The Coincidence of Novembers

By Edited by Sandy Nairne

A selection of autobiographical writings by Sir Patrick Nairne (1921 – 2013)

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

The Perfect Pastime of Painting

Dear Coincidence Supporters – I wanted to let you know that because of your generosity the book is now 93% funded - so this crucial first stage is nearly complete.

[ … And of course if anyone feels like adding more support (by donating or acquiring a pot of my marmalade or one of my father’s watercolours) to help me across the line, I will be very grateful, and there is an easy way to do it on the Unbound site, and this link will help ]

I was tempted to add something on the subject of November, or another piece with my father’s reflections on referendums but I sense everyone has had enough of that subject. So I have chosen a short excerpt about contemporary art.

Written in 2002, my father titled this section, The Perfect Pastime of Painting:

April 1st, 2001: lunched at Ditchley Park, home of the Ditchley Foundation, guests of the Director, Sir Nigel Broomfield, and his wife, Valerie. On arrival we stood around with a drink outside their house in the West Wing. Warm Spring sunshine after a long spell of wet and cold weather, encouraging me to think that the ‘open season’ for watercolour landscape painting would soon begin. One of the other guests may have had the same thought: ‘Do you still do much painting, Patrick?’

I was used to this question, often no more than a gambit in polite conversation. When I had said what little there was to say in reply - mainly to the effect that landscape painters en plein air hibernate in winter - I asked about my questioner’s interest in art and painting. That proved to be a conversational cul-de-sac. It was someone I knew, a highly intelligent woman with academic interests, but she did not spark at all on the subject of art. And for her, as perhaps for everyone standing around at Ditchley, I suspected that visual art meant only traditional painting and sculpture - more specifically paintings or drawings in frames hung on the walls of homes or galleries.

 Patrick Nairne, 'The Road to Pudlicote'  2007

Early Years with my Father

I grew up to think of art in that way. So, I think, did most of my contemporaries at home and at school. And yet, as long ago as my birth in 1921, the huge revolution in the visual arts throughout the 20th century was already well under way. My father was aware of that. He would have recognized that there is usually a revolutionary, experimental fringe in many areas of human activity. But in the culture to which his generation, and to a significant extent my own, belonged it was ‘paintings or drawings in frames on walls’ which were dominant - in the Royal Academy, the Tate Gallery, the regional galleries, and the commercial galleries of central London. More experimental, non-figurative art had begun to flourish across the Channel since the early years of the 20th century, but only in the last 40 years has there been in the United Kingdom a large and radical shift in a different and wider direction. It has now become usual to refer, not just to painting and sculpture, but, with broader implications, to the visual arts. ‘The contemporary visual arts’ is the current term, embracing painting, sculpture, drawings, pastels, installations, photography, film, video, and ‘performance art’. This innovative and wide-ranging approach has become the dominant or defining feature of the visual arts today.

Watercolour landscape painting, however, has retained a position of its own - partly perhaps because most people have no difficulty in understanding, enjoying and occasionally buying it, but also because since the turn of the 18th Century it has been recognized as an art form almost entirely unique to this country. Where else in the world is there a Royal Watercolour Society with its own gallery? What for me became a perfect pastime was, I grew up to learn, an essentially British pastime.

I have had a passion for painting for most of my life. It began with drawing, as it normally does for children. After lunch, one of our grandchildren would ask for paper and, armed with some crayons, boldly and rapidly set about drawing. He knew what he wanted to do. He had soon covered two or three pages in the traditional style of the very young artist - the most striking creation a drawing of a pirate with large round head, vertical fringe of hair, black patch eye, and arms horizontal from the body in the shape of a toasting fork with three prongs for fingers. It might well have been a drawing of my own some 75 years earlier.

Drawing, with or without paint or crayons, was an essential test of a promising artist in the past. It may still be. Two letters in The Times of July 2002 asserted that drawing was still taught in at least some of the London art schools - though that may not mean that every student had to study it. William Dring RA RWS, a long-standing friend of my father and myself, told me that one test of a candidate for the Royal Academy Schools was the ability to draw a circle well with one single sweep of the hand. I doubt if I could have passed that test. Even so, my introduction to the arts was largely due to the encouraging view in the family and at school that ‘Pat can draw’.

I do not think that that can be said today. I have painted for much longer, and I have sold many more pictures than any other member of my family; but there is a fair amount of talent around … At the age of our grandchildren today I did draw and wanted to go on drawing. That was what mattered. I did not draw particularly well: another boy at my preparatory school drew better - his speciality of careful sketches of ocean liners was much admired in the classroom. But I doubt if his father, though a future air marshal, would have been able to give him the special advantage which I had: a father who had been to the Slade School of Art and was constantly painting. I always had in him as an influential role model at hand, painting in a home where good watercolour paintings hung on the walls. I suppose that I have been able to offer something of the same to our own family.

During my school years drawing and painting were on the fringe of general education; they were regarded as an ‘extra’, to be provided, if at all, once a week by a teacher from outside the school. Things are vastly different today. Pencils, crayons and paints are introduced to all children at an early age; the walls of primary schools are plastered with paintings and coloured drawings - and it is a boring old joke for parents to proclaim that the best of their child’s free, fanciful, often abstract work could well be a contender for the Turner Prize or have a place on the walls of Tate Modern. I rather doubt if this has led to a significant increase in the number of talented artists, though art is a popular choice - possibly seen as a softer option - in the GCSE and A Level examinations. There is still, I believe, a cultural gap between the concepts and creative work of visual art in most schools and the character of the student work being done in the leading contemporary art schools. Under the age of 10-12 children want to draw and paint what they themselves can recognize as realistic representation: the scornful remark that ‘That is not like a house or a tree’ can crush potential talent for ever.

Patrick Nairne watercolour, painted aged 14 in 1936

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There will be more updates in due course - with many thanks and all best wishes, Sandy

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