Wednesday, 22 December 2010


Happy Christmas everyone... I’m off to run the gauntlet of the public transport system, in a possibly vain attempt to make it all the way to snow-sprinkled Banbury for turkey and trimmings with the Fields. Wish me luck!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Art Bin

This is a light-hearted topic suggested to me by some articles in a free paper I picked up back in March, produced to accompany Michael Landy’s installation ‘Art Bin’. Landy’s piece was a giant box where artists, both amateur and professional, came to dump their artistic failures.

In the accompanying pamphlet came a short series of articles about famous precedents for this phenomenon – listing great artworks from history that had been ‘binned.’ There are all sorts of ways to ‘bin’ an artwork – so here are a few choice examples.

It is perhaps not a surprise to learn that the curious alchemy of the gallery, which can transform an everyday object (an unmade bed, a pile of bricks) into a valuable cultural treasure, is prone to some very mundane, not to say rather funny, slip-ups in the opposite direction. Fluxus artist Gustav Metzger exhibited a transparent bin liner filled with waste as part of a 2004 installation at Tate Britain – only to discover that, just prior to the exhibition opening, a hapless cleaner had whisked it off to it’s rightful place in a waste compactor. Anish Kapoor had a taste of this, too, when an art handler placed one of his sculptures in a skip, and later had it destroyed at a waste plant.

Intentional art vandalism forms a distinct category in art-binning. One particularly famous act of art destruction occurred in 1953, when artist Robert Rauschenberg completed his ‘Erased de Kooning’. Willem de Kooning had, of course, achieved notoriety in the abstract expressionist movement. Rauschenberg was a generation younger, an aspiring artist loosely associated with Pop Art, who felt he wanted to rebel against the older artist. He got hold of a de Kooning sketch, intentionally choosing quite a graphic piece drawn in thick dark lines. He then spent several days applying real elbow grease to the challenge of rubbing it out completely. Finally, the original a mere ghost on the page, he signed it with his own name - in the process making an undeniable statement about his own intentions towards the preceding generation.

Fortunately, examples of artists destroying the works of their contemporaries are rare. One recent act of toweringly crass art vandalism relates to the crackpot American pulp crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, who spent over two million pounds buying dozens of works by Victorian British artist Walter Sickert in an attempt to harvest DNA evidence linking him to the Jack the Ripper murders. She allegedly destroyed several Sickert works in her research process and still failed to discover any linking forensic evidence.

In the often difficult financial relationship between a commissioned artist and his/her client there are plenty of examples where the end product has been shut away in disgust, or destroyed altogether. One masterpiece lost to the nation in this fashion was a major portrait of Winston Churchill by Graham Sutherland, gifted by the Houses of Parliament to the sitter on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. The picture was seen on the day of the ceremonial presentation – but never again. Years later it was revealed that Churchill and his wife had destroyed it. “It makes me look half-witted”, he said at the time, “which I ain’t!” Another Tory MP described the work as “a study in lumbago”, whilst Lord Hailsham judged it “disgusting” and “ill-mannered”.

Public taste can be even more difficult to gauge. Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ – a disused terraced house filled in with concrete – was removed less than a year after its completion, at the insistence of the local council. Meanwhile Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’- a large block of free-standing steel - lasted eight years on Federal Plaza New York before being removed as an eyesore.

Artists, of course, frequently destroy their own work, usually in an attempt at quality control. Francis Bacon was particularly famous for taking a scalpel blade to any artworks that didn’t completely satisfy him – to prevent them from reaching the marketplace and thereby damaging his own reputation. In ‘The Gilded Gutter Life’, Daniel Farson describes the moment when Bacon, strolling down Bond Street, saw one of his unfinished canvases for sale in an art dealers. Bacon marched in and bought the canvas for £50,000 cash from the bemused gallery owner. He dragged it outside and shredded it with his bare hands on the street. (Farson guesses that there were around seven hundred slashed Bacon pictures from his classic early period alone).

Accidental destruction or loss is a sadder aspect of ‘art-binning’. World War II in particular saw the disappearance of dozens of famous artworks from the Renaissance and beyond. As a child flicking through art books, I found these artwork ghosts quite fascinating – only ever reproduced in grainy black and white, with their eerie captions ‘destroyed by fire’ or ‘whereabouts unknown.’ There’s now a strange roll call of these works on wikipedia.

