I don’t remember seeing this portrait of Hugh Casson in the exhibition we did about him last year. I really regret never having met him as his memory lives so strongly still at the RA as the President who revived its fortunes in the late 1970s, not least by founding the Friends in 1977. He is said to have brought the Queen Mother to hanging lunches. The portrait shows him little and neat, eyes glinting behind his glasses. It’s painted by Bernard Dunstan, who became an RA in 1968 and is still one aged 94.
I was asked to give a speech at the Fine Art Society to mark the foundation of the Whistler Society. The reason I was asked was because he was never made an RA. Why ? He himself was keen. He started exhibiting his engravings in the annual exhibition in 1859. This was how his work came to public notice. In 1864, he exhibited four works – The Scarf, Old Battersea Bridge, The Golden Screen and The little White Girl. He was sufficiently confident of his abilities to put himself forward as a candidate. But when, on 8 May 1866, six elections were held, Whistler received not a single vote. Why ? Too cocky ? Too American ? Wrong style of painting ? He wrote to complain. His biographer says that ‘to the day of his death he would have accepted membership’.
In honour of this afternoon’s meeting of the General Assembly, I am posting the ceiling painting of the room where the meeting will be held . But how many of us will look at it ? Ricci was one of those decorative painters who came to London in the eighteenth century in search of lucrative commissions. One can see why he was so popular. It’s got a certain swish and swagger, animating the scene from Ovid whereby Bacchus, accompanied by assorted satyrs, discovers Ariadne alone on the island of Naxos:
Here are some details:
I have spent the day celebrating my sixtieth birthday. I was born exactly sixty years ago today in the Old Vicarage in Redlynch near Salisbury. Early in the day, I was given some bright red, calf length socks, maroon braces, a book about Paul Smith and some cup cakes with pictures of me on them. In some ways, it was an ordinary day, starting at 8am with a fundraising catch-up, a strategy meeting in the second half of the morning, interviews in the afternoon. At lunch, I celebrated a new three-year partnership with BNY Mellon. Now I’ve got my bus pass.
I have fallen behind on my choice of paintings for the Director’s Cut of the Public Catalogue Foundation. I wanted to include Jean Cooke’s self-portrait entitled Et jamais je ne pleure et jamais je ne ris (it’s a phrase from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal) because, when I arrived at the Royal Academy, she dominated the meetings of the General Assembly. Extremely small, she had a squeaky voice. Whatever she said was treated with awe. She lived in a cold cottage in Birling Gap, had been married to John Bratby (of kitchen sink fame) and once drove a Morgan.
What is it that is so satisfying about sitting for one’s portrait. Many people will think that it’s simply vanity, the delayed gratification of being depicted for posterity. But it’s more than that. It’s partly being allowed to do nothing, and feeling faintly virtuous in doing nothing. Then, there’s the companionship, the chitchat which accompanies a sitting. Somehow it feels like a collaboration, as if one is party to the act of portraiture by contributing to it not just what one looks like, but one’s past history. Catherine said that it was good that I had been so grumpy one sitting as this would be one strand in the portrait. It’s a composite, not just a snapshot. At least, that’s the theory.
Today was meant to be my last sitting. It’s not clear if it was. It was slightly tense because of the pressure to finish. No gossip. Short breaks. Lots of looking at the picture from a distance and in the mirror. It was too wet to judge and I still haven’t seen it.
Mention of Johann Christian Bach reminds me that we should be celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s visit to London (maybe others already are). He arrived on 23 April 1764 with his father, mother, and older sister, Maria Anna. They took lodgings over a barber’s shop in Cecil Court. He was already known across Europe as a prodigy, had proposed marriage to the young Marie Antoinette, met Goethe in Frankfurt, and been introduced to Madame de Pompadour in Versailles. I like to think that Reynolds might have passed him in Frith Street (or Filth Street as it was then called).
Here we are again, bicycling through London, unable to cross Tower Bridge, weaving through Vincent Square to my morning sitting in Whistler-land. Because I was a bit early, I made a brief detour to pay my respects to Tudor House on Cheyne Walk where Swinburne lived with Rossetti. Catherine told me that all the cast of Mike Leigh’s new film about Turner had been required to take drawing lessons along the Thames. She let me take photographs of her studio. First, the bit of wall which I contemplate every sitting:
Next the table behind where she stands, which has a very characteristic mix of family photographs and relics of Indian tours:
We finally made it to the William Kent exhibition – ‘Kentino’ as he was known by Lady Burlington. He came across as more solid and serious than I had expected, spending a seriously long time in Italy, acting partly as a dealer in pictures, a copyist and supplier of antiquities, and I had never seen the magnificent pearwood model he produced as a design for a new Royal palace. He absorbed so much of Italian baroque style that he was able to glitz up the interiors of dour neo-Palladian houses on his return. But he was a terrible painter and so much of his work was on decorative schemes that it is easier to understand his talent in the state rooms of Burlington House, in Chiswick House, Holkham and Houghton than it is in an exhibition.
Catherine has promised to complete my portrait over the course of the bank holiday weekend. I like being back in the studio and realise that I’ll miss the sittings when they’re finished. At half time when I’m allowed a cup of coffee and a stretch, I realised that she has a spectacular array of tubes of paint. I asked how much a tube costs. She picked up a tube of red paint which cost £120. She let me photograph the tools of the trade. First, the tube of red paint:
Then the palette from which she’s working:
Lastly, the trunk of turps: