Saturday, 27 November 2010

get back

Going to a heritage visitor attraction in the UK is visiting a museum, no matter what the owners and managers might say about living history. There is no real connection between the presented heritage of the past and the evolving heritage of the present. They are separate worlds.
At first glance this seems also to be the case in China but it doesn't take long to realise that there's a connection here which is lacking in the West. Although every town and city appears to have its own version of Chinatown, as if it were San Francisco or Soho, it soon becomes clear that the front melds seamlessly into the back. Once more, the old rubs shoulders with the new. 

In Zhu Jiajiao cranes tower behind preserved roofscapes while an old man playing an Erhu on a stone bridge sits on a soft laptop-case as a cushion.

On the narrow streets beside the canals, thronged by Chinese tourists, live chickens change hands for the daily meal.

This is one of the many places where the damage created by the Cultural Revolution is being repaired in front of our eyes. But the living heritage is somewhat different. The New China is rising in front of you everywhere, several revolutions happening simultaneously on every side, but predominantly the industrial one with its insatiable demand for more and better communications.

I've rarely seen a better example of form following function to create beauty than the soaring highway interchanges. They can be sen better in a video taken from the new bullet train, which I'll post later in edited form. Of course, many of these skyways have been created at the expense of the destruction of old agricultural villages. Inhabitants are moved to new high rises built nearby. Is their life improved or just changed? Too many told me that it was improved to credit the idea that this is just propaganda.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Shanghai 3

There's a very clear awareness of heritage but a refreshing control on potential excesses of its showing. The Merchant's House is remarkable; but it would only take one or two more to make a bof blasé. The attention to detail becomes the norm very quickly. It's exhilarating finding that the fractals of detail go all the way down to invisible.

And then I start to notice the tones. They have this familiarity to them. I think I know what it is. I take a shot to see if it will translate.

It does.

These are the processes.

I notice that the dark to light contrasts alternate down the view. It looks designed and the design looks familiar, but not in this form. It also looks as if the haze might be being taken into account in this design, as if it's being used to to put a perspective-enhancing grad onto the perceived image.  How would it look in the tone country of Black & White?

The detail of the foreground leaps out, while the background still retains powerful shape even in its reduced contrast.

In the eye-brain complex, one of the foremost tools is edge detection.  There are identifiable sectors of the brain which perform this vital function. In the hyper-fast computation that gives us the the illusion of seeing, edges are primary structure.

Photoshop, being rooted in the wet darkroom and the seeing eye, has an edge detection filter. Within the limitations of doing only that, it helps to show what an extraordinary skill good draughtsmanship is.

And the edges have it. The pattern that now emerges so clearly is an evenly processed derivative of a photograph. No tuning is necessary. When a blue filter is applied, a creditable facsimile of Willow Pattern types appears. The plates are not an idealised fantasy but a clear and accurate representation of an amazing construct, designed precisely for this circular appreciation.

More on environment and medium later...

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Shanghai 2: not to scale

Scale is the consistently disconcerting element in China. In Shanghai, it's the scale of the buildings, their size, their height. It becomes hard to read when they're massed together. It's said that there are more true skyscrapers (whatever they are) in Shanghai than in the whole of America. Century Avenue is currently the home of the big boys.

How big? Numbers won't do it. This series of images may go some way to illustrate the enormity. They are taken from the 83rd floor of what is currently the tallest on the block.

Finally, an artist's impression of the new tower which will become the Big Daddy in a couple of years.

Question: did the artist see himself in a helicopter or in an as-yet unplanned trumping tower?

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Warning: this present is from the past.

I couldn't blog from China. Google and the authorities are having a spat. Google is being pompous with grown-up words like human rights which it doesn't quite understand, China has just turned its back on a petulant child.

This means that anything I write about China is not from there, just about there. I'm here now, just in case you thought I was there, and then feel affronted when you discover I'm not. Some things may appear to happen before other things when they didn't and vice versa.

