Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Craigie Aitchison

My January blog-post about religious art in a secular age got me thinking about my BA dissertation, which explored a similar subject. The tutors assured us we’d get extra brownie points if our writing included primary research, so I made it my goal to try and line up some face to face interviews with modern artists who’d explored religious themes in their work.

After a barrage of letters (probably fifty in total) to artists from Damien Hirst to Andres Serrano, a precious few dropped me a line in personal response.

I was particularly grateful to Sam Taylor-Wood who, although busy with preparations for shows here and in the US, sent me a handwritten note of apology for being unable to talk. Antony Gormley sent me a couple of curmudgeonly, though gratefully received and enlightening pages of longhand prose about the relationship (or lack thereof) between his work and religion.

The net result of my letters, then, was that only two solitary artists actually acceded to my request for a personal interview. The first encounter was a bit of a disaster (my fault entirely). Royal Academician Anthony Green contacted me via his gallery to offer a telephone interview. It was all very short notice, ‘Anthony Green will speak to you tomorrow morning, call him on this number at 10am.’ It was the holidays, and I was nowhere near the college library. I could find precious little about him online. Here was a problem. I’d pursued a carpet bombing tactic trying at all costs to secure an interview with absolutely anyone who’d ever come close to religious subject matter, but now someone had called my bluff and offered me a chat straight away with no time to prepare. And I knew sod all about him.

The extent of my knowledge was this; Green is a figurative painter who makes images using scenes from his own life. An enormous shaped canvas he produced for the millennium, entitled ‘Resurrection’ had toured English cathedrals. Surely I could bluff my way through a phone interview by just asking him to chat about this? The answer was no. Green, obviously an old hand at weeding out the bluffers from the enthusiasts, began the interview with a brief quid pro quo to gauge my cluelessness. ‘How much do you know about my work?’ he pleasantly inquired. I stumbled in my response and he invited me to call him back when I’d done more homework. I scuttled away embarrassed and painfully aware the fault was my own – I’d learnt a vital lesson, and I never called him again.


Of those fifty or so initial letters, I only got a single face to face interview – with 80 year old Royal Academician Craigie Aitchison, a man whose career stretched back to the mid 50s and who was the immediate contemporary of Freud and Bacon.

Luckily this interview was booked more than a month in advance, giving me the chance to learn from the mistakes of my phone interview disaster with Anthony Green. It’s true to say that, unlike my previous artist encounters with Gilbert and George and Carl Andre, my initial contact with Craigie wasn’t exactly fan mail. If I hadn’t known him through his religious themed art it’s safe to say he would probably never have crossed my radar. I borrowed various books and articles from the library and started to read about the man.

Craigie was what might be (perhaps unfairly) termed a ‘naive’ artist – schooled in technique but choosing to simplify his figures into schematic representations – images that critics often dismissed as childlike. Although agnostic himself, the crucifixion had been a recurring subject in his work for fifty years. I didn’t like the pictures at first glance, but as I turned the pages and accustomed myself to his way of looking, they began to move me.

His compositions felt like a tranquil middle space between figurative and abstract – with gorgeous colour combinations dominating the image to such an extent that it sometimes felt the crucifixion subjects were just a figurative (and no doubt symbolic) framework upon which to hang sensual colours hinting at transcendence of the world of the flesh. Interesting to note that, at a time when Francis Bacon’s ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion’ hinted at the horror and violence of postwar Europe, Craigie’s treatment of similar subject matter contained no anger or violence, only solace and, at times, melancholy.

Showing Craigie’s work to my friends at college, I realized this painter was pure artistic Marmite, even more so than my beloved Lowry. A couple of people delighted in the sweetness of the pictures, whilst many more were plainly outraged by the naivety of his technique.

Reading about his life, I had to confess to being charmed by his life story. The grandson of an unconventional, thrice married Scottish minister, he was encouraged into a career in law and studied at Middle Temple in London – before failing his exams and becoming a painter. He travelled Europe in an old London taxi, where he viewed the medieval and early Renaissance masterpieces that would eventually inspire his career.

