Kent DuChaine is an American Blues singer and guitarist based in Fort Gaines, Georgia. I first met him at a gig 6 years ago during one of his popular UK tours and have since made it to several of his performances, which mix his exhilarating instrumental and vocal virtuosity with a zest for storytelling. In this portrait, Kent is playing his beloved 1934 National Steel guitar, nicknamed "Leadbessie". On his t-shirt is the famous image of Robert Johnson. In 1989, Kent began playing with the legendary bluesman Johnny Shines, and they performed over 200 shows together over a period of three years. Shines had travelled and played alongside Robert Johnson during the 1930s and both musicians are a big influence on DuChaine's Delta Blues sound. In this portrait I wanted to capture the character and soul of DuChaine, who still maintains a heavy touring schedule in his late sixties, as well as something of the love and lifelong dedication he has for Blues music itself.
I recently completed two book cover designs, a new edition of Niedermayer & Hart (originally published 2012), and its sequel, Wilhelm & Laszlo, the much anticipated second part of MJ Johnson’s trilogy.
The reason for creating a completely new cover for N&H was that, looking back, we realised that the original cover may inadvertently have given some potential readers the impression it was a different genre than horror, e.g. a work of historical romance, and we didn’t want to mislead in any way. We liked the way the 1st Edition looked, so readers may notice that the new edition retains the main image of a snow-covered Valle Crucis Abbey on its back cover.
I think that the old saying: ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is sound advice, but ironically, it is the very thing we so often do; if you are creating a book cover, your job, as I see it, is to reach the people most likely to enjoy reading it. Essentially, you want to grab their attention with an eye-catching design, and impel them to pick the book up, turn it over to read its blurb, then hopefully buy and read it! So, I welcomed the opportunity to redesign a cover more in keeping with the book’s qualities, and hope it will encourage more readers to discover these books.
The follow-on title to N&H, Wilhelm & Laszlo, cried out for a strong, graphic cover, yet needed to inform the reader that it was part of the same universe as its predecessor. We felt that as parts of a trilogy, the overall design and branding of all three should have a coherency, which is why the fonts and spine motifs are consistent. I’m really pleased with how the covers evolved and turned out; they are the result of five separate oil paintings, completed over the summer, then scanned at high resolution before adding the text.
It was great to work with my father once more to produce original cover artwork for his books, and to know that I am supporting the creative endeavours of an indie author, as well as the very small independent Odd Dog Press, which now has four worthwhile titles to its name.
I hope you like the covers and enjoy reading the books!
My recent painting: 'The Bullshiteers (with a nod to Hans Holbein)'
I completed it a couple of weeks before the US election - a satirical take on Holbein's 16th century masterpiece: 'The Ambassadors', which hangs in The National Gallery, London.
A limited edition of prints available on my PRINTS page.
Over the last few summers I’ve taken advantage of any really sunny mornings to make pictures in the garden. Wherever direct sunlight was falling on the ground, I’d place a number of picture frames, customized with clamps or clips holding them firmly together. Periodically throughout the day, I’d return to reposition the frames, following the course of the sun until it finally set above the houses. The frames would then be gathered up again and brought inside to be returned the next morning, and so on. There were no brushstrokes made. The sun was the key to making these pictures and I just needed to ensure the frames were in the right place for them to take shape. I was busy making anthotypes, an early form of photograph in which a delicate silhouette or photogram is created using only natural pigments exposed to sunlight. Pressed between the glass of the frame and a piece of stained paper, I placed any collected leaves or plant cuttings, as well as negatives printed onto acetate. This beautifully simple and satisfying process gradually creates a stunningly ephemeral image.
Digital photography has moved us into new ways of image making, but more and more artists are returning to the old science behind early photography as a way to revisit and explore the many creative possibilities.
The English scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel was a pioneer in actino-chemistry and wrote a paper in 1842 entitled – “On the action of the rays of the solar spectrum on vegetable colours, and on some new photographic processes.” His experiments used solutions including those derived from plants and flowers that were light-sensitive. I’ve made anthotypes from a range of pigments including fruit juices (the most successful being pure cranberry and blueberry), vegetable dyes (beetroot and red cabbage are good), coffee, red wine and spices.
