I recently sent off a commission for two more wonderful Celtic saints - and some more vermilion as it happens, always a passion of mine. Everyone knows of St Kevin, ascetic and abbot, hermit in the Irish wilds for many years. He is feted in verse in the immortal but irreverent Dubliners song ("There was an old Glendalough saint, renowned for his learning and piety. His manners were curious and quaint, and he looked upon girls with disparity"): and in the beautiful poem by Seamus Heaney which meditates on the legend of the blackbird which laid an egg in St Kevin's oustretched hand as he prayed. The poem reveals this parable of Christian self-sacrifice and suffering more eloquently and completely than I ever could either in paint or poetry.
St Melangell's life in Wales is well attested though less written on than Kevin's. Her shrine is still to be visited in Powys and was restored in 1992. St Melangell's legend is of a hare pursued by a hunting nobleman which bounded up and took refuge from the hounds in the folds of her cloak. Reputedly the hare runs fastest uphill and so symbolises the ascent of the human soul escaping the powers of darkness. I am mentally incorporating these two in my 'some day' iconographic project on the new creation.
This painting was finished and sent for reproduction way back in May or June, but I have had to be very patient about putting it on my boasting page, not wanting to blow the client's cover before they sent out their Christmas cards. Carpenters' Company is one of the ancient trade Guilds of the City of London, though nowadays I think their activity is confined more to charitable sponsorship and promotion rather than actual woodworking. Their guild Hall is a little too grand for woodshavings. Their brief was to include the Company arms and motto, the oak and pine leaves of their crest, something to do with carpentry and some seasonal motifs. I didn't have much notion what the medieval man at work in his woodshed might look like, but I took my inspiration from an amazing Spanish cathedral ceiling painting which immortalises the carpenters who built it. There they are in their stripey aprons and hose, hard at it with axes, chisels, saws and hammers. Working to the theme of 'Make Ready the Stable', a stray line I recollected from a Christmas carol, I wove them in with the heraldic elements, adding in a star and robin in my usual cod-medieval style (more than a nod to the Luttrell Psalter in this case). Delighted with the colour reproduction job the printers have done - colour conversion is never straightforward. The original painting, only about eight inches square, is framed and hanging somewhere in Carpenters' Hall for the rest of time.
This is the first painting to have left my desk for a long time, thanks to a big relocation (foreign country, foreign language, dilapidated house to renovate) which was accompanied by a surprise cancer diagnosis, with all the ensuing strains of seeking and undergoing treatment. It is so time-consuming to be ill! What better way to celebrate my ongoing recovery than with the completion of this unusual commission: the third Miracle at Cana icon I have painted for the same client, but this one a gift for his very special godson's forthcoming marriage. My client had very particular wishes for the overall design and colours, and has personalised the icon with the names of the bride and groom, and a blessing from John's gospel, all in Greek script. I had all the pleasure of wheeling out my best lapis lazuli and ordering a beautifully routed and cradled solid wood board from an artisan in Serbia.
I am also currently working on the restoration of a big St George icon (dragon and princess this time) a project which I took on in a fit of rash enthusiasm and which I don't mind admitting is giving me a packet of trouble. Fortunately (as I am not a conservator) it is worth nothing either artistically or monetarily: it has sentimental value to the owner, who found it in a junk yard sale, because it reminds him of his Serbian heritage. It is a curious item: it seems to have been cast in resin from the riza on some old icon, complete with nail heads and tack holes. A riza (sometimes oklad, Russian) or revetment is an embossed metal cover made to protect a precious icon from candle smoke and the kisses of the faithful. The embossing echoes the painted design underneath and only the hands and faces of the saint peep out from the cover. I found some examples on line - one a 19th century version in plaster, and another which is copyright. This copy had been sprayed gold and paper prints of faces and hands pasted on the top. A few damp years in a garage, and they had peeled off completely. I am trying to replace them with something a little worthier than paper cut-outs, using gesso on balsa wood and a great deal of ingenuity. St George has also had a respray, silver this time at the client's request, and now he looks like the King of Bling. I can recommend Plasticote Brilliant Metallic spray paints, they really are remarkably convincing.
Courtauld Institute standards it is not, but I hope to turn it into something the client wants to hang in his home. Look back in a while for the faces. And before anyone else asks - no, I do not do restorations.
The view from my desk
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