Talk: “Here Comes Everybody”, given for ACE: Artists’ Residencies in Churches and Cathedrals, June 2017
In 2015 I submitted a proposal to the Arts Committee at St. Paul’s to work from life in the cathedral. I wanted to make paintings of some of the thousands of people that come through its doors every day and to exhibit them there in one of the transepts. My proposal grew out of my usual subject matter: wandering, travelling figures, people looking for something, whether in desert landscapes and frozen forests or in shopping malls, supermarkets and tourist attractions. I tend to paint questing, sometimes isolated figures trudging through what John Bunyan calls “the wilderness of this world”. And the St Paul’s figures were certainly trudging and possibly questing.
My St Paul’s proposal also fitted in with one of my favourite ways of working since I frequently take a plastic stool, pencils, watercolours, a bottle of water and work from life sitting on the street. I have done this in Morocco, London, Liverpool, on a residency in the Midi – in all sorts of places. I’ve painted hen nights in the clubbing district of Liverpool, elderly shoppers in Poplar supermarkets and in street markets near Montpellier, figures in Fez and Marrakech and Berber women working in villages up in the Atlas Mountains.
Given the paints and bottle of water and the danger of making a mess on the black and white cathedral floor I was surprised when the St Paul’s committee said yes but was pleased when they did even though it was quite a stressful fortnight, not upsetting the water, working at speed, being watched as I painted. It was like doing a performance at times. Then I had to keep telling people the way to the cafe, the whispering gallery, the toilet and the statue of John Donne. But I quite enjoyed meeting passers-by, having a chat even if it was just to tell them that yes I was allowed to paint in there and no they were not allowed to do so. And I quite liked doing give away portraits, although this did get a bit much when seven girls wanted me to do a group one. And Dave, the security guard who I met every morning in the basement, wanted a portrait of his girlfriend, one of the deacons. He was pleased with it but she wasn’t.
I used to get in early when the cathedral was almost empty and work till about 3 or 4 pm when it was ultra busy. Then I would deliver my new batch of about 50 works to the chapter house and each morning Simon Carter or Donna McDowell, who organised my residency, would put a new selection in the large vitrine in the south transept. The vitrine was constantly refreshed as if in response to the endless surge of people coming to St. Paul’s. As more came in, more pictures flowed into the vitrine. And so on and so on. I called my exhibition “Here Comes Everybody”, a quote from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (which could actually describe Joyce’s teeming novel which includes all kinds of people from different stages in history) to suggest the endless variety of people drawn to St Paul’s. It was indeed overwhelming to have to try to paint such a profusion of figures going past and I frequently felt utterly incapable of getting anything down except a few marks or lines or what Brian Sewell called “wretched daubs”.
Sometimes, to make life easier, I focused on a solitary person. This is Mavis, the main cleaner. I did several pictures of her as she was the only person in the cathedral when I got there at an early hour. She told me not to paint her standing still or her boss might see it and accuse her of not working. Mind you she never was standing still. Here she is sweeping between the pews against the vertical lines suggesting the tall space. As in most of the pictures, I drew the architecture quite briefly, partly because I didn’t have time for more, partly because I like things to be decisive, clear, economical, reduced to essentials and also, importantly, to leave empty space around the figure. This next one is an example of this emptiness. I did quite a few pictures of the clergy – not surprisingly – their vestments made them very paintable. And here once more I wanted to contrast the figure with the large space around it. The priest looking out from behind a pillar faces an expanse of white paper, and to me the emptiness means something, it’s as if he is facing the unknown and unknowable. That is his job as a priest – to face it. This was something I started thinking about in Morocco when I drew religious figures, people dressed in Islamic garments of burkha and jellaba, against the empty white paper. It was as if they were people of faith yet seen against this apophatic background of mystery and the unknown.
This is a nun, looking up, which is a characteristic pose of people in St Paul’s. And here is one of a series on very long sheets of paper (available at Atlantis Art Supplies, £5.99) to emphasise the tall space and the dwarfed figure. These are tourists sitting in meditation or exhaustion or boredom. I have to admit that in my scenes of leisure – on beaches, in shopping malls or dining rooms – people are not always filled with the look-at-me holiday happiness you find on Facebook and Instagram. They may be slumped, fed up, pensive, like that seated woman.
