From the Spring 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
Epiphany is born out of recognition. If it didn’t reflect something we unconsciously know already it would pass unrecognised, like something in a dream that we can’t identify. And in some way it must also answer a need, be a revelation, something that perhaps we were unconsciously seeking.
My first, probably my very first, epiphany in the life of art and of seeing was when I started as a student at St Martins – the old St Martins in Charing Cross Road. It was so long ago that it wasn’t even a Foundation course. It was called Beginners. We were much younger than students are now, some of us only 16, and it was a period in our lives of major discoveries: we learned how to cook spaghetti bolognese, and we lost our virginity.
So when we were taken out into the streets with our drawing tutor (how nostalgic that sounds, not many of them left…) and I drew a row of trees into my sketch-book, the tutor was scathing: you are only looking at the trees. What about the spaces in between? You wouldn’t even see the trees if they weren’t framed with space. And look, he said, the spaces in between also have shapes – imagine the trees as the edges of the picture, and framing only the space. You still have a shape. Perhaps even more interesting than the trees themselves.
Well, I’ve forgotten his name, and he was very old at that time, already probably in his early 30s, and is no doubt no longer alive, but I owe him much, because a door was opened for me that led to other doors, which in turn continue to open: space is the key, the great mystery, the ever unsolvable problem, an open invitation to enter. So thank you, whoever you were, for unveiling the secret of painting to me at such a tender age.
Of course there have been other subsequent epiphanies, perhaps no less important than this one, such as looking up into Brunelleschi’s cupola on my first visit to Italy on a scholarship. In fact one might call my first venture into the Italy of that period, before the mass of tourists and the having-to-book-in-advance-for-everything, an epiphany in itself. I have certainly never recovered from all that overwhelming beauty, and it still remains an inspiration for me.
When I look at the series of paintings I made after that experience, starting with Cupola Blue (1963), I can see that the influence has never really left me; that some last traces of Renaissance space, the distancing power that perspective allows, remain in the work. What is still important to me is the lesson I learned from those great artists and architects: the possibilities for painting of the expressive power of space itself.