Friday, 4 January 2013

How Jesus Got Onto The Tube. And More.

 Today, I am going to introduce you to a phase of painting from the 1980s.  At this point, I was unmarried, and living in a flat in Chiswick.  My children started to come at the end of this decade, but here, I had time to enjoy painting and thinking, despite having a very full time job at an Economic Consultancy.  I know.  I was there for light entertainment.  Here is what was happening to the Artist Extraordinaire then.

The magic of religious Italian Renaissance painting has always been an inspiration to me. In the mid 1980s, I began to want to apply some of the imagery from these old masters, to a more modern interpretation of Christian Biblical stories.  I had long been interested in combining the Divine with the Mudane. 

Annunciation by Fra Angelico, from about 1437
Here is an example of the kind of painting that I wanted to use. It is an Annunciation, which means the moment that God sends the Angel Gabriel to the young unmarried girl called Mary, in a small town of Nazareth, to tell her that she is going to be the mother of God.  It is a very popular subject in religious art. The figures here are of the Angel Gabriel on the left, and the Virgin Mary on the right.  Their poses are gentle and delicate as the Angel Gabriel leans in towards Mary, who crosses her elegant hands and leans back towards Gabriel.  He speaks golden words to her, and she understands them.  He is telling her that she is chosen to become the Mother of God, and that she will have a baby and call him Jesus.  How precise the folds of his robe are.  How beautiful the gold patterns that follow each fold and give him form as he stands before Mary.  And behind Gabriel, in the dark garden with the jewel like flowers, is a scene of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.  We are reminded of the sin of mankind in the background, with the salvation of mankind in the foreground.  Above Mary is the Holy Spirit painted in the form of a dove, and in a niche of the gloriously precise architectural structure in which Gabriel and Mary are placed, is a painted small statue of God the Father, his hand held up in a blessing.

Here is another painting of an Annunciation by Fra Filippo Lippi from around the same time.  The symbolism in the painting tells us what we need to know.  If we cannot read, the imagery in this painting will make it clear to us what we are seeing.  The hands of God send a dove towards Mary, this is the Holy Spirit that will enable Mary to carry the Son of God.  Gabriel holds a lily, a symbol of purity, and virginity, for Mary. There are lilies in a pot at Mary's side, and both figures have a golden halo of light around their heads, telling us that they are divine.

Annunciation by Fra Filippo Lippi from about 1445 - 1450
I love the sense of peace in these paintings.  The figures are gracious and posed as if they are not entirely comfortable, and they inhabit a space that is not quite right.  The lines of perspective, a new phenomenon for artists at that time in the Italian Renaissance, are nearly perfect but not quite.  So we have a feeling of style, beauty, and slight bafflement.  The figures are clothed in fabric that falls in wonderful folds around their bodies, but the drawing of the bodies are also not quite right.  This adds charm and wonder for me.  I love the detail of Mary's cloak, and notice that her orange middle looks too large, as if already pregnant.  I love the precision of the furniture and the slightly odd lines of the table on which a book sits, by her left elbow.   This kind of art spoke - speaks - volumes to me, and in the early 1980s, I wanted to see what I could do with it.

I am going to show you an icon now.  An icon is a serious art form, the very preparation for painting and the painting itself, is considered a prayer.  The images are always painted in the same way, and when it is finished, each icon is a venerable,  revered, object of devotion.  Please look at these images with your heart.  I cannot tell you how beautiful I find them.  No, they are not real, and yes, sometimes the faces look as if they need surgery, but look at the lines that go into the expressions.  They are long and smooth.  They suggest gravity, they suggest gentleness, they suggest authority.  They are hard to do, try and copy one and see just how difficult it is.  We think that because it is not realistic for us, that it must be dashed off in no time at all.  Wrong.  They take many hours of preparation, many hours of prayer and a dedicated hand and eye to complete.  They can take months to finish.  There mystery and magic and I am moved by it every time.  Look at this.

Virgin and Child icon
We know this is an intimate moment.  Mary and the child Jesus are so close. He gazes up at her, his tiny arms spread out to hug her, and she looks at us with her sad expressive eyes.  Her hands hold him with tenderness and ease.  Just look at the Christ child's foot.  A perfect drawing of a tiny foot.

And now, look at this one

Jesus Christ Life Giver.
The paint is smooth, the lines elegant, and everything is painted with attention to detail so that we can see the lines in Jesus' hand and on his fingers.  We see the bloom in his cheeks, and the frown on his forehead; and look at the graceful line on his neck that should be his collar bone.  Placed with confidence, painted with confidence, it doesn't matter that it is in the wrong place.

And so.  Armed with such inspiration, I began to paint my own versions.  I wanted to keep the simplicity, I wanted to keep the gentleness, and I wanted to take as many of the symbols and details of style that I could.  And so.  I took Jesus, and kept him dressed as if he was in an icon and thought, what can I do with him?  What if, I thought one day as I sat on a tube train, Jesus got on the train and went to visit his mother?  And I came up with an idea.

What if Jesus sat on a crowded train and got squashed by everyone, and no one even noticed?  From this idea came Jesus on the Tube, and from this painting, has come endless interest and requests for information as to what it is all about.  It is a tiny painting, only 5" x 5". 

