Tuesday, April 28, 2009


When we lived in Amsterdam our house on the Keizersgracht was often filled with visitors, and we took them to the one of our useful places to visit, the Willet-Holthuysen Museum (above) on the Herengracht, which had been built about 1685. The facade was remodeled in 1739 in the Baroque style. In 1895 the house and all its contents were bequeathed to the city of Amsterdam and has been a museum since. 

The point I'm getting around to is that I have just discovered this photo of what was the most beautiful room, high-gloss blue with gilded molding, with a superb piece of grisaille by Jacob de Wit above the chimney piece. The blue is in my memory a wonderful cobalt, heavily varnished, and the gilding was bright - none of that aged, knocked back nonsense. It was stunning, and it links with my loosely connected themes of Baroque architecture and decorative painting, whether contemporary with that style or modern times. 

20th century decorative painting had a raucous and unseemly end in the 1980s, and many of us were grateful. Which is why it is such a relief to rediscover Rex Whistler, Martin Battersby et al - the Masters. I knew about them of, course, but one day, there they were right at the front of my mind wanting to be dealt with. 

In fact, its wrong of me to lump Rex Whistler, Martin Battersby, Frank Brangwyn, Etienne Drian, etc with the faux finishers of the 1980s, and not only in terms of era. Etienne Drian, by the way, painted panels for Elsie de Wolfe's Villa Trianon.  These men were artists. 

There was a time when what we know as faux finishes were simply part of the repertoire of the house painter and somehow after the 1960s migrated to the province of the "artist." Again, when living in Amsterdam I took a course of marbleizing. This was not the vague dabbing with a sponge or the flick of a brush, this was imitation of actual stone and there was no room for self-expression. The teacher was the owner of a painting company, all the other students were house painters, and they were so amused by me and at the same time proud that such a quotidian skill was being taken up by the likes of me - kunstenaaren and ontwerpers. They were also amazed that imitating marble in paint, was being part of a tradition and craft that certainly traced its roots to the ancient world.

Faux finishing didn't and doesn't quite cut it - the democracy of creativity is unfortunately not short-lived. Visit any craft show and see what I mean. Creativity is not just being awash in emotion and seeking-self expression: it is training; it is study; it is respecting the qualities inherent in self and material; it is knowing antecedents and one's place in the continuum. 

It is also knowing when to stop a rant! Click on the image below and appreciate the superb quality of the workmanship. Wallow for a while. 

To Luca and Jack, who only today reminded me that "grownups can never see what's right in front of them," a very big thank you! 

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