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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink

John Donne – The Sun Rising**

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Last week we embarked upon yet another trip to those strange and barren lands which make up Dungeness and the remote surrounding area. Hoping for some late summer warmth and to avoid the lashing rain typical of this time of year, I knew instinctively it would be tantalisingly free from holidaymakers. The near-deserted desert flanked by a fairly balmy English channel, not by any means tame but thankfully not a roaring fury either, which struck me as appropriately British.

We had brought the bicycles with us, intending to cycle everywhere possible, but forgot to bring the ordinance survey map. As a result, we spent the trip cycling up and down the thankfully expansive stretch of beach at low tide, intermittently halted by treacherous patches of less compact sand and psychotic wasps (are there any other kind?).

The changeable weather, as is often the case, eventually worked in our favour in terms of photographic opportunity. Looking at times apocalyptic, the variety and drama of the cloud formation and tone melded into a perfect storm, with bursts of sun spattering sparkles onto the mudflats as if the gods were hurling around lightning bolts upstairs, in some reckless game unfolding on the Elysium Fields.

I managed to capture an element of this, the extreme contrast between light and dark resulting in existing colour looking naturally over-saturated, its spectrum of pigment creating a beautiful adjacency with the frowning eyebrows of the stormy black clouds. Some images benefited from removing the hue; as we sat on the beach we remarked upon how, no matter how good a camera is, it will never exactly represent what you see through your own eyes, the view undulating microscopically as each millisecond passes, the camera having a limited technical capability and not a patch on nature’s own genius of invention. Transferring the images to black and white instantly recaptured the sense of overbearing impressed upon us by this weather, the immensity of the clouds and fluctuation of density were heightened and brought closer to reality by a slight shift in levels of tone in post-processing.

We initially hoped for clear blue skies. Thankfully we were given much more.

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Taken on a Nikon D60 with Nikon 18-55mm VR lens. Minor post-production in Adobe Photoshop.

**The entire poem is carved in wood and attached to the cladding of Derek Jarmans’ former house, Prospect Cottage, located in Dungeness.

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Who knew that poor little old Dartford, kicked and teased like the runt of the Kent litter, abandoned in droves by its own people in preference for the nearby shiny happy Bluewater and sneered at down shiny noses by outsiders, should now be found to be hiding such a wealth of undiscovered creativity? Despite living in the area for 29 years, I have in the past few months realised I have barely scratched the surface of what seems to be an impressive but currently sadly under-connected network of artists and art-lovers.

Dartford Creative, an initiative brought to us by Icon Theatre, aims to unearth and develop these links, stimulating that much-neglected erogenous zone of the area; its creative core. Thanks to the tireless and dedicated co-ordination of Nancy, Michelle and countless others involved in the programme, whose belief and optimism have succeeded in overcoming even the most cynical challenges in their path, the enterprise has resulted in an inspiring programme of art events running every Saturday until Christmas. The thinking behind the plan is effectively simple; this series of events is a starter for ten, intended to whet the creative whistle of locals and to initiate a dialogue which will extend to next year, and the next, carrying on the tide the potentially valuable trawl which will be unearthed through this exercise.

Dartford itself has a long and fascinating history involving no less than rebel kings of England, revolutionary leaders and a few famous Artist/Sirs of its own, including Sir Peter Blake who, for those of you who don’t know, designed the famous Beatles Sgt. Pepper album cover. In fact rather a lot of impressively significant events have touched upon the area, as well as some of the more insignificant but equally fascinating! I was, much like many other Dartfordians I imagine, sadly bereft of much of this information until researching for a piece in Dartford Living on the local gasworks. Upon beginning to dig for information I found myself enthralled at the stories I found, each painting a vivid picture of what the town had been, decades, or even centuries before.

Bringing this history to life is one important facet of the Dartford Creative event and will ensure that this knowledge is both stored and nurtured by participants, passed on and down to the next generation; a treasure hunt on 21st September explores local buildings perhaps usually passed by without a second thought. A beautiful 17th Century pub goes unnoticed day by day, while Victorian shop first floor facades gaze down on the high street mournfully, unseen by shoppers. Events such as the treasure hunt specifically aim to point out sites of local importance, but a running theme throughout the programme is the importance of highlighting of a side to Dartford which lies largely in our unconscious; the historical side, the artistic side, the worth-listening-to side. The effects of probing this point continuously, weekly, are that it will stick and grow. It will germinate and spread tendrils of thought which could lead, well, who knows where? I myself have already made nearly 10 fascinating new acquaintances with whom I’m in regular contact and will continue to be after the event finishes. How many could you make? You see the potential.

Since the project launched on 10th August we have already seen a 50’s style street party, clay model making, the launch of the much-anticipated film competition (which will culminate in the winning film being shown in the eye-wateringly cool mini solar cinema), and, brightening up a rather rainy day last Saturday, ukelele lessons from inspiring teacher Steve Ball. Coming up this weekend is your chance to find out about the history of the street you live in and contribute to the town’s own Blue Plaque programme. If you have any sense at all you’ll be down there each and every Saturday without fail, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 10am like a dog on a promise for some buttery toast. But for those of you who might, like me, be a freakishly over-organised planner and not be able to make this one, don’t panic. DON’T PANIC. There’s the treasure hunt the week after that,  then Mr E’s intriguing theatrical museum on the 28th and much, much more to come. Let me not hear you say ‘Oh that’s not for me, I’m no good at art”, as is often the standard, negative protest from the crowd; if even the dog can get involved in playing the ukelele (see photos), I’ve not doubt you can manage it too.

Expect to see a few more posts on this, intended to both keep you up to date and to nag you like a spoilt 10 year old until you defeatedly submit to getting involved, and are within minutes running around gleefully covered in paint/clay/ukeleles etc.

Dartford Creative runs every Saturday at One Bell Corner from 10am-3pm.

Informal artist networking meetings are taking place at the Bull & Vic on the high street (opposite Lloyds bank) on the following dates:

  • Tuesday 17 September, 7-9pm
  • Saturday 28 September 4-6pm and
  • Saturday 5 October,  4-6pm

All welcome. Please come, I want to meet you all!

To enter the film competition see the details on the website and submit your entry to Vimeo by 1st Nov.

Locals learn how to play the Ukelele...even the dog was lulled to sleep by the sweet tones of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Locals learn how to play the Ukelele…even the dog was lulled to sleep by the sweet tones of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Clay model making

Clay model making

A clay face materialises out of the table...

A clay face materialises out of the table…

Ready for the next group of eager Ukelele students

Ready for the next group of eager Ukelele students

Free popcorn while you paint - what's not to like!?

Free popcorn while you paint – what’s not to like!?

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A mini-gallery of some of the work produced so far

A mini-gallery of some of the work produced so far

Kids getting their hands deliciously dirty with the clay models

Kids getting their hands deliciously dirty with the clay models

Steve Ball inspiring local residents with his Ukelele renditions of Guns N Roses

Steve Ball inspiring local residents with his Ukelele renditions of Guns N Roses

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An unofficial addition to the creative vibe of the event - just down the road, local street artist Gee injects some life into the drab hoardings of the derelict shops waiting for development

An unofficial addition to the creative vibe of the event – just down the road, local street artist Gee injects some life into the drab hoardings of the derelict shops waiting for development

Street art by local artist Gee

Street art by local artist Gee

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I paint naturally. From when I was a child I’ve been able to draw and paint and I don’t need anybody to tell me to do this or that, I just know what to do, I just do it. I don’t have to think about it, I know instinctively what’s going to work – Peter Roland-McLean

Soho. 1960-something. The Colony Club. Hazily drunken escapades with a dreamteam-esque artistic collective whose members include Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, John Deakin. Undoubtedly up there in the top 5 moments in history someone with my artistically hedonistic curiosity would gleefully type into a time machine should I one day stumble upon one. Artists and actors, debauchery and creativity. Sounds sublime. But, as one member of this in-crowd was to discover, extreme high times such as these can soon be a fast track to the very low.

Today, at 73 and having battled alcoholism and drug addiction for many years, artist Peter Roland-McLean is now clean and in recovery with the continued support of both AA and NA. Living in Greenhithe in Kent, most of his time is spent immersed in a world of oil and memory within his studio/bedroom, with an eye-catchingly beautiful auburn cat named Mr Ben as assistant, a chatterbox the artist confides is ‘sometimes a bit of a bully’.

Contemporary, student and friend of Lucian Freud, Peter has produced a number of portraits of the renowned artist; a significant influence not only in his work, but throughout his life from their initial meeting at Camberwell College in 1958 up until his death in 2011. He speaks of Freud fondly, a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he recalls how they ‘talked about art and the situations we’d get into through the boozing’. Although hints of Freud’s impact can be detected, the stylistic uniqueness of Peter’s works and the skillful ability to infuse a scene so deeply with hypnotic dynamism is all his own.

