‘Stone walls do not a prison make /nor iron bars a cage’ – Richard Lovelace
The last three weeks have made two things very clear: 1) no one can travel; 2) Zoom rules.
But look at someone’s walls during that video call: what do you see? Sadly, all too often, nothing. Either due to a lack of experience or confidence, too busy or uncertain, (young) people no longer declare what they love by the medium of art in the home.
I am an artist who normally heads off at this time of year to my childhood home of Hydra, the Greek island off the Peloponnese (and the setting of the new novel ‘A Theatre for Dreamers’ by Polly Samson). I’ve been going there for as long as I can remember. Now trapped here, I would like to show the great British public how to unlock their inner creativity and start curating – and maybe even creating – their own art to hang on the walls.
I come from a family of artists, many of whom were – and are still – inspired by Hydra. It is an adopted homeland for us, a place of refuge, escape, and inspiration for generations, including my own illustration work. My grandparents were the first foreigners to settle on the island in 1948. My grandmother Lily was trying to escape the horrific memories of her time in a German-Italian prison in occupied Athens; my grandfather, meanwhile, had left the champagne fields of France wanting to escape his own “bourgeoise” privilege. They settled into a cottage by the sea to be potters, and were soon mixing with artists, writers and musicians, each seeking their own liberation, who gradually congregated on the island, including Marc Chagall, John Craxton, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Gregory Corso and Leonard Cohen. There is still an old guitar, half broken, which my mother refuses to let anyone throw away, since “Leonard taught me my first chords on that”. Gregory Corso, the beat poet, painted a large mural in our hallway, which still greets us every time we come back from a swim.
Now prevented – for the first time in living memory – of going out there at all this year (the collapse of the roof didn’t even stop my sister and me back in 2003: we pitched a Bedouin style tent and camped in our rambling garden instead) – it has made me feel all the more for others who are also kept from the places they love, compounded by empty walls at home. I have turned to artworks inspired by Hydra to help me get through the crisis. And doing so has made me realise we must all become “mental travellers” as Isak Dinesen wrote, as we now learn how to travel through walls…
Here are some of my tips to help people travel virtually and alleviate the strain of self isolation through art:
• Visit one of the virtual museums which have made their collections available online. Indeed, with the closure of museums across the nation, there is even more need for people to get that fix of art (art/ museum goers now (Pre-Corona) exceed church goers in the U.K. (This morning I have already visited www.rijksmuseum.nlwww.nationalgallery.org.uk and www.guggenheim.org ).
• Make a scrapbook or a large page of selected artwork from any magazines and newspapers you have lying around, to help you to see the variety of style and what appeals to you. Cover your walls with them. Why not? Take them down and start again.
• For money savvy buying tips, explore platforms such as @artistsupportpledge or @affordableartfairuk . follow individual artists you like on Instagram. Even just cutting out a favourite painting from a Magazine and mounting it on a piece of white or cream card, with a minimum 5cm width mount, will turn a cut-out into soul-food on your wall.
• Look at @isolationartschool on Instagram to get your own creative juices flowing.
• And if you want to combine all of the above, try copying a painting by one of your new favourite artists. Copying is both age-old traditional training and discipline and can result in a mini Louvre, MET, or Rijksmuseum in your very own borough-bedroom.
Finally, I would recommend a closer look at one of my favourite movements: the Neo Romantics, including the painters John Craxton John Minton. Being as they, and my grandparents were, from the war generation, they had sought escape from the grey tones of war, and had imbued in their paintings and prints a great deal of vitality, sunlight, colour and exoticism. Since, we are not the first to have sought escape.
This article first appeared in The Oldie online blog in April 2020.
I’m back sorting through our house library on Hydra. A library which goes back to 1950 when my grandparents, Christian Heidsieck and Lily Mak moved here to make a ceramics workshop in their Kamini home. I’ve spent the last 8 years sifting through some 1,000 books in ten or so languages.
I’d thought I’d start posting some of my favourite book covers, often by slightly unknown/forgotten illustrators. This one here is a cover by Ronald A. GLENDENING (1926-2013) for Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a lonely Hunter.