Intriguingly, my research also threw up a coincidental connection to my own life. Craigie had links to the area of central Scotland where I was born. My Dad was able to confirm that he’d evidently been honoured in my town by having local streets named after him – my birthplace was flanked by ‘Craigie Court’ and ‘Aitchison Drive’. I felt sure this would be a good ice-breaker at our interview.


On the big day I admit I was nervous about going to his house – Craigie owned several large terriers which he adored. I tend to be quite nervous around dogs, so I hoped they’d be well behaved, and that Craigie wouldn’t be offended by my reluctance to befriend them.

I strolled down a charming secluded street in Kennington and, at the appointed hour, knocked on the door of a lovely Victorian house. The sound of rushing paws and frantic doggy barking greeted my ears, followed by the sound of an old man fiddling with the door catch and berating his pets individually by name for making so much noise.

‘Now really…. shhh Sunday! Sunday, stop your barking please!’

The door flew back to reveal an old man with a prodigious mop of unkempt white hair, wearing a friendly if somewhat guarded smile. He ushered me into his drawing room, which I half-recognised from many descriptions in articles on Craigie. The artist had purchased the Kennington house with his mother about thirty-five years before, and had made it his own private museum. The room resembled a Victorian bric-a-brac shop, with little statues and trinkets engulfing every inch of space. The curtains were shut and, as I recall it, the walls were painted a dark shade – giving the space a warming, womb-like feeling, emphasized by the low atmospheric lamp-light.

It would be wrong to describe this eccentric room as ‘disordered’ or ‘cluttered’, or to give the impression that Craigie was just a man who could no longer bear to throw stuff away. Not a bit of it. The house was well cared for – very clean and tastefully decorated. The myriad objects were consciously displayed around the room with infinite care. Everything here had its place.

Craigie introduced me to his dogs, big excitable white creatures which looked more like sheep. They were, he explained, Bedlington terriers – prized for not shedding their hair all over the place. ‘Look at their coats, it’s like wool!’ he enthused.

I warned him that I was nervous around dogs, and that I had an irrational fear of being bitten.

‘Oh dear’ he said, sitting down in an armchair, ‘that’s quite a shame’. His brow was furrowed in concern and deep empathy – by no means the defensive reaction I’d feared. ‘Would a little drink help you to relax before we chat, then?’ he inquired with a sprightly look in his eye. I assented, and he gestured towards a crystal decanter on a small table in the corner.

‘Help yourself to a whisky - a large one, mind. And pour me one while you’re there.’

Settling down with our drinks, I produced my list of questions.

The interview was a success, with Craigie offering some insights into his religious pictures. His discourse was disarmingly down to earth (which I loved) and mainly took the form of anecdotes. He didn’t know why he was so interested in religious subject matter, and didn’t feel any need to scramble around in his mind for reasons. He just painted what he liked. He ventured to suggest that his initial interest in the subject was a reaction against snobbery, namely a specific piece of criticism he received from a tutor at the Slade in the early 50s who in response to his copy of a Georges Rouault Crucifixion, had declared “This is far too serious a subject for you!” Craigie answered this rebuke by stubbornly making it his core subject matter.

We discussed the difficulty of contemporary artists making work for religious space, and chatted about the artist’s own commission for Truro catherdral. He told the story of a verger who had been strongly opposed to the scheme, but who had contacted him years later to admit that, after daily contact with the canvasses, he had grown to love them.

When the interview ended, Craigie encouraged me to stay a while longer and chat off-topic at my leisure. He refilled my whisky glass several times and we sat there talking for several hours. His housekeeper, a stout middle-aged Londoner with a 40-a-day voice joined us and shared some gossip about the neighbourhood.

Craigie was extremely interested to hear about my studies – he had a nephew at the same university, and was intrigued to hear how art and illustration were currently being taught. I fished a volume of my visual diary out of my bag, and he spent thirty or forty minutes looking carefully through it, reading the captions, laughing and asking me questions about the characters. He seemed especially interested in the life studies of my parents watching the telly.

“You must keep doing this” he said eagerly as he handed the book back, “I’ve really enjoyed looking at them.” I was delighted with this seal of approval, particularly because it seemed so utterly sincere and heartfelt.

