I thought I saw you coming up the hill today
but I did not hear you.
It was the iron gate making music with the wind:
a full triad of notes and pheasants,
pheasants screeching and trying to fly,
strumming the tops of corn,
percussive beats of a long rope against the gibbet
and airs rushing up Gallows Down.
It was not you.
But I did see a score of swallows dancing,
the half-moon high at noon and clouds,
heavy clouds tumbling in the hollows,
autumn shading over Summer Hill
and the path we once took.
Anyway, what would you come?
You have seen and heard these things before.
for Orlando Jopling.
Dead-end skies clouded the Resurrection
laying in leaded lights.
Inside, candle lights:
the cellist raised his bow and scored the lines.
Cut through complacency,
plucked Barber’s vision
through Spanish streets
and Cornish seas.
Sound lapped stone,
sucked Bach’s suites from aged wood,
pushed and pulled Monsieur’s tears
as the air beat desperately.
This was your pilgrimage,
and our redemption.
Drawing of painting: Untitled Portrait, 1941, by John Craxton (Pallant House Gallery)
John Craxton cites EQ Nicholson as a primary influence on him becoming an artist. Indeed Ian Collins’ fine monograph on Craxton quotes him calling E.Q an “instinctive transformer”. Elsie Queen, known as ‘EQ’, was a designer and painter (briefly studying at The Slade), married Ben Nicholson’s brother, Kit, and lived during WWII at the Mill House in Alderholt, Hampshire. Kit, an architect, designed a Modernist studio for Augustus John at nearby Fryern Court, Fordingbridge. EQ’s paintings are less known than her textile and interior design, and remain largely unseen although she did have a London exhibition at Hanover Gallery in 1950 with Keith Vaughan and Peter Rose Pulham. With Lucian Freud, Craxton visited the Mill House many times and E.Q became his closest female friend, writing her lively illustrated letters when he was not there. Craxton and E.Q spent time together painting when she inspired and encouraged him. At the current Pallant House exhibition, “The Nicholsons and their Circle”, which also includes work by Lucian Freud, William, Ben, Kit and Winifred Nicholson, it is good to have a rare glimpse of E.Q’s strong, well designed work alongside formative early work by Craxton. Images of shared subjects such as the stream beside the Mill House are touching in that they point to the intimacy and energy exchange of painting together. Yet most of the time one works alone, and I chose to draw a seemingly atypical Craxton painting of a self-absorbed man, perhaps an apt description of the painter himself, and a subject which relates to Craxton’s other pictures of lone poets. The exhibition is formed of paintings collected by EQ while at the Mill House and is on long term loan to the gallery. Hopefully the EQs and Craxtons will remain on show after the temporary exhibition comes down and descends into storage.
There is a house I walk passed sometimes which I know very well. I should not know it but I do. I pass it because it is the better route, or at other times when I do not need to but want to see it, want to see into it and fill in the rooms I see only half walls of. I see the wardrobe upstairs which I know is made of cedar; the broken pane through the round window through the square window in the panel of the front door. The blinds I have pulled up and pulled down. And I see myself painting there: painting the allotments, yellow fields and swallowing wood beyond, the butterflies chasing each other over the roses as though their white petals had taken flight, my palette chasing the colour of ripening fruits, and allotmenteers their tasks. I see myself drawing the rooms: the hats on the high shelf, the crab in its last breaths brought down on the train, the spaces where light shapes make travelling pictures on the walls. The key is still up inside, on the edge.
Once the sensation of an experience is gone, what is left? Stillness, place, a place with its references which might hold some personal symbolic pertinence unseen by others. Draw the place, the space, the references and memory starts to become established. It tries to find more resolution in paint then left, in part, as an object of memory.
“A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations”. This quote (paraphrased by W. H. Auden as the more commonly known “a poem is never finished, only abandoned”) is from Paul Valéry and is as apposite for painting as poetry. Painting is a conversation between painter and painting: you inform it and in return, it tells you what to do next. When I ‘complete’ a painting – when it will not let me add any more to it, there is a peculiar sense of sadness by the ending of that particular painting conversation. A strange feeling of loss. What is the nature of that loss? It might be one of disengaging with the memory of the thing now established in paint; a loss of the wrought coloured surface and return to flat empty space.
In drawing and painting, one often talks about searching: a search for essential form, for pictorial relationships, for equivalents, for inner mystery and strangeness beyond the appearance of things. But to speak of a search could imply that one has lost something. Drawing might be a way of protecting oneself against loss: that in the search for the look of a place or a thing which might be a symbol or an equivalent for something or someone, one doesn’t have to lose the thing found, the experience harnessed. In that spontaneous, intimate response memory is most truthfully established. Something is held in the drawn account of it which can then be translated into paint to heighten the emotion with colour and generate a greater sense of permanence.
From the tenuous infrastructure of the memory, and the infrastructure of the drawing, passed sensation is consolidated in paint and made constant by it. The memories collated in a single vision are relived, distilled and even attacked by or transcended by the painting experience. The painting might even replace the memory – the memory could become the painting of the memory.