This was another of the empty rooms at No 351, the grand, sprawling house in which I locked myself for an overnight vigil in late July, 2016. I recall I was getting pretty tired by now, subsisting on packets of almonds, and the sudden surges of nervous energy bequeathed me by every unexpected noise, every ruffle of startled pigeon feathers, every creak of the building’s timbers. Still, I was quick-witted enough to go on capturing the various glowing manifestations that followed me about No 351’s chambers – including these three, standing by the hearth as if in conference, their backs to the memory of the fire.
Forgetting To Look finds its way into Red’s Kingdom from that same clutch of obsolete floppy discs on which Lilo was floating about, and likewise these illustrations from another old short story. I’ve refined it a bit before sharing on here, though not very much. Mostly, I just cut more words. My admiration for the stories of Raymond Carver is obvious here, a writer who presents us with ordinary people talking ordinarily about things, but for whom life is often changing in distressing ways.
You can find a large-print PDF version here.
Inspired, as ever, by all those dubious photographs of ectoplasmic excretions, I locked myself away in the empty salon of the old French house, and waited for the spirits to show themselves…
A few days ago, I was very happy to share this portrait-come-caricature, drawn by the artist, Phill Hosking, to mark the occasion of my forty-sixth birthday. While I am completely mystified by the strange genre of pouting selfies, I am not immune to the satisfaction that comes from finding an image of your own face that you actually like. We’re not supposed to be too interested in our own visage, though in reality most of us are somewhat preoccupied, not by notions of our own rare and transcendent beauty, but rather by the effects upon our faces of the ravages of time. That said, I was very taken with Phill’s birthday drawing. Yes, I thought, that is me right there.
But Phill isn’t the first artist to take liberties with my features. Back in the summer of 2017, a portrait was hung on a newly restored wall in a newly restored room in a newly restored Grade 1 listed Elizabethan townhouse in Rochester, Kent – a house notable for its association with author Charles Dickens, featuring in both The Pickwick Papers and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The portrait in question, featuring an esteemed former resident of the townhouse, bears an uncanny likeness to yours truly, which, at first glance, seems very odd indeed, considering the man in the painting is resplendent in the ruff and cuffs of Tudor fashion. But no, this is not some spooky instance of reincarnation, but rather a bit of historical fabulation, expertly executed by the artist, Kevin Clarkson. I’m going to let Kevin take the story from here…
Kevin Clarkson: “The portrait of Sir Peter Buck was in fact part of a larger illustration project to help tell the story of Eastgate House, a Tudor town house in Rochester, Kent, which was at that time undergoing refurbishment. The house was built for Sir Peter Buck in 1591. It now belongs to Medway Unitary Authority.
In its time, the house has been a Girls school and a museum, as well as a private dwelling. It also featured in several of Charles Dickens novels. I had been involved with a number of historical illustration projects for the Guildhall Museum in Rochester, and was approached to produce visuals for a new suite of visitor engagement graphics for Eastgate House. The oldest rooms of the house were going to be restored as far as possible to their Tudor appearance, supported with suitable information graphics. At my first meeting I learned no image of Sir Peter Buck was known to exist, so it was decided to create one to be incorporated into the graphics. I felt this was a missed opportunity; a man of Buck’s status would likely have a portrait in his home and I suggested we produce a facsimile to hang in the room, rather than be incorporated into the graphics. To my surprise the idea was immediately agreed and I realised I was now tasked with creating a convincing Tudor style portrait.
I began to research Tudor portraiture; one aspect which concerned me was costume. I knew in the later years of Elizabeth 1’s reign, she introduced “Sumptuary” laws that defined what fabrics and colours could be worn by different classes in society. I was keen not to deck Sir Peter out in the wrong kit! A frantic email to the Victoria & Albert Museum elicited a very helpful guide and a large reading list – the project was growing.
The Tudor period was almost the beginning of portrait painting as we know it, where a figure would actually resemble the individual closely, rather than being a generic face surrounded by symbols of wealth and authority. The obvious place to start was looking up Holbein and Hilliard for style and treatment, and then expand to see how portraits developed in the early 1600s, when Sir Peter would be in his prime and most powerful. From the start I was determined this was going to be a real portrait of a living breathing person; I was not going to clone an existing Tudor portrait.
I needed a sitter – but who?
