The Royal Wedding – Westminster Abbey

(Half-scale Maquette) Westminster Abbey – The Wedding of the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge, 2011

22 x 30 inches / 36 x 56 cm

At exactly this time last year I was working in the studio on this maquette, building up for an important piece which I had been given the opportunity of undertaking in Westminster Abbey. I had been fortunate enough to sketch on the day of the wedding – the 29th April – perched up in my special vantage point overlooking the crossing and the high altar, the best seat in the house and largely invisible from below. Outside, London was in festival mood and as the guests arrived cheers could be heard outside. The Abbey was serene and poised. The orchestra were tuning up in the cramped organ-loft to my left.

As part of my long-term study in Westminster Abbey I had been very keen to see the Abbey doing what it does best, namely the ceremonies of State. The Abbey’s function is widely varied, from the sombre burial-ground of monarchs and great men to the must-see on the tourist trail. It is a place of worship. History is made here and resides here. Westminster Abbey is England in a nutshell; rich, beautiful, varied, not always comfortable, challenging, aloof but protecting, benign yet didactic, overpowering and complex, and yet surprisingly intimate.  I was about to witness the most intimate of ceremonies conducted with all the pomp and glory which makes Britain great, and nowhere does it better than Westminster Abbey.

I had been allocated a space in the Muniment Room, a loggia which opens onto the Quire and the south transept, Poet’s Corner. I had a clear view over the most important seats. I drew every detail my eye rested on, rapidly covering pages of a large sketchbook. The perspective was a challenge; a gantry of television lights partly blocked the view and the great stone pier divided the scene, but I could duck and weave to be able to include the altar, pulpit, and still see Statesmen’s corner and the north transept. The music built and the Royal Family arrived, then the groom and best man, flashes of colour amid a bright spectrum. At the arrival of the bride a great cheer percolated in from the crowds outside, moving, powerful. The service began. Feverishly drawing, I had no idea which moment I would capture in my painting later. The bride, the train, the best-man’s whispered glimpse over his shoulder, the Bride’s father offering the hand of his daughter to the future monarch. Powerful stuff borne aloft on deafening music, gloriously loud, the orchestra, organ and choir fighting to outdo the trumpeters. This is Westminster Abbey in full glory, and doing what it does so well.

I was grateful for my experience sketching at sea, drawing without taking one’s eyes off the subject, lest it should be gone. I drew the clergy in their colourful vestments, Dean, Archbishop, Bishop, the sermon, the prayers. On one page I scribbled “..and did those feet…” to remind myself of the towering climax of Jerusalem raising the roof, singing and drawing at the same time, not easy. The architecture was soaring upward in a gothic firework display of stone, exploding with flowers – white wistaria – along the reredos and in the triforium. Time passed rapidly.

When the service was over I stayed put, still drawing, trying to get every glimpse safely down on paper, downloading my eyes, as it were. I worked from a blur of fleeting visual memory, and later I covered more pages with watercolour notes, the colours of the vestments and dresses, the bright light in the volume of the space, the delicate flush colours of the Cosmati pavement, the gold reredos, the red carpet, the congregation, hats, pinks & greens, military uniforms, reds, blues.

My work at Westminster Abbey continues, building up for eventual exhibition and publication. Updates on progress will be posted on this site.

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Chaos in The Studio: ‘The Silent Piano’

The Silent Piano, watercolour on paper 22 x 30 inches

This forlorn and chaotic image gives a fairly accurately impression of how life in the Creswell household has been over recent months. Not the sadness and the silence, but the general chaos and absence of harmony: since the beginning of January we have had builders in our house, creating a glorious new studio space for me out of the anarchy of demolition. This also goes some way to explain the absence of a Painting of the Month for February.

‘The Silent Piano’ dates from a much earlier period in my career when I had just completed my first book, ‘The Silent Houses of Britain’. I discovered this scene in a derelict castle near Loch Rannoch, Scotland in the 1990s. In the silent snowy landscape the castle appeared like a filmset and the discovery of the smashed piano was shocking. I remember describing it at the time as the jangling contradiction of stillness where there should be movement, silence where there should be sound. Like a corpse. I had always felt that in a ruined house the spirit of the place flourished as a direct result of the absence of Man. But not here. In hindsight my evident sadness in the painting was probably due to the realisation that I had finished my great project but couldn’t let go of the subject. Don’t stop the music.

Now decades later my dances with ruins continue, and to an increasing scale. My tenure at G F Watts’ Great Studio extended during 2011 from six months to nine as I thrived in the benign shadow of G F Watts, painting large studies of monuments of Rome, the paradigms of civilisation. In the spirit of Watts’ concepts of magnitude and greatness I had specifically used my time in his studio to explore the limits of watercolour. I had exceeded those limits, I had created the largest watercolour I had ever attempted, working up in increments of larger and larger sheets of paper. At ten foot by five (3 x 1.5 metres) my Redentore Fireworks, privately commissioned and not yet published, was an achievement both artistically and technically, not least for the engineering difficulties involved in painting on such a scale. When it was finished I made plans for something even more ambitious.

