Saturday, 29 March 2014

Saying it with a postcard

I've signed up for Hertfordshire Open Studios for the first time this year. It will take place throughout September 2014 and I feel both excited and apprehensive -- I will be expected to do artist-like things for any visitors (the website where you sign up strongly recommends that you offer demonstrations while your studio is open). That would be quite challenging.
     For now, I'm trying to prepare in good time and part of the preparation is to make some work that people might like to buy without spending a lot of money. I'm working on a series of limited edition digital prints which I'll frame. More on these in a moment.
     Because I'd signed up for the Open Studios, earlier this month I was invited to meet up with other artists whose studios are nearby. We met at a pub. I was, as usual, rather excitable at this prospect. I got to the pub quite early and had to do that thing of walking around, trying to guess which person or group of people was the bare bones of the get-together. It felt a bit like going on a blind date. Nerve-wracking, but when I got to the far end of the large pub and saw a big table with two women sitting quite far apart I guessed that this must be it -- or they had just had a row. I got the right table! Soon there were ten or eleven of us and although there was the usual awkwardness of meeting a group of people for the first time, it was enjoyable. At a certain point someone made a move to hand out their cards and suddenly everyone did the same, there were a few minutes of happy card-swapping and the ice was definitely broken.
     So the get-togethers are going to continue fairly regularly and hopefully friendships will grow out of it (actually some people already knew each other but I didn't know anyone). And the next meeting is coming up already. Last time we discussed something we could do the next time we met and we decided to each bring a postcard of something that has a bearing on our art -- an image of a favourite artwork, whatever we want. This will be a treat for me but it's hard to choose which one to bring: I'm obsessed with postcards. I have about 100 old postcards that I've carefully 'curated' for special qualities I see in them (potential for the sort of art I want to do in relation to them) and I frequently sort through them, again rather obsessively, looking for things I may have missed in them the last time I looked. I was telling my Dad about this activity and he described it as 'forensic', which I think is a very good word for what I'm doing.
     So my postcard for the meet-up is going to have to be a Richard Hamilton. A fortnight ago I went to see the Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern. I've long counted Richard Hamilton among my top ten favourite artists (along with Richter, Rauschenberg, Peter Blake, David Hockney, Warhol, Marlene Dumas, Eric Fischl, David Salle, Wilhelm Sasnal). I've followed him through quite a few different phases of his art, some I've liked more than others, but the work that I do like, I love. I agree with this art critic that he has been lumbered with the title of 'The Father of Pop Art', almost entirely as a result of the collage he made in 1956, 'Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?' and that consequently his work as a whole has perhaps been over-valued, in the sense of taken to be more significant than it is, so made to carry a heavier burden of importance than it needed to. But it was very good to be able to see his work brought together and set out chronologically. It was exciting to see, in moving from one room to another, elements of pop culture almost literally breaking in to Hamilton's rather ascetic, pale, barely there academic paintings about perspective and movement. Suddenly, there were spacemen, baseball heroes and JFK, patched in to a new set of pale academic paintings. Popular culture can be seen shouldering its way in to his art in the early sixties.
     The best part of the show, for me, were the paintings and prints based on postcards. It was wonderful to see them in the flesh when, previously, I think I've only seen them in reproductions. These have been a true inspiration to me. They were done in an era when enlargements had to be done using cumbersome equipment -- no scanners then -- and when Hamilton took a postcard of Whitley Bay, a little seaside town on the North East coast (quite close to where he had a teaching post at the time) and blew up a detail of it by stages, it was an experiment to see how far he could push the process before the 'real life' image broke down into abstraction. He made this foldout work, using a roughly A5-sized reproduction of the postcard, which shows the steps:
I've got the same postcard that Hamilton used:
The area he honed in on is about two thirds of the way down and two thirds of the way across:

This is Hamilton's print based on his close-up:
Bathers, Richard Hamilton, 1968
Over the past few years I've done quite a number of large mixed-media pieces based on old postcards, for instance:

All the above four pictures are about 3' x 4'.The idea was to isolate a 'drama' that was not so apparent in the original postcard, by masking out other figures and objects. I left a ghostly hint of what was once there underneath the pigment. In the third picture down, 'Hyde Centre', most of the right hand side of the original image was taken up by a large tree. I masked it out and recreated the building behind it.
     But currently I'm working on a series of digital prints, as mentioned above. In these I hunt for hidden details and make them into a new 'postcard'. So, for instance, below is a print I've made from the same postcard of Seaton Carew as the first of the above four pictures:
I've found a little girl who looks as though she might be running away. I don't want to upload too detailed a photo of any of my prints because they're digital, and so the image is the artwork -- hence the photo of this one framed, to protect it a little from being reproduced willy nilly. I'm working on lots of different images, but you might have to come along to one of my open studio days to see them properly. I like the quality you get when you go deep into the original image to mine its secrets. Anyway, I hope people will like them. And this is what I'll be talking about at the pub next week, clutching two postcards, one of Whitley Bay and one of a Richard Hamilton blow-up taken from it.

