Pratique Des Arts 164 August/September issue
Meeting with Philip James
Interview by Barbara Petit
What do you like in painting landscapes and locations?
In my journeys I have a habit of recording locations of note in pencil and watercolour for future reference. Sometimes I have set up my easel on site. I respond to a certain dynamic in the scene which is quite mysterious, and I hold on to that.
I like to re-visit places have known, locations that get under the skin. Sometimes I feel the loss of change, as in Gateway to the Moor, Postbridge 2001, where a gathering of trees that figured majestically in a small study of two decades ago had completely disappeared. The studies of the moors or the South Downs Way in Sussex, or aspects of the City, become milestones in a personal journey, and my feeling for them intensifies over time. So painting is play, and a wonderful way of blending the inside with the outside. The more vivid the realisation of the work, the more open is the invitation to a viewer to engage in the process.
How do you arrange your compositions? Do you work in studio with photo reference or from memory or “sur le motif”?
Early on in the 1960s I set up on site with canvas and oils. Now I use sketches and a few photos to take me back to the location. Working on site can be quite testing physically. The weather changes and can become uncomfortable.
On one occasion I was painting in the Sussex Downs when the wind picked up my large canvas and raised the painting and tripod easel high in the air, depositing the canvas face down on the ground. I turned it over and it was covered in straw, stuck to the oils. “A better painting” my wife helpfully remarked.
How do you do to be more abstract than purely realistic?
My paintings are a conversation with the medium, so the beginning is quite abstract, playing with washes of colour and tone. The subject gradually emerges from the colour field with parts formed in close detail.
Your creative process: the main steps of creation of a painting. Please talk about your technic.
I begin with broad sweeps made with Japanese Hake brushes (very soft). Here I set the tone of the painting using harmonies of blue, earth colours, grey or soft pinks. I rarely use strident or bright hues. The development of a study is illustrated by a sequence of forming ‘Brasenose College Gate (ref:photos). I begin with a light brush drawing in umber on a prepared linen canvas. Then I lay some washes in brown, grey and ultramarine. Another drawing over the tints. This time I identify prominent features; in this subject the decorative and symbolic motifs above the doors: a lion and unicorn either side of a royal shield and crowned helment – letting the visitor know the authority of the College. Finally, after some time to dry, I use a fine scalpel brush to pick out clear details, laying accents in acute positions to complete the statement. My approach remains fairly loose and free, moving strokes in counter directions across the form. The pictorial process however, is carefully controlled and never impulsive.
The choice of colors: what are your favorite colors? How do you choose them for a painting?
I like a subdued range, subtle harmonies, this gives me the chance to intensify depth or highlights while the surface is fluid.
What are your favorite spots for panoramic landscapes?
I have worked from the top of buildings, by permission. The roof of the National Health and Safety Executive Building in Paddington. The historic Trellick Tower in West London. The Monument in Fish Street Hill in the City ad the higher level of the Shard at London Bridge.
Your favorite equipment for painting (big brushes, big canvas…) and why?
I have a broad decorator’s bristle brush for blocking in base colours, then a range of Japanese ‘Hakes’ from large to medium size, I like the soft texture. Finally I use small chisel headed brushes for details – the flat headed cut on an angle is good for the edges of buildings – windows/cornices etc.
How to give freshness, dynamism and movement in your paintings?
As I said, the subject emerges gradually from a field of colour. I try to sense the prominence of certain features and the quality of space, light and distance to the horizon in a panorama. The real environment is living , energized and always in flux. My feeling when painting is like a blind touching over forms, rather than literal and plain description.
What is the most important for you when you paint a landscape? Your aim?
I want to create an evocation of the subject – a particular location- which is a true statement. I like landscapes and city views because I can engage in an extended a conversation with them. Hopefully it preserves the integrity of the subject.
Where did you learn painting?