I do hope that clears things up.

Shanghai 1. Rubbing Shoulders

As a child, the Time/Life Science books entranced me. They were picture books with a decent number of words, covering almost every subject under the sun, and some beyond it. My favourite pages had captions which ended "...where the old rubs shoulders with the new." There always seemed to be endless depths of story in those pictures.

China is a country where the old rubs shoulders with the new so often that those shoulders are bruised black.

Shanghai's perma-haze, referred to on the day of one's arrival as a sea fog that's blown in, but ever after accepted as smog, gives the immensely high buildings the quality of Dan Dare drawings. Mythologies are developing about the structures. Taken from within a completely preserved affluent merchants house, we see the affluent financiers building at 100 Century Avenue, which houses the highest hotel lobby in the world on the 87th floor and is currently the tallest building in Shanghai. Allegedly, it was built by Japanese developers whose original plan sneaked through with a circular hole at the top. The Authorities realised this would mean the Japanese rising sun appearing over Shanghai every day. The circle became a square.

The building next to it was the tallest until two years ago. Forming an equilateral triangle with these two, a third building will trump them both within the next two years. It is already an impressive structure. More on these buildings and their place in Pudong later.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010


As-shot is rare for me. So often, I think of everything from the camera through to the printer as I'm pressing the shutter. The processing after the shot has been taken is still a part of the process of taking the shot.

I photograph Yellow Flag Iris leaves because they seem to collect and re-emit the light like no other leaf I know. Usually, it's a summer pursuit, but when the light comes out from a browning leaf, it's another brilliant performance.

This is as-shot.


Check out a Horizon prog called Is Seeing Believing? on BBC iPlayer.

It's really about what used to be called cognitive sciences; that phrase must have gone out of fashion because it didn't come up once in the show. It does cover, in flimsy form, some of the ground opened up in Palmer's Vision Science. As ever on TV, it tries to do too much in too little time and so leaves everything it touches only half-covered, and allows the participants too much credibility. The german prof who keeps talking about "a new sense" is, of course, just a nuisance: her so-called new sense is in reality a re-trained old sense, touch. But the show introduces a fascinating subject. I hope there's more to come.


The Sunday Times showed the winning entrants to its landscape competition this week, which will eventually materialize in the National Theatre.

There are some beautiful pictures, but there is also a worrying trend. It would seem that there are now landscape photographers who have got it into their heads that they have to use HDR for everything.

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. An unavoidable fact about photographs in any root form is that they cannot encompass the same range of light as the eye/brain complex. RAW files can get close to it, but they're not photographs. So various techniques have evolved which allow for the extraction of information from a higher range than is technically possible. In simple terms, this usually involves taking two or more versions of the same image shot with different exposures and stitching them together.

If used subtly this technique enhances an image without being visible.

For some reason, the subtle approach seems to be out of favour. Instead, photographers are taking wonderful landscape images, and then perverting their look so as to make them appear exactly like computer generated images, as in the best of the console games.

It's a strange direction. The Sunday Times seems to like it. This has the bizarre result of making the winners of a prestige landscape photography competition look like the muddled ramblings of a teenage render-jockey.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

some awe

The Scottish trip ended in England, or in border territories at least. Getting from Oban to Naworth, near Carlisle, was another journey of visual excess. By then, I was on a deadline, so couldn't stop much. It would otherwise have taken me several days. But Loch Awe demanded its name in attention. Ruins and bridges have special attractions in their look. Perhaps they fulfil similar functions, one in time, the other in place. In the right setting, there is a romance in both which allows man an un-arrogant place.

When an obviously-large structure looks small in its setting, we stop and look harder. If what we see says that nature's bigger than man, we nod wisely, and move on. Perhaps that's why I like pylons: standing next to one, it feels huge, dominant; but looking at its neighbour, and then the neighbour's neighbour, and so on, it becomes charmingly insignificant.  