More recently, one of only two tapestries by Joan Miro was lost in the World Trade Centre attacks of 9/11, while dozens of artworks by the YBAs were lost in the Momart warehouse fire. The Momart fire claimed Tracey Emin’s recognizable ‘tent’, “Everyone I Have Ever Slept with”, from the original Sensation exhibition. In a surreal but perhaps inevitable coda to this disaster, one fame hungry young artist attempted to make new conceptual art from the ashes of the fire. Brit-artist Stuart Semple was commissioned by spoon-bending dullard Uri Geller to package the ashes in Perspex boxes and offer them to the Tate. A legal challenge now rumbles on as to who ‘owns’ the ashes…

This question of attribution raises the ghost of a very different kind of ‘art-binning.’ Some artworks find themselves consigned to the dark basements of art collections when critics decide that they were not, in fact, painted by a famous master. Spare a thought for several hundred paintings by Rembrandt, whose authenticity have all been officially doubted by the ‘Rembrandt Research Project’. In 1995 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York addressed this in their exhibition ‘Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt’ – which bravely hung the master’s canonical work alongside the falsely attributed paintings and invited the public to decide if they could really tell the difference. (The one above is not a Rembrandt…)


Is there ever any way back from the art bin? It does cut both ways - there are many great examples of lost artworks being rediscovered. A personal favourite of mine concerns the portrait of Frank Jopling Fletcher executed by Lowry in 1919. At the time, Lowry was considered a Sunday painter by his friends and the commission little more than a favour between pals. The sitter’s wife hated the end product, and recycled it to make a wall for her chicken coop in the back garden. Decades later the likeness was rediscovered beneath a patina of bird shit, and restored to take its place alongside the artist’s other works at the Lowry centre in Salford.

An even more far-fetched story can be told of the great lost Leonardo painting of St. Jerome. In the early 20th century a collector in Italy noticed a painting of a torso as part of a table top in a flea market. Later he found the corresponding head being used as part of a bench. Amazingly the pieces, when put back together, formed the complete lost Leonardo sketch – now safely preserved in the Vatican.

Some lost masterpieces have even managed to hide in plain sight – like a major early work by Picasso, ‘Last Moments’. The 1900 oil on canvas was the artist’s entry to the Universal Exposition in Paris, but had only been listed descriptively in archive documents – no-one had seen it. Finally x-ray technology revealed that Last Moments had been painted over by Picasso himself in 1903 when poverty compelled him to recycle his old canvases. ‘Last Moments’ is now another masterpiece, ‘La Vie.’ Two for the price of one.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

3 for 2

Time has been speeding up as we hurtle towards Christmas. I have been working hard on a longer, meatier blog post but I don’t know if it’ll see the light of day now this side of Yuletide -what with a nasty Winter cold (my third of the season) not to mention thirteen more magazine portraits due before I can escape for a few days of mulled wine and crap TV. I’m just popping out to try and get the last of my Xmas shopping done before the snow and ice bring the south coast to a halt again. If you don’t hear from me again, it’s just possible I was crushed to death in a mad stampede for a ‘3 for 2’ in Boots...

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

New England House Open Studios

This Thursday and Friday I’ll be joining my friends and fellow artists Patrick Fitzsimons, Cloe Gillies, Ellen Stewart, Wendy Ward and Lauren Watson selling original artworks and multiples as part of New England House Open Studios in central Brighton.

The New England House business centre, housed within an admittedly somewhat forlorn mid 60s office block close to London Road shopping district, is in fact a true Brighton gem, and home to many creative premises – ceramics and painting studios, musicians’ rehearsal rooms, magazine publishers, restorers studios, photographic dark rooms and, since September, my own illustration studio.

Our stand will be situated outside the lifts on Level 6 – we’ll be impossible to miss. Come and buy some Christmas presents or treat yourself – December 9th and 10th, 12-8. Meanwhile, here is some more info about New England House and where to find it.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Heroes and Villains

I’ve added some new products to my online shop ( a range of five greetings cards, plus my first ever PJF badge set, ‘Heroes and Villains’, for only £3.

These sets of four 25mm button badges feature a random assortment of celebrities categorised by me as either heroes or villains. You’re welcome to disagree with my decisions...
The eight heroes are Al Pacino, Keith Moon, Graham Coxon, Jeanette Winterson, Dot Cotton, Tracey Emin, Jane Austen and Marcel Proust.

The villains, whose faces are partially obliterated with angry scribbles, are Mr. Blobby, the Crazy Frog, Jennifer Lopez, Lisa from Steps, Jim Carrey, Victoria Beckham, Danni Minogue and Damien Hirst.

