Monday, 1 October 2018

Test before you invest... The inconsistency of printing photos!

I am an old-fashioned chap at heart – I like my photos in albums.  I have yet to really enjoy the family huddled around a lap top looking at images of my kids growing up in quite the same way as we do when it’s albums we are gazing at. Maybe it’s just how I was brought up. The downside is that it’s a huge task and, despite my best and continuing efforts, I am currently 7 years behind.  It takes ages to ingest and log photos on all the many devices we as a family have – never mind going back through more than 20,000 photos we have on-line to make sure they too are properly labelled. Then one has to choose from the thousands that accumulate in any one year and make a representative selection. I recently did just that for 2012 and totalled up more than 200 that I needed printing. 
The big question then is ‘where’? I have tried on-line, department stores, supermarkets, chemists and photography shops and only their inconsistency is consistent!  The colour black can be anywhere from light grey to coal black. Colours are all over the place and white can be, well, anything. So I decided to do a test. I chose five locations in my hometown of Brighton and sent each the same five images to print. These were the photography chain Jessops, Boots, and photography shops Zoingimage, Colourstream and ClockTowerImages. The results were frankly pretty shocking.  It may be unfair to rank them but I will tell you the best one – and it rather surprised me:  Jessops.  I went in there to ask about their gear and they said they use a dry-printing method and that helps them keep standards high and regular.  I did ask their PR department for more information on exactly what equipment they use but no response has as yet been forthcoming.  
But the conclusion is: do a test in your local area and make sure you find out who prints best before cramming your photo albums with below-par reproductions of your fine photography skills!

Thursday, 27 September 2018


Whistlejacket by George Stubbs

This is one of those paintings that, on its own, is worth the visit to the National Gallery.  Its size, its ambition, its audacity all embrace you. In my career as a film-maker I have often had reason to include images of kings & emperors on their trusted steeds.  Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Alexander, Ulysses S.Grant, Zhukov (on his white steed in Red Square), and plenty more.  But it’s rare that the horse itself is the subject. No bridle in sight, no stirrups, no whip. This is a horse bursting with life and freedom. There is no background but you can add that in yourself. For me, it is the gorgeous Sussex countryside where I live that fills in the blanks but it could be anywhere. Some have argued that Stubbs was supposed to have filled in both background and rider but I simply don’t believe it.  I am sure the painting is just as he wanted it. 

18th century Britain was passionate about horses – and horse-racing – and this was a race-winning horse (notably the 2000 guineas at York in 1759) that didn’t need a monarch on its back to tell a great story.  We know that Whistlejacket – strange name, possibly to do with the colour of the coat matching a drink of that colour made of brandy – was foaled in 1749 and was owned by the Marquess of Rockingham, who was twice Prime Minister.  The horse had been retired by the time Stubbs was commissioned to paint him in 1762 but he must have been still much loved and admired. And why not – he is magnificent, flaring, all-powerful.  

Stubbs was a master of painting horses – and he certainly sought and caught the individuality of this stallion. It is no accident that he so wonderfully captures the tension and strain in the musculature – Stubbs had gone so far as to dissect horses to gain greater insight into their inner workings.  Stubbs was in his late 30s when he painted this. Born in Liverpool, son of a leather worker, largely self-taught as an artist, he ultimately specialized in anatomical paintings especially of the horse.  No doubt the bones and skins from his father’s tannery were some kind of inspiration but he went much further than that. He studied anatomy to such a degree that he lectured medical students on it and even apparently, in 1756, rented a barn near Hull and, with a female assistant, Mary Spencer (his unofficial companion for 50 years), spent 18 months dissecting horses. They were delivered to him live, and he undertook the messy work of slaughtering, with the objective of learning equine anatomy through detailed personal investigation.

Stubbs published a book with drawings called ‘The Anatomy of the Horse’ in 1756 and soon thereafter he received his first London commission from the artist Joshua Reynolds.  One group of potential buyers who were immediately taken with Stubbs's ‘Anatomy of the Horse’ drawings and enticed by the idea of a portrait or two of their own much-prized horses were wealthy young aristocrats with country estates.  And within another few years, as mentioned, the twice-Prime Minister himself commissioned Stubbs for Whistlejacket.   It is a striking picture, well worth a few minutes of your time when you are next passing the National Gallery.  And, as an afterthought, if you live in or are visiting Ireland, I’d also recommend Stubbs’ painting Hambletonian which hangs in the National Trust property of Mount Stewart in County Down. We filmed it when we made our film Tim Marlow on Stubbs and the Horse in 2005 and it is another gorgeous work.