On Loch Awe, every man-made structure looks charmingly insignificant. 

The bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond are as described. I was driving along one of those banks, and thinking that there should be something like a pit-stop, a place which had parking spots pointed at the view from a side road, so that the casual tourist could stop at whim and take in the view.

I pulled into a lay-by (of which there is an admirable culture in Scotland) and found precisely the thing I had been imagining. No fanfare, no explanation, but a viewing system designed for the car user and the view. Bulging blackberries nourished my self-indulgent picture making.  I was trying to take at least five different pictures in the time I was there. The result was that none of them were particularly good, even the three-stripes that I'd been making for the whole week.

An irritating question poked its head up, yet again. Why do I find all this so beautiful? If there's an answer to such a foolish question, it often seems to be about scale. The water and the sky conspire to make the mountains looks small, and suddenly a drama is happening. The element of drama that is lost in most still pictures is the movement, both of the clouds and the water, and even the trees in between. All those movements are slightly different. The great landscape artist - painter, photographer, writer, or composer - can capture that difference in movement and freeze it into a still but vibrant description. I'm still searching for that.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

time passes...sometimes

...and we're now at 13th October, despite having returned from the north on the 1st.

Apparently, there has been a temperature inversion in Scotland. I don't see this as surprising. That's what happens at this time of year. That's why we go looking for pictures now.

If you feel a sense of deja vu, that's because you've seen it before and not just here.

That layer, with its effortless division between earth and sky, is where we live. It can be confusing fog or fascinating mist, depending on who we're with, where we are, and what we want.

We find it beautiful, whichever it is, because it's where we are, blundering about in the fog between heaven and hell, and when the temperature inverts we can see what it looks like: cool, but fuzzy.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Emerging Sculpture (2)

Not more than a few yards from the concrete stumps,  a robust hunk of rusting iron and steel lies on its side. It looks as if it was built to grade potatoes; when its intended use was no longer a requirement, it would appear that some bright spark tried to grade the pebbles from the beach...

So we have, already: the simple strength of the look-out, the mysterious stumps, and the solid but decaying form of the rusting potato grader - all of them, when contrasted with the landscape around them, indicating the feebleness of man's efforts when compared to nature's. Or something.

But just over by the seashore, there are these structures perched on the rocks..

 Some one, the some one mentioned at the beginning of the previous entry, has realised that there is already a sculpture park here, that he (or she) has something to contribute, and that they're damned if they're not going to do so. And contribute they do, to such an extent that copycats have appeared.

The structure of these artefacts (in the Master's hands, at any rate) is based on the original structure of these plates, these slates, these tiles: the rocks on which they sit.

The largest of them dominates, and it's a few minutes before one notices just how many there are. Perhaps, when I return, they will all be gone. Or perhaps the beach will be covered in them. And that can only add to their beauty. Thank you to whoever made them.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

look out for emerging sculpture

Someone on Colonsay has had a good idea and is carrying it out in a most engaging way.

On top of a hill right on the shore stands an old coastguard's look-out hut. (That's what I assume it to be. If it isn't, then some of what follows is rubbish. Some isn't.) It's built in rendered brick and concrete. In England, anywhere, it would smell of urine. Here, it doesn't. Obviously, it's a great spot to look out from.  From many angles, the roof appears to come off the curve of the hill at a satisfying tangent.

The coastguards' huts around Filey and Scarborough and Bridlington and Whitby,  towns where I spent all my childhood summer holidays, were a sombre reminder of the serious power of the sea. They were guard emplacements. So it may be that I automatically elevate the significance of any image containing a coastguard's look-out. If so, welcome to my world.

It's not stretching meaning to call this sculptural. The geometrics of the form are pretty pure and the tones sit well against the landscape. It looks good.