This posed quite a problem, since a full beard was almost universal facial furniture in the alpha-male Tudor portrait, and although the beard is again popular, few take on the luxuriant full Tudor look and frankly the only owner of one I knew well was far too young to be Sir Peter.
The solution came from a passing conversation with my daughter, Emily. She reminded me her former Course Leader sported a beard of Tudor dimensions. I was saved – assuming Phil agreed, of course!
Portraits by Giovanni Battista Moroni
I had by now surveyed the work of a range of artists of the period; my favourite by a long way was the north Italian artist, Moroni. The poses adopted in his work are very informal and natural, very like modern portraiture. Sadly artists working in northern Europe, and the UK in particular, were much more rigid in pose and reluctantly I had to select a more formal look. It was clear Phil would be far too busy to sit for the painting, so photography would have to fill the gap. I supplied a number of Tudor poses to Phil, who was able to create a range of reference photographs from which I could work.
From the series of ‘serious and imperious’ self-portraits and reference images used in the production of the final painted portrait.
Tudor portraits would have been painted in oils using linseed oil as a medium, usually on fruitwood panel or canvas stretched over a softwood frame. I could have used oil but time was against me, so acrylic on panel was my selection. Acrylics dry in minutes, whereas even fast drying oil takes far longer. When varnished, acrylic is often indistinguishable from oil paint.
Kevin’s portrait of ‘Sir Peter Buck’ takes shape.
The actual painting process was straightforward: I gridded the photograph and transcribed it to the actual size of the painting, then began blocking in the colour. One thing I was nervous about was my selection of colour. The Tudor palette would have been composed of fewer colours, and I was determined to remain within the colour vocabulary of the period. I didn’t have time to research exactly which pigments were available at Sir Peter’s time. Instead I studied the colour values of the Tudor portraits I was using for reference and hoped that would keep me in the right area.
On completion I left the painting for a few days before coming back to look with a fresh eye. I don’t think I did more than a couple of tiny adjustments before bonding the paint surface with a sealer coat of gel medium, and, when dry, a gloss acrylic varnish. The new old master was complete!
In the interests of clarity, so that a future curator would not be fooled about the provenance of Sir Peter, I inscribed the back of the painting with details of the sitter, together with the date and my signature.
Thankfully Sir Peter was well received and is now a permanent resident of Eastgate House.”
The completed portrait / Kevin Clarkson 2007
Sir Peter Buck’s portrait hanging in Eastgate House, Rochester, Kent
Inevitably, given the monochromatic weather and newly-announced ‘lock-down 3’, I find myself preoccupied with memories of different sights and warmer climes.
Back in February, 2017, I visited Rome in the company of a crowd of students, alumni and staff, and during the course of our five day stay, walked the length and breadth of the city. The weather was amazing, the sights impressive, and the food delicious – with the exception of one group meal so haphazard and underwhelming, the experience of it still lives on in the collective imaginations of an entire cohort of students. Meanwhile, I’m not sure what the nutritional benefits may or may not have been of my daily morning cocktail of Berocca, Pro Plus and velvety double espressos, but they certainly ensured my camera and I remained very much alive to every sight and sound the Eternal City had to offer.
Sometimes when a relationship ends, it doesn’t, and round and round you go together in interminable circles. This song was written in a time of circles, resolutions going broken and broken again.
I thought Choosing Kryptonite made for a suitable, if down-beat choice for January 1st – a day when we’re tempted to draw bold new lines and make solemn righteous promises… often bringing about the very conditions under which we’re going to feel worse about the unfinished business in our lives. The good news is this song is a relic – another one of my heart-felt out-pourings written without irony or much sophistication. Those interminable circles didn’t go round and round forever. The good news is you can make resolutions that stick, even if you have to break them a few thousands times on your way to making a change for the better.
missing you, can’t believe i’m missing you
after all the things I said i’d never do
but i’m here again and it can’t be true
because there’s just no way your foot fits this shoe
but i’m missing you, can’t believe i’m missing you
it’ll end in tears, we always do
trusting you, how can that be right?
after all the grief and the sleepless nights?