Over the weeks I became conscious that my otherwise benign and inspirational period in Watts’ studio was actually finite, and it would be a mistake to become too accustomed to such a capacious and noble space. I would have to make provision for a better studio at home in perpetuity, and I had drawn up plans which sacrificed a number of rooms within our house (designed in 1907 by Christopher Turnor – architect of Watts Gallery) to form a studio offering a similar space to that which Watts had afforded himself at Compton. This meant two months of being in two places simultaneously, breaking my thought processes and covering everything in dust. My own private pandemonium. Not ideal for someone who needs total immersion and single-minded concentration in order to produce a successful piece of work on a large scale. With one hand, it seemed, I was painting the interior of the Pantheon at Watts while the other was trying to salvage Edwardian bricks from the rubble of what had been a spare bedroom at home.

Now the work is complete. I have an extensive modern space, with an elaborate daylight replication system, clever picture display lighting, a huge hydraulic drawing table and a dramatic music system! I am delighted to continue to have the privilege of working at Great Studio on my more conventional sized works, but my larger pieces can now be developed in isolation in my new space.

By way of exhortation, ‘The Silent Piano’ hangs in pride of place in my new studio. Play on, play on!

DON’T MISS: GF Watts: The Hall of Fame – Portraits of his Famous Contemporaries

I recommend superb exhibition highly and it’s on until 3rd June 2012

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Painting of the Month – J. M. W. Turner’s “The Falls of the Reichenbach”

J. M. W. Turner “The Falls of the Riechenbach”

Over the holiday we took our children to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie “A Game of Shadows” . The thrilling denouement of this film takes place at the brink of the Riechenbach Falls in Switzerland, a stage-set just as exciting in the film as it was in this 1804 watercolour by JMW Turner. I was happily reminded that this painting was a huge influence on my training as a watercolour painter. I remember seeing the painting in the flesh at ‘The Great Age of British Watercolours’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1993. That’s the same Royal Academy which has just appointed Tracy Emin to the post of Professor of Drawing.

At that time I wrote an essay for students at the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture where I was teaching, a piece which explored the development of watercolour – “that great underrated medium”. In that essay I wrote that ‘The Great Falls of the Reichenbach’  “shows more than any other work what Turner was capable of doing at only the age of twenty-nine. This is not just drawing or sketching, this is the highest form of watercolour painting, up there with the best of oil paintings. This waterfall was a popular tourist attraction in the early 19th century, providing a glimpse of towering rocks and thundering water which embodied the whole concept of the sublime, making the viewer feel vulnerable and insignificant” (as movies endeavour to do today). “Turner grasped this subject because it represented everything which excited him: raw, magnificent and overpowering.”

“Turner’s technique had developed to handle this intensity of work, his skills already superior to his contemporaries with their more static and considered views of topography and the picturesque. Continue reading

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December Painting of the Month

‘A Mountain Farm, Slovenia’

Watercolour on paper 11 x 15 inches, 1998
In the collection of HRH The Prince of Wales

A few weeks ago the Dean of Guildford and I gave a joint talk – a colloquium – which explored the subject of ‘Spirit of Place’ in buildings of faith. One of the images which found its way into the slideshow was this little watercolour of a group of humble farm buildings in Slovenia. It seemed rather out of context in a presentation mainly about monumental cathedrals, mosques and temples – the stoney hallelujahs which punctuate the history of civilisation. With the approach of Christmas, though, this image seemed to allude gently to the real origin of the jangling season of goodwill and frantic shopping.

The image of a simple cattle-shed at dusk, a warm light emanating through its open door and the gaps between the weatherboarding suggests the way in which we should consider the Christian nativity; with simple humility for a commonplace occurrence which had been elevated to become the most important event in the Christian faith. This humble birth would of course also be responsible for the creation of many of the great edifices of faith which we had been discussing that evening and which constitutes a large part of my subject matter in painting architecture through the decades.

The painting reminded the Dean of the Adoration of the Shepherds by Rembrandt, an intimate painting in which the holy family is shown in a womblike pool of light within a barn surrounded by massive enveloping darkness and old beams. I understood what he meant, and these farm buildings took on a more elevated feel.
Continue reading

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The Birth of a Watercolour

Millenuim Gate, Atlanta

Painted in Great Studio, 2011.

Film produced by Art Below Ltd

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Westminster Abbey – Overnight

‘Westminster Abbey – The Quire’, 2011
Watercolour on paper, 22 x 30 inches

They say that no-one has spent a whole night in Westminster Abbey other than the monks of old, but last month I was given the opportunity to do just that having been invited to an all-night event to mark the 400th birthday of the King James Bible. The 66 books of the Bible interpreted by contemporary writers, poets and musicians to be performed over 12 hours in the Abbey, Friday night into Saturday morning. This was to give me the opportunity to sketch through the night, experiencing the Abbey in its hours of rest.