The hatred is tongue in cheek, you understand (in the past I’ve even identified myself as a bit of a closet Danni fan) but the heroes are certainly genuine. The fact that I haven’t ever finished my copy of Proust’s ‘A Le Recherce du Temps Perdu’ is neither here nor there, of course...

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Time Magazine

My drawings ended up in the hands of 20 million readers last week, when my column portraits featured in the world’s largest weekly news magazine, Time. Above is my personal pick of the bunch, a sketch of American film producer and director Judd Apatow.

Monday, 22 November 2010

New Sketchbooks Blog

I’ve been experimentally posting up some new work on a second blog over recent weeks. I’m keeping it as a sacred space to play around with new ideas and take my style in some different directions.

This parallel ‘sketchbooks’ blog grew from a recent self-analysis of my working methods. I’ve noticed a temptation to feel that everything in my main portfolio has to be highly finished, commercial and perfect - which can engender a certain hesitancy, or take the edge off the heady, devil-may-care joy of quickly generating work. Interestingly this has never been much of an issue with my visual diary, and two obvious reasons for this spring readily to mind – firstly, although the diary may cross over into the commercial world, it’s never ever been made solely in the pursuit of work. As such it retains a certain purity. Secondly, I have a defined commitment to produce a certain number of new additions to the diary each month. Knowing that people really do religiously check back expecting updates (I’ve had e-mails from four continents to prove it) is an unbreakable contract that motivates me to produce new pages. I’ve been trying to harness this power experimentally, for a while at least, by committing to post five new non-observational sketches on the sketchbooks blog each week.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Art Junky

This Sunday from 11-5 I’ll be involved in Art Junky at Brighton’s Phoenix Gallery (just opposite St. Peter’s Church). The event is an indoor market with creatives of all descriptions selling lovely things in the run up to Christmas. For only £1 entry it will be the perfect place to snap up a few unique, bespoke gifts for the festive season.

I’m taking part alongside the friends I exhibited with as part of the Brighton Fringe earlier in the year – so our stall alone will boast photography, fine art, illustration and textiles. I’ll be showcasing some high quality giclees at very affordable prices, along with a treasure trove of greetings cards and little books. See you there!...

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Glug Skulls Update

My painted skull has finally been glazed and fired, ready to be auctioned off (hopefully next month) to raise money for local childrens charity ‘Rockinghorse’. I’m delighted with the way it turned out. On the night of the live painting, if I’m being completely honest, all I could see in the finished article were the many and varied ways my original sketches didn’t translate fluidly into that new medium. Firing the piece makes a world of difference (which is, I suppose, the whole point right?).

I’m planning more experiments in the world of ceramic art - meanwhile, many thanks to the Painting Pottery Cafe in Brighton for supporting us at the Glug event.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Rainy Hove

I thought I’d post my 2008 rainy Hove picture, as it seems altogether appropriate for the weather we’ve been having lately. Living now, as I do, forty minutes walk from my studio, the rain each day this week has seemed all the more... well... unignorable. Yesterday I bought some waterproof trousers, and no doubt these will add a humorous flourish in the next visual diary.

I’m still really enjoying studio life – feeling happier and more productive than I have all year. My autumn is also panning out to be a lot less stressful after I decided to stay in my current flat for now. My landlord found a buy-to-let purchaser who agreed to let me continue my tenancy, so I’ll still be at Marlborough Court for Christmas.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


Considering that until the mid-nineteenth century most art was financially motivated (commissioned by the church and later wealthy patrons), self-portraits make a uniquely ‘pure’ category. Seldom created with any financial goal, they’ve only ever existed for vanity’s sake. How do artists see themselves, and how do they want to be seen by posterity? This was the subject of a great documentary called ‘Ego’, presented by Laura Cumming on BBC4 last week.

Famous examples include Michelangelo declaring his unworthiness before God by painting his own likeness onto the flayed skin of Bartholomew in the Last Judgement, Egon Schiele attacked by arrows in a rather ludicrous literal martyrdom, or Andy Warhol hiding his shy persona behind the constructed public image of wig and sunglasses.

The documentary also introduced me to some amazing works by an artist I hadn’t heard of before – Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. I really think these could be among the most striking self-portrait sculptures ever made. With their horrific extremes of expression, they could easily be mistaken for modern conceptual art – when in fact they were made in the strait-laced 18th century.