I attended the Slade School of Art, University of London, from 1966-70. My tutors were the artists Frank Auerbach, Keith Vaughan and Bernard Cohen. I also had contact with Euan Uglow, Sir William Coldstream and the master printmaker Stanley Jones of the Curwen Press.
Keith Vaughan was a significant painter of the Post-War generation. When he was my tutor at the Slade in 1967 he was at a rather low point, getting critical reviews from Pop Art biased writers who described him as an anachronism in the papers, which really upset him. But he gave me memorable advice: “Place each mark of fresh colour clearly against the adjacent stroke.” And “The painting should be like a sail, taut with air running through it.”
Frank Auerbach , on the other hand, was younger, 36 years old, and my first tutor at the Slade in 1966. Very intense.) He would say “See the corner of the room as a running river of fire.” And gripping the handle of a locker,”Really make me feel you have gripped the object”. He turned my painting upside down to emphasise its sculptural quality. There was at this time a fairly rigorous ethic of well conceived figurative painting, with the disciplined approach of Euan Uglow and William Coldstream, the Principal. That was largely suppressed by the advent of Conceptual, Performance, Minimal and Installation work, which still dominates.
Your advice for Pratique des arts readers: how to succeed a panoramic view?
First make sketches, quite small pencil studies can be very useful. John Constable built his major landscapes on the basis of small studies. On my journeys through different English counties: Sussex, Cornwall, Dartmoor, Gloucestershire, Norfolk, Cumbria – I identifed specific locations and and planned compositions on small canvas boards. Photos are useful as reference when you’re away from the subject, but the mechanical image scan get in the way of a personal interpretation.
View from the Trellick Tower, The Greenwich Peninsula, Sacre Cœur by night
My first panorama was View from the Trellick Tower 1980. I was faced wioth a complex wide span view of West London, from St. John’s Wood over to Highgate Hill in the distance. Here I evolved a way of sharp white lines to map the streets and buildings, plotting my way gradually over the subjet. The Greenwich Peninsula 2017 was made from an aerial reconnaissance photo ; the Sacré Cœur by Night came out of a trip to Paris in 2003. I made a sketchbook of Montmartre and other locations during four days in the city. I liked the dramatic aspect of the spotlit Cathedral beyond the cobbled paving of the Place Du Tertre, a favourite location for itinerant artists.
Sky view with St Paul’s 2016
I made the view of the City with St. Paul’s from an upper level of the Shard at London Bridge. I made two versions, at small and large scale. The tone of the city is surprisingly white, an intricate mosaic of modernist buildings clustering the classical dome of St. Paul’s. I worked in subtle variations of grey and blue, contrasting the sunlit city with darker buildings on the south side. A particular motif was the rust-coloured curved rail line snaking across the Thames into the centre. The right ways movement of the rail line contrasted with a left-wise rain swept sky on the horizon. The perspective was naturally affected by the composite of photos which recorded the view from its high point above the city.
Where are you from? where have you grown? Have you always wanted to be an artist?
I grew up in North London, my father was a children’s book illustrator, my mother a journalist. This determined my pathway as an artist from a young age, surrounded by large 1950s Phaidon art books and a sympathetic creative environment. I really started in 1962 with my handmade illustrated book of Aesop’s Fables, my first proper painting was a portrait of my sister Elizabeth in the Highgate Garden. I ran a small art gallery during the 1970s and have been a publisher of art books. from the 1980s to date.
Where did you learn Art? (Your artistic learning).
When I was young, I looked a lot at Picasso and made versions of his linocut prints. I also read six volumes of Van Gogh’s letters in my local library, and of course I always loved Rembrandt.
I remember, when I was eight years old, with my brother Charles, our parents took us to visit the studio of Jacob Epstein, whose wife Kathleen was a friend of the family. It was a great mansion in Hyde Park Gate, next door to Winston Churchill’s London property. It made an impression on me, the stone sculptures were enormous and powerful. I remember a native totem pole in the stair well rising to five floors of the house. We played with Kitty Garman and Lucian Freud’s daughters, Anna and Bella, rather severe creatures in black. Later on Kathleen invited me to view their wonderful personal collection, including a great Van Gogh autumn tree avenue and William Blake. She said she was planning to leave it to her home town of Walsall in the Midlands. Lucian occasionally taught at the Slade, though I never met him.
