When in 1965 I finally left art college and began a career in teaching art I had every intention of continuing with my painting and, hopefully, making a success of it. It wasn’t to be; income from teaching was paltry so I resorted to taking a stall at the Bermondsey and Portobello antiques’ markets specialising in copper kettles and Swedish apothecary jars – again, not very lucrative, but, within two years I had found my metier: buying and researching Elizabethan portraiture and European medieval sculpture. Both disciplines were commercially unfashionable but I persevered and, by exhibiting at international art fairs in New York, San Francisco and the European Fine Art in Maastricht, I helped private clients and museums build collections of rare Elizabethan paintings, Italian Renaissance art and medieval sculpture.
I soon realised, however, that although I had spread my net wide by exhibiting art from antiquity to the Renaissance I had ignored contemporary art. So at my first exhibition at the Grosvenor House Fair in 1990, I committed the unforgivable heresy of showing 20th century art alongside ancient, Renaissance and medieval sculptures and paintings. But this was my epiphany: contrary to the art world’s accepted orthodoxy, I saw little need to specialise: art was either good or not – whether ancient or ‘cutting edge’ avant garde, it was quality that mattered.
Over the last ten or fifteen years the art dealing world has changed beyond recognition: the love that collectors shared for their prized objects has evaporated, no longer do you hear knowledgable collectors with a ‘good eye’ sharing their passions with others – now, an art hoarder is, to quote Oscar Wilde, ‘someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ In other words it’s simply investment – it’s commodity buying.
I decided, in view of the demise of the traditional values, to stop dealing, build a studio, take up my brushes and begin painting again. Friends ask whether I believe the last fifty years of dealing in and studying art of the past has been wasted but, on the contrary, I answer that the study of art from all ages and diverse cultures has helped my own art evolve – it’s an osmosis, a gradual absorption of thoughts and techniques which help guide and develop my work.
The subject matter I choose for my paintings is limited to just two main areas: still life and portraiture – not very adventurous perhaps, but both subjects depend on acute observation and effective transcription. As Goethe remarked: “ what I have not drawn I have not seen”. John Ruskin echoed these thoughts in his writings and his championing of the painter Turner, an artist who epitomised the belief in observation and the ability to convey onto canvas brush marks that never copy nature but transcribe it.
Much of contemporary art is either conceptual, installation and often, politically inspired whereas my work appears rather too traditional beside such potent ideas. But two of the greatest painters in the last two hundred years have been painters of still life: Chardin and Cezanne. Chardin wrote -“I must forget everything I have seen, and even forget the way such objects have been treated by others,” and Cezanne – “the day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.” My work stands little chance of inspiring a revolution but I firmly believe that by returning to, observing and transcribing the natural world, painting will undergo a revival, perhaps even a mini Renaissance freeing itself from the tired and overworked confines of conceptual, performance and installation art.
Richard Philp – Painter