Glendening was born in London, studied painting and printmaking at the Royal College of Art, was a painter, lithographer and film-maker, and supposedly the grandson of the painter Alfred Augustus Glendening. Here below is a lithograph print of his of Sydney Street Canal, Bath:
I’ve repeatedly been drawn back to looking at this cover; one immediately senses the American Deep South from the architecture, the raised veranda and the African musician. But the figure on the right is also compelling: like one of John Minton’s profiled and enigmatic foreground figures, there’s a gentle mystery about him, perhaps one can’t first put it into words but when you discover he’s a deaf mute, it makes sense. Sadly he can’t hear the music in the background, and can’t see any colours, let alone the black and white of the lithograph print… or can he? Perhaps there’s a sixth sense at work. I love it. Thank you Glendening for being an illustrator!
Like every other artist, I’m fascinated, challenged and excited by colour and colour palettes.
I developed a colour palette during my MA which worked well for my illustrations reminiscent of a 1930s Bloomsbury or 1950s vintage style. However, it’s always good to be reminded how colours can work to evoke a specific times and places…
The other day, I was sorting through my computer files (I like well organised folders – that’s my French, bureaucratic side), when I found some images for a poster design for an opera I’d done two years ago. The opera was Parsifal and although the opera is a religious one, the director had had the interesting idea to set it in an opium den in East London in the late nineteenth century. Rather than Christian Knights protecting the Holy Grail, the director decided to interpret it as if the Holy Grail that the Knights were protecting was actually the very thing that was causing their downfall. In this case: addicts protecting a bottle of Laudanum – the drug made from opium which is an addictive painkiller. The laudanum causes the addicts to believe they are in a holy temple as opposed to their actual surroundings, which the audience see.
The director sent me a picture of a bottle that he liked, and asked for a flavour of this.
When I was thinking about my initial design ideas, I decided to incorporate poppies into the design, (laudanum is prepared from opium, from poppies, after all) and, crucially, use a different and suitable colour scheme.
I’ve always loved poster designing. I love the challenge of making that confined, rectangular sheet visually arresting as well as communicating facts and dates. When I was at university, I did the poster designs for the Clare College Music Society in my second year. It was a means of expression for me at a time when I was busy with reading, essays and grammar, but knew I wanted to keep an artistic, creative vein alive. I remember, too, being heavily dependent on the help of a patient first year with Photoshop. (Thankfully my Photoshop skills are much improved now).
One of the posters I designed was for a Remembrance concert. I chose a landscape form for the poster, and, drawing the organic twists of red poppies, created something that I felt was reminiscent of and Art Nouveau in feel.
I have always been a big fan of Art Nouveau – the late nineteenth, early 20th century movement. I grew up in a very Art Nouveau-inspired house; my mother, an antiques collector, had filled the place with ornate jardinieres and had painted a symmetrical stylised floral motif up our fireplace – so it was always deep in my psyche. I also love Alphonse Mucha’s posters.
As I started this opera poster design featuring poppies, the initial sketches likewise developed (subconsciously, but appropriately) into an Art Nouveau inspired image.
When faced with the colour choice for the poster, I was aware that I wanted to experiment with a different palette to that which I had developed over the course of my MA and which had been the choice for my illustrations to Flush by Virginia Woolf. Those were pastel, muted and soft. For this, I wanted something alluring, repulsive, sickening… irresistible!
What colours would work for a nineteenth century opium den?! It’s pretty niche.
I started to think which colours might have been prevalent in late nineteenth century Victorian England. The first colour I thought of was sepia, since I associated it with the rise of photography and photographic printing at the time.
Then, thinking of drugs depicted in nineteenth century art and Degas’ Absinthe Drinker (1893), arsenic green came to me as appropriately sickening.
Although red poppies were perfect for a memorial poster, I felt it wouldn’t work for this project. After some research, I found out the colour of laudanum poppies is in fact purple, so decided on a lavender grey colour.
Finally, the colour of laudanum is a reddish brown, but I wanted something brighter to complete the palette. Gold, I decided, would be much more suitable: an irresistible and highly prized.
And here was the finished result – and the director seemed very happy with the end result!
I hope the above isn’t too much of an Art Nouveau organic-twisting-train-of-thought. I hope people can see that the creative process comes about as the results of many strands, sources of inspirations and avenues.
