Cousins records a family day out at the beach. Michael’s in-laws lived in Dorset so it was the natural location for family holidays, especially as the sea was so easily accessible. He loved this particular beach; not only did it provide days of entertainment for three lively children, it also inspired numerous sketches, photographs and paintings.
NEW: This painting is also available to buy as a limited edition print from a giclee scan and mounted on museum board. The print costs £125 including p&p. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
One damp and cold winter’s evening on a family visit to London, Michael’s attention was captured by the lights, colours and activity in a hairdresser’s shop in Soho. He stood outside the door, sketching with oil pastels until he had enough information on the page, but not before his three small children had loudly stated their utter boredom with waiting for him to finish. The black panel on the right side indicates his constant testing the boundaries of composition and also prefigures his experiments with dense blocks of colour that we’ve seen in Picturepost 1 (Closed Visits) and Picturepost 3 (Grantchester Meadows).
The Poll Tax Riots exploded onto British streets in March 1990 in response to the introduction that year of the Community Charge. The widespread newspaper coverage provided plenty of images for Michael to begin a series of works, which culminated in a large oil painting of a rioting crowd, which will be the subject of a future post. This b/w gouache sketch captures the intense anger many people felt about the imposition of what came to be called the poll tax. He was naturally attracted to the challenge of conveying emotion and energy in his work; sometimes the atmosphere would be calm and quiet but with events like this he was inspired by the energy that drove the action. He always tried to remain apolitical, but actually he was strongly against the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government, believing that the existence of the working class was threatened by their policies.
Michael travelled to Australia in the mid-70s staying with friends in New South Wales and Western Australia and, as you can imagine, he recorded as much as he could on paper and board, rather than with a camera. The light and colours in the landscape inspired a series of paintings of which this is perhaps the most complete. In Australia he felt that he was looking at the world with new eyes and his already strong sense of colour was developed significantly during and after that trip. This rockpool was close to a friend’s farm that lay 20 miles up a dirt track and with the neighbours five miles away. He was enchanted by the light reflecting on the surface of the water, and by the lizards that stalked through the grass, looking for a tasty lunch of snake.
This dramatic landscape depicts the top of the cliff at Highcliffe in Dorset; many family holidays were spent on the beach below. Michael’s favourite place to paint was looking east from the cliff, towards Lymington, with the Isle of Wight to the south. With this series he was interpreting landscape more simply than he’d done before – the question was how to strip the image down to its most basic shapes, without losing the essence of what he was seeing. The paint is thickly applied, which gives the painting a tactile surface and lends depth to the sharp white arrow shape.
Capturing on canvas the energy that comes from a large group of people was a constant inspiration for Michael. A child’s birthday party was the setting for this lively work, which is part of a long running series that culminated in several oil paintings. The source material was a selection of family photographs, some portrait commission work, and drawing from the life. He wasn’t especially interested in the fact that his own children feature, only in the challenges of the work itself. Family photos are often messy; they’re often unplanned, they are snapshots of a moment in time, which is why we all like them. In the right artist’s hands they make productive source material. For example the old man in the hat was the elderly father of a friend; he had died recently and he seemed the perfect ‘watcher’ at the feast, but more importantly he balances the composition. Several sketches and paintings of this man exist, but he certainly wasn’t at this party.
The shocking image that inspired this striking painting will no doubt be familiar to you: it’s of a little boy and his family being rounded up at gunpoint following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. It’s one of most instantly identifiable images of the entire war. Michael was drawn to the image in its own right and also because of his own Jewish family connections, which stretches back to early 19th century Poland and Germany. The sharp fractured shapes on the canvas indicate the fracturing of the world around these people and the multiplicity of images disappearing into the distance speak of the horrendous death toll for all. That Michael’s youngest child was a similar age to the boy in the photo added a deeper meaning to creating this work.
In Picturepost 4 we showed you one aspect (the mother and child) of the scene in this painting, Garden In France, which in turn is part of a large series inspired by a teaching trip to France. The image has been abstracted to blur the shapes of the figures and it’s necessary to step back when viewing the work in order to process the activity captured on the paper. The brush strokes are very lively and this is a technique Michael used to portray action. Even though the people are sitting around a table there is still much activity – serving food, talking, eating and drinking, dealing with the baby. The summer heat is implied by the prominent spotty parasol and even though the colours are cool, the picture still suggests a hot, sunny day.
Michael was wholeheartedly committed to traditional painting and drawing skills, which he believed underpin all great art. He was also interested in the traditional themes of painting, such as the mother and child image. His impressive technical skills and profound knowledge of art history enabled him to find new ways of interpreting those core themes for the 20th century. This painting is part of a wide-ranging series inspired by a teaching job in mid-France in 1995. He taught at a painting summer school and found much to record for his own purposes: pencil sketches, oil or acrylic works on paper or board and photographs. He painted the students relaxing in the garden of the gîte, shaded by parasols or trees, sipping wine, practising their sketching, paddling in the river. Hard to believe the child must now be nearly 20!
This large-scale painting (50″ x 53″) shows the Grantchester Group enjoying tea at the Old Orchard in (probably) 1910, then Rupert Brooke’s home just outside Cambridge. This work was made after a family visit to the Orchard in the early 1990s. It’s a beautiful place to be in Spring, with blossom bursting from every tree, as you can see in the top half of the painting. Michael bought a b/w postcard of the scene, which includes Rupert Brooke, Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf, and this, together with photos taken on the day, was the primary inspiration for the painting. He was not, however, interested in copying the postcard, but that its captured action could be reinterpreted in colour on a large scale. The black side panels are typical of this later period as he was exploring boundaries of the image and of the canvas itself. Seeing this painting in the flesh (as it were) is breathtaking; it’s hard to turn your head away as it insists that the viewer takes time to look at it and discover the layers within the paint.