but i’m in trouble deep, let the hazard warning light
i’m like superman choosing kryptonite
but i’m trusting you, can’t believe I’m trusting you
you’ll break my heart, you always do
touching you, even with my fingers burned
caresses black with soot, hey, you’d think I’d learned
but i’m like a moth and your like the flame
and like icarus this flight will end the same
but i’m touching you, can’t believe i’m touching you
i’m going to die a death, i’m going to fall for you
kissing you, you’ve re-tied my tongue
my insides in knots and my reserve undone
I can’t catch my breath, heart beat stationary
with this mouth-to-mouth I think you’re killing me
but i’m kissing you, really kissing you
I don’t care it hurts, I think I want it to
loving you makes a fool from me
makes me tweedledum and not tweedledee
I guess i’ll play the clown, supply banana peel
i’ll even laugh at me as these others will
but i’m loving you because I’m in love with you
but play it straight with me, i’ll come straight to you
leaving you, well there’s no surprise
you’re like holding snow, you’re like butterflies,
you can’t be kept ‘cause your love won’t keep
because you love to look, but you’re loathed to leap
but I’m leaving you, can’t believe I’m losing you
I came all this way but you’re still you
This week’s Throwback Friday leap back in time is very sleight. These photographs were taken as recently as Sunday, as we left the house in the late afternoon to walk around in the subdued Tier 4 environs of Whitstable, a few hours after the UK government had ‘cancelled Christmas’. Like many I suspect, all I really felt was a sense of relief, having long since concluded the ‘5 days of Christmas’ relaxation was a remarkably stupid idea.
It was wet and windy on our walk about the town, where even the snoozing fishing boats were bedecked with fairy lights. Up at Whitstable Castle (not really a castle at all), its facade painted in red and green light, one very tall tree was dressed in lights to impressive effect. Funny, how persistent ‘festiveness’ can be, little squizzes of finer feelings igniting spontaneously, unprompted by television adverts or the syrup of Mariah Carey, but produced instead by each and every plucky wreath hanging on the front doors of Whitstable’s narrow quiet houses.
Taken a few hours before an 80’s themed birthday party back in late February, these photographs of my fancy dress preparations have since accrued an improbable poignancy. It was a moment of silliness, which saw me attend the party as a hirsute amalgam of Cher, Bonnie Tyler, Jon Bon Jovi… and, anachronistically, Roy Wood from Wizzard.
What’s a little sad about these portraits is not so much the slow, inexorable tragedy of my hairline, but that this fancy dress party was the last large communal gathering of 2020. Shortly after these photographs were taken – about three weeks later – the UK went into its first lock-down in response to COVID-19. I can’t help but marvel now at how close to me my friend is sitting as he applies my rock-star eye make-up, his hand on my shoulder, his fingers touching my face. This same friend and I haven’t been this physically close since.
When I look at the image of the long crowded table, everyone sitting cheek-by-jowl (or wig-by-wig), it looks like a scene from another time completely, some historical tableau.
My wookie-sized wig is upstairs in the attic, hibernating – like the rest of us. Perhaps, when the time comes, the bells ringing out, strangers in the streets dancing arm-in-arm, I’ll stick it on my head again, backcomb the fuck out of it, and dance along in the crowded streets too.
Lilo is one of the short stories dug up from my floppy disc archive – recently restored to me. I’m presenting it here in a slightly revised form, which is short-hand for me having excised all the bits from the original 1997 edition that felt in some way clunky or surplus to requirements when I read it again all these years later. This already short story just got shorter.
Aged nineteen or thereabouts I went on holiday with my girlfriend, my best mate, and his girlfriend. It was one of those sun, sea and sex holidays – a rite of passage you might say. The core exchange in this story is exactly what happened to my friend and I as we were lying beside the pool minding our own business. Like the resulting story, the episode was over in a matter of minutes, but I can recall even now how disquieted I felt for days afterwards, how entirely unsafe.
You can find a large print PDF version here.
Just days before the first lock-down here in the UK, we were out in France at the old house. It was the first time we’d been out there so early in the year. The rooms of the house were chilly, the worst of the cold kept at bay in a select few of its rooms by the roar of the wood burning stove. It was often more temperate outside the thick stone walls of the house, with periods of unexpected sunshine and warmth. We spent a lot of time remonstrating with the endless creep of the surrounding undergrowth, but also picking our way through the denuded woodland, enjoying the confetti of pale yellow primroses growing in impressive colonies.
At the close of one day towards the end of our stay, I took my camera out to capture the unexpected splendour of the hibernating swimming pool, with its blue cover, pooling rain-water and litter of fallen leaves. The light was milky, the sky peachy with the sunset, and the colours of this artificial lagoon irresistible.