Why is oil your favourite medium?
Oil has a mysterious depth which is lacking in acrylic, although I use acrylic more nowadays for larger canvases; acrylic is cleaner to work with and the colour is more vibrant in broad washes.
Your favourite artist?
That’s hard to say: in researching my art monographs I have recorded over two hundred conversations with artists; from Arman, Anthony Caro and James Turrell to Rachel Whiteread and Helen Chadwick. From these and classic artists such as Velazquez, Goya, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Masaccio, I take something of benefit. I draw from their different visions, and their uniform benevolent intention.
Which trait of character helps you to succeed?
I have a very regular pattern of work. Nearly every day I paint in the studio from 11am to 3pm. I decide what to do first thing on the train into Waterloo and a bus to Islington. In the evening I attend to my publishing. Sometimes I visit an exhibition as I walk around recording my responses on a mobile phone, the basis of a review released worldwide on Amazon bboks, kindle or Audible-ACX. I think my character is somewhat internalized and habitual. My paintings occasionally sell; people like the studies of old London, Oxford colleges and landscapes of areas they know.
The last realization you are proud of.
I made a centre piece work in February to March this year called the Magdalen Stand. This is a cross-form unit of four duo-faced 120cm square canvases, freestanding with external supports. It features eight portals of Oxford University Colleges: Brasenose, Corpus Christi, All Souls etc. It brings together in one statement my continuing series of Oxford studies, popular with collectors who follow my work. I suppose the idea is to combine these historic places to reflect on the privileged and defended nature of the institution, and maybe reclaim its access for all.
Installing the Msgdalen Stand Candid Art Gallery March 2022
The Magdalen Stand 2022 is a freestanding cross-form unit of four duo-faced canvases 120x120cms centre joined to an internal wood column and secured with metal braces top and bottom. The stand has external legs at 180cms height made of blackened steel. In this form viewers can walk around the paintings and encounter the abstracted interpretations of the Oxford College Gates on multiple levels, in a symbolic statement of the historic institution. The preparation of a canvas has become increasingly important and I spend a long time accumulating colour fields and textures working on the flat – with the canvas on a studio table or on the floor. As this crystallised surface emerges to a viable stage, I am thinking carefully about which subject to develop. In sometime imperceptible touches I encourage the subject, a building, a figure or maybe a portrait, to emerge from the crystallised ground. I like the discretion of the process, and prefer it to straight description.
With a panoramic view, usually of the city, though it can be a landscape, I feel my way gradually into the deep space of the view. I make a freehand net of narrow cream marks to measure perspectives of little streets, avenues, roads, waterways, and particular buildings into the distance and find the horizon. There is a lot of precise observation, and I feel rather than see the internal dynamic of a subject.
When I painted Rooftop 1968 I was really getting used to an unfamiliar medium of oil painting, and was concerned to establish a secure and authentic description made from life. I liked the plain fact of this unassuming subject. Years later making the Radcliffe Camera in 2014, it was the symbolic power of this historic landmark, almost like painting a monarch. From this point I have become much more fluid and conversational in my painting. I am happy to realise details of a building and rely much more of the power of suggestion, to allow imagination to wander the chosen subject, and now to let painting have its own voice.
The Artist: born 1948, Bromley Kent, Nicholas Philip James studied painting with Frank Auerbach and Keith Vaughan at the Slade School 1966-70, Dip F.A. History of Art (MA) Kingston University 1995. Since 2006 a full member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters (Philip James ROI) Federation of British Artists. Exhibits in UK galléries and works to private commission. He maintins his practice at Candid Arts Trust Islington