Messerschmidt was a successful sculptor who had won commissions from European royalty, as well as teaching at the Academy in Vienna. In 1774 he was expelled from teaching, despite having only a few years before been promised the professorship. Little specific detail is recorded, but contemporary documents refer to a ‘confusion in the head’. Messerschmidt, it seems, was going mad.

The sculptor commenced work on a series of ‘character heads’ displaying bizarre extremes of emotion. They were completely personal works, not intended for any audience. The artist himself explained that the various grimaces were observed after repeated pinches to his lower ribs, self-administered to take his mind off an agonizing stomach complaint. Stranger still, he claimed that these sculptures mocked ‘the Spirit of Proportion’, whose spectre visited him at night and subjected him to horrendous physical torture.

As well as their unusual and slightly frightening appearance, these sculptures are truly remarkable for a couple of reasons. Firstly the lucidity of expression summoned by a man who was, clearly, undergoing a horrendous breakdown. Secondly (and perhaps most terrifyingly) the technical ability required to pull these brief, fleeting facial expressions, tense all the facial and neck muscles to snapping point, then faithfully and realistically carve them into a medium as unforgiving as stone.

Digressing slightly, one of my favourite self-portraits (not mentioned in the BBC4 prog) is a 1938 painting by LS Lowry. It’s not the prettiest picture in the world – indeed it’s quite a painful image to look at. With its angry staring bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair and grey whiskers, Lowry looks like a tramp. The artist was fifty one years old, and had thus far achieved no commercial success or recognition in his lifetime. His dreams of an artistic career were fading as age advanced. His beloved mother was close to death. He’d spent a long time nursing her through her final illness, whilst holding down a full time job as a rent collector. The portrait captures him on the brink of a physical and emotional collapse. He had no audience for this work, hence no particular reason to imagine that anyone would ever see it or care for what he was going through. It is, in the truest sense of the word, a silent scream.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Japan Diary

I thought I'd balance out yesterday's rather functional reminiscence of my time in Japan with just one more personal jotting I found from that same period...


A Bad Day - January 99

I never enjoy Tuesday visits to my most distant mountain school of Hiruzen, but yesterday promised to be better than usual. There was a light snowfall in Kuse, and Mr. Ikemoto, the scary man who pestered me at the bus stop, was not there. No-one would be grilling me about my sex life that morning.

A bus pulled up and I made out the kanji for “Okayama city”. Wrongly assuming it was a city bus I ignored it. Ten minutes later it dawned on me that I must have missed the Hiruzen bus. Reluctantly I called the school on the payphone. Gritting my teeth I tried to impart to the disapproving Hiruzen headmaster that I had… what’s missed the bus in Japanese?

“The bus came” I stumbled, “but I did not get on it.” I noticed that the tiny bus shelter had gone silent, and that all the old women were listening to me, snorting with laughter. The head advised me to sit tight and get the next bus.

After an hour the next one came. Cold and annoyed, I scrambled onto the bus and sat there with my book. Forty five minutes later I stopped reading, and began to admire the mountain scenery. The landscape was unrecognizable under a blanket of snow –strange how different it looked… Or was that because it was totally different? I began to feel sick.

The tannoy announced the next and final stop, as the bus began a steep ascent up a mountain road. This was not a village bus but an express bus going to the foot of Hiruzen mountain. Hiruzen Heights, the ski resort – miles from the village. The driver eyed me with a certain suspicion, as I stepped out into blizzard conditions, up to my knees in snow, with no-one or nothing to be seen in any direction.

Making down the path I saw a building with a phone box. The headmaster was worried. Mrs. Fukuoka had been out looking for me in vain, and they’d noted my disappearance. He told me to wait there, so I stood shivering in the snow a further thirty minutes. Mrs. Fukuoka finally arrived and threw the car door open with a joky smile to find me drenched and frozen. I made it into the school by lunchtime. As I walked into the teachers’ room the headmaster led the others in a hearty round of applause.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010


I've recently been sorting through some old prose jottings from the time I spent as a teacher out in rural Japan. During my third and final year there, as I began to realize how little time I had left, I wrote a few simple observational pieces about certain events, so I wouldn't forget them. I'm glad I did. Life was so different and, at times, surreal. It's summed up for me by this description of a typical junior high school 'sotsugyoshiki', or graduation ceremony. I myself didn't have any graduation ceremony from my middle school or high school (as my Japanese co-workers were horrified to learn), and so the idea of this extremely formal, quasi-religious ceremony to give thanks and mourn the passing of a phase in ones life seemed a charming if utterly bizarre concept.


