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David Remfry RA on the major turning point in his practice

Epiphany

Published 17 September 2014

A remarkable look into how a chance encounter in 1988 liberated the Academician’s painting practice.

  • From the Autumn 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    “One shouldn’t really disavow one’s early work,” says David Remfry RA, as we walk together in Kensington Gardens. “But I had fallen into a trap – a trap where I was doing something just because it was successful.” I had asked the painter if we could discuss his epiphany: the major turning point in his practice or his understanding of art. The softly spoken artist suggested we come to this magnificent London park, the place where in 1988 he escaped from the trap, leaving behind his early style for something new.

    Remfry sets the scene with an extraordinary story, beginning in 1979. The artist – then an oil painter in his mid-30s – fell ill with sarcoidosis, a rare condition that, in his words, “affects your respiratory system and every joint in your body, so you’re virtually unable to move. I wasn’t able to lift a brush of oil paint.” He was, however, able to lift a watercolour brush – easier to apply, watercolour offered a way to work while he convalesced. On the basis of his oils, the Ankrum Gallery in Los Angeles had offered Remfry a debut US solo show. He sent them 30 watercolours, mainly still-lifes; they sold out before the opening.

  • David Remfry RA, photographed in London, July 2014

    David Remfry RA, photographed in London, July 2014

    Photo © Nick Ballow

  • Soon a revived Remfry was awash with watercolour commissions and a medium that he had thought was a weak alternative to oil had revealed its true potential. “I carried on doing these simple paintings – still-lifes of china on tables, or portraits, or young women sitting at tables. They were so successful it just seemed natural to pursue them.” But by the late 1980s he had become tired of such straightforward subject matter, however lucrative it was – the aforementioned trap. On a summer’s evening in 1988, he saw a way out, in the form of three female stilt-walkers, dressed in black, who were roaming around the Henley Festival in what seemed to Remfry to be “a continuous dance”.

  • David Remfry RA, Alarmed Stiltwalkers

    David Remfry RA, Alarmed Stiltwalkers, 1988.

    © David Remfry.

  • “They were mysterious, almost not human,” he recalls. “It was the freedom in their movements that made them so intriguing, and I liked the fact that they appeared powerful because, mostly, women aren’t portrayed as being powerful.” He approached the stilt-walkers after the event and they agreed to model for him. His Kensington studio had too low a ceiling, however, so they bounded across nearby Kensington Gardens, up to its neoclassical Italian Gardens, to reprise their performance for Remfry’s sketchbook.

    The large-scale watercolours – with their strange sub-human subjects, heavy use of black and highly gestural drapery – were a world away from what Remfry calls his “cosy” earlier work. “Since that series I have felt free to paint anything I like,” he says, and that breadth now encompasses everything, from figures dancing to salsa to the accordion players that feature in a new series commissioned for the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon in Fortnum & Mason, across from the RA.

    “I never really went back to still-lifes in the same way. Immediately afterwards I became interested in painting skulls and that sort of thing. All remarkably unsuccessful in commercial terms – my art dealer said to me ironically, ‘An exhibition of skulls? Thank you very much.’ But I was liberated for the future.”

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