Meanwhile, the dogs were melting my heart too. They were gently determined to get my attention. At a certain point, deep in conversation with Craigie, one of the dogs lifted her paw and literally began to tap me on the leg to distract me – just as a human being might do.

I noticed Craigie was wearing a colourful tie printed with his own painting of a dog.

“Oh that’s Wayney” he explained, “Wayney died a long time ago.” He proceeded to explain, at rather confusing length, the entire genealogy of his pets – his current dogs, as I recall it, were all descendants of Wayney.

Several refills of my glass later, and I was feeling rather drunk. I took my leave and thanked Craigie for his kindness before stumbling out into the early evening with a spinning head.


After the interview I used particularly glowing terms to describe Craigie to my friends. I had ‘fallen in love’ with him and he was the ‘nicest man I had ever met’. Years later I can still honestly say that I have rarely ever had the fortune to meet anyone else so kind or down to earth.

We did exchange a couple of letters afterwards, and I’d hoped to get the chance to pop round and say hello again but – as is so often the way with these things – it got delayed and delayed and finally forgotten. I was sad, therefore, to discover in late 2009 that Craigie had died at the age of 83. I hope those dogs found a loving home…

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Website Update

I’ve done a spring-clean on my website, www.peterjamesfield.co.uk. The main portfolio section has been expanded to showcase a selection of old and new work across eight galleries. I’ve also updated my friends page with loads of lovely links to the sites of other creatives. Take a look and pass it on…

Monday, 21 March 2011

Pale Fire

My artwork features on the new Penguin Modern Classics edition of the Vladimir Nabokov novel Pale Fire, part of a comprehensive reissue of the author’s entire catalogue in English, designed by Pentagram and featuring the work of many leading illustrators, including David Foldvari, Michael Gillette and Marion Deuchars.

Each cover incorporates a conventional, classic unifying design – offset by illustrated elements that add a touch of playfulness and humanity.

My novel is classed as an experimental late work by Nabokov – and aside from Lolita it is probably his most celebrated book. It is indeed a very unconventional and challenging novel, containing little in the way of a traditional narrative structure. The opening section of the book is a puzzlingly opaque 999 line poem called ‘Pale Fire’. The main prose body of the book consists of the numbered footnotes which annotate the individual lines of the poem.

We learn that the poem was written by John Shade, a celebrated poet who was shot dead just before he completed this, his final work. (He never had the chance to complete the thousandth line) As we read through the annotations, a curious tale starts to emerge. The editor identifies himself as Shade’s neighbour, Charles Kinbote, who believes that he has directly influenced the poem’s content through his friendship. Kinbote, we learn, believes himself to be the deposed King Charles of Zembla, a European country whose monarchy fell in a Soviet-backed revolution.

Can this be true? The notes bear little relation to the poem and the suspicion grows that Kinbote is a fraud, and not what he claims to be.

Despite scattered clues that hint at possible explanations, Nabokov leaves no direct answers to the questions he raises in his literary puzzle.


On a rather less highbrow note, ‘Pale Fire’ is the book Ken Barlow was seen reading on Coronation Street about a year back. (Til my dying day I will rue the fact it was the old edition…)

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Mad about the Boy

My portrait of 80s legend Boy George features in the latest issue of Brighton’s brightest and best fashion/lifestyle/music magazine Spindle. The commission called for a pouting version of the redoubtable Mr O’Dowd to accompany the text of a phone interview which went awry only a few seconds in - George took umbrage at the questions and hung up.

View the magazine online here.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Mini News Update

I’m pleased to report that my column portraits will be a fixture (for a year or so) in Pro Cycling magazine’s regular Rider Diaries.

Meanwhile my ‘Telling Tales’ group exhibition continues at East Grinstead’s Chequer Mead Arts Centre until this Tuesday. The Peter Andre Saliva Tree (with even more faces added) will be coming to a gallery space on Brighton seafront later in the summer… to be announced very soon.

Friday, 4 March 2011

New Saliva Tree

Yesterday I finally finished work on the largest illustration I’ve ever undertaken. It’s a completely new and updated ‘Saliva Tree’ featuring three hundred small portraits spread out across three metres of miniscule detail. Tomorrow it goes on display for the first time at East Grinstead’s Chequer Mead Arts Centre, as part of the group exhibition ‘Telling Tales’.