Anthotypes are a great little Science/Art experiment to make with kids. The results aren’t instant, but as long as shadows aren’t being cast across your frame, you can leave one on the window sill during the week, and check on its progress at the end of each day. You’ll find that pigments have a range of different qualities and lightfastness. Beetroot, for example, turns yellow when exposed to the sun, which contrasts beautifully to the rich magenta colour of the original pigment, and you can see the exposed colour changing within a few days of sunshine. Blueberry juice on the other hand is very lightfast, and it can take weeks to get a really good contrast. Most pigments will need a few coats to get a really strong colour on the paper. The water left over from steamed red cabbage will give you an intense blue if you give the paper several coats. If you simply haven’t got the time to prepare pigments in the kitchen, you can buy pure juices and dyes off the shelf, but probably the most instant and mess-free way to start, especially for projects with children, is to buy a cheap multi-coloured pack of sugar paper. The pigments used in the manufacturing of this paper are bright and vibrant but are not lightfast, so they work perfectly for anthotypes. When finished, they can be kept and enjoyed in scrapbooks or as bookmarks.
You can, of course, produce anthotypes throughout the year indoors, if you use a UV lamp, but there is something special about the seasonal nature of making them in the sun, and the results are very rewarding. Some artists do exhibit anthotypes, but because the pigments used are so sensitive to any further exposure to light, they are usually viewed in galleries by lifting up a protective piece of black-out material. If exposed to direct sunlight the darker areas of an anthotype will gradually fade away entirely, a reminder that these are truly ephemeral images that appear and disappear in the light.
A couple of years ago I saw Gregory Porter perform at the Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells. After the performance Mr Porter kindly gave me permission to take some photos so that I might paint a portrait of him. I was there with my wife and parents, and we still talk about the great performance he and his accompanying musicians gave that evening. I believe that he is one of the most exciting musical artists of our time, and continue to be a fan of his work.
It has taken me a while to complete the portrait so I’m especially pleased to be able to post a picture of it on my website at last! The original currently has pride of place above our dining room table. I designed a pattern for the painting’s background which is almost completely obscured, but is still visible in a subtle way that I’m really pleased with.
Almost ten years ago I visited Prague, a wonderful city with lots to see and do, especially if you like history, art and music. There’s more than enough within the city to keep you occupied for at least a week, but I’d heard about something outside the capital worth travelling for: the Slovanska Epopej or Slav Epic, by Alfons Mucha. The artist devoted 16 years of his life to these canvases, finally completing them in 1928 when he was 68 years of age.
Mucha is probably best known for his distinctive Art Nouveau illustrations, advertisements and posters, sometimes unfairly perceived as “pretty” or “chocolate boxy”. But Mucha was a painter who combined both skill and complexity.
Since 2012, the Epic has been on display within the city of Prague, at a temporary exhibition space in the National Gallery’s Veletržní Palace, where the canvases were first viewed back in 1928. When I saw the paintings in 2007, however, there was considerable travelling involved, with a 4 hour “fast train” to the small town of Moravský Krumlov and a 5 hour return trip via Brno. It’s about 200km South-East of Prague in the South Moravia region, almost halfway to Budapest in Hungary, and closer to Vienna than to Prague. For almost 50 years the gigantic rooms of a dilapidated chateau in the heart of the town were home to the Slav Epic. The chateau itself had an air of unworldliness about it that reminded me of the Beast’s house in La Belle et la Bête by Jean Cocteau. The location itself is just 10km away from the town of Ivančice, Mucha’s birthplace.
The first thing that strikes the visitor about the paintings is how truly monumental they are, both in scale and realisation. Seeing them in the flesh is almost like being up close to a cinema screen, yet the closer you stand the more enticing and richly textured the surface becomes, with all its different hues and details becoming more clearly focused. As a young man Mucha had worked as an assistant in the workshop of the Kautsky-Brioschi-Burghardt Company in Vienna for two years, painting theatre stage-sets after failing to get into the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. He must have witnessed for himself the impact great pictorial scenes could have on an audience. The largest of the canvases (numbers 1 to 7), measure an astounding 8.10 X 6.10 metres – reminiscent in scale of a theatrical backdrop. The rest of the twenty are slightly smaller, though still massive by most standards, varying between 4 x 4 and 6 x 4 metres.