A year ago I had embarked on a long-term project to paint at Westminster Abbey, providing a challenging seriousness, both as the repository for so much of our national history, and as a complicated subject to paint. It also appealed to me because it has been painted by few artists in the past. Refreshing when many of my recent subjects – like Rome and Venice – have been painted by everyone. I would be able to explore the spirit of the Abbey without seeing it through the eyes of others.

It is certainly peculiar, a Royal Peculiar – part church, part royal palace. It’s the final resting place of kings, the place of coronations and state funerals. It is the ancient seat of the church and of parliament. In short it is a massive history lesson. I had a lot to learn. Where to begin?

I had visited on several occasions over the last year, to sketch and paint while the Abbey is quiet between services on Sundays and in great contrast during the celebrations of the Royal Wedding last April. I had completed my first work, a large view of the interior of Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, quite to my satisfaction and had taken great pleasure in recording the Royal Wedding service in sketches and as a large finished painting. I also completed a few smaller paintings of details around the Abbey.

In truth I was uncertain about the overnight session. I felt that Westminster Abbey still wasn’t quite my place. Not yet. We weren’t on first-name terms. I had only prodded the creature with a long stick, so to speak.

We arrived wrapped in warm coats with pockets full of biscuits anticipating a cold hungry night.  In the nave a stage had been placed on the north side, with chairs arranged for the audience, three sides of a square. The lighting was subdued, spotlights on the performers and darkness hanging overhead. The vaults disappeared, night invading the volume of the tall space.  It was too quiet to start sketching, scratchy noises on hard paper. I rather wanted someone to play the organ loudly. I sat and gazed up, unsure how to begin an all night conversation with the great Abbey.
Continue reading

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“The Basilica of Maxentius in Rome” – October Painting of the Month

Watercolour on paper 24 x 40 inches – 60cm x 100cm
On show at Watts’s Great Studio 12th – 23rd October

The purpose of my time spent working in Watts’s Great Studio during 2011 has largely been to explore the idea of magnitude in painting. G. F. Watts who painted some of his greatest works in this studio before his death in 1904, had built the space specifically to work on paintings whose magnitude had outgrown his London studio. Watts wasn’t afraid to tackle paintings whose size and intent were massive.  The knowledge that he had carried out such work in this space gave me the idea that working in his shadow, so to speak, would enable me to think on a much bolder scale than before. The confines of my domestic scale working environment at home hadn’t prevented me from painting some very big watercolours in the past, but working in Watts’s studio would give me the opportunity to explore a grander intent in a larger space. Magnitude is the word of the year.

I had various subjects in mind, so as a family we went back to Rome in the early summer for a visit. There are several Roman buildings I had painted before and now wanted to explore again – the Pantheon, the Arch of Constantine and the Basilica of Maxentius. All are monuments to magnitude and I looked at them afresh. Too often we are distracted by superficial questions when appraising a work of art or architecture. How big is it? How long does it take? How much does it cost? Great works of art and architecture are quantified by lifeless facts while their artistic and cultural value are missed. Big and expensive are good, apparently. But magnitude is something else: magnitude is the impact of the idea rather than the scale of its execution. A large painting or building is not good simply because it is big, but maybe its intent or inspiration needs to be big in order to be good?

I tend to measure impact by the experience of the building or place or event.  It’s the experience which first grabs my attention and causes me to sketch.  If the sketch is good it doesn’t represent so much the place as the experience – the light, the movement, the beauty, the sensory thrill of just being there.  That’s the inspiration. A work of art is capturing the experience not just the representation of the place. The character not just the face.

Since Rome I’ve been painting large scale explorations of the experience of the interior of the Pantheon, in the contained volume of light and air, and I’ve worked on these in Great Studio with increasing magnitude. I’ve worked on exteriors of the Arch of Constantine, with its detailed carved panels telling the story-board of the emperor’s conquests, which to me involve delightfully complex passages of light and shadow – cartoons in stone and light – also explored on a growing scale.

Here at the Basilica of Maxentius I’ve explored the dichotomy of interior and exterior in a subject which is actually both. Once a vast interior, these towering ruined vaulted apses are open to the air, like massive theatres of light. These apses are vast and echoing, hard to quantify unless you can see the diminutive archaeologist’s ladder propped up against one wall.  In contemplation of ruins, we contemplates the future, the fragility of the present, and the futility of the past. In painting the Basilica of Maxentius I am contemplating magnitude as an element to inspire and uplift the human spirit. Magnitude, like beauty, can’t be measured but it can be missed. I think I understand what drove G. F. Watts in his time. For our time, I think I’ve realised what – together with beauty – has been missing for the last century. Magnitude.

The Basilica of Maxentius and other new works, together with some important commissions, both completed and in progress, are now on view at Great Studio from 12th – 23rd October. Please do come!

Great Studio, Limnerslease, Down Lane, Compton, Surrey, GU3 1DJ.


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