In a way I’m trying to create an aspiring-illustrator friendly blog, so, if I might include some words of wisdom as a sign off…!
1. Keep well organised folders!
2. Put yourself forward for all and any amateur opportunities you can; experimenting and the process of working through ideas will help you discover what subconsciously informs and inspires your creative process.
3. Try to think through your colour choice. One doesn’t want to smother a design by being too logical, but a bit of thought can pay off.
I love doing portrait commissions of children. Whether working in soft pencil or a thick nib and quink ink, I love the challenge of trying to nail the energy, thoughts and complexity of character of a child.
I’ve spent the last four days in Gloucestershire working with just under a dozen children.
Obviously, they are often running around, playing games, keeping busy and changing positions. This only helps, however, as you are constantly pushed to the limits of your observational drawing skills and abilities, and the images stay fresh and quick.
Rendering the portraits in soft pencil can be reminiscent of old world illustrations, whereas the challenge of committing directly in ink, whether with a fine or a thicker nib, takes energy and concentration but can be most gratifying. I think I might be addicted to that fear factor of knowing you can’t rub something out if it goes wrong(!).
I’m not a big fan of reworking images too much once drawn. I never manage to capture that same feeling and spirit. So reproducing my images as lithographs, where I can reproduce the image exactly, with colour layers, is my preferred print process.
Finally, it’s fundamentally just a very fun spin on life drawing, since you get the wonderful and amusing chatter and comments from the children to accompany the day.
“Romanticism is an attitude of mind in which any human being, at any time, may, by virtue of his humanity, indulge.”
Eric Newton, The Romantic Rebellion (Newton, 1962, p.12)
I’ve been thinking a lot about a “sense of place” recently and how a location can inspire art and illustrations. This is partly because I’ve been asked to give a lecture on a place which has greatly inspired me (and other artists) for a conference in September.
So I thought I’d share a piece on three examples of illustrated literary works, which are all strongly influenced by a sense of place; I break down why the medium which the illustrators use in all three cases works so perfectly; and I also try to put them in a context of Romanticism, the 18th century movement which emphasized inspiration, the emotion and imagination of the individual, as well as the natural world. Copyright is, as ever, my own (except where cited!).
The three books are all from the first half of the 20th century and are: The Tale of Jeremy Fisher (1906), the children’s book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) and inspired by the Lake District; Gorod (The City) (1920), a book of poems written by Alexander Rubakin (1889-?), illustrated by Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) and inspired by Moscow; and finally the travel book Time Was Away – A Journey Through Corsica (1948) written by Alan Ross (1922-2001) and illustrated by John Minton (1917-1957).
The three books are contrasting in their form, authorship, period and culture: the first both written and illustrated by an Englishwoman inspired by a place in England; the second, a couple of decades later, an illustrated book of poems by two Russian émigrés in exile but celebrating the city they grew up in; the third, a travel book written and illustrated by two Englishman abroad, out of their own context and responding to a war-torn Mediterranean landscape that is, at first, totally unfamiliar. However, in all three cases, the sense of place is central; it is this, the surrounding context and landscape, that the authors and illustrators find so wondrous and inspires them to create; and this connection even goes so far as to inspire the illustrators’ choice of medium.
Beatrix Potter was born in London, but spent a lot of her childhood, and later lived, in the Lake District. Like the Romantic poets – the Lake poets – a hundred years before her, Potter found the Lake District a source of inspiration, and her children’s books are closely tied to its landscape and nature. In The Tale of Jeremy Fisher, Jeremy lives “in a little damp house… at the edge of a pond”, the larder and back passage of which are filled with water and Jeremy, at one with his landscape, likes “getting his feet wet”. He has a boat – a water lily – on the pond and fishes from the pond for food.
When Jeremy sets off on his fishing trip, Potter’s extensive knowledge of insects and the Lakes comes to the fore. She describes the pond life Jeremy meets and the book almost takes on the roll of a scientific paper on the ecosystem of the Lakes. “A great big water-beetle came up underneath the lily leaf… Instead of a smooth fat minnow, Mr. Jeremy landed little Jack Sharp the stickleback, covered with spines!… A great big enormous trout came up… “What a mercy that was not a pike!”” Potter shows how intimately she knows the wildlife since the water-beetle, the stickleback, the trout and pike are all freshwater creatures that live in the meres and waters of the Lake District.