At 10.00, a dead hush over the school gym. As the voices fade, we hear rain beating on the gym roof. Teachers dressed in black suits and white shirts and ties survey row upon row of motionless students. A gloomy moment on the precipice of over three hours of formal duty and boredom. I shiver with the cold and rub my hands together. Mr. Kimoto stands up and delivers a military bark.


The crowd breaks on cue into pulsing, practiced clapping, as the brass band kicks into a somewhat flat rendition of “Thine be the Glory”. The graduating students file in through the centre row to occupy their special places at the front.


Everyone stands.


We all drop into a bow. 1, 2 and up.


We all sit down in unison, as though the whole thing were a dance move. We practised this for more than an hour yesterday at the formal rehearsal.

Kyoto-sensei (the deputy head) delivers the “Kaishiki no kotoba”, where he announces the opening of Kuse’s 39th annual graduation ceremony. The brass band plays the national anthem “Kimi ga yo” as we stand facing the Japanese flag onstage.

Next they hand out the graduation certificates. Kocho-sensei (the head) takes the stage in his suit and tails, before each homeroom teacher in turn reads the roll of his or her students. As each name is called the child stands and shouts “HAI!”

The lights are dim and there is a tacky, tinkling music box soundtrack. When each class roll call is done, a representative is called to the front. They turn, bow to the guests, go up the stairs, walk like an automaton to the lecturn, wheel round and bow. Kocho proffers the “sotsugyoshosho” (graduation certificate) and reads it, finishing with the date and his full name. The child takes it, bows, spins, bows to the flag, spins back, down the steps, bows to the teachers and returns to his seat.

After all the classes are done, Kocho unrolls a speech brimming with clichés which he reads off in monotone, without extemporisation.

The head of the board of education comes to the stage and delivers a similar speech.

The mayor does the same.

Kyoto introduces the official guests. One by one they bow and say “omedetou gozaimasu” (congratulations).

The head of the outgoing student council takes to the stage to present a memorial gift on behalf of the graduates.

Second grade follow this with a farewell presentation. To a background of tear-jerking piano tunes, an OHP screen displays heartwarming photos of the kids. Second grade praise their sempai (seniors) and thank them for help and kindness. Tears from the girls are obligatory. Together they sing a song.

Third grade representatives now make similar speeches - encompassing at least one very protracted pause in which a female speaker is unable to carry on for hysterical tears. They sing a song.

The brass band now accompanies the entire assembled crowd in a rousing rendition of the Kuse school song.

After Kyoto delivers the “heishiki no kotoba” (closing announcement) the kids troop out through a flower arch held by the children of other grades, while the brass band plays “Auld Lang Syne”. Girls and some boys are openly weeping. Teachers dry eyes and blow noses. I get funny looks for being unmoved.

A tearful Naramoto goes off to conduct her final homeroom class. At 12.15 all third grade classes gather on the terrace to hear the outgoing school council head, Dai Matsumoto, lead them in a final “ippon jime” (ceremonial clapping). They cheer.

Outside, they leave the school for the last time. We all gather in the car park as they run round taking photos and saying goodbye. Girls ask the boys they fancied for metal buttons off their jackets. Uncool kids leave fully buttoned, whilst Dai Matsumoto leaves buttonless.

Third grade teachers get into a minibus decorated in a “Just Married” fashion. The other teachers stand outside clapping as the bus does three victory laps of the car park before taking to the road for a post graduation piss-up weekend in Osaka.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

BBC Bitesize

Back in February I made a series of six short drawing tutorials for BBC Bitesize. I’ve embedded a couple here in this blog, and the others can be viewed on the Bitesize site here.

It came about more by luck than judgement. Producers were looking for ‘experts’ in some art and design specialisms (photography, painting etc) and came across my work in the Guardian Guide to Drawing. They called to see if I’d be up for demonstrating some really simple sketching techniques on camera.

There were originally nine short scripts, most suggested by the producers after seeking advice from GCSE teachers, together with a couple of extra scripts (and lots of edits/suggestions etc) thrown in by me. The idea was not to make films about me or my techniques as such, but merely to introduce some of the very basics in drawing.

On the evening before, a filming unit consisting of two producers, a lighting man, sound man, and cameraman all came down to Brighton. We went out to Wagamama in town to break the ice and discuss the filming.