This time round the ‘Saliva Tree’ takes as its starting point the singer and reality star Peter Andre. Beginning with his twin connections to Katie Price aka Jordan, and Mel B aka Scary Spice, you can follow the lines of saliva through various marriages, divorces and affairs – and see in diagram form how Peter connects to a former US president, to the great and the good of classic Hollywood, to French New Wave movie stars… and of course to Kathy off Emmerdale.

Why Peter Andre?’, I hear you ask. Well, as with Carol McGiffin – the subject of my previous Saliva Tree – I knew the piece would only have impact if I could succeed in connecting a UK star with a wealth of Hollywood greats. This time round I wanted to pick a bloke. And significantly, given the fact that Andre lives close to East Grinstead, where the work will be initially hung, I thought I could take advantage of a local connection.

The sheer time and effort involved in this piece of work is the main reason why both my text and sketch-blogs have been severely malnourished since Christmas (and why I haven’t had a weekend off or a social life of any desciption in that entire period). Allow me to explain just a little… The process of making each portrait starts by finding a reference pic for each celebrity – easier said than done. Sometimes it can be quite tough to find a photo in good light that actually looks like the subject.

In one of my many rather odd PJF superstitions, I always re-size the face to the dimensions of a quarter page reference pic of serial killer Dennis Nilsen which I keep on my desktop. This was the first portrait I produced for my ‘Numbers’ book in early 2009, and it’s a pretty perfect mugshot view of an ordinary face. I know if I keep these rough proportions all the celebrities will fall into size harmony.

I draw a large version of each face, in a combination of light-box tracing and eyeballing. Then I shrink each portrait by about 50% and retrace it on the light box. This is a kind of ‘distillation’ process that allows me to reduce the face down to its necessary line essentials. (This necessitated drawing 300 portraits twice over… that’s already a basic 600 drawings.)

Some faces were tough nuts to crack – Jason Donovan took me about six goes. Edward Norton took me four or five.

Probably more taxing than the donkey-work of portraiture were the twin challenges of research and layout. For research I couldn’t and wouldn’t just rely on the likes of wikipedia. I consulted quite a few celebrity biographies in the library and paid close attention to fan-sites. Some of the romantic connections at first seemed too outlandish to believe. Did Brad Pitt seriously date 80s pop singer (and X-Factor helper) Sinitta? Apparently so - the photographic proof is out there. Did George Clooney really spend years dating Lisa, the Capital FM breakfast DJ? There’s loads of evidence out there - it’s pretty much beyond doubt. The challenge wasn’t how to find out about enough potential connections, the real challenge was to exercise some restraint and editing skills to make sure the tree was in some sense (don’t laugh) scholarly and truthful. If I’d believed internet rumours I could easily have connected Liam Neeson to Brooke Shields to Dodi al Fayed – and from him to the British Royal Family, which could have led me to a royal line of saliva stretching all the way back to William the Conqueror.

Laying the faces out fairly evenly across the available space was another very taxing challenge. Certain celebrities form ‘hubs.’ From their faces sprout a multitude of connections. Warren Beatty is an example - this bloke makes Russell Brand look like Susan flipping Boyle. If you believe half of what the gossip pages tell you, he has managed to cross-generationally shag half of Hollywood, from Madonna to Joan Collins, via dozens besides. Finding adequate room to fit his connections on a page without the whole thing becoming an unreadable mess of criss-crossing lines was indeed a challenge.

Originally I tried to plan the tree out in analogue fashion, by sticking five A1 sheets on the wall of my flat. Every night after work I’d try to spend an hour shifting faces around, chess-match-style, on the life-size maquette. The portraits weren’t ready, so ‘stand-in’ portraits had to suffice. For these I used one sketch of the Queen Mother, printed 300 times and captioned with the relevant celeb names. It didn’t seem insane until the day the plumber called round to discover me with a lounge wall festooned with miniature Queen Mother portraits. I’m surprised the men in white coats didn’t come to take me away.

I quickly gave up on the analogue route, to explore a no-less nutty way of planning it out – a humungous digital file, with 300 lo-res portraits, each face on a separate named photoshop layer. This was time consuming to create, but necessary because each face had to be readily moveable – every time you moved a face on the chart, all the attendant connections had to move as well. Would it surprise you to learn that I shed real tears over these preparatory versions?