Potter, like the Romantics before her, was so closely intertwined with her natural landscape that she went further than merely depicting nature. In his book The Spirit of Place (Yorke, 1988, p.18), the critic Malcolm Yorke reveals how the Romantic poet Wordsworth attributed his own sadness onto a moon, as he anthropomorphised it in:“With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the sky”:
WITH how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the sky,
“How silently, and with how wan a face!”
Where art thou? Thou so often seen on high
Running among the clouds a Wood-nymph’s race!…
Likewise, Potter’s animals take on human qualities and she anthropomorphises them in her romantic vision. Jeremy wears clothes: a mackintosh and “shiny galoshes” and “Sir Isaac Newton wore his black and gold waistcoat”.
It is perhaps apt that, for tales set in a watery landscape, Beatrix Potter chose watercolour as her medium for her illustrations. The delicacy of the watercolours, and the care and precision with which Potter renders the animals, reflects the love she had for every inch and insect of her beloved Lakes. Potter celebrated the Lake District in its entirety, not only immortalising it in her writing and illustrations, but in her life also: she was heavily involved in land preservation, buying up what is now the majority of the Lake District National Park.
The second book, The City, is a collection of twenty-one Russian poems based on the theme of modern urban life. It was composed by two émigrés abroad. Alexander Nikolaevich Rubakin was born in 1889 in St Petersburg. After being arrested for publishing revolutionary literature in 1906, he escaped to France where he worked as a physician, and published poems in French journals and the Russian émigré press. Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova was born in Tula in 1881 but moved to Moscow with her family in 1891. She studied art in Moscow, was part of the Futurist movement and was pro-Revolution. However, Goncharova became disillusioned after the Revolution of 1917 and left to live in Paris in self-imposed exile from 1920.
In the book, the exiles manage to bring across their love and yearning for their respective cities and romanticise the urban landscape. The first poem, entitled The City, reads:
“The city is dirty and smoky, / The city is dark and evil, / I sung my hymns for you, / You are surely mine! You are mine… /
Whether Petrograd, whether Moscow, or Paris – / Here, from the cradle I was used to hearing / As in the midnight silence, / The wind blowing in the window cracks…”
“Город грязный и дымный,
Город тёмный и злой,
Для тебя я сложил мой гимны, –
Ты ведь, мой! Ты – мой!
Петроград ли, Москва ли, Париж,
Здесь привык я внимать с колыбели,
Как в полночную тишь
Дует ветер в оконные щели.”
At times ominous, menacing and rough, the cityscape is their internal landscape and this vision of a city inspires fifty-three pages of verse and beautiful, dynamic illustrations by Goncharova. In his fourth poem, At Dawn (Rubakin, 1920, p.15), Rubakin describes the city in the early morning, personifying the factories in the third and fourth lines: “The horns of the awakening factories/ are merged into the pre-dawn chorus.” (“Гудки проснувшихся заводов/ Слилися в перед рассветный хор.”). We see this in the second illustration below, as, once again in an emotive, romantic context, anthropomorphised faces loom ominously out of the smoke of the factory towers, rising from the cubist city below:
In the second illustration, the bodies and faces of four men are entangled, tussling. There had been strong dis-chord in the cities prior to the 1917 Revolution – indeed the Revolution was one of the urban masses, arising from close-quartered discontent. However, Goncharova’s illustration almost resembles a dance in its fluidity and sense of movement, and thus we see grim realities of the Revolution being romanticised.
As with Potter, the choice of medium – in this case printed in monochrome black lithographs – reflects the sense of place perfectly, as it conjures up the coal and soot of an industrial city. However, despite this dirt and smoke, Goncharova conveys the magic of the city and her attachment to it.
