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City of 100 Spires - a point of view!

Every painting has a story. I sit in our living room, surrounded by paintings and sketches and photographs. Each one shows something different.

When I look at a painting, I think of the person who created it. Whether in a museum or a church, I walk up to the artwork, right up close, and I look at the brushstrokes, the fine hatching lines, and the layers of glaze, - and I think of the person whose hand did this years, decades, or many centuries ago.

So welcome to the story of this painting.

Prague, The Watcher - Acrylic on canvas 60 x 90cm

I enjoy looking at art which others produce. And I consider it a bonus when people explain their creative process, or even simply give some context or background to their artwork.

While I am painting my mind wanders. I think of places where I have lived or visited. I often listen to audiobooks but, even then, my mind drifts at the mention of a word. So be prepared to ramble in different directions as I take you to Prague.

'Prague, The Watcher', is a painting which I completed last month. The Watcher, is the man, or perhaps it is me, maybe it is the cats, or even the resting gargoyle. It can of course be you. We can gaze over a city and be presented by the same view. But what each one of us sees will always differ. Our minds jump from church to tower, from light to shadow. How we see something is greatly impacted by our state of mind. Our minds may be happy, sad, angry, calm, frightened, or at peace,... and of course this greatly influences our opinions of the picture before us, the movie which we watch or the book which we read.

Different points of view are interesting. Seeing things differently, and appreciating how others see the same thing, adds to our collective wisdom. I admire people who think for themselves, people who do not blindly follow the dogma of the day.

Einstein was such a person. His genius was not a result of what he learned or what he knew, but rather what he thought. Einstein lived in Prague (1911-1912) and he lectured in physics at The German University, a branch of Charles University. Opened in 1349 and founded by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, the university complex is in the old town, near the twin gothic spires at the centre of my painting.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”


The Clementinum Library

The Clementinum Library (above) was founded by the Jesuits in Prague. It later became part of Charles University and has more recently been adopted by the National Library of The Czech Republic. The building includes an observation tower. In 1600, Johannes Kepler joined Tycho Brahe in Prague under the patronage of Emperor Rudolf II. Brahe meticulously recorded the movements of the stars and planets in the sky and Kepler first deduced that the motion of planets had to be elliptical.

In 1600, Prague was a centre of scientific curiosity and discovery. Every great city seems to have had at least one period when great minds from different cultures and backgrounds met and discussed and cooperated. Kepler believed that he benefited from the tolerance of different view points in Bohemia. He was a Protestant and also a person who believed in the teachings of Copernicus, that the planets orbit around the Sun. And yet he was welcomed by The Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II.

Kepler once wrote that - "Prague is convenient for my studies because of the lively intercourse between nations" . In Prague he had people to learn from, technicians who made astronomical instruments and patrons who were prepared to listen.

I first visited Prague in late 2000. I was working in Kosova at the time, where I met Lucie. She invited me to Prague where she was then working. As a restorer of old books and manuscripts, one of her work locations was among the archives of the Clementinum Library.

On my first day in the city, Lucie brought me to Hradčanská Station. From there we walked up the many steps towards the Castle plateau above. Lucie would not allow me to look around at the view until we reached the final step.

We spent a Winter in Prague before moving to Kolkata in the Spring. A traditional Czech January with hard frosty mornings, foggy haze, fresh snow on the rooftops and deserted streets. I read some short stories, by Jan Neruda, while sitting in the bars and cafes of Nerudova Street. I was able to look at the buildings which he described, and to picture his characters looking out of the windows. The Golden Horseshoe, The White Swan, The Red Lion,... and The Two Suns where Neruda lived, and where he wrote his tales. I was relaxed and taking a break from work. There was no internet and there were no smartphones to distract me.

The Two Suns

I could get immersed in the stories. Perhaps if I had picked up the same book at another time and in another location, I would have failed to complete the first chapter. I am easily distracted.

My painting depicts the view from Hradčanská, looking towards the Baroque Church of St. Nikolas and the twin spires of Týn Church beyond.

Just as New York is associated with skyscrapers, and Rome conjures up images of ancient ruins, the city of Prague is synonymous with the Gothic and Baroque architecture of medieval Europe. A paradise for artists and writers and movie makers. Full of magic and mystery and forgotten legends.

Some say that gargoyles were intended to put the fear of hell in people. I imagine that this may be partly true. In which case it may be wise to view these figures as comical creations. Personally I do not believe in hell but I strongly believe that the concept of hell is, itself, cruel and evil. My gargoyle is harmless, casting a cold, cynical eye over the historical centre of Prague.

My Gargoyle has borrowed his pose from his cousin on Notre-Dame in Paris (below). This one always interested me, since I first encountered him in national Geographic many years ago. I could never figure out if he was supposed to be an angel, or a demon, as he seemed to be designed to amuse and not to frighten. So I imagined that he used to be a joyful cherub as a young child, later a brave angel, but finally becoming

a bored cynic as the centuries passed by.

The gargoyle in my painting is more demon than angel, but I don't think he believes in the devil either. He knows that he is a decoration, just part of the landscape, like a Disney creation. I always thought that gargoyles are incongruous on religious temples. There is surely some connection between these mischievous, figures and early

'pagan' traditions of employing terrifying images to guard important sites. Seeing a devilish character gaping down from the buttress of a cathedral is like discovering 'Síle na Gig' greeting us from the walls of a Catholic Church in rural Ireland.

The saints will watch over this building but, just to be sure, they added some demons for increased protection.

