Paris Street Residency: 3
10 September 2018
Commissions are strange animals. I love them and fear them in equal measure. How do you know the recipient is being honest when they see the finished item for the first time? How do you know they’ll be able to live with it for years? Especially when you know them, and will have to see them (and possibly your commission) on a regular basis for years – will they still love it when they’re 64?
So with the usual excitement and trepidation I agreed to a painting commission for the brilliant young Director of the University of Exeter Chapel Choir. His office is the Mary Harris Memorial Chapel of the Holy Trinity (to give it its full name) on Streatham Campus – a beautiful, modern building, consecrated in 1958 and given Grade II listed status in 1988. One of its most striking attributes is the stunning ceiling, painted by Thomas Monnington using patterns in geometry and light. There are no stained glass windows, but the light is filtered through high columns of glass bricks which distort the outside world and add to the calm quality inside.
I’ve sung, read lessons and listened to concerts and services in the Chapel, so I thought I knew it quite well, but I took the opportunity to visit in the summer when it was empty, to get a feel for the mood of the place when it’s not filled with sound. Sitting in different places, peering through the glass, finding visual references and resonances in the fittings and decor, I began to get a different sense of it, so my original ideas had to be let go. There’s a quietness and order to it which I hadn’t noticed before. I often paint while listening to music – sometimes one piece obsessively for weeks on end, so I asked Michael for his favourite pieces and chose one from them which seemed to fit the mathematics of the ceiling and the quiet grandeur of the place.
Layering the score and text under paint, I superimposed different parts of the chapel which I found interesting and played with the composition until it seemed to tell some kind of story. The hard bit about creating things is often knowing when to stop, but finally the visual harmonies seemed to come together.
He says he likes it.