Jesus on the Tube, the original painting
Jesus sits on a crowded train, hands crossed, dressed as if in an icon, looking directly at you.  He is wearing a halo, because he is holy, and his face is painted with lines that are similar to an icon.  The people next to him do not want to know.  One lady on his left has her eyes closed, and the man on his right, is reading the FT as if it would save his life.  Beside him, an old lady in glasses stares straight ahead and avoids any chance of eye contact.  She clutches her handbag on her lap and keeps her knees resolutely together.  Jesus happens to be at Knightsbridge station because when I was taking notes on a train for this painting, we stopped long enough at Knightsbridge station for me to sketch it and get the details.  Jesus is looking at you, and you cannot say you didn't see him.   No one else on the train has the slightest intention of looking at him, and we will never know if they suspected that the Son of God was sitting there, on their train, in their carriage, that day. I wonder if Jesus will sit on this train for ever, or at least until someone says, I know who you are! and welcome him back.  The great thing is, you can see him. You and he look directly at each other, every time. 

This painting has been all over the world.  It has been used for all sorts of educational purposes, by the BBC, by Alpha International, by RE Today, by various and many churches and it has been part of the National Curriculum for schools.  I have given workshops on it, I have repainted the original on commission just occasionally, I have answered hundreds of wonderful questions from school children on all sorts of things to do with the painting (like, what's it all about then?  What's he doing?  Why's he there?) and I have received many different interpretations on it over the years from all sorts of people in all sorts of countries.  I will never sell this original but I take commissions, and paint portraits of families (or individuals, or friends) next to a Jesus of their choice, at a station of their choice, with each person holding something that represents who they are.  For example, one lady held a brochure for a Greek holiday and an orchid, another man had a biking helmet and a kite, people have had a French Horn, or a hamster, or a special bag.  Here are two examples of Jesus on the Tubes.  See how each person has something with them to say who they are, and often they are dressed in their most favourite clothes.

The Glassock Family

Carmel and Natalie Suthons

So.  Jesus on the Tube gave way to other images that were very much placed in this world.

The Madonna Diptych showed how difficult it is to keep one's dignity with a new baby.  In the first image, called the 4am Madonna, Mary is shown holding a new baby who is absolutely ready to play.  It is 4am.  Mary has bags under her eyes, this is all so new to her, and a pot of tea is sitting behind her, suggesting that she has been awake a good long while now, and baby is still not tired.  Some baby clothes are hanging in the background, and I can confess here that this baby is a portrait of my own new born daughter, and that the Madonna was very much me. I have painted my daughter's clothes in the background, and the down turn to the Madonna's mouth is very close to my heart.  The second image is the Breast Feeding Madonna.  What we are not told before we learn to breast feed a newborn baby, is how much it can hurt.  In this painting, the delighted infant latches on with enthusiasm and poor Mary has to almost cross her eyes.  Behind her, the pot of tea.  And Mary is wearing the newest of new maternity bras.  Just like mine.  Another whole new learning curve.  These two images were painted on very small blocks of wood, in oils.  The 4am Madonna has been reproduced in many publications, and is the front cover to a wonderful book on being a new mother called "4am Madonnas. Meditations and Reflections for Mothers and Mothers-to-be" by Rachel Barton. This diptych was bought by a very interesting couple from America.

Madonna Diptych, the 4am Madonna and the Breast Feeding Madonna

This next painting is called Easy God.  This is painted with all the majesty of an icon of God the Father.  It is a powerful image of a thunderous Almighty, full of power, and full of compassion.  But he is wearing orange, the colour that identifies Easy Jet.  At the time of painting this, I was listening to the owner of Easy Jet discuss other ideas to which the prefix Easy could be attached.  I thought, wouldn't it be handy to have an Easy God, who we can pull out quickly in times of stress, with none of the fuss of following a faith, going to church, dealing with all the paper work.  If I painted an Easy God and dressed him in the readily identifiable orange, then we have a very good new easy access God.  Fabulous.  So this was painted, and it is a large painting.  About 3' by 2'.  None of your small precious icons here, a large, can't be missed, easy access, easy to recognise, Easy God.  This was bought by a very thoughtful husband for his wife, as a present.  A good man, I say.  I know the wife, and she is a very witty and spiritual lady.

Easy God.  A kind of pop up version for emergencies. This is slightly unfinished, there was writing on the book in the end, but I don't remember what it was.  

I couldn't resist this next one.  C. Pantocrator.  A man goes into a church to gaze at an icon on the wall only to find the icon gazing back at him.  He is stunned.  I love it.   A small painting on wood, bought by a very devout man up North. C Pantocrator is short for Christ Pantocrator, Christ Ruler of All, and I liked how C Pantocrator looked like an ordinary name, which the poor man looking on may have thought was the artist's name.  In fact it is the title of the painting.  I have given Christ all the stylised lines evident in an icon, and the rosy cheeks, and I have used some of the decorative patterns on his tunic and behind him.  What is different here is Christ's expression.

C. Pantocrator.

 And finally I will end with an image of the Madonna Waving with a Cup of Tea.  This is a tiny painting, about 2" x 2".  It is so small that it takes a while to notice that Mary is waving, and Jesus is holding a cup of tea.  This was sold to man in London who came back to check, because he wasn't sure if he had seen a cup of tea or not.  I got very carried away with this kind of new icon painting, and produced some fairly unusual paintings.  They were always produced with respect and a sense of humour, and always in keeping with the spirit of the icons and the Italian Renaissance paintings that I so love.

Madonna Waving With A Cup Of Tea.


  1. A brilliant account of the development of JOTT and related paitings. Educative,anusing and well written. Should be a sunday paper colour supplement article, Alan

  2. This is rather epic