If this were all, I'd leave it at that but it's not. Down at the bottom of the hill,  eight rusting stumps stick out of concrete footings whose colours are now indistinguishable from the stones around; they are both clad in the same mosses and lichens and other crusty stuffs. What are they?

blind camping

One of the many things that makes visiting slightly remote places such a pleasure is the scarcity of people. Places are often empty, unsullied by garish mankind in his day-glo trecking wear. Scotland's access laws are more liberal than England's and one visible sign of this is the wild camping law, which specifically gives the right to camp anywhere, roughly.

With rights come responsibilities. The Scottish law has guidelines attached to it on this subject, aimed at minimum impact. These guidelines need to be more strictly enforced, if it is possible to enforce a guideline.

In places other than Colonsay, this beach would have been developed: as more people arrived to admire its curve, its colour, its balance, others would materialize to sell ice creams, meals, beds. Because more people don't arrive, the salesmen stay away and there is no place for developers. But the campers do come and they seem to be blind to a simple fact: if you set your tent up so that opening the flap reveals a fabulous view, your tent is starkly visible from within that view.

Tents used to be one of three colours: khaki, green, or off-white. Serious campers used to favour the khaki or the green, providing as they did a certain cohesion with the countryside around. Nowadays, the brighter the better is their watchword for clothes and tents.

Not 5 metres away when I took this was a garish yellow and green tent, visible from the entire expanse of the beach. The longer I was on the beach, the more I was aware of that tent.

The polluting campers returned on their bicycles. As I left, I was tempted to inflict a similar wound on their bicycles to the one they were inflicting on the bay, but I didn't have a portable crusher with me.

Saturday, 2 October 2010


Travelling as the sole driver leaves little time for blogging. I'm now very behind, several days behind.  Let's pretend time has got in a muddle, and will happen soon as it happened a couple of days ago.

I am ashamed at how long it is since I did that drive. I've seen some of the most beautiful landscapes that exist on this planet, they're an easy drive from my front door and I have ignored them. They move from the rococo to the minimalist with all stops between. I hope I'll have a few images worth showing at the end. If not, the real thing isn't going to go away and I'm going back.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

No ravens

The tree was empty of birds and guarded by a solitary sheep.

This guardian behaviour seems to be a characteristic of sheep on the island. They will stop and stare in what is a most un-sheep-like manner, holding that stare for a disconcertingly long time. It would be easy to spend several days here just taking portraits of sheep - but that would be true of all the islands. If there is one without sheep, I'd love to see it; the difference in vegetation would set it right apart.

At low tide Colonsay is attached to Oronsay by a strip of sand, a strand. As we waited for the water to recede yesterday, a stock wagon pulled up. According to the newest book on these two islands, the quality of the sheep from this little dot in the ocean is such that the farmer does not need to take the beasts to market. Here was proof.

Looking back towards Colonsay from Oronsay shows what a calm topography the larger island has.

So many of the other islands seem almost hysterical in their topography. Given the calmness of the people here, I wonder if the inhabitants of those other islands also reflect the topography in their character.

Next: gardening on the edge.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Meeting Colonsay

William was as good as his word, waiting outside the gallery as the ferry pulled in. It took ten minutes to cover the distance from there to the farm where a familiar cooking smell hung in the air. There are sheep everywhere, as there were over on the East side; as on the East side, lamb is the meat of choice. See more sheep, eat more lamb. It's as it should be.

We spent the evening jumping from one mutual acquaintance to another in our news stories. William, of course, had a Chatsworth story to go with the catalogue I showed him. Using a scattergun approach, he slowly brought me up to speed on the setup here on the island. He and Katie have moved here permanently from softer southern climes. She seems to be in charge of the island at this moment, as her brother is in Russia for a few weeks. This keeps her away from the farm for most of the day.

They are fond of Marmite. William would like to make something of it.

The following morning I was given the conducted tour. It's easy to drive a circuit around the island; each time I do it, another detail springs out and beckons me. After my host had gone off to continue his day's work, I set off once more on the circuit, but stopping this time with the camera. First stop was the beautiful beach, curving around from rocks to rocks, a crescent in between. It's a good place to limber up with standard, camera-club shots - rocks in the foreground, receding beach, water playing over seaweed, fractal erosion - all good for getting the eye going.

