As an illustrator with ambitions to be a painter, I found the contemporary art scene of 1960’s London somewhat confusing and hard to connect with. What I was looking for was something to fire my imagination and perhaps give me direction. To my surprise I found it in the work of an abstract painter, Robyn Denny. A set of his screen prints made magical use of close-toned colour in a format of standing rectangles and I wondered if such effects could work for figurative pictures like my own. (To some degree, my subsequent paintings were an attempt to find out). I put close-toned effects to radical use in an early self portrait, In a Dark Window 1970 and used similar effects in Leroy in a Blanket 1970, Under a Tree; Alan with the Dogs 1972 and several others. As well as adding a note of ambiguity, this tonal restraint served as an antidote to the high impact, high key sensationalism of the commercial world I was aiming, eventually, to leave behind.
For years I had been attracted to painters in the Realist mainstream of American art such as Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper and was encouraged to learn that, like me, both Homer and Hopper had spent much of their early careers working as Illustrators. I was also drawn to some of their successors, in particular Richard Estes, whose cityscape reflections in plate glass windows inspired me to embark on a series of ‘window’ pictures of my own. My pictures, however, were smaller and less complex and generally included figures. In a Dark Window 1970and Winter Cactus 1973 both contain figures that, on closer inspection, turn out to be reflections. On the other hand the figures in Holiday House 1973 and Tempest 1973 are solidly present, sitting quietly indoors, half obscured by reflections of the outside world.
Later I came to admire a quirkier group of North American realists sometimes referred to as The Lyric Realists. Among them were George Tooker, Jared French, Alex Colville and Paul Cadmus. I encountered Alex Colville at the Private View of my One Man Show at Fischer Fine Art in 1983. (A few years earlier his daughter Ann had modelled for my painting, Girl in the Hall 1977). I met Paul Cadmus at Lincoln Kirstein’s house in Connecticut in 1984 and made a drawing of him.
I have often found inspiration in the past in the work of the great Masters of European Painting, many of whose pictures are in London’s National Gallery. As a frequent visitor to the gallery in the 60’s and 70’s I was particularly drawn to the paintings of Piero de la Francesca, Nicholas Poussin, Jan Vermeer, Edgar Degas and Georges Seurat. Notwithstanding marked differences of both period and style, all these artists created works of great formal authority and I returned to their pictures time and again hoping to learn something from them.
Often my paintings have taken the form of variations on a theme. Brigid on the Telephone1971paraphrases Vermeer’s ‘Woman in Blue Reading a Letter’. Passage of Arms1979 quotes from the battle scenes of Uccello (as well as referencing both David and Balthus) and Afternoon of the Kites 1977shares thematic and formal ties with Seurat’s ‘La Grande Jatte’. The torso in Watermelons 1991 is based on the recumbent statue of a Roman river god while the drowsy figure in Vanitas 1991 echoes the foreshortened perspective of Mantegna’s dead Christ. Most of the bathing and dressing figures have their origins in Degas.
At art school - and for a short while after - I worked from life or from my imagination but as a professional illustrator, with time at a premium and deadlines to meet, I found my camera could provide me with most of the basic information I needed. When it came to my activities as a painter, photographs - always my own - were my primary reference. More often than not, I then did further drawings and colour studies before embarking on the painting itself.
I worked in acrylic paint until 1986 and then switched to alkyd-oil. Like acrylic, alkyd-oil is quick-drying and in addition, provides a wider range of tone as well as a greater capacity for subtlety and nuance, particularly in the painting of flesh. I have always kept my paint fairly lean so that revisions, sometimes a great many of them, can be made without disrupting the picture surface.
While my paintings are largely celebratory, I try to charge them with enough intensity and inner life to persist in the memory.