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.
My Nativity icon for this year is a miniature on vellum, only six inches square. It will be framed and is for sale, should the spirit move anyone to own it! I have arranged the design as a quincunx, four circles around one, a geometrical arrangement with many resonances in Christian symbolism. I broke out a new precious pigment from Attila at Master Pigments for the dark blue used in this design, a rare mineral called vivianite, also known as blue ochre. It is very finely ground and a easier to apply than lapis lauzuli. Unlike lapis, it mixes with white without being overwhelmed. Also from Master Pigments were the vermilion, purple earth, and my favourite green volksonkoite - another rare mineral, this one from Russia. The florid decorative treatment is inspired by a margin I spied on the Abbey Bible, an Italian manuscript of the mid-1200s owned by the Getty Museum. By the way, the Getty is really wonderful at making digital images of its collection available on the internet for private study.
Have a blessed Advent and a joyful Christmas all!
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.
These two miniatures on vellum are going off to my UK gallery this week, the first in an intended series featuring the unseen and unsung - and horribly endangered - amphibians of Europe. I think of them as our native dragons in miniature. and I hope a toad has never looked so glamorous. I don't know if they genuinely qualify as miniatures (4 x 7.5cm), as art societies make strict rules for such these things and I can't be bothered to look them up. The enigmatic title is an obscure reference to an obscure Japanese silk dyeing technique which has fascinated me for many years. It was revived and transmogrified by the great artist Itchiku Kubota, a Japanese 'living treasure' in his life time: I saw an exhibition of the first half of his incredible great work, 'Symphony of Light', in Paris in 1990. His completed oeuvre now lives in Japan, and is high on my bucket list (the way things are going with that travel fund, I shall have to stow away). My floral background is a tiny homage to his extraordinary kimonos, though the motifs I've used are entirely medieval European.
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.
Some new bird-in-letter pieces for the new season. They will be sold individually, which is just as well because I see if I switch them around they will spell 'SOB', which was not what I intended...
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.