I took a wrong turn off th beach and ended up on Walter's property. His sign was fierce but he was not, insisting that I look at his fifty-year-old Massey Ferguson, and guess its value. He duly astonished me with the price, and led me on to more ancient machinery, to which he gave arcane names. He was pulled up short when we were looking at a particularly obscure lump of metal.

"And what's the potato picker worth?" I asked. He looked at me, startled. "I had you down as a Londoner." From then on, we were laughing and he was happy to pose.

A beach and a golf course later, it was time for lunch in the hotel. Everyone there knows William, and he knows all of them, something that delivers a warmth the woodburner can't give.

After lunch, on a whim, I climbed a big hill with a triangulation point. Top o' the world. I didn't want to come down, but echoes from years worth of warnings kept sounding in my head; eventually, I trudged back through the heather and the bracken but not before making a couple of 360 degree passes in order to attempt a full panorama of the island later.

Tomorrow (which is really today) I'm going back to a little wind-blown tree which appears to be a raven refuge. If it works, it'll be here.

Once I'm back in sync, there will be more images.


Crossing to Colonsay takes the passenger into the light. All around the boat Phaeton's crash sites flash on the waves, with great beams of light and dark, sometimes parallel, sometimes spreading. Three layers or so of thin cloud make for that drama. Many frames shot, but here's just one for now. It's never as easy as it looks to capture these sort of atmospherics.

The crossing lasts over two hours, but the time flashes past as I keep moving from one side of the deck to the other, always seeing some new configuration of light, clouds, sea, and islands. In the middle of all this, the ferry captain decides to have emergency procedure rehearsal. The crew look as lackadaisical as anyone involved in a fire drill, the world over. The "passenger" is dumped on the top deck, is still there for all I know.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010


A good opportunity for depth presented itself as I stood high up in the ferry. Stuff is receding both upwards and backwards. I wonder about giving it a sky...


Setting off from Teanocoil yesterday, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to wonder whether the luck with the light had run out. It was grey. Just after I’d pulled onto the first section of winding road, the phone rang. It was William, giving me an errand to run in Oban before catching the ferry. It felt like two pieces of a jigsaw slotting together, the foot slipping perfectly into the boot. As the conversation ended, a patch of grey parted for a moment to reveal the blue lining, then it was closed once more.

Driving and photographing at the same time tends to be a bad thing. I had planned to stop whenever the inclination took me, and take me it did. It's hard to drive down the bank of Loch Ness without stopping at least once, as the endless food wrappers in the lay-bys  will attest to. The atmospherics were putting on a low-key show, with wisps of cloud drifting along below the tops the hills. 

I jumped out to shoot this because that wisp of cloud conveniently passes between the hill and the isthmus, creating a sense of depth in what would otherwise be a flat image. I never really know until the paper comes out of the printer whether a shot is finally going to print. The combination of subject and image contrast here augur well.

Driving down the Caledonian Canal is driving through theme-park Scotland: lochs, mountains, heather, clouds, pines (mostly non-native and in military rows) and endless little tourist operations, more guest houses than tea rooms, and more tea rooms than garages. Always fill up at any opportunity on this road. The gaps between fuel posts are enormous.  So are the atmospherics.

Looking at Ben Nevis seems a suitable place to be able to play at being Constable, with his cause and effect  light over landscape. This is a very special vantage point but it's called after itself, the Commando Memorial. It doesn't mention that it's hosting one of the very best views in the world.  More on this at another time.

Sunday, 26 September 2010


We got up at 4.30 this morning, breakfasted frugally, and set off for the loch. As soon as we'd stepped outside the White House, we knew there was a chance of finding what we'd come here for. The stars shone brightly beside the recently-full moon and there was the satisfying crunch of a light frost in the grass. 