Mucha used egg tempera mostly, only employing oil for finer details. I sometimes wonder how many eggs Mucha must have cracked open to complete the Epic. The paintings have a very matt finish, common to tempera, which allows for a clear view of all the detail and texture across the surface, unobscured by the glossiness that might have resulted from oils. The canvases were imported from Brussels, where the material was originally produced for ship’s sails.
The idea for a cycle celebrating the history of the Slavs came to Mucha sometime at the end of the 19th Century, driven by a desire to show the Bohemian people their cultural origins. The last two paintings in the cycle have a distinctly political, even nationalistic feel, and it’s worth remembering that Czechoslovakia was still a young democratic republic when the paintings were completed. Mucha had been born in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it was only in 1918 when Mucha was 58 years old that Czechoslovakia became a sovereign state. A rich patron from the USA, Charles Crane, agreed to pay for all of Mucha’s expenses connected with producing the works and the French historian Ernest Denis, with his specialism in Slav history, offered Mucha his vast knowledge of the subject.
Mucha left the entire Slav Epic to the city of Prague in his will, on condition that a special pavilion was designed to display it. Unfortunately, this condition was not fulfilled after his death.
On 15th March 1939, German troops marched into Prague and took control of Bohemia and Moravia. Within six months the Second World War began in Europe. To prevent the Nazis either acquiring or destroying them, the Slav Epic canvases were rolled up and hidden. The 79 year-old Mucha was one of the first well-known public figures in Prague to be interrogated by the Gestapo, perhaps because he had become such a popular symbol and exponent of Czech democracy. While these gruelling interrogations took place, Mucha fell ill with pneumonia. He died from a lung infection a few months later in July 1939.
In 1954 the Slav Epic was brought to Moravský Krumlov, but not put on display to the public until 1963. The communist government in Prague had little interest in building a special pavilion for the paintings, and Mucha’s work was considered petit bourgeois and old-fashioned. The epic remained in Moravský Krumlov until 2012, only returned to Prague after a fierce argument and a controversial legal battle over where the paintings should reside.
The town of Moravský Krumlov had taken legal action to ban the relocation of the paintings on the grounds that Prague had no rights to do so after failing for so long to fulfil the artist’s conditions. Despite this resistance, along with Mucha’s surviving descendants and the Mucha Foundation raising concerns about the suitability of the exhibition arrangements in Prague, the collection was moved. Over a thousand local residents and art students turned out to protest and demonstrate in Moravský Krumlov, while the paintings were packed for transportation.
The Slav Epic is currently still on display at the National Gallery’s Veletržní Palace until December 2016, after which it may be travelling for exhibitions in Japan and China. Alfons Mucha’s wish that the epic be housed permanently in its own dedicated pavilion in the capital has still not been realised, and the future of the paintings is far from certain.
There is nothing quite like the Slav Epic anywhere else in the world; it is a magnificent achievement. Perhaps one day these incredible paintings will finally benefit from the kind of gallery their creator hoped for.
I recently read ‘Harry’s Last Stand: How the World My Generation Built is Falling Down, and What We Can Do to Save it’ by Harry Leslie Smith. This is a book I would highly recommend to anyone, particularly those who may feel, like myself, that there are gaps in their overview of recent British history. Harry Leslie Smith was 91 at the time this book went to print. He writes with the voice of authenticity, telling the story of his life from the 1920s up to the present day. He focuses on the social and political changes that have taken place in Britain over almost a hundred years - the period of his life.
One period in particular that Harry touches upon with poignant detail is the era in which my grandparents grew up, the Great Depression of the 1930s. The level of poverty and human suffering in this country during the Thirties makes shocking reading. The Britain that Harry recalls is often a frightening and daunting place. I felt unsettled, not by the grimness of Harry’s account, but by my own ignorance of a time still within living memory.