On the day, we made a 7am start. For each film I merely had to talk through the scripted bullet points in my own words. Obviously this should have been easy, but it’s crazy what can happen to the human mind when a TV camera is switched on. The pressure not to mess up made me mess up. My brain literally turned to soup.

There were several things the cameraman continually briefed me to remember... Firstly, make eye contact with the camera. Sounds easy but my only natural human inclination was to look at the man behind the camera, or at the producer occasionally prompting me to the left. After a couple of takes they stuck day-glo tape round the camera lens and wrote ‘LOOK AT ME!’ on it.

In between each bullet point, I’d take a breath and try to remember what came next. When I did so, my eyes involuntarily darted up to the left. A previously un-noticed tic in my face suddenly became rather embarrassing, and vitally important. “Cut! No, sorry we can’t use that Peter, you looked away again.”

Another, related thing was language tics. I managed to keep ‘ummm’ and ‘errrr’ to an absolute minumum. Instead, for me the problem was ‘so’. “So, pencils come in a range of grades...” “So, here’s a sketch done only in 9H...”

Then there were the props. I had to bring across, say, an HB or a 4H pencil at the right moment without breaking my eye contact, pausing my spiel or fumbling around. Easier said than done. After a failed take I then had to be careful to place the objects back exactly where I’d taken them from, for fear I make continuity blunders.

One producer sat at the side of the room with a monitor, observing the action and furiously jotting notes. At first I wondered what she was doing, but she soon piped up. “Peter, you had the 4H pencil on your left at the start of that last take. Now it’s on the right. We’ll have to go again.”

A few takes in, the cameraman topped it all off by pointing out that I looked a bit miserable. They added the word ‘SMILE’ to the edge of the camera in day-glo tape.

At other points in the shoot, I smiled too much – when repeating a short script over and over, unusual things became funny. I’m a bit of a giggler by nature (more so when nervous), though I have to say the crew were the worst offenders here. My laughter was usually prompted by a stifled guffaw from the sound or lighting guys – then it became a battle to keep a straight face. The ‘Rubbers’ film presented quite a few such challenges, especially the bit where I use a plastic rubber to smudge a woman’s face. Whichever way I described it seemed faintly smutty – and with every failed take the challenge in not laughing seemed greater, and somehow more desparate. Equally, the last line of the ‘Shading’ video (“I’d recommend sharpening your pencil every few minutes!”) ought not, in normal circumstances, to have been remotely funny. However, the lighting guy was actually banished into the corridor like a recalcitrant child for disrupting us with his laughter over this gem.

For each script they filmed me between five and ten times – first as long shots, then a few more goes using tight close ups on my face, before finally a few more run throughs with the camera over my shoulder. Each clip is very short but took a long time to produce. We were in there for about twelve hours and the result is six or seven minutes of footage.

Friday, 22 October 2010

CD Swap 2010

I’m happy to announce the return of my CD swap game for a fifth year. If you haven’t joined in before, here’s how it works; you make a compilation CD of your favourite songs, and design a cover for it if you’re artistically inclined (no worries if not). Make 10 copies and send them to me... soon afterwards you’ll receive a random selection of 10 compilation CDs from the other players. Anyone can take part – the more the merrier! Plus you’ll have bags of time to work on your CD, as the deadline is not til mid December this year. Please e-mail me ASAP at if you’re interested and I’ll send you a proper mail about this with the full instructions.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Why have there been no Great Women Artists?

Here is a subject that has always rather fascinated me. I was recently reminded of the gulf between men and women in the art world when writing my ‘Numbers’ book, and researching a number list that placed famous artists according to their top auction room prices. Jackson Pollock held the record with 140 million dollars, whilst the highest price paid for a female artist was 11 million dollars, for Les Fleurs by Natalia Goncharova. That’s one hell of a gap.

Obviously I couldn’t possibly hope to pull apart all the strands of feminist art history here on my blog, and nor would I attempt to – but it is an intriguing question to muse on for a paragraph or two...

‘Why Have There been no Great Women Artists?’ was the title of a 1971 article by Linda Nochlin which introduced this debate. She suggests that a lack of access to art education, combined with a male dominated critical establishment, has made it difficult for women to forge artistic careers. It’s undeniable, of course, that female artists have at certain times gained recognition over the past few centuries– here are a couple of oft cited examples...