There had been time the previous evening to get out on the loch for half an hour or so before sunset. We'd rowed as far as the lodge (which I'd last visited when Jonny and Alice were married more than two decades ago, when they had left in a rowing boat with piper standing in the stern) and then drifted back to the jetty through the sunset, Jonny occasionally flicking out a line with the casual aplomb of a lifelong fishionado.

There were no midges. There were no fish interested in the fly. There were no other people. Anywhere. In the entire glen. The silence as we allowed the clinker-built dinghy to drift was drinkable, like the water from the loch. By the time we returned to the White House, we knew that what had seemed as if it might, possibly, be a goodish wheeze, was showing all the signs of turning into a wizard wheeze.  Supper was taken, whisky was drunk, and the sleeping bag delivered sleep almost before the zip was pulled.

So there we were this morning, sizing up the chances of success. The conditions seemed right but, so far, there was no sign of what we were looking for. Unusually for this part of the world, our quarry was not a living thing, in that it neither flew, ran, or swam. We were looking for a combination of elements, the first two of which, clear skies and a frost, were present. 

Crossing the loch was smooth and quick. Soon we were climbing the hill on the other side. It seemed a little bigger than it had looked from the water. Jonny strode on. I followed, looking over my shoulder every few minutes.

The eastern horizon was just starting to glow, when we turned a corner and saw what we'd hoped for. The distant water, when we'd last seen it , had been glassy, smooth, a clean straight line. Now, it had grown an undulating white fur. 

A mist had come up, ground hugging cloud, if you will. It was the third element.

From this moment onwards, photographing at dawn becomes frantic. The light and the visibility are changing radically every minute. You need to keep looking in every direction , checking the west while you're clicking at the east. 

I won't really know whether the shots have worked until I try to print them. What is for sure is that the expedition worked. We had decided not to attempt the highest hilltop, but it had been a close-run decision. Had we done so we would have been disappointed as it was shrouded in its own little cloud for the whole morning. 

It was all too beautiful. Snipe shot up, shouting, from under our feet. Stags could  be heard from every direction. Jupiter (perhaps) shone steadily in the west. The moon continued to hold her own against the rampaging sun. And still we had the glen to ourselves. Not until we were nearly down the hill did we hear the almost shocking sound of a car engine. It was the only thing we heard until after we'd packed up and left, apart from our own oft-repeated "Aye" of appreciation.

Saturday, 25 September 2010


As I sit here in the Spoons' kitchen, family members pass in and out of the room. Iona is offering her mother some help with her quiche, saying she has pastry ready. (She once did a one month cookery course, but says that all she learnt there was how to follow a recipe, and how to slice carrots 17 different ways. She now cooks regularly for the fishing lodges in the area.) Euan, having been out on the hill for a stag at dawn, is now out with a ferret and his friend's grandfather. Rowena, having been pulling pints until three this morning , is not yet back; she stayed with her grandmother last night. Jonny has just disappeared around the corner, sitting on the back of a quad bike and trailer driven by his youngest boy. I still haven't go all their names learned, but that leaves two unaccounted for.

Jonny and I were up on a small hill hoping for morning mists at 6.30 a.m. We didn't get them, but the clouds hugged the hilltops in a friendly way. As we returned, Angus hove into sight, striding across the field to see who was about at this early hour. Behind him, his sheepdog was passing the time driving the sheep around the field. Angus's hand shake was surprising. I hadn't looked closely at the outstretched digits, so when it closed around my puny hand, it felt like an entire tanned hide was wrapping itself around.  He put the dog through its paces; as it was still really a puppy, the performance was impressive.

Since I started writing, Archie has come in and started to play a version of backgammon called AC/DC with his father. Both claim to be the best at it. Rowena has returned and is sitting on the sofa with the half-blind kitten.