The final book, Time Was Away – A Journey Through Corsica, is a travel book to poverty stricken Corsica after its heavy Italian-German occupation in World War II. Although the traveller is at first in an unfamiliar, foreign landscape, he can nevertheless start to understand his environment and, with empathy, build up his own experiences and associations, so that he too becomes firmly rooted in place. The introductory poem A Map for Corsica reads:
“At first the coasts and hills are only lines,/With boundaries marked in red, and sea/Like muslin draped in blue around the edges;…
“The map will come alive; the towns grow dark/ with olive, straight nosed faces, and south/ the sandy bays be filled with keels of boats…”.
Ross and Minton’s connection with Corsica is initially as spectators: Ross outlines ‘A Framework of History’ in a timeline and Minton sketches a lush, fantasy vision to accompany this. However, as the “land’s contours increased” (p18) their experiences come to life: they meet people, talk and engage with the underprivileged lives in their context. Like the map coming to life, the place develops from an unreal dream to a reality, with real people, faces, sights, sounds and tastes to be associated with it. They observe the faces on the Portugal (p16), and take note of the exotic food: “The market stalls were… filled with melons, peaches, grapes, tomatoes and aubergines” (p21).
However, this reality soon develops into a very bleak vision:
“Stripped to the waist they chipped the white blocks of the stone at the roadside, their forage caps green against the rich brown of their bodies. They hardly spoke: their dreams, their emotions dropped slowly into the sponge of the marshes. They became absorbed without any trace or effect on their environment….
The lights from the German windows went out in the darkness, a hundred and fifty existences switched over to an inner world whose destroyed landscape they had never seen.
The cinemas were shut up, peeling posters hanging from old hoardings. … But it didn’t matter, for the curious, human contact if established had no relation to time.
After a few hours, the houses, the people, the smell seemed already familiar, as if life had only existed there and in no other surroundings.
Upstairs, in the hotel…. children slept naked and dirty on mats and old women sat doubled up in sleep or watchfulness by the windows. Thought must have run out years ago.”
This is not the anticipated bright Mediterranean landscape. This is a sun-bleached, war-torn, brutal and very real, ravaged island. Ross and Minton are now part of their environment and have understanding and humanity for the difficult lives of these people and this is successfully brought across in Minton’s illustrations:
In the chapter ‘Homecoming’, Ross says: “Coming down to Ajaccio in a morning of mackerel skies was almost like coming home.” He acknowledges his sense of connection to this sad – “blue” – place in the final chapter: “one grows accustomed to being in a place… a different world had built itself up somewhere in the blue wastes of feeling.” (p168).
Minton is considered one of the “Neo-Romantic” artists, that is from the period falling roughly between the Second World War and the mid 1950s. The Neo-Romantics produced a great deal of painting and illustration that was rooted in landscape and a sense of place. Presumably because, after the horrors of a world war, this generation needed to firmly ground themselves in a sense of place and belonging. The war had kindled awareness and compassion in this generation and this equips both Ross and Minton with the ability to romanticise what is, in essence, a desolate landscape.
As for medium, Minton’s black ink sketches are so apt, as they are the easy, natural choice for the traveller, and the spontaneous sketches reflect his environment: they are not pre-planned and worked on, but are gritty, truthful and real. Minton only added the colour layers to a selection of images afterwards for publication.
These three books differ in their form, authorship, period and culture, but are all rooted in a connection with ‘place’. We see how Potter’s intense love of the natural landscape of the Lake District, its animals and creatures, inspired her books and the characters in them. We see how Rubakin and Goncharova sought to romanticise a beloved, but far off, cityscape of smoke and discord which had undergone a Revolution. Finally, how strangers in a foreign, war-torn and underprivileged land can – by artistic vision and humanity – become rooted in their landscape.
In the context of Romanticism, although it is traditionally associated with rural settings, an artist need not only be inspired by a place which is “naturally” beautiful. When Eric Newton says, “Romanticism is an attitude of mind in which any human being, at any time, may, by virtue of his humanity, indulge”, he is reminding us that Romantic artists and writers can also be inspired by places which have also been subject to grim revolutions and war-stricken poverty. It is not the place per say, but what the place invokes internally within the artist, his reaction, feelings of sentimentality and humanity towards that place, which is vital. Whether “busy streets” or “sylvan walks” (Anthology, 1944, p.40), Romanticism is about how your external context inspires your internal landscape – the mindscape – and the symbiosis of the two. Thus, although two centuries later, Goncharova and Minton might also be considered ‘Romantics’ by the way in which they engage with and celebrate their land- and cityscapes.