Vasari, the famous contemporary biographer of great Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo, in fact mentions four female artists (Properzia de’Rossi, Sister Plautilla Nelli, Sofonisba Anguissola and Madonna Lucrezia) in his 1568 book ‘Lives’. Of these, Anguissola is probably the most celebrated. It has been pointed out that she could not possibly have competed directly with her male peers, since it was forbidden for female artists to study anatomy from the nude model. This fact alone makes the fame she achieved in her lifetime all the more impressive - and explains why she undertook no ambitious religious paintings, finding herself instead stuck in portraiture.

I came across one of her portraits recently in ‘A Face to the World’ by Laura Cumming – it’s great, and unusually witty for the Renaissance. This lady must have had a sense of humour, surely. She portrays her master Bernardino Campi painting her portrait. This man who taught her everything she knew is drably attired and squeezed out to the shadows on the left of the frame – while Anguissola herself, richly attired, outsizes and outclasses her mentor. The portrait within a portrait compares their literal and metaphorical stature, leaving Campi dwarfed and sidelined.

Post Renaissance, another milestone was reached by Artemisia Gentileschi, the Baroque painter who became the first woman accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. She was the first female of the seventeenth century to gain success with the religious art that had been beyond the reach of even Anguissola. The violence in her ‘Judith and Holofernes’ garnered disbelief from critics that a woman had painted it. However, Gentileschi had had firsthand experience of violence herself. Her private tutor Agostino Tassi raped her and, during his subsequent trial, her testimony was examined under torture.

In eighteenth century England, female artists were also present – if sidelined – at the founding of the Royal Academy. Johann Zoffany’s famous group portrait of the first academicians appears at first glance to contain no women – but look at the right hand wall. The two cameos depict academicians Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, whose status is theoretically equal to their male colleagues – but whose physical presence cannot be permitted in a portrait that features an unclothed model.

Kauffmann in particular was an incredibly celebrated painter in her day – she helped decorate the new St. Pauls in London, and was honoured with a lavish funeral in Rome. In ensuing centuries, however, her critical reputation has faltered completely. (It would be over a hundred years before another woman would be elected to the RA.)

The male domination of critical reputations has been a major obstacle to the existence of ‘great’ female artists. A popular case in point concerns the 19th century painter Constance Marie Charpentier. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired an unsigned portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes. Initially attributed to Jacques Louis David, it was declared a masterpiece, one of the finest examples of his work. In 1951, however, when it was discovered to have been painted by his pupil Madame Charpentier its value plummeted and many critics conveniently changed their mind about its quality.

Later that same century, Berthe Morisot was the sole female exhibitor in the first Impressionist exhibition For decades she was dismissed as a mere follower of her friend Manet. Only recently has critical opinion put forward the suggestion that her influence on Impressionism was considerable – and that she encouraged Manet in the outdoor paintings that would become the signature of the Impressionist approach.

Less than a generation later, Suzanne Valadon became the first female artist accepted to the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts. Her work, too, is largely unrecognized but I can’t see why. I think she knocks the spots off Renoir.

The debates about why there have been no great female artists have inflamed controversy. There are some who suggest that painting, as a reflection of individual personality, will inevitably reflect differences in the sexes – such that it can be seen as a pointless exercise to compare the art of women and men. Women, so this somewhat chauvinistic argument goes, will always excel at fine genre scenes, flower paintings, pastel portraits etc. An example can perhaps be seen in the work of Mary Cassat, whose pictures (e.g.‘The Bath’) depict scenes of motherhood and domesticity that are very different to the more public scenes depicted by the male Impressionists.

Yet for me this argument lacks clout – for it describes an unanswerable, chicken and egg scenario. Did Cassatt paint motherhood because she wanted to, or because she would not have been permitted access to the brothels and bars that made more eyecatching subject matter for the likes of Degas and Lautrec?

And why, if women excel at pastel shades and floral art, have some male painters like Fantin-Latour, Van Gogh and Monet, gained greater recognition for their flower paintings? It doesn’t hold water as an argument.

Linda Nochlin has herself been criticized for the title of her 1971 essay. By asking “Why Have there been no Great Women Artists”, she implies that it’s a given. She discusses the reasons, but still cannot permit herself to believe that a woman has ever achieved great things in art.