Monday, 17 March 2014

A friend of GBS -- a photo researched and a curious coincidence...

Last weekend I tagged along on a visit to Sussex Uni (for my son) and while he and his Dad toured the campus, I snatched a quick visit to the North Laine. I was with my daughter and it was she who noticed the perfect outfitter's for me as we wandered along Upper Gardner Street market:

 I withstood the ribbing in good part. It was such a lovely day and I was so happy to be back in Brighton.
Best of all, soon we came around to my favourite vintage emporium, Snoopers' Paradise.
Once again I had had to negotiate how much time I was going to be allowed in there. The time before last, on my own, I had crouched on an old pouffe (as one does) for over four hours, going through the old photos at my favourite stall. Last time was with my son and I only got a measly twenty minutes, if that. This time, in an effort to avoid similar frustration, I had already made it a condition of the whole visit that I would get an hour or so on my own in there -- but in the event it was more like forty minutes, and for quite a lot of time I was being 'helped' by an impatient young person flipping through the photos at high speed. It was agonising as I had just zeroed in on a new set of photos -- dispersed throughout the hundreds in the boxes -- from a single family where the owner had very helpfully written dates of birth and all sorts of other details on the backs. My mind was boggling at the thought of the research I could do into that family! But I ended up scrabbling and grabbing at a few more or less random photos that caught my eye before I was marched away.
     I chose one of the photos because it had a name on the back, but it wasn't until a few days later that I worked out what the name was and started to look into it. This is the photo:
On the back is the name 'J Kingston Barton'. The J is for James.
It's unfortunately rather difficult to read the date because it goes over the right-hand emblem but I believe it says Mar[ch] 17 1879. James Kingston Barton was born in Hong Kong in 1855 so would have been a young man of twenty-four at the time. Do you think he looks twenty-four? It's sometimes difficult to tell with old photos. I also believe that his name is written by his own hand: if you compare it to his signature on his marriage banns, from 1891, almost twenty years later -- although the capital letters are a little more flamboyant (amateur graphology bit coming up here), perhaps hinting at his more secure position in society, the other letters are formed in exactly the same way:
James Kingston Barton's father was an Irishman and a medical doctor who had taken his wife Rhoda out to China in the mid 19th century. Their first four children were born in Hong Kong before they returned, first to Ireland and then to London. The family lived at Chester Villa, 14 Lansdowne Rd, Kensington for a while, then seem to have had a spell in Bedford. James was already training to be a doctor himself by the age of 16 and in 1876, aged 22, he went to Australia. But he did not emigrate permanently  (See addendum at end of post): he was having his photograph taken in Baker Street by 1879 (if I have the date correct) and at the next census, in 1881, he was a visitor at 88 Gloucester Road, London.
     J Kingston Barton, as he styled himself, seems to have had a very inquiring mind. His name pops up on late Victorian papers about 'puerperal sepsis in cattle' and 'congenital anaemia' and he is often to be found debating the issues of the day at the Royal College of Medicine. His particular claim to fame seems to have been a close study of the digestive habits of 'kelts' -- salmon or sea trout that are weak and emaciated after spawning.
     The most interesting thing about JKB is his close friendship with GBS -- George Bernard Shaw.
G Bernard Shaw in 1879
Shaw was in the habit of dining at Kingston Barton's home every Saturday evening in the late 1870s and into the 1880s where no doubt the discussion was piquant and wide-ranging. According to Michael Holroyd's biography of Shaw, when Shaw's lover became pregnant she went to see Dr Kingston Barton, perhaps as he would be discreet. And when Shaw wrote an alarmingly frank account of the alcoholism in his own family he sent a copy to Kingston Barton. 
     In 1891 JKB married Georgina Graves, nee Marshall, a woman who had been widowed just a year earlier. She was Irish and he seems to have been back in Ireland for a time, or at least visiting regularly. They lived for many years at 14 Ashburn Place, Kensington. JKB outlived his wife by 17 years and died at the age of 86. His last home was in a very pleasant private road in Wimbledon. He seems to have left all his money to the Public Purse.

When I discovered that the photograph I had picked up more or less at random on an antique stall was of a man who had been a close friend of George Bernard Shaw I was pleased. What are the chances that a random person will have any claim to fame at all? But there's a further twist to the story...
     Today I have been sorting out the old photographs I inherited from my Mum. These are not my family's photographs but a large stash of very old photos that I found in her outside shed when I had to clear her house. They were not kept in ideal conditions, far from it, but were a little damp and covered in gritty dirt. I think Mum must have bought them in a job lot at an auction and perhaps lost interest in them. There were so many of them and I just threw them into a drawer without sorting through them. It was because I've become so interested in old photos that it finally occurred to me that it was stupid to hanker after photos on the stall in Snooper's Paradise, which I can only visit very occasionally, when I had a whole drawer of old photos just waiting for me to look at them. So this weekend I did. There are so many and I have no idea who they belonged to or who they're of. They seem to come from a number of different families. So far I have just sorted them into postcards of places and photos of people and a few other subsets. The numbers are overwhelming and it makes me feel sad to think that I have no way of finding out who they're of (barely any have names attached to them). But I was just putting them away more neatly in boxes when I spotted one of a gentleman. No, it couldn't be... I think it is. It's James Kingston Barton again!