I feel I had a fairly well-rounded state education in the UK but I can’t remember touching upon this period in much detail. I was aware of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 which signalled the Great Depression in the States, but mainly remember learning about the great droughts that occurred during the following decade, sometimes known as the “Dirty Thirties”, and the struggles of the Dust Bowl farmers from John Steinbeck novels which I loved reading from the age of about 15. I certainly don’t remember being taught much about the implications of this economic disaster elsewhere in the world and in Britain, except from what I learnt about my family’s own history and by observing my grandparents’ thrifty and prudent ways, that no doubt had their roots in far more austere times than I or my own generation have ever known.
The revelation that I possessed such a blind spot in my understanding of our history has inspired me to read further and hopefully develop a broader picture for myself. This book has highlighted for me some striking parallels between the current prevailing culture of big business, banks and corporations with those equally powerful institutions that dominated in the period immediately preceding the so called Depression of the Thirties. The result of the Crash in 1929 signalled an economic catastrophe that gripped the world for the next decade and had far-reaching repercussions. Learning more about the Crash of 1929 and its crippling effect on ordinary people across the globe, whilst reading recent news stories of corporate greed and high-level tax avoidance, makes me wonder whether lessons were learnt at all.
I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between Harry Leslie Smith’s descriptions of being a child in Britain during those destitute years of the Thirties, and my grandfather’s early life. Born only a year apart, Danny Johnson and Harry Leslie Smith had similar experiences. Both boys’ fathers were coal-miners, Harry’s in the coalfields of Yorkshire, Danny’s in the coal-pits of South Wales. Like Harry’s father, my great-grandfather, also Thomas Johnson, found himself among the six million men who were unemployed in this country. Danny, like Harry, experienced tragedy during his childhood, losing his mother at the age of thirteen. He left school a year later and was fortunate to secure a printer’s apprenticeship for the next seven years. Living with a younger brother and a father who remained unemployed for around 15 years, and with no welfare-state to speak of at that time, my grandfather must have felt a heavy burden of responsibility upon his young shoulders.
He and his brother Elwyn joined the RAF during the Second World War, as did Harry Leslie Smith. They too must have shared in the collective hope of a new start at the end of that war, improved standards of living and universal health care, even for the least fortunate in society. It was the people of their generation that led the way towards the emergence of a National Health Service in 1948, the formation of the Welfare State as we today know it, based on ideas presented to Parliament in the early Forties by Liberal William Beveridge. Most of us in this country were actually delivered into this world by NHS staff, and our families have enjoyed the safety and benefit of free health-care throughout our lives. It is only through reflection and by developing some understanding of the precariousness of working-class existence in this country before World War Two, that we can grasp what Beveridge meant when he described their plight and the need for reform as an “overwhelming need”. The NHS and the welfare state grew from an enlightened social and civil attitude of responsibility towards our fellow human beings in this country. Harry Leslie Smith expresses this clearly:
“The creation of the NHS made us understand that we were in truth our brother’s keeper and that taxation benefits everyone through maintaining not just our roads and sewers but the health of our children, workers and elderly”.
Reiterated throughout the book, are Harry’s misgivings that we should forget, or allow ourselves to remain ignorant of the fact that deprivation and poverty was the lot of so many in our land. It is worth remembering that most of the rights we take for granted were gained after a long hard fight. It was through the grit, determination, courage and conviction of thousands of families with histories like my own that brought about these fundamental changes.
Reading this book reminded me that we must not become complacent, that we must resist inequality and that we must work against the gross disparity of wealth and power. In ‘Harry’s Last Stand’, Harry Leslie Smith has given us a powerful personal testimony.
I’ll end with the words of the folk singer and songwriter Adam McNaughton; the lyrics are from his song ‘Thomas Muir of Huntershill’:
“When you're called for jury service, when your name is drawn by lot
When you vote in an election, when you freely voice your thought
Don't take these things for granted, for dearly were they bought ...”
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