Inky Goings On.

27 May, 2008, 1:54 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

On Friday, I visited the National Portrait Gallery, primarily to see the Brilliant Women exhibition. The exhibition was predictably fantastic, but one portrait I happened upon in the portrait stayed with me over the weekend. As part of  “The Artist’s Process”, Andrew Tift’s portrait “Neil and Glenys Kinnock” was displayed, along with notes and primary sketches that informed the final piece. I’m a tremendous fan of both Neil and Glenys, no doubt in part to them feeling “local” to me whilst growing up in South Wales, but it was the background of the painting that really drew me in.

Taken from Andrew Tift's site.

The essence of the portrait, and of the sitters seemed encapsulated in the ornaments and books behind them, from the “Votes for Women” statuette, to the numerous Mandela representations, even including a model of the Aneurin Bevan statue on Cardiff High Street (though without the mandatory traffic cone hat bestowed upon him weekly by students).

Many paintings that incorporated books or writing seemed to treat them as an afterthought or secondary prop, with the titles scrawled on in hurried and uneven script barely, if at all, legible. A portrait of Pinter I noted used a shelf of books directly behind the playwright’s head to reflect his profession, but not one had a title. The Tift portrait, conversely, included every title meticulously. I read the bookshelf from left to right, noting a bank of classic European novels, followed by the more telling handful of political books, predominantly on equality and the labour movement. The detail in the background struck me as being highly personal: a nosey peek into the possessions that defined these admirable public figures, much like poking through a friend’s bookcase.

I decided to look around my own house, to see what our own trinkets said about the two of us. A quick scurry around the house showed up nothing – I realised we didn’t have any of the personality-laden ornaments of the portrait, just books, files, notebooks and craft implements. It seemed to come down to a feeling of impermanence in our surrounding – the house is rented, and as with many rented houses, we’re forbidden from altering the decor or furniture, which in turn prevents us from feeling “at home”. We’re both aware that we’ll be moving within a year or two, dependent on jobs and education and therefore only seem to collect things that are functional immediately. The predominant question we’ll ask ourselves on buying anything, even food, is “have we got space?”. The utterance most likely to follow either one of us putting anything decorative back on the shelf is “if we had our own place…”

In the meantime, I’ll look forward to having shelves that I can place objects like those depicted on, rather than piling them high with lecture notes and novels. Have you got any interesting ornaments?


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Pictures! I’m lucky enough to have a picture rail in my house, so I can hang pictures with fishing twine and those hook things that go over the rail and nothing is damaged. I’ve some prints that are special to me in various ways and also a carpet! It was my 21st present from my parents and is cleverly stuck with velcro to a block of wood that is then hung from the picture rail, and it hangs at the head of my bed like a huge red head-board covered in flowers, birds and doorways. I love it.

That said, I’m sure your academic and crafty muddle says a lot more about you than you’d think. I was always intrigued by the way the shoeboxes we called rooms in halls quickly took on a message about their inhabitant: not necessarily something the student had chosen, but very expressive, nonetheless.

I really enjoy that picture, too. I don’t usually like very figurative paintings, but the magpie in me is really drawn to that level of detail. I love spying on all the paraphernalia of people’s homes and daily lives; what a privilege to be able to do it in the Kinnocks’. I love that informal mix of dainty teapots arranged in an orderly row and children’s photos blu-tacked to the wall. And I think my boyfriend’s (Welsh) dad has that very rugby-player figurine knocking around somewhere….

Comment by Philippa

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