Stuart Park.   The woman, who was from Yorkshire, turned and said, ‘What’s the point of that?  If I want to look at hydrangeas I’ll go into me garden!’  ‘But what if it’s January or you don’t have a garden?  You must hate working here.’ I said, looking about and feeling sorry for the paintings.

Pick up a paintbrush at an official state funded art school these days and you’ll risk being be thrown out.  I asked a mature student friend who was studying at one of the prestigious art schools in London whether anyone painted.  ‘Oh no,’ she said.  ‘If you want to learn to paint you have to go elsewhere.’  Even in the 1970s and 80s, before paintbrushes were forbidden only abstract work was encouraged.  The great Alison Watt was the Scottish exception.  

Degree shows were depressing; walls covered in plaster casts of genitals, thick dark grey canvases splodged with white and everywhere piles of ‘found objects’.   By the 2010s things had got technical and a young woman got a first class degree with distinction at one art school in Scotland by filming herself engaged in an act of onanism.  I was told the head of department to which she belonged got his degree by submitting a film of himself pouring a glass of milk over his head.  It’s not chance or chronology that protects conceptual art from young zealots armed with soup or paint.  

As a child I loved illustrated books and did careful copies.  I drew horses and trees and dreamed of becoming an artist.  Later I visited galleries.  With no encouragement and little confidence I set ambition aside for the next 35 years, for 30 of those helping another artist.  It wasn’t until my early fifties, struggling with a lengthy and acrimonious divorce, broke and having to take any work I could including caring, cleaning, laundry and managing houses - that - with the help of books, films and all the paintings I’d ever seen, I taught myself to paint.  It was a rage against circumstance - now or never.  The aim was modest; to produce a work I wasn’t ashamed of.  Starting with still life and landscape after a couple of years I began to tackle simple allegorical nudes, and eventually the most difficult of all painting - portraiture.  I adopted a pseudonym.  Something clicked and it began to go better.  I got commissions, exhibited two works at Panter and Hall and have sold modestly at other galleries and directly.  

Of the 16 or so portrait commissions there’s been one failure.  A rich, hippy grandmother commissioned a portrait of her grandson.  She and her daughter, the boy’s mother, asked for their dog to being included.  I should’ve walked away then.  When the work was almost completed I sent a photo.  They liked it.  The only comment was a request to make the boy’s hair messier.  I did that, and considering the work finished, sent another photo but got no response.  

Some weeks later I put down my brushes.  There was no time to paint because my husband, Spectator Low Life - Jeremy Clarke, had terminal cancer and for most of the last 8 months I nursed him on my own.  

The portrait was admired by visitors.  When a neighbour, who was a friend of the clients, was driving to visit them I sent the portrait with him nicely wrapped including a note asking if they wished to keep it and if not if they’d send it back with him in the car.  They kept it.  A month later, short of money, I asked them again and received the following message, 

‘We realise the portrait shows the enormous strain you've been under while nursing Jeremy on his deathbed.  I don't really know what to say as this portrait....which started out as a strong reflection of his (their grandson’s) character and charm has rather fizzled out with overworking and is now flat and lifeless.’  

The message confirmed a long held suspicion that more nonsense is spoken about art than any other subject.  The truth was I hadn’t touched the painting since they said they liked it.  They were viewing it under a different light perhaps (lighting is all with portraits) or having second thoughts about spending money but the thing itself was unaltered.  It was returned wrapped in a black bin bag (no note) a week later.  I put it in an antique frame and hung it on the wall.

Last week a woman was walking past the studio door.  She stopped and asked to see inside.  I showed her, and guessing she was a tourist, drew her attention to a framed print of a painting I’d done of the nearby Monastere St Joseph which has two nuns in the foreground.  ‘Ah,’ she said in French, ‘My brother has a huge house with an enormous swimming pool just down the hill from there,’ and bought the print.


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