Gregory in Poland contacted me to ask if I would make available a new image of the Venerable Matt Talbot, as he owes his life to the (yet to be declared) saint and is using all his personal resources to publish prayer cards and spread the devotion over the web.
Matt Talbot is known as the saint in overalls, though I think that's a bit off the mark, since he is wearing a perfectly respectable working man's suit in the only photograph we have of him. And he made it his custom to appear very neat and tidy in public. It was a great privilege to research this remarkable story. Outwardly he lived a completely obscure working class life in Victorian and Edwardian Dublin, living quietly through rebellion and unrest, world war and civil war, as well as enduring the daily deprivations of a labourer's life in those harsh times. Only his sudden death in the street on the way to Mass one Sunday revealed the extraordinary 'real' life he led: he was found to be wearing chains under his clothes, those chains still to be seen among his relics. After taking the pledge in his late twenties, through a life of religious devotion and self-mortification he had overcome his alcoholic addiction, educated himself to read works of theology and spent his private life in prayer and contemplation. He is a champion for people around the world fighting addiction to alcohol and drugs.
The photograph in which Matt Talbot appears is a grainy sepia group picture, taken with his workmates in the workshop. His face enlarges to nothing but a smudge, but one can just make out a face in later middle age, bright eyes, a receding hairline, a copious moustache and a certain set of the chin. For the details of his earthly appearance, we have to rely nearly as much on inspiration as we do for his early Celtic predecessors, but the course of his life is much better attested.
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.
Recently a family member asked me to provide some artwork for the cover of a forthcoming book, which besides being my first opportunity at a project of this kind presented some interesting technical problems. Gold areas in a design are notoriously difficult to reproduce in print. Every scratch and blemish is magnified in a scan, it comes out looking dull and brown, or gives off unwanted reflections. I decided it would be a waste to include any gold in the design at all. Not that lack cheapens the piece as an icon in any way. In the past, icon painters by no means always used gold in their designs. In times of scarcity or of war, for fresco schemes, for clients with shallower pockets, or sometimes simply for artistic reasons, many icons were painted with coloured backgrounds.
Putting aside its symbolical properties, burnished gold acts as neutral in a painting (strangely enough) and also, as a background, makes a motif 'tell up' incredibly well. Also, let's be honest, that amount of bling tends to distract from a multitude of shortcomings in a painting. Icon painters can tend to get very hung up on the quality of their gilding and devote less time to improving the actual painting!
In the end I substituted a painted ground of red for the the medallion of Christ. I added the symbols of the four gospellers afterwards, to complete the piece as an icon, and used brilliant white for the background. White is used in icons to convey the brilliance of uncreated light (think of Christ's robes in icons of the Transfiguration). I would have made life a great deal easier for myself if I had not glazed the red with transparent quinacridone pigment to warm its tone - forgetting that quinacridone is horribly staining and travels everywhere, especially onto pure white backgrounds! The quinacridones are a new addition to the artist's palette, developed by the car industry I am told, and useful as a substitute for carmine and alizarin, which are of suspect lightfastness. It's just too darn messy, though; I think I shall have to retire it from my arsenal.
An icon of Christ the Teacher in combination with the Hindu and Buddhist lotus symbol were specifically requested by the author to tie in with the theme of the book, which is a work of comparative theology. I designed the roundel of Christ to appear within the 'O' of the book title, with the eastern lotus symbol and frieze beneath, though no doubt the publisher will rehash my design to his own taste. I believe the book goes to print quite shortly: publisher James Clarke & Co Ltd. The actual icon will be framed (unusual for me, but for purposes of reproduction the board was a lightweight one), and appear for sale on my website in due course.
Gold is yellow, right? Well not really: some golds are more yellow than others. The two icons of St Francis above are looking like one of those 'spot the difference' puzzles we used to get as children, but the chief difference - the colour of the gold leaf I used in each - is not at all obvious on the screen. When you go to buy a book of gold leaf - generally from an on-line supplier - the array of golds on offer is completely bewildering. Bog standard 'yellow' gold can be 24, 23 or 22 carat, extra thick, double thick or regular, and each differs slightly in its tone. Not enough difference to read on a computer screen perhaps, but very obvious if you accidentally mix them up on the same painting (yep, been there!). Then there's Italian gold, German ducate, moon gold, red gold, lemon gold, green gold, champagne gold, white gold - the computer screen doesn't give one a very good idea of the differences and sample books are very expensive. The different colours are determined by the quantity and type of alloy metals in the leaf - silver, copper, nickel etc. 24ct gold, being pure, is a rich yellow colour; 22ct tends to be slightly more silvery. Some gold leaf has more of a crinkly texture, which you may or may not like. The presence of copper in the mix makes the leaf appear pinker (one sees this reddier tone clearly in gold jewellery made in India, for example).
So how to choose? Well, anything below 22ct is likely to tarnish fairly quickly, so is best avoided for work that you want to last: that instantly eliminates quite a number of options offered by the goldbeater. 24ct gold is more malleable and does not tarnish at all, so is chosen for 'best work' and for anything that will be exposed to the outside air. It is softer and therefore show the joins between leaves less after burnishing. Using 'double' or 'extra thick' gold leaf may mean you can avoid double gilding, which is generally necessary in order to get a good finish with standard thickness leaf: it is more expensive than standard thickness, so you will have to calculate whether with luck and skill you will make a saving or end up having to double gild anyway! For work intended to stay indoors, so less exposed to atmospheric pollution, 22 ct is adequate and perhaps a little easier to handle on the cutting pad. Beyond those parameters, you can let your choice be dictated by personal taste and price. The second of my St Francis icons (dated 2017) was made with 23 ct red gold, which I bought this time for no better reason than that it was older stock being offered at the old price. I like the way its warmer tone sits with the reds and browns of the icon - I have yet to decide whether it will sit comfortably in other pieces.
I found these pictures by accident while rattling round the web looking at Romanesque frescoes. They are in a little church somewhere in Sweden and date from around 1220, though unfortunately (like so many medieval artefacts in northern Europe) they have been 'restored' by the ubiquitous nineteenth century neatness freak. I don't know how authentic the colours are, and the faces have probably been 'improved', but one can at least study them as a rare surviving iconographic scheme. I wish I could find more detailed photographs on line. However, there is a really stunning carved stone font dating from a century earlier than the frescoes. Another destination to add to the bucket list.
The view from my desk
Current work, places and events, art travel, and interesting snippets about Christian icons, medieval art, manuscript illumination, egg tempera , gilding, technique and materials.