When Lucie and I worked in Calcutta /Kolkata we lived in a small apartment on the roof of a tall building, maybe 8 stories high. In the centre of Calcutta the rooftops are often the best place to escape the noise and the fumes and to share fresh air with the crows. In my hammock I dreamed of living in a simple, cosy cottage in a rural location. A house that is off a quiet road and down a winding lane. These are not so easy to find any more in Czech but, a couple of years later, we found it. This is where we still live, with our menagerie of pets, and where I now paint.

Howrah Bridge, Kolkata.

It is a bit unfair that I represent the city of Kolkata with a photo of smog. It is still, for me, the friendliest city in the world. But there are months when it is extremely hot and humid with torrential rainstorms and flooding, and other months when you taste the diesel in the air. These periods are separated by a month or two in early Winter which is the best time to visit. I loved Kolkata but I would not want to live there. I must paint it sometime soon.

For many country lovers the best way to view a city is from a distance. In 1992 I toured with friends around Manhattan Island on a boat and we agreed that it was the best way to see the city. It was certainly the safest. A few years ago I lived in Islamabad for 6 months, and hiking up the Himalayan foothills every Saturday with a colleague from Switzerland, to look down on the city below, prepared me for the following weeks work in a stressful UN office. But cities are like landscapes, like jungles. So much going on. They are busy all day, alive in the evening and briefly silent at dawn. It is the time when cats and gargoyles watch over us.

I call my gargoyle Pavel, because it is a common name in Czech and I associate it with a wise, playful person. It just fits. My brother in law recently bought a garden gnome who is called Charlie. Charlie was a very cynical character who worked with me in the Channel Tunnel. It just fits. They seem to be more amused by us, than we are by them.

The domes are of made of copper and Pavel is cast in bronze. Bronze is mostly copper with about 10% tin added. A development! Bronze has been used by people for about 5000 years but copper was in use by the earliest civilisations over 11,000 years ago. And we never talk about a Copper Age?!

I always loved the green patina that these metals acquire with age.

This reminds me of a Summer job when I was 15, working on an archaeological dig to excavate the site of an early Christian Monastery in Drumcliff, County Sligo. One day I uncovered a bronze tunic pin. It had been buried for over 1000 years. It had a subtle green patina, like my gargoyle, and was in perfect condition after centuries lying undisturbed in the compact damp clay.

A busy cityscape can often be best portrayed through a milky haze. A few years ago I painted the skyline of Cesky Krumlov (below), another heavenly location to inspire 'Imagineers'.

Cesky Krumlov, Winter Evening. Acrylic 50 x 70 cm

I scrolled through paintings of skylines, looking at how different artists tackle the challenge. I already had my inspiration in mind and I found nothing that appealed to me more than the skylines of Disney movies, not just animated feature films but also movies with real sets and character actors. One of my personal art heroes is Peter Ellenshaw. He painted most of the scenes in Mary Poppins (below) which portray the city of London in Edwardian times.

These background scenes were painted on glass sheets with blank areas where the actors and sets would appear. When the film and the background were combined the illusion of reality was created. Ellenshaw and Walt used this technique to stunning effect for decades, and many of us watched their movies never realising that the pirate ship, the mountain, the distant castle, .. was just an illusion. This technique is known as 'matte painting'. For me, paintings which depict a scene with a sense of reality, but also some added magic, have always appealed to me the most.

When working on a painting my mind wanders over time and place. This is why I find painting in a studio therapeutic. These days I do not travel but every aspect of a painting takes me back in time and takes me to many places.

When forming the clay tiles on the foreground roof of my painting, I thought of the different shades of clay on the tiles of Dubrovnik. I visited the Croatian city, with Lucie in 2000, just after it had been restored following the Balkan conflicts. I also recalled working in Honduras a year earlier. There I sat with a local artisan making traditional roof tiles from clay, probably just as they had been made in Mediterranean lands long before the concept had crossed the Atlantic, many centuries later. While seated on a stool, the artisan took a flat slab of wet clay and dropped it over his leg, allowing the clay to fall to the sides. Thus making a 'half-pipe' shape which was slightly narrower at the knee. Exactly the shape required to link the tiles effectively. Simple! Memories connect.

Clay tiles were used in the very earliest cities in China and the Middle East and, much later, they were adopted by the Greeks and the Romans. But in Ireland we preferred grass thatching or slate if one could afford it. I am sure that both have their advantages. I often wonder why some styles travel and others don't! And then I look at my canvas and see that the roof is finished!

My two elder cats, Mata and Sparky are always around. They are the older 'ladies' in the family, since two younger male cats joined us. When watching 'The Crown' I started calling them your majesty - Sparky is Princess Margaret and Mata The Queen - not really of course but they do seem to get the joke! The younger cats are named Walter and Jessie. We were watching Breaking Bad at the time.

And in the morning I greet them at the window with the royal personal greeting - Hello you!

The Queen passed away as I started this painting. Time is part of any paintings story and this marks the date of this work. Her funeral was held at Westminster Abbey. This little guy (below) was watching the ceremony from the walls above.

Gargoyle - Westminster Abbey

I started this painting to bring to the annual Open Art Fest in Prague which I had attended last year. After starting the painting I received a message that the exhibition had been cancelled. A disappointment of course to the 200 or so exhibitors like myself. Above all it was a place to meet like minded people.

So 'Pavel' might never make it to Prague, but he doesn't really care. He is watching the sun rise over the city of 100 spires.

Thank you for making it to the end. It was not so much an explanation of my techniques but more a mosaic of memories. But perhaps, that is the story of this painting. I look forward to rambling again with you soon!

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Thank You


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