This selection is of people looking around, often with a relationship of some sort between figure and artefact. St Paul’s has these last two in its art collection. They chose this one of a man looking at the angel in the north aisle and this one of a woman in front of the lion on Nelson’s Monument in the south transept. Actually, someone pointed out that the man looks like an angel himself, his backpack like wings.
Then I did a series of couples, again contrasted with huge spaces and, of course, I tried to paint some of the long processions of international tourists. The groups and coach parties suddenly surged up the nave and I tried to capture something of the individuality of each person, but it was very hard, impossible actually. My brushes were working overtime and of course, I upset the water. The results are sometimes slightly unfinished, for example this figure without legs, but I quite like that quality of incompleteness as the figures seem more fragile as a result. In fact, I found that when I started doing my rapid street drawings back in 1999 the necessary abbreviations resulted in expressive distortions to the figure, they made it look more frail or predatory or damaged. And the ones here at St Paul’s continue this, they too appear vulnerable or poignant, shuffling along, tottering forward, leaning in expectation. I found them touching in their pilgrim hope as they processed towards the choir and the east end of the cathedral.
And I did see the figures as pilgrims in a way, not just in the sense of consciously going to a sacred space to look for religious inspiration or guidance. I mean something more like the way in which Chaucer’s travellers in The Canterbury Tales are pilgrims, going on a journey to a religious building without any religious commitment. Chaucer brings together all sorts, “sondry folke”, on the journey to the shrine of St.Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. But they are going on the pilgrimage for many different motives, none of them, with the exception of the Parson, religious. The Wife of Bath or the Miller or the Merchant or the Reeve couldn’t care less about a holy purpose behind the trip. And yet in the view of the poem they are guided despite themselves and encompassed without their knowing it by a greater power. The Parson in his prologue compares the pilgrimage to the journey through life to the celestial city. And it seems that the journey to Canterbury is not only Chaucer’s unifying device in terms of narrative and poetry, bringing everyone together, but it’s also a way of expressing the idea of something holding everything together in a religious sense, the idea of a creator above the messy, flawed, tumultuous variety of creatures. It’s a bit like the Hindu festival at the end of E M Forster’s novel, A Passage to India, when all things—all creatures, all mess, all life are caught up in a sense of unity in Brahma: the creator God of Hinduism.
And so I saw people in all their endless profusion and difference (and also religious indifference) contained not only by the enormous building but by what it represents. Human diversity is enfolded not just by the structure of Wren’s architecture (or Chaucer’s narrative) but by the one creator God. It is the theological idea of the one behind the many, the idea of eternity against the moving frieze of figures. It was as if the circle which is so important at St Paul’s with its iconic dome, represents this unifying, timeless, inclusive absolute in contrast to the endless abundance of figures moving along in time.
And I’d just like to end by saying something more specific about time and about time and light. Light is a focus for my work, strong light blitzing figures seen against the light, neon light shining in the darkness, dark skies contrasted with illuminated sand and, especially, figures casting shadows in glaring sunlight. Since working in hot Morocco the shadow has become more and more important to me as a way of representing the figure in time. I remember sitting in the same spot by a mosque in Fez and watching the angle of the sunlight change and with it the shadows cast by the moving figures. And this occurred to me again when looking at people in St Paul’s. The residency was in the summer, in July, and the strong light coming through the clear glass of the building meant that the figures were accompanied by shadows. Here’s the nun again and here’s Mavis. Sitting there hour after hour as Great Tom chimed, watching the light change and the shadows appear under figures, made me think of the Canterbury Tales again and the shadows lengthening at the end, slightly ominously, just before the Parson’s Tale. It made me think of our being in time especially in a building which represents something outside time. I thought about the earth going round and the direction of sunlight affecting the shadows of figures in relation to the idea, represented by the circular dome, of something static and timeless.
So I suppose, to sum up, the main idea behind these little works was the contrast between the small and finite figure and something huge, St Paul’s, and the something more than huge that St Paul’s represents: something infinite, unknown, boundless. It sounds like a grotesquely big idea to attach to tiny little 15x20cm watercolours, but it’s the way I was thinking as I did them. And in a way that’s the point, something tiny and insignificant against its opposite.