This argument is taken up by Griselda Pollock and Roszika Parker in their book‘Old Mistresses’. It’s years since I read it, but I do recall they disagreed with the implication of Nochlin’s question. Some of the greatest and most influential visual art has been made by females, they argue – but it has mostly been produced anonymously. The male critical establishment, by drawing a line between ‘high art’ (gallery art made by the named artist/author/genius) and craft (objects made anonymously, often for practical or ornamental usage) has effectively shut out an army of creative women from the very debate about greatness. In the twentieth century, as our interpretations of what can be considered art broaden, though, so we can more fairly consider that the gorgeous and breathtaking collections of textiles and intricate lace which fill half of the V&A, for example, do deserve to be called ‘great art.’

This was emphasized to me recently when I was watching (of all things) David Dimbleby’s TV show on the Seven Ages of Britain. Chatting to camera about the Bayeux Tapestry, he commented in blasé fashion that it had once been assumed to have been the work of French monks – but that now it was widely believed to have been designed and executed by English Nuns. Did I hear that correctly? Yes I did – scholars agree that this exceptional artwork of the period was indeed most likely the work of women.

And what of the contemporary art scene? You might assume that the gulf between male and female artists has closed in the modern age – but this would be jumping the gun rather. My ‘Numbers’ book research told me that the highest price paid for a living artist (Lucien Freud) was 33.6 million dollars – whereas the highest price for a living female artist (Marlene Dumas) came in more than five times less at 6.4 million. Still one hell of a gap.

Tracey Emin examined this issue in a 2006 Channel 4 documentary, ‘What Price Art?’ Emin herself had been outraged to learn that, on a recent list of the thirty most influential figures in contemporary art, only one was a woman. She interviewed a senior figure at Sothebys who suggested that, in an art market dominated and driven by collectors, white men from the City set the agenda. They preferred, he said, buying ‘macho’ art (or rather, work by other men) that offered them self-validation. Now, I don’t really like the implication of this suggestion, but it strikes me as probably quite true – an art market, and attendant critical infrastructure top heavy with wealthy men chasing the best investments.

The disturbing thing is that art critics like Brian Sewell continue to infer that the reasons for differing saleroom results must be biological. Quoting the lovely man himself in 2005, “Women are no good at squeezing cars through spaces. If you have someone who is unable to relate space to volume, they won't make a good artist.” With critics like him setting the agenda in books and newspaper columns, what do any of us expect?

Friday, 15 October 2010


I had a wonderful evening earlier in the week, watching a special collaborative gig at the Underbelly in Hoxton. My old school friend (and Suede guitarist) Richard Oakes has recently been involved in a songwriting partnership with pop producer Sean McGhee, who’s worked with the likes of Sugababes, Imogen Heap, Robyn, Alanis Morrisette and Britney Spears. Richard and Sean have been writing together for about two years, and recently started performing some of these co-authored songs live under the band name Artmagic. Sean felt that much of his collaborative efforts with Richard were too personal to be farmed out to other singers – eventually resolving to front the project himself.

I’ve seen them live a few times now – Sean has a beautiful voice and is blossoming as a front man. It’s also been really delightful to see Richard, after such a lengthy spell away from the live stage, rediscovering the joy of performance both with Artmagic and Suede (who headline the O2 in December).

The Underbelly gig was organized by Sean, with the intention of uniting several of his current collaborators. Artmagic were, of course, in attendance. Also featured were Kate Havnevik, Andrew Montgomery and The Gadsens. Kate is an acclaimed Norwegian singer who writes haunting but incredibly catchy songs... and also plays a mean electric guitar. Andrew Montgomery is a tall, genial Scotsman with a beautiful operatic voice. He was the lead singer of criminally underrated 90s band Geneva, now working on a series of truly haunting solo tracks. The Gadsdens are a young indie band, whose ‘Sailor Song’, championed of late by Radio 2’s Radcliffe and Maconie, is a firm favourite of mine.

The small Hoxton stage was packed with a cast of eight talented musicians - nine if you count an impromptu ukelele solo by Sean’s friend Woody in the closing song. Rather than each offering a defined set, the players performed one another’s songs (more than half co-written by the prolific Sean) continually swapping between mikes with joky cheerfulness. Stand-out moments included the live debut of two new Artmagic songs (‘Blue on Blue’ and ‘Heaven is Here’), The Gadsdens’ stirring performance of their signature ‘Sailor Song’, Kate’s recent release ‘Disobey’ and Andrew’s show-closing up-tempo number ‘La Graciosa.’ In short, I loved it.

Hear some Artmagic tracks and sign up to their friends list here...

Photographs from top - Sean McGhee / Andrew Montgomery and Richard Oakes / Kate Havnevik. Reproduced by kind permission