History Paintings at St. Peters Church Bedford 8-29 November
All of the work in this exhibition is the product of living and working with collections of photographic images. The paintings are attempts to explore my relationship with those images and develop my understanding of them. The subjects come form my working life over the past few years, which has involved researching for exhibitions and the redevelopment of The Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, and the illustration of a Graphic History book on the history of the Nevada Test Site.
In 2007 I came across the book 100 Suns by Michael Light of archive images of atomic testing in the desert and at sea carried out by the US. It was suggested to me that the colourful images of explosions could be a subject for painting, but I was drawn instead to the images of people sitting watching these tests in shorts, shirts, desert boots, and a pair of thick back goggles. I had to try drawing these, and completed about half a dozen pictures on this theme. I posted them on my blog and moved on to subjects closer to home, painting my friends and local situations. In 2011, Andy Kirk, history professor in Las Vegas, Nevada, contacted me about using some of those testing images in a lecture. A year later he got in touch again to ask if I would be interested in working on a book on the history of the test site.
We are now in the middle of producing that book which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2015. That has meant that I have spent many hours looking at and drawing from archive photographs from all aspects of atomic testing, but the ones of people watching still had the strongest lure as painting subjects, alongside the surreal 'Doomtown' images of houses and mannequins that were placed at distance from the detonation to analyse the effects of atomic explosions on domestic materials. In 2013 I had an exhibition of my 'Test Site Studies' at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.
My work researching and curating displays at The Higgins introduced me to the fantastic resource of social history photographs within the collection and also some of those held by the record office, BLARS. Initially I was taken by the photographs of airships that I encountered while working on the R100 & R101 exhibition in 2010 and the painting of R34 at New York dates from that time.
Later, as the redevelopment of The Higgins was under way I researched many different areas as I helped the team develop new displays. I loved the photographic collections and would spend my time exploring them looking for images of collectors or old Bedford. Some images would jump out at me, such as The May Queen, which ended up becoming a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy this summer (not on display here), and The Lacemaker (before she married the collector of folk songs), both painted in 2013. I didn't know much about these images but the process of painting is a process of developed looking and can inform in other ways. Knowing the name of the subject only tells one so much, and when confronted with these images we instinctively explore them for meaning. The Lacemaker is based on a photo from the 1950s of a woman who, still alive today, is involved with lace making, and the photograph accompanied other donations to the Higgins collections.
The pictures in the exhibition are mostly to do with the R101 disaster, the R34 – the first airship to cross the Atlantic – which flew from Cardington in 1919, and there are two pictures dating from the First World War, of those I know the names, and would love to know the stories of those people. For me these paintings explore the distance between those times and now, and the unknowable in every image: what happened immediately before, or after? What were they thinking? How were they feeling? Were that married couple in The Wedding Portrait separated by the horrors in the trenches?