Monday, 17 September 2018


L’Absinthe, Edgar Degas,

We all need people that influence us as children and I was fortunate that my sister was (and is) a wonderful English teacher and literature enthusiast. I don’t think many 11-year-olds in my day read Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad but I remember doing that one long summer. Even more to my liking was the author Emile Zola who my sister introduced me too. The first (gripping) book of his I read was Germinal but that was soon followed by L’Assommoir.

Now, I am sure many of you know (especially if you saw our recent film on Cézanne) that Zola plays a role in late 19th century art history but what struck me about L’Assommoir was the cover. Yes, you guessed it: L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas. It was – and is – so striking. The work was painted by Degas in 1875/6 and first exhibited in the Second Impressionist exhibition held in art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery in rue le Peletier. The ‘easier’ artists had front rooms and the ‘harder’ artists (including Degas) were sent to the back. Degas had over 20 works on display (including The Cotton Office which is magnificent and can be seen in our forthcoming Edgar Degas film). Among them was one called In the Café.

According to Sue Roe in her excellent book The Private Lives of the Impressionists the Irish art critic and writer George Moore was there and his views were strident:

"Heavens! What a slut. A life of idleness and low vice is upon her face, we read there her whole life. The tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson." 

 Each to their own, I suppose. That is not what I see.

I see exhaustion and sadness at the impossibility of escaping from the drudgery of working class life in Paris. Actually the female model – an actress Ellen Andreé – was rather hurt by how she was portrayed by Degas. Some even assumed she herself must be an alcoholic and this upset her even more. The male model, by the way, is Marcellin Desboutin, another artist. Certainly it depicts isolation, an inability to communicate, even hunger. Look beyond the narrative too: the skill of Degas the painter is wonderful to behold. The marble tables, the metallic walls, the collapsed shoulders, the scruffy clothes and even the absinthe drink itself. Moreover there is an amusing connection to the city in which I live – Brighton in the UK.

One of the first art dealers in the UK was a Captain Henry Hill. He bought In the Café and showed it in September 1876 in the Third Annual Winter Exhibition of Modern Pictures – literally minutes from where I am writing this now, 142 years later. He exhibited it as A Sketch at a French Café. It is, of course, far more than that – it is a masterpiece. It is believed that when it was shown in London in 1893 the name was changed to L’Absinthe. And Zola? Well, it is likely that he saw the 1876 exhibition and it is probably no coincidence that L’Assommoir (which recounts the ravages of alcoholism in Paris’s poor) was released the following year.

Thursday, 6 September 2018


Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez

This is one of those paintings that you stand before and wonder at just how an artist achieved such mastery of paint.  This might seem a conventional state portrait of a Pope but take your time to look more carefully – and prepare to be amazed.  The artist – from a middle-class family in Seville, southern Spain – was just over 50 when he was commissioned for this work.  Velázquez had risen to be the court painter in Philip IV’s Madrid and was an obvious choice for the Papal portrait when he came to Rome.  

Velázquez turns the Pope away from us to emphasize the gap between us ordinary mortals and this representative of God yet at the same time the frown and quizzical, almost self-conscious, look in his eyes affirm his human nature.  The Pope was an impatient 76-year-old when this was painted and you can almost sense his preference to be back at his desk reading the letter in his left hand.  

When Pamphili saw the painting he remarked ‘troppo vero’ (too true) and it has remained in his family ever since (in their wonderful gallery in Rome that I thoroughly recommend).  There is more to appreciate than just biography.  Francis Bacon called this ‘one of the greatest paintings ever made’ and it is the artist’s extraordinary skill with paint that impressed him.  