The fact that the photo was taken at an address just five minutes' walk from 14 Ashburn Place clinches it for me. And of course the similarity of his moustache, collar and tie, hair, sideburns. It's him! But what on earth is the probability of my already having (unknowingly) a photo of this chap who I discovered in Brighton? Infinitesimally small! I feel all a-flutter with the wonderful serendipity of it.

I mentioned above that James Kingston Barton went to Australia in 1876. Two new things have come to light since I first wrote this post. Firstly, on scrutinising the handwritten manifest of the SS Osyth on which James sailed to Australia, I see that he was not a passenger but rather the ship's surgeon. What an excellent way to see the world!
The other thing I've discovered is that on this trip JKB also went to New Zealand. I know this because, on going through my Mum's old photos, I found a second photo of him in the pile! This one is by the well-known Christchurch photographer Nelson K Cherrill, who in fact had only arrived in New Zealand himself in 1876, having emigrated from Tunbridge Wells (see this very interesting biography of him).
 So someone whose photo collection I now own knew JKB well enough to have more than one photo of him. I wonder if it could possibly be Reverend Bott?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Book covers: vanishing bodies, trapped butterflies and symbolic teddy bears

Everyone knows that there are fashions in book covers, as in everything else, but the echoes and similarities between book covers seem almost obsessive at the moment, with various 'tropes' following each other's tails and threatening to spiral into parody.
     Where shall we start? Let's start with trees, a common enough image on covers, with their useful symbolism of roots, shelter, family, complexity. Then add a beguiling figure, in silhouette, so as to leave the reader's imagination a bit of space.
Here are some related covers. The cutout trees, the silhouetted figure, often with an inspiring light either behind them or for them to make their way towards. I like the Jane Gardam cover (she's also been been one of absolute favourite authors since I was about fourteen): no trees, but it picks up on the silhouetted figures, on their way somewhere beguiling.
Children playing in trees, or, even better, reading books in or under trees, are a further refinement of this theme.

But this cover, for The Water Seeker (designed by April Ward), I really love. I've included the whole cover as the tree part of the 'trope' is on the back. I think the wheel in the foreground galvanises the whole thing -- it puts me in mind of an illustration by Claire Leighton or C. F. Tunnicliffe.
    Now let's use the silhouettes on the cover of this Lionel Shriver novel as a bridge to our next theme:
It's the part-person. There's the half-person, as above, and below, sliced vertically:
Or sometimes they're sliced horizontally:
Wriggly hemline and skinny legs obligatory. Sometimes you get almost the whole person, just minus their head:
I think the idea is that if the face of the real model is removed, the reader will more easily be able to put herself into the book. But it's quite funny to see the headless theme carried over into non-photographic covers, as with the Marian Keyes novel above.
     But I like this version, which I think is very stylish:

     A further variation is the torso shot:
Holding significant item obligatory.
     As the theme gets more and more common, designers get bolder, cropping off more and more of their models' bodies...
Just legs -- dipping them in water is very popular.
So popular that you get the same image used more than once.
Swimming pools form an entire subset of their own, taking in the 'below the knees' theme and the hand only' theme. These pop up elsewhere as well:
There are refinements of the basic themes to look out for too: wooden boards are very popular (very Instagram) -- see the Steinbeck cover above and these variations below:
And what's that? A teddy? Ah, the universal symbol of the vulnerable child, used far too often for a treacly sentimental effect:
Some authors' books have appeared more than once in this very unscientific survey: Heather Gudenkauf (who I hadn't heard of previously), and, in particular, Diane Chamberlain. Her publishers win the prize for including every current cliche of book cover design on her series of novels. Yes, she definitely wins the prize -- she even has the cliche of cliches, the butterfly trapped in a jar:

Here is a whole collection of butterflies in jars:

Notice that several of these tick other boxes as well: headless child, wooden boards. I guess publishers want to achieve a current, Instagrammy feel on their covers and perhaps also want to signal that a new book can be bought on trust because it's 'just like' that Jodi Picoult novel you enjoyed so much last summer. Hmmm.
     Finally, just to reassure us that not all book covers are following the same rule book, two covers that I've been strongly drawn to every time I've been in a bookshop recently: different, more original (though pastiches, I guess):

And two more covers just because I like them. It really does make me want to read them.

Next time you're browsing in a bookshop, see if you can spot more headless bodies and severed limbs...