Tuesday 8 May 2018


The Art in Music 2018 exhibition was hung at Newbury Corn Exchange today, and this painting is part of that exhibition.

Based on a performance by Leo Popplewell of Britten's Cello Suites at last year's Newbury Festival, the painting required a lot of thinking about (about a year's worth!). I wanted it to reflect the music itself, and the energy and versatility of the playing. I had a small collection of ink sketches made from near the back of the auditorium, and a CD of the same piece played by another cellist (Mstislav Rostropovich).

I made a multipart wood panel from pieces of leftover floorboard, and sketched the figure and instrument directly onto the wood. I used the sketch to carve a light, partial relief into the wood before applying black and white gesso. I was on fairly safe ground with the main figure, which was based on a couple of my sketches. Adding the extra hands and trying to stop the cellist from looking like an octopus was a bit trickier, and this evolved as the painting progressed.  

The dribbly paint went on quite early on, partly to balance the figure and his instrument, but the subtleties of the background, and the all-important representation of the music, took a bit longer to coalesce in my mind and on the painting. I don't have synethesia, I don't "see" sound, and while it does affect how I feel, it isn't a feeling that I have any visual counterpart for. Logic was of limited use, and whimsy was - well, rather whimsical. At one point, I had waves of collaged sheet music wending their colourful way across the panel, but when I stepped back, I realised that it looked clumsy and out of place, so I removed most of it. Attempts to incorporate musical clef symbols also fell flat. Eventually, I went back to an idea that had come from a random association with the trivial fact that Britten wrote the music in the 1970s: the paisley pattern (named for the Scottish town, but based on a Persian design, the buta, or boteh, shape). Somehow, it seemed right - the right amount of order and complexity, perhaps - and all of a sudden I knew what to do with it. With Britten's cello suites playing in the background, I started work on the final phase ...

Then there was the matter of framing the picture. 

Solo, framed, but not quite finished...
I had some frame moulding with a profile that I thought suited the picture. It was rather shallow (intended for framing paper behind glass), so I knew I would need to extend it at the back by attaching stripwood (the edges of the tongue-and-groove floorboards aren't very pretty).

But there wasn't enough moulding left, and I had three days before the picture (then still in progress, but starting to come together) was due to be hung! That is, there wasn't enough good moulding left: it had been part of an eBay lot of rejects and remnants, and there were some damaged bits that I had already cut off. I ended up resurrecting the least bad bits, which I mitred together with the remaining good bit to make the bottom of the frame. You can see the joins where the light catches them. I managed to get it so that the longest dribbles of paint hit the lowest point of the damaged rebate (the "lip" that covers the edge of the picture), which I liked. It seemed appropriate to extend my dribbly paint over the frame after it was painted and fitted.

All in all, it was an eventful painting, and, I hope, a successful one. I think it captures something of the player's efforts and something of the elusive nature of the music.

I hope that, if you are attending a performance at Newbury Corn Exchange during this spring's festival, you will stop and look at this painting, and the rest of the works in the exhibition (which, at the time of writing, I have not seen), and I hope that you will enjoy the confluence of art in music.

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