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Venus Room, Soho

With a father who spent 22 years in the army, Peter, at 18, found himself undertaking an unsurprisingly disastrous period of national service. With artistic temperament rarely well-received in a disciplinary setting, he synopsises the experience as ‘some idiot shouting at me’, a sentence I can entirely imagine myself uttering in the same circumstances; “There were some things so ridiculous they were telling me to do. I said hang on a sec, you can shout as long as you like but I’m not doing it. So in the end they said I was crackers and discharged me, which was the best thing that happened to me in the army”.

At this point – 20 years old and acutely aware of his passion for painting, “the only real interest I had was all-consuming really, it was painting and drawing. I just knew, right from the beginning”, he joined Camberwell College of Art on a three year Fine Art course under the tutelage of an as yet relatively un-recognised Lucian Freud. They became friends, both in and out of the college surroundings, and Peter was soon part of the fashionable clientele drinking regularly at The French House on Dean Street and the legendary Colony Room fronted by the infamous Muriel Belcher. Francis Bacon was a customary fixture at the bar, with one of his most well-known paintings being a portrait of its afore-mentioned matriarch. It was around this time that Bacon’s work was beginning to seriously take off and his philosophy on material and media left a lasting imprint on Peter’s work; “Bacon used to talk about the accident. I look for that sometimes and if it happens, I don’t take it out. Oil paint; It’s magic, you can work it in, you can push it about, do wondrous things with it. Sometimes I’ll be that engrossed with the painting that I’m not really looking at the palette and I put the brush in the wrong colour and put it on. I’ll leave it on. I have this idea that it’s meant to happen”.

The 60’s Soho scene was infused with alcohol and drugs; Bacon and Freud themselves were heavy drinkers and others in the group gradually became seriously dependent. Peter’s artistic output became less substantial, with frequent intoxication affecting his creative abilities and subsequently his general daily life. He soon became homeless and spent a significant amount of time living on the streets of Central London, experiencing the harsh realities of a life of drug dependency.

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Through reflection and documentation of his past life experiences, Peter draws his subject matter from his memories, building emotionally charged scenes on canvases thick with deeply worked oil; ‘I can’t handle acrylic, it makes me feel sick’. Whether inhabiting the smoky rooms of the French, propping up the bar at the Colony Club or disappearing into the shadows of St Martin’s, the characters dominate the composition; enlarged extremities draw the eye, expressive countenances carved like fleshy rock stare confrontationally out at the viewer. Peter confirms that these are true representations of those who frequented the clubs, there’s ‘Gypsy John, he’s an old Romany fellow, used to drink in the graveyard up at Southwark’ or ‘Tambourine Billy, who used to bang the tambourine down the tube. People would give him pennies, but he still had enough at the end to get a bottle of wine or something’. Others document well-known characters such as Amy Winehouse or Nigel Kennedy, ‘I liked him because he’s mad as a march hare’, whose maniacal glance shoots from the canvas whilst he plays his violin, exaggerated hands dominating the foreground. Most viewers of Peter’s works will notice the way in which his brush renders the human hand; a recurring theme in almost all of his pieces. The emphasis on these extremities and their often disproportionate size is not, as I initially guessed, indicative of menace or violence, a tool to accentuate the unsettling overtone present in the scenes, but instead the manifestation of his feelings about how we as a society take hands for granted. Hands, he says ‘are so important and yet people don’t pay much attention to them’.

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Despite the clear and vast differences in their works, Peter and Lucian have much in common, an affinity not only for paint and the beauty of art, but a kindred zest for excess and enjoyment, an embrace of the risque which ignites their work but would take its toll on the rest of their lives. ‘If I drink again, I’ll die’ he tells me, yet is equally pragmatic about how lucky he is to still be here, to have the friends and companions he has and to still be painting. Throughout his life, in spite of the ups and downs, his desire and instinct to paint remains constant, an inherent necessity rather than a choice. He is a natural born painter, a fact recognised early on by Freud, who told him off the record that he did not need to be tutored, he knew exactly what he was doing. 54 years later, it’s clear that he still does.

Gypsey John

Gypsey John

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The French House, Dean St, Soho

The Spike - Detail

The Spike – Detail

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Materials in the studio

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Amy in Soho

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In-progress in the studio

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Ian Board (Colony)

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Tambourine Bill

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All artworks by Peter Roland-McLean

Photography by Kate Withstandley

For information about the upcoming exhibition follow me on Twitter (@artexplorer434) where I will share details when they become available.