The Watlington Mark
By James Kelso 102 x 61cm 40” x 24”
Oil on gessoed panel
The White Mark on Watlington Hill is said to have been the idea of a local squire, Edward Horne. From his home - which was over Cuxham way I believe - he could see the flat topped tower of St Leonard’s parish church. This was back in 1764. He felt the tower would be more impressive if it appeared to have a spire. He therefore vandalised a perfectly innocent distant Chiltern and had the mark cut into the chalk. The cut is 36 feet (11 m) wide at its base and 270 feet (82 m) long. Sometime later - almost three centuries later - while walking one day on the hill I watched a red kite in the distance. It was carrying something which it then dropped. I’m not sure what the object was, but for some reason I thought it might have been a been a face mask. A crow then picked up whatever it was and took off with it. I can’t say for sure I witnessed this scene, or whether I part imagined it. But it suggested a coincidence of words, corvid - Latin for crow - and covid for the mask virus. A tenuous and rather pretentious connection but that is what led to the picture. I entered the painting for the RA 2021 Summer Exhibition, entry fee £37. The jury rejected it.
I loved the book, What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art, by Will Gompertz. I learned so much. It gave me a new view on the subject. It made me realise I’m more interested in the history of modern art than modern art itself.
I love much modern stuff - dammit, you can’t dislike Guernica - even if it is as kitsch as Old Mother Riley. But you can dislike much subsequent work, especially the ‘three eyes and a kipper on the head’ school that followed Picasso.
Mr Gompertz explains one of the objectives of modern work was to humble the existing establishment. That became its failure. The new became the establishment, and instead of being demolished, the opposite happened. The establishment constantly recycled itself and boomed. Art, with a capital a, A for anything goes, is now everywhere. Some modern work is wonderful. Some isn’t. It was ever thus. The inexplicable is now the norm. Private Eye gave up satirising it years ago.
It’s not that I didn’t give the new a chance. I went to the Guggenheim show at the Tate in 1965. I looked at the plain white and plain black canvases of Ad Reinhardt (?) and didn’t ‘get it’. Only gradually did it dawn on me the subject of this art was art itself. I think that’s when my interest in ‘the new’ began to wobble and my interest in the traditional began to grow. Thank you, WG, your book has graced my reading. It has been a gateway to a new viewpoint.
I read of the big Sotheby’s Picasso auction in Las Vegas - ‘the meadows’ as the Spanish have it. The show features “Femme au béret rouge-orange" above. I am, as is the world at large, in total thrall to the legendary great artist, fully signed up to the church of Our Pablo, forever and utterly Guernica’d. Indeed, I’m in even greater thrall to the magnificent PR machine that keeps Pabs ceaselessly bestriding the known universe while I, for one, creep about and peep about. Yet ‘the meadows’ is not New York. I wonder if there ever could be some sassy, Nevadan lassie, prepared to pile in and speak her truth to overwhelming power? To look, eyeball to eyeball, through the endless glazes of praise, layer after layer, at the paint mildly sitting there, rather dully, on the canvas. ‘Taint likely, I know. Am I saying I have my doubts? No, no-ish. I lack the education, the knowledge, the intelligence, the wisdom, the taste, or the ability to comment. All I have is slightly wonky eyeballs and the hairs on the back of my neck. Experience shows even them to be unreliable. So let me be clear about this. This is not amateur art criticism. I would not aspire so high. So, what is it then? Well, it’s yer bloggy ramble, innit. Here’s my opinion, my truth, my whole truth and nothing but the truth, for what it’s worth. If I found I was standing next to me at some art function or other, I’d move away, unobtrusively, but away, yes, definitely away. I advise you to do the same.
Picasso's "Femme au béret rouge-orange" depicts the model Marie-Thérèse Walter. They began an affair in the late 1920s and had a child together. Credit: Courtesy Sotheby's and MGM Resorts
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. This was not the elegant Hauser and Wirth outing I had envisaged. 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.