I got an email recently from a girl who’d bought one of my cards at the Charmed Lives exhibition at the British Museum.
An English literature undergrad, but with a love of art and drawing, she said she was interested in pursuing a career in illustration, but was worried about finances, lack of relevant qualifications and was generally at a loss as to where to start. She asked for advice or recommendations regarding foundation courses, art school and such like.
I thought it might be worth blogging my reply to her as perhaps other-would-be-illustrators might come across it.
First of all, what a wonderful thing to think there’ll be another illustrator in the world, rather than, for example, another lawyer or banker. The trouble is, as my 88 year old landlord and dog co-owner says, one still has to put cornflakes on the table.
I had only done art GCSE and although in my dreams I wanted to work in illustration or design, I went down a more academic path first and couldn’t envisage how to make the change.
During my 20s, I did amateur art stuff: at university I helped design the end of year ball and did graphic design posters for the music society; after graduating I did a short course at Central St Martins in Children’s Book Illustration. This helped me create a very modest – but very insufficient really – portfolio which I eventually took for my Masters interview.
In the meantime, I spent six years working in London as an educational consultant and Russian translator before I decided to bite the bullet and quit and pursue the Masters in Children’s Book Illustration.
I feel these weren’t wasted years however, as the time enabled me to save up the money to do the course; also, coming to the course at 29 meant I had some life experience, maturity, and drive behind me (I knew only too well the reality of sitting in an office and being told what to do all day).
I also wrote and illustrated my own fairytale /short story during this period which I handed in for the portfolio. It might not have been any good, but I taught myself the basics of Photoshop and Illustrator in the process and it got me thinking about character development, style consistency and style of materials to properly reflect and complement the text; which is so so key.
Illustrating Virginia Woolf’s Flush too, which was my Masters project, had come from a very personal and difficult period for me; the result of illustrating it if I was aged 22 and hadn’t had those experiences would have been totally different – and I think probably not as successful.
The main thing you need to do if you want to be an illustrator is lots of observational drawing. It’s the core of any degree and the basis of the best illustrations. From what I gather, few fine art degrees will teach the observational drawing side now; illustration courses seem to cover this more. You should also take evening classes in life drawing (which I always need to do more of!) if you feel you’re not self disciplined enough. You just need to keep your hand in. Draw everything all around you all the time. Always carry a sketch book. Don’t try to emulate a style. You and your “style” will be the authentic and constant “handwriting” of your observational drawing. It will be your personal visual language, if that makes sense. Likewise, projects and stories will evolve out of the things you most love drawing. I adore my dog and Greece and I think it’s no surprise that the books I’ve illustrated are about those subjects! Love breeds success.
It’s a balance at the end of the day, but I feel that the imaginative stuff can come later, initially you need to just draw draw draw the world around you: treat it as a world of wonderful free visual information.
Doing the Masters degree full time was a baptism of fire and incredibly hard: learning to draw properly, thinking in a new way, not always feeling like I had enough teaching time, not knowing if I’d made the right choice, and also failing a module at the end of my first year; I came bottom of my year. However, investing all the time and money made me concentrate and gave me license to draw and just really put my head down. It was a whole journey and I think I had to hit rock bottom before I could improve and rise up. Nothing would have happened if I hadn’t committed and done the Masters. So I would say it’s worth investing in one.
It’s finally worth saying that it’s pretty hard work (for me at least!) even though I do consider myself quite an industrious person. So don’t be put off, but just be prepared and just sensibly set up another form of other income (like I do with translation work) to survive, and be incredibly tenacious!
Let me know if you have any specific questions and I’ll try to advise as best I can.
Alan Ogen’s new book, The Vagabond and The Princess, featuring Katyuli’s illustrated maps of Romania, is out now. In the book, Ogden tells the story of the romance between Patrick Leigh Fermor and the beautiful Romanian Princess Balaşa Cantacuzino.
The British Museum are currently stocking a selection of my greetings cards as part of their show Charmed Lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor. Do drop by and take a look at a wonderful other world of Greece in the 1950s and ’60s.