Monday, 30 March 2020

A New World?

A New World? 

In 1995 a dear friend commissioned me to paint a large watercolour for his office and we agreed that Antonín Dvořák's final symphony "From the New World", composed in New York in 1893, would make an inspiring subject. The final painting (200 x 100 cm) does not reproduce well page-size, so I would like to share with you the initial study, that already has the same energy, colours and atmosphere. 
Study for the "New World" Symphony. Watercolour. 44 x 91 cm. 1995.

I let this powerful romantic music saturate me for weeks, as it conjured up the industrial pollution of the late nineteenth century, the early sky-scrapers and tangled network of new highways, generating brushstrokes that somehow equated with the rhythms and dynamics of the music.

But other parts of this work suggested wide-open spaces, unspoiled nature. So I imagined the Great Lakes, the prairies, the Rocky Mountains and far away (if you look closely) a few teepees. And with me there's usually an ever-changing horizon.

But what is so moving in this music, especially these days, is a deep longing, perhaps for something seemingly impossible. A longing then (as now) for freedom from injustice, from inequality, from disease. Dvořák's nostalgia for the folk songs of his own European culture became interwoven with the spirit of America's earliest music and its search for a new world. Perhaps music and visuals can move us to create a new world for today, because our world surely has to change. Many of us now in isolation unexpectedly have time. Time to think about how and what things might change.

Take a few moments now to listen to the Largo movement, played by a wonderfully multi-racial New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert. Start at 10.49 mins, when the English horn/cor anglais introduces that wistful melody that we all love:


Wednesday, 25 March 2020



I must walk, every day. The rhythm of walking is good for mind and body and these days I share a common need for the rhythms of Beethoven's 9th. Symphony, with Schiller's Ode to Joy (Freude). One step at a time, we find resolution, hope, joy and freedom from the Virus. 

The 1989 Berlin performance celebrating the demolition of The Wall, conducted by Leonard Bernstein ten months before he died, is terribly moving. He replaced the word Freude! with Freiheit! (Freedom). To watch that youthful massed choir, with their hope of a different world, singing their hearts out for this manifestly aged Maestro, is both inspirational and nostalgic. Has anything changed much since then? Click on this Link to hear just 1.27 minutes of the finale. Wow, you really can walk to this great music!

As I walk past the Amsterdam Hilton I pause before one of the many huge bronze casts of Rodin's The Thinker. Now perhaps one of his most popular works, in 1880 Rodin intended it to be part of a huge commission: The Gates of Hell, inspired by Dante's Inferno. "Abandon every hope, who enter here". This strong figure has been brooding intently for more than a hundred years, but as I gaze up at him a beam of sunlight strikes his head. I suddenly want to shout: Hey man, what are you thinking about? Wake up! Now it's time to act! I try to get through to him, as the sunlight shifts and he seems to be sliding off a precipice into the depths. Or is it just me? Hmm, much food for thought....

My encounter with The Thinker, bronze, height 186cm., 
1980 -1917. With apologies to the grand master Auguste Rodin for my miserable sketch. His oeuvre really is 

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Painting in self-isolation

Even if tomorrow the world was coming to an end, today I would still paint.... 

(with apologies to Martin Luther: "... today I would still plant an apple tree")

I'm still in good health but as a senior citizen this week I decided to self-isolate. Still, yesterday I couldn't resist cycling through the quiet park to my Amsterdam studio, where the act of painting could sooth my soul in this time of crisis.

I grabbed an old piece of paper and without any pre-conceived notion began to improvise with watercolour and make some free marks with oil-pastels. Then the famous quote from Martin Luther somehow came to mind: "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world was coming to an end, today I would still l plant an apple tree". Well, I would still make a painting. 

Intuitively, I played the beautiful album by violinist Daniel Hope Escape to Paradise, works by European composers who fled the Nazis, to discover the new world of Hollywood and opportunities to compose film music. Music that became known as "the Hollywood Sound", but actually originated in Europe. Here's the Link. That often haunting but lovely music helped me escape the anxiety for whatever consequences the rapidly spreading virus hold for me.
Improvisation, 16th March 2020, 40 x 50 cm.

I don't know exactly what this small improvisation represents, but it came from a gut-level feeling. I leave the rest to your imagination. I'm sure there will be more to come. Visuals and music are wonderfully therapeutic. Just what we need right now.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Portrait painting as a quest

Portrait painting as a quest

It was such a pleasure to portray my Mexican/Dutch daughter-in-law in watercolour and in so doing to share the joy of her expected baby. You will surely guess from her beaming expression that she wants us to know that something miraculous is going to happen. This mother-to-be is a warm colourful personality, sitting proud yet relaxing in the reds, gold and greens of her sunny culture. 

I've come to realise that painting a portrait is a timeless reflection on the origins and the prospects of your subject. Every choice of expression or colour, every brushstroke comments on and contributes to their personal history. That's quite a responsibility and a privilege. Each portrait is a quest. Where are you from? Who are you? Who do you want to be? There's no easy method, but somehow you have to zero in to something much deeper than a snapshot, much more than just a superficial "likeness". 

In my old age, I've become proudly aware of the multicultural ancestry of my grandchildren: British, American, Dutch, Mexican and very probably with Celtic origins. I wonder what my portraits will reveal to my great-grandchildren about themselves - and also about me.

As I thought lovingly of this little growing grandchild-to-be I intuitively painted the background freely with a large full brush and watched the puddles of watercolour slowly dry. Then to my amazement they turned into a little smiling face, sleeping happily just above mother's head. It was quite emotional. Thank you, my dear. What a privilege to meet you. 
Here's the link to some of my many Portraits. And the link to my portraits of great musicians in action.