Thursday, 15 May 2014 09:04

More ''Artistic'' Thoughts...

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It occurs to me, as I sit in the industrious hub-bub that is the Dance Attic rehearsal studios in Fulham, how very like rehearsing a show is to painting. The show, which is in this case, The Gondoliers for Opera della Luna under the redoubtable Jeff Clarke is now into its second week of rehearsals as I write and, as we know, it is not a particularly easy piece to mount. Now, if you’re thinking this is going to be an article on my life in the operatic world and of course that of Gilbert & Sullivan, you will, dear reader, be quite wrong!

I suppose it is well known that I am a singer and performer, but many people have expressed surprise to learn that I also am a painter; this shouldn’t be so mysterious and unexpected, as many creative people have this particular gift – certainly it is well known that Kenneth Sandford was a member of the Royal Academy and a wonderful portrait artist, and John Reed was a painter of some brilliance. Jeff Clarke also takes out his brush on occasion! Some of us use it for relaxation, others as a side line, and in my case, a parallel career.

When I first started singing lessons at the age of seventeen whilst at school and having trouble with the high tessitura of Capt. Corcoran, my head of music and conductor John Howells, having lost his temper in a rehearsal and suggested, née, demanded I should get some lessons to try and temper  my unwieldy tones! 

Whilst at my first lesson, Madame Laura Harding, a small, steely martinet of a woman; of whom I was at once terrified and instantly adored, enquired what I was going to do after my ‘A’ Levels. I told her that I had secured scholarships to two art colleges and would be pursuing a career as a stage designer. Her retort was short and concise. “Nonsense! You will be going to the Guildhall School of Music.” I was somewhat surprised, but found that she was entirely right – that is what I did!

All of my life I have been a performer. Desperate to be a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral, I had an audition for the director of music at Rochester Cathedral, but failed, being told that although I could sing, I didn’t have the requisite tone for a boy soprano. That is, indeed, was an understatement! My tones at the time were more akin to Shirley Bassey, so it was no surprise to find me on a variety bill starring Harry Corbett and Sooty sometime later! I said at the top of this paragraph, that all my life I have been a performer which is true as far as it goes, but I had also developed a fast and lasting talent for drawing – I always say I could draw before I could tap dance, and apart from honing my singing skills, I would always be found beavering away with a sketch pad, drawing, drawing all the while. At my young age, I didn’t yet know that drawing is the basis of all good art, and painting at any cost, and although I seldom do say, a charcoal or graphite drawing as a finished piece. I am much more interested in the development of paint and the textures one can experiment within this medium. So I was doing myself a favour that would in the end pay dividends! In the meantime, singing would occupy the next thirty three years...

I don’t think I ever thought about painting throughout the first years of my singing career. Occasionally, if I was free, I would go back to my old school and paint a backcloth for Pirates, or some angels and swags and flowers for Christmas, but that was about all there was to my artistic endeavours. In 1998, during my time at Her Majesty’s Theatre in The Phantom of the Opera, I befriended a tenor whom I had known in passing for some years through a mutual friend, but now had the chance to make his acquaintance properly. Brendan MacBride was possessed of a very beautiful lyric tenor voice, and he really was a philanthropic creature in every way. It seemed there was nothing Brendan didn’t know or have some sort of interest in. He was also a geographer, a teacher of philosophy, and in every way he had perhaps one of the most profound effects on me of anybody I had known.

One evening, sitting in the local hostelry, we were expounding the virtues of the Renaissance, which is one of my favourite periods in art and like a bolt out of the blue, he said, “That’s it Nell! (Nellie is my nickname for many of my theatrical cohorts – after the great diva Dame Nellie Melba!) that’s what you must do! Get back to painting.” I demurred, suggesting it was far too long since I’d attempted anything, but he was having none of it and very quickly decided he needed a large portrait for the drop of his stairwell. After pulling myself back off the floor I protested. A portrait is arguably the most difficult thing to pull off with any success, and it is a daunting task to say the least. However, I like a challenge and so accepted with some trepidation, and arranged an evening where Brendan would sit for me where I could get some sketches done and take some photographs. The digital age is very useful for artists as the results are of course instantaneous and a handy tool for checking colour and form. It occurs to me that if they came back to life, Leonardo and Michelangelo may well have been as much photographers as artists!