Not without good reason this has been called a symphony in red.  As so often with Velázquez there is a limited palette: black and hints of white create a thick velvet background, smoother strokes of white create a hat and cape of sensual satin, and a thinner grey and white ground deliver the illusion of the pope’s alb (a long white dress worn under other clothing).  Look up close and everything becomes a blur but from a short distance everything comes into focus and almost 5 centuries dissolve away and we are in the presence of one of the most powerful men alive at that time.  Pigment, canvas, wood, nails, oil…in the hands of a master like Velázquez come together in a stunning work of art – that I, for one, could stare at for hours.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Thursday, 23 August 2018


Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875

I have always loved this painting and a nice copy of it hangs above my desk at work. Caillebotte is less well-known than many of the other impressionsts/realists of the late 19th century but he is personally one of my favourites.  It is strange really how an artist who exhibited at a good number of the famous ‘impressionist’ exhibitions has fallen slightly out of public awareness – even more so when one learns that his own art collection eventually (after much drama) formed a key part of the Musée d’Orsay’s own.  

This particular painting is fascinating in a number of ways – the perspective, the lighting, the repeated motif of the curl are but three things to look at. Plus it is one of the first representations of an urban working class.  Paintings are open to interpretation and one argument states that a Parisian working man scraping down wooden floors would never be topless and that Caillebotte is alluding to his own sexual preferences by painting them as such. On the other hand, anyone who has been in Paris in the summer knows how hot it can be and perhaps they had just taken their shirts off.  You decide. Mind you, almost nothing an artist does is an accident.  Certainly when he submitted this to the 1875 Salon it was rejected for its ‘vulgarity’.  A year later, Caillebotte placed it in the more welcoming arms of the 1876 exhibition of those we now call the impressionists.  

Caillebotte was lucky – his father, who died the previous year (1874), was wealthy and left Caillebotte very well off. The family home in which this painting is thought to have been set was clearly very comfortable.  Being well off allowed for a freedom of subject choice and workmen were as good a subject as the more traditional history or genre paintings. Caillebotte’s younger brother, who lived in the family home too, could also follow his interests and one of those was photography. One can sense the influence that this relatively new invention is having on an artist like Gustave Caillebotte.  He was fascinated by it and sought both to incorporate and respond to this new medium.  

I love the painting personally for a few reasons: it feels like a genuine snapshot of ordinary workers, I find the craft of the workers and the craft of the artist equally impressive, and – frankly – because it reminds me of my own living room floor which I really must re-wax one of these days!

Thursday, 9 August 2018


The Orchestra at the Opera, c.1870, Degas, Edgar, Musee d'Orsay, Paris, Bridgeman Images
This is a painting that contains many elements that I love.  Music, ballet, opera, real-life characters, mid-19th century France, theatre and, of course, art.  I was reminded of this painting recently when involved in the edit of our next film – DEGAS: PASSION FOR PERFECTION.  Degas has always been the impressionist that intrigued me the most. Somehow he is the most mysterious and a passing awareness of him would suggest he's a man that likes ballerinas or racehorses but, as ever, there is so much more to any artist than the subject matter they may choose. Actually a large proportion of his work is portraiture. This painting is in some ways no exception. The bassoonist at the art of the work is Désiré Dihau and indeed the majority of the musicians are actual friends and musicians. The configuration of the instrumentation makes little sense but the feeling of energy and confined space overrides that. You can sense the energy going into the music and what great fun it must have been to be in the audience.  Degas has brought the orchestra almost to the level of the stage. He hasn’t portrayed them as they would normally be – almost hidden below stage. He’s not interested in reality he’s interested in what his painting suggests.

The ballerinas behind are almost an afterthought but they are especially significant as they were the first picture of ballerinas that Degas did. Nowadays if he is known for anything it is that very subject matter and many paintings, pastels and indeed sculptures he did of ballerinas – not least behind stage in rehearsal rooms overseen by tutors and mothers. I admire this painting for all the tricks Degas is using : look at those lines that force your eye from one character to the next. The line of the harp takes you down the shoulder of the bassoonist then up we go along the bassoon along the bassists’ shoulder to his instrument and its neck takes us to the headless ballerinas. A little head on the left stops us drifting out of frame and instead that head’s eyes bounce us back along the stage and round we go again.  The multicoloured tutus clash and contrast with the black of the orchestra and the brown furnishing of the opera itself. Degas was in his mid thirties when he made this work and was a single, dedicated, complex man with an absolute passion. For him the painting was unfinished but the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian was what prevented him from finishing it. I don’t see what he needed to change – it’s fabulous, brash, noisy and fun just the way it is.