I finally dropped the files off to the printers yesterday, and I’m intensely relieved to have finished the task. Our show runs at Chequer Mead Arts Centre in East Grinstead until March 15th- private view on Saturday 5th March, 1.30 to 7.30.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

My 1 minute 14 seconds on Loose Women

On the eve of unveiling my new ‘Saliva Tree’, I thought I’d take a moment to re-post a video clip of version 1, showing it featured on ITV’s Loose Women in 2007, sandwiched between an interview with Patsy Palmer and a discussion about flatulence.

The original ‘Carol McGiffin Saliva Tree’ was created for a group exhibition at Nolias gallery in south London, featuring fellow illustrators Natsko Seki, Mr. Bingo, Emily Forgot, Ruth Bartlett and Alice Stevenson.

The show was curated by Guardian art director Gina Cross, at whose behest we decided to choose a theme around which to produce work. At a rather haphazard brainstorm meeting in Charing Cross, Alice suggested we use a Lewis Carroll quote - ‘Sometimes I’ve Believed Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast.’ Over time this got shortened to ‘The Six Exhibition’ (well, there were six of us).

It wasn’t a gigantic earth-shattering leap for me to start thinking about the old ‘six degrees of separation’ theory. Quickly I started work a series of A4 ‘six degrees’ pencil sketches.

The challenge was to see how quickly you could go from a reality TV person to an unexpectedly impressive end result. My original victims were, in no particular order, Rebecca Loos, Faria Alam, Jade Goody and Jodie Marsh. Faria Alam was my favourite. She’d appeared on Big Brother with MP George Galloway. Galloway had visited Iraq and met Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. Aziz, a Catholic, had been treated to an audience with the Pope. The Pope had also met with the Dalai Lama on many occasions. The Dalai Lama is believed to be the living incarnation of Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva of compassion. So there you go… six degrees separate a Buddhist deity from a woman whose fame rests upon nowt more than dropping her drawers for a football manager.

I also needed a larger piece for the wall, so I started work on a big ‘relationship tree’, connecting celebrities via their various marriages and dalliances. The original idea came from my friend Sarah, who’d once told me that at her school she and her mates would scribble little ‘saliva tree’ diagrams connecting themselves to one another via the boys they’d snogged. This made me smile and I decided to have a try making one.

The A1 poster-sized piece would only, I knew, have any impact if you could follow the path from a UK TV celebrity down to the golden greats of Hollywood. I decided to top the chart with Chris Evans’ ex-wife Carol McGiffin for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the very fact she was on my radar seemed to say something about my life as a freelance artist working from home. Munching Super Noodles and watching Loose Women on my lunch break seemed a statement of my own isolation at that particular moment. Only a certain demographic can ever be lucky enough (would ‘luck’ be the word?) to experience the pain and pleasure that is Loose Women.

Secondly, I wanted to top the chart off with someone I genuinely like. I wouldn’t mind sharing a pint or two with Carol, and I didn’t think she’d mind me putting her atop my artwork. There was nothing snide or ironic going on.

My fellow exhibitor Mr. Bingo suggested I send a copy of the finished tree into Loose Women. I eventually sent the image to Carol, care of the show, with a rather apologetic letter urging her not to be freaked out. (Let’s be realistic – I’d placed her at the head of a 100 person fuck-tree – the potential for offence was difficult to deny)

One morning I received a call from an ITV producer to tell me that my work was scheduled to feature on the show that day. It was an average work day, I had a magazine deadline later that afternoon. Fantasy car-crashed with reality in the most odd fashion. After spending a couple of years watching Loose Women every day, today they were going to discuss me while I ate my regulation Super Noodles.

I panicked (for me, you understand, an unsurprising response to any given scenario). Would they mock me publicly, would they cackle at my folly and tear up my artwork in front of the nation, before publicly shitting on the shreds?

The result, as you can see from the clip, is one minute of rather awkward segue between two items – spotlighting in particular Denise Welch’s lack of acumen in art criticism. 7 likes and 2 dislikes on youtube. Woohoo.