Then the process starts. The process of staring at a blank canvas and wondering what to make of it all. As I said at the top of this article, how like a rehearsal is the task of creating any sort of art. You have ideas, you have some sort of talent, some sort of memory for detail and then you try and get the melting pot to produce something that is palatable, attractive  and at the very least,  interesting. A blank white canvas is, as far as I am concerned, one of the scariest things to deal with – much worse than opening night, but tackled it has to be if you’re to produce a painting. The first thing I do is to get rid of the white with a wash of paint thinly applied, usually as a base colour for whatever goes on top. For instance, Brendan is Scottish Irish, so autumnal browns and oranges were in my mindset. I am a painter who paints an impression. I am not a realist at any stretch. I find these portraits that could be a photograph depressing things to look at. They are wonderfully painted of course, but somehow soulless, turgid affairs, and if you’re painting a portrait, you’ve got to have soul. There must be something that makes the observer become engaged with the experience of looking through the paint and into the psyche of the sitter.  There we find another parallel with any kind of performing. The best singer or actor may not move the audience as much as an artist who might be described as scratchy perhaps, but does something in the performance that is ephemeral and other worldly. That may well be what a ‘star’ possesses above all other?

Anyway, I digress! I found the painting of Brendan took shape very easily and I was pleased with the results. Then there comes the most nerve wracking moment of all – the unveiling. I am not a nervous performer at all, I seldom suffer from nerves; adrenalin yes, but I could not function if I was nervous before a show. I agree wholeheartedly with Ethel Merman who said, “Why should I be nervous? I know all the notes and my lines. The costumes fit. What have I got to worry about?” Fortunately, the unveiling was a great success, and with that accomplished, I started to paint in earnest. The question often is in mind, what should I paint? I am interested in the human form beyond all other and am attracted to buildings, especially those of a theatrical nature. Frank Matcham, the famous theatre architect who produced more buildings of entertainment than any other is represented up and down the country by still a goodly amount, and one of my tasks will be to paint all of his auditoria – this, I have no doubt will take the rest of my life! I am a fast painter. I don’t like to hang about as I have a very low boredom threshold and invariably, once the painting is commenced, I cannot let it rest until it is complete. There are exceptions, but generally the way I work is to draw it up first, then almost before I’m satisfied that the drawing is up to scratch, I have to put some colour on the canvas to give me some sort of idea where we will go with it. I am a firm believer that the painting paints itself in any case. You apply the paint under some sort of illusionistic haze – well, in my case anyway!

As to subject matter, I am most interested in portraiture, and I especially enjoy painting buildings, but I do practically everything from landscapes, to perhaps my own favourite genre, abstract impressionism. I certainly am not interested in painting what is ‘there’, but rather, what I think there is to see. 

It also depends if you are working to commission when you will have a discussion with the person commissioning the work, which will obviously influence the end result. I like to work in oil or acrylic as I feel they give the most interesting textures and colour definition. I am mildly attracted to water colour and is something to be investigated in the future. I am not particularly good at it, but I will persevere! If one is commissioned to paint something, this is indeed a great honour, but can sometimes be difficult; you are somewhat at the mercy of your commissioner. You have to paint something perhaps you may not care for – someone’s dog perhaps, but that is the nature of the game. Some of the most successful paintings I have produced are ‘pop art’ representations of famous professional singers and actors. These sell well, and I have also had one stolen! This is perhaps an even higher honour than a commission, as the person who stole it wanted it so badly, they simply had to take it! Thankfully, the piece was recovered and now resides in its correct home!

Recently I have been painting a number of D’Oyly Carte artists in this style and they have been a great success. It isn’t a style I find particularly interesting to do, but if they are thought to be likeable, then who am I to disagree?

As I look back on a very enjoyable forty three years in show business, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had such a diverse singing career, appearing in major theatres and concert halls in the UK and around the world, I am now at a definite fork in the road. I could never give up singing, and now I have been painting in earnest for the last seven or eight years, I could never give that up either. It interests and puzzles me that I neither find singing easy, nor do I much like the process of singing. It’s something that is deep in my soul and must come out, and it is  the same with the painting. We do not choose these professions or pursuits; we are merely the tools for music and art to be brought to life. Not a day goes by when I am not doing some sort of research into a new work or a style of art – again, not a very pleasant experience but something that must be done, as important to me as breathing. A lot of people comment that it must be very relaxing to paint? Far from it. I find it intensely difficult, demanding, frustrating, but in the end immensely satisfying. 

There are times when either rehearsing music or painting away, the whole lot has gone lock, stock and barrel out of the window, only to be recovered when this particular bête-noir is exorcised! The two now run in parallel with equal importance, and will likely to so until the day comes when I hang up the vocal folds for ever.

Then, the art will come into its own once more -  triumphant!'


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