It's like a cross between Swallows and Amazons and Little House on the Prairie here, the kind of life that, when described as an ideal, is usually rejected as being just a fantasy that never existed. Tonight, we set out on the big expedition, up to Affric, just Jonny and I. Preparations are being assisted by the entire family. If this is fantasy, count me in. I don't want to return to reality.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Llama karma

Heading across the country from north Yorkshire to Penrith, it becomes hard to understand why anyone in search of beauty needs to leave these shores. The sky opens up above, no matter that it is filled with clouds; somehow, there are more greys on view than seems possible. The ground rises and falls in increasingly magnificent fashion. Its character is defined not by man-made boundaries such as patch work fields and hedges, for, although those are present, the dominant feature becomes the shape of the land, here climbing and soaring, there rolling and generous.

Vanbrugh's words echo at every turn: "the tame, sneaking South of England". This landscape that I now look out on was what he was comparing it to, as he wrote to his northern patrons, bemoaning his enforced sojourn in deepest southern Britain. I'm sitting in the Llama Karma Kafe. In the environs of Hastings, that name would send me spinning on without stopping, aware that a moniker of that sort has to denote a worthy but pointless alternative to the traditional greasy spoon.

Here in the north it's just a gimmicky name for a first class cafe. The best bacon and eggs, good coffee and friendly,smiling staff.

I already feel as if a mild adventure has begun. This is a different world to that of the racing south. Even in this little roadside cafe, there is a sense of people connected to each other, a sense that's hard to find south of watford.


Tomorrow morning I set off on a short northern trip, a tour even.  It's going to be eight hours, even from here in Yorkshire. I drove here yesterday, and that took four hours.

It seems like I'm already getting into the kind of mindless numbers games that start to sprout inside my head on long drives.

Picture hunting. Inverness. Colinsay. Carlisle. Finish off by taking a diversion to the viewing day for Chatsworth's attic sale before getting home in time to see Bee. 

In between, I'll be crashing in on three different worlds: Highlands, Islands, and Borders. What'm I going to hear? What'm I going to see? What'm I going to do?

Saturday, 4 September 2010


An upsetting moment yesterday: having been to the fakes show in the Sainsbury Wing, it seemed churlish not to steer my young companion towards my favourite self-portrait (Rosa, see above - or is it below?)

It wasn't there.

Apparently, it's gone to Dulwich. I'll track it down and make sure it's still on view - it would be criminal to lock it away.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

selfish portraits

The self-portrait is an odd one. Why do we do it? There's the constantly-seeking-artist reasoning, which says that it's a good way to try out techniques without damaging a precious sitter. Then there's the the no-nonsense self-promotion angle, and, finally, pure vanity. The painting I've been back to see more times than any other is the self-portrait of Salvator Rosa in the National Gallery.

Fot those too young to have learned the Latin at school, a loose translation of the board in his hand reads "Either put up or shut up". (Literally: "Either stay silent, or say something more interesting than silence.")

Why do I find myself drawn back to it so often? Well, he certainly looks cool in that grumpy artist way. And the extraordinary resemblance to Jose Mourinho is not uninteresting. But it's the hold he has from over all those years: standing in front of the canvas, there is a real sense that he is there, in a way that rarely comes across in portraits. There are other portraits in the same room; all of them, in their own ways, are wonderful but none has that same immediacy. There is a distance, something between the viewer and the sitter.

That something is probably the artist, and that would explain the draw of the self-portrait: for once, he's not there to get in the way.

The self portrait we see most of today is an unusual one, in that it's a sculpture, or many sculptures. Anthony Gormley's pieces are all based on models of himself. Even so, they're not really self-portraits in the traditional sense. They are more akin to Hitchcock's appearances in his own films, the placing of the artist in the frame as an everyman. Gormley's frame is the whole wide world, and you can bet your bottom dollar that there will be a whole new chapter in the story of the self-portrait as a result of his work.

Here, then, is my own Gormless Self-Portrait.