Issue Number: 98
Over lunch at Wiltons, Christopher Le Brun RA tells Sarah Greenberg why British culture inspires him
Christopher Le Brun RA in Wiltons restaurant photographed by Julian Anderson
At first, Christopher Le Brun RA was apprehensive about his choice of a restaurant near the Academy for our lunchtime interview: 'I realise it may seem stuffy,' he ventured, 'but the place I'd really like to go is Wiltons, because I had one of the most wonderful lunches of my life there, with the late Bryan Robertson, a curator and critic who wrote on my work. So it brings back happy memories. Also, like the RA, it's a venerable British institution.'
Indeed it is. After protracted negotiations, I manage to secure one of the coveted booths in this Jermyn Street eatery and we walk into what seems like another century: wooden booths, pictures of game and a menu of British classics. Apart from the matronly waitresses, I am the only woman in the room and the only person under 50. Memories of the Alan Clark Diaries come flooding back – all those lunches of Dover sole with a well-chosen white Burgundy. When I comment to the maître d' that I've spied both Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, he replies, 'Yes madame, we are true blue'.
Still, British traditions endure because they make people feel comfortable and this is one of the most comfortable restaurants in the world. As we settle into our cushioned booth, we are coddled by the old-fashioned service and comfort food: Christopher chooses the dish of the day: roast rib of beef with all the trimmings, starting with crab and avocado accompanied by a glass of Chablis. To accompany the main course, he chooses Château Cissac, a good minor claret – 'because a friend once sold me a case of it'– followed by Muscat de Beaumes de Venise with his bread and butter pudding. I start with a salad of roast artichoke hearts and wild mushrooms, followed by grilled Dover sole (one of England’s great culinary contributions).
The hushed tones – now uncommon in London restaurants – make Wiltons a wonderful place for conversation and ours pours out, covering the RA, British art and Christopher's major exhibition at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. The first survey of his career in the UK for 30 years, it is a landmark for him.
'Curiously, people here have not seen a lot of my work – beyond what I show at the Summer Exhibition – because it was exhibited abroad and there have not been many shows in this country.'
Walsall presents his work in all media, from painting and print to watercolour, drawing and sculpture. The show arose out of the long-standing enthusiasm of Walsall's director, Stephen Snoddy, for Christopher’s work. 'I gave a lecture in Belfast in the 1980s, when Stephen was a painting student there, and he then wrote a thesis on my work. He has worked in several museums and this is the biggest solo show he has done at Walsall.'
I mention that Christopher has been inspired by the history of British art and ask what that means to him. 'National identity in art is interesting and not much discussed here. When I was living in Berlin for a year in the early 1980s, I met all the great German artists: Baselitz, Kiefer, Lüpertz, Koberling. I was interested that their relationship with their nationality fuelled their art, quite naturally. I think they were puzzled at the way the English remain at arm’s length from their culture. For example, they all wore Savile Row suits and were astonished that I generally wore jeans. So I was introduced to their tailor, Mr Wilkinson, who had also been Harold Macmillan's and – more bizarrely – Eric Honecker's. The suit I am wearing for this occasion was made by him.'
As I wonder how many of our fellow diners may unwittingly have been dressed by this tailor to the East German elite, I return to the subject. Why is there a lack of confidence in the native culture here, the opposite of what one would find on the Continent or in the States?
'I’m not sure. A lot of the imagery I use in my work is based on literature and harks back to people like Keats, Blake, Malory and Bunyan. These figures form a huge resource that we don't use. I am always trying to fi nd the authentic position. In British art, it is often to do with the imaginary. This translates easily into poetry, the novel and music, and less directly into painting. Someone like Burne-Jones was for me a seminal figure – a proto-Surrealist. Yet there is always embarrassment about such figures.' Why – because they seemed to be away with the fairies? 'Yes, but actually that whole narrative side of British culture is very rich and makes me think of pictures and images.'
Le Brun has been active at the Academy since joining in 1996, serving on committees and on its council. He believes passionately that the Academy has yet to fulfil its potential: 'The Academy needs to realise what it has got. Whether that means asking all of the Academicians who participate in the Summer Exhibition to sell their work there to benefit the Academy (some high-profile RAs show there but sell through their dealers), or creating new public areas to draw new audiences. Given our location and profile, I think we do need new facilities, like a lecture theatre and better spaces for RAs to meet and show their work. We are gaining a sense of where we are going. We've been locked in self-denying mode for a long time and I know that is about to change.'