Congratulations to Watlington Artweeks for a fabulous 2021 event. How lucky the town is to have such a festival of art. The sheer amount of effort and organisation is remarkable. The skill and craft levels of the art are exceptional; there was imagination and decorative ideas wherever you looked. A starry, starry portrait in the High Street was perhaps a high point for me. The event took place throughout the town. St Leonard’s parish church was one focus. Was there anything missing? Well, we live in eventful times. I did miss a sense of enquiry and comment. I look at local children being shown round, many of whom will be priced out of living here when they grow up. I thought of various concerns: the town’s thundering lorry traffic, that rattles everyone’s back teeth. The destruction of the green belt. The 1% pay raise for nurses. The potholes, down which several artists are still missing. The rural over-development. 3000 new homes on the Oxford plain. The ‘concrete councillors’ getting their way. The pandemic. Ye olde brexit, that is now so ‘done’ it no longer warrants a capital letter. The vaccine delivery triumph. Is this - are these - not the stuff of art, as well as vases of petunias? Where is the unease for our current plight? Adjacent to the church, on the nearby green, the ride-on mower scythes through the buttercups, skin-heading the grass to within an inch of its life. If gentle wildflowers can’t flourish by a churchyard, what does that say about us? For the Artweeks Team then, a spectacular success. For 2022, more of the same, please. And, from the artists, even more effort with perhaps with some added muscularity.
Walk across Trafalgar Square in the spring sunshine of 17 April 2021. Pass by Heather Phillipson’s eye-catching giant sculpture, The End, a delicious swirl of whipped cream, cherry, fly and drone, and on to the RBA annual exhibition. In those few hundred yards you experience the full spectrum of contemporary British artistic endeavour, from ‘4th-plinth-ism’ to the equally finely crafted ‘framed’ work in the Mall Galleries. Behind the excellent portraits, landscapes, and still life paintings, the influences can be detected - or imagined - Lucian Freud, Stanley Spencer, the Dutch masters. Great credit to the RBA for promoting such skill and dedication. One quibble, and not the RBA’s fault. Uniformly, the prices are too low. This quality of work deserves more. Artists, you devalue yourselves.
Terminus is the most recent in my Didcot Railway Centre series of images. It is possibly, or possibly not, the final manifestation in the sequence of paintings from that venue. It so happens on my latest visit there, on a glorious autumn afternoon, the adventure did not go well. For a start it cost me fifteen - one-five - Great British Pounds sterling to get in, including the concession. I was steaming! So, as it happened, was Didcot. The stupendous entrance fee was because it was a ‘steam’ day, and worse, it was Thomas the Tank Engine Day. I was stampeded over and trampled upon by innumerable perambulators and buggies, many containing small persons who peered at me with beady eyes. Such was the mayhem I fled to the top of the coaling shed rise where I came upon the buffers you see before you. I skulked around there until sundown. For the gardeners among you, the larger plants depicted are spikus railwayembankus, a perennial herbaceous plant in the willow herb family, onagraceae. This is the genus that gives us rosebay willow herb, chamerion angustifolium, an all time favourite of mine, being a lifelong companion on the bombed sites and forbidden railway sidings of my childhood homeland wanderings.
To Madrid for a few days to see The Wyeths and the Spanish Realists exhibition at the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum. It was, for me, perhaps the best double-bill ever. It confirmed my belief ‘Snow Flurries’ by Andrew Wyeth is my favourite all landscape paintings. His dry-brush watercolour, ‘Flock of Crows’ - a study for the same - I find simply heart-breaking. Happily, I'm not afflicted by Stendahl syndrome, the psychosomatic condition involving rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations, allegedly occurring when individuals become exposed to objects, artworks, or phenomena of great beauty. But if I were, I'm sure these two would set me off. Of the Spanish Realists, Antonio López García has long been my main man. We also popped into the Prado. I ignored the other 200,000 exhibits and sought out, ‘Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes’ by Rembrandt. I ‘collect’ Rembrandts, in a manner of speaking. This is one of the gentleman's finest. It’s up there with his ‘Danaë’ in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. Inexplicable to me how the human hand can do such work.
Author, author, I hear you cry. Well, here goes. I come from haunts of coot and hern, I make a sudden sally… Hang on that’s not me, that’s Tennyson. Oops! Wrong copy, sorree. I’m James Kelso – and, actually, do you know what, I feel a tad awkward writing this sort of self-puffery. So, if it’s okay with you, can we leave it there? Thank you. I knew you’d understand. Browse on, McDuff.