A gleaming fighter jet, polished to a mirror finish, rests between columns in the heart of the main hall in Tate Britain.
Adults and children alike flock around it looking at their reflections, marvelling at the craftsmanship, attracted by the sheer impact of it’s presence in these unexpected surroundings. For me this scene brings back 1950’s childhood memories of spitfires hanging in The Imperial War Museum, of rows of tanks at the army museum in Bovington. Of glistening suits of armour in The Tower of London, The Wallace Collection and Hatfield House. Of the braid and colour of military uniforms at the United Services Museum in Whitehall, which my mother had to pretend to enjoy when taking me on birthday treats around the museums. This before I was old enough to go off on drawing trips on my own. In those colourless post war days, the scarlet and blue uniforms of the Guards on sentry sung out against London’s soot and war stained buildings. I have another distant memory on holiday of being stunned into silence by powerful vision of a working paddle steamer engine. Impressed then by what I would now describe as the ‘sculptural’ power of such man made bits of engineering and design, another person might have dreamed of making an equivalent one day. I wanted to draw to keep the experience alive.
Looking back, I might have seemed an odd child. With my sticky up hair, squinting through national health specs, short of stature clutching my sketch book I bore an uncanny resemblance to the black and white, Picture Post, image I had seen of Stanley Spencer reeling off drawings on a loo roll in Clydeside Shipyards.
Long before I became aware of painting and sculpture in galleries, like the rest of us I suspect, I was interested in sounds, people, events, places and “Things”. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the museum curators and the collectors who wanted to share the engineering, invention and beauty of ‘Things”. When asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up I used to say “a museum curator” – this, so that I could spend my time amongst all that amazing stuff! Would I call the person with the energy and enthusiasm to bring ‘Things” to Tate Britain an artist, a collector or a curator? Are the museum curators ‘artists’ for allowing things to be displayed in their museums. What’s the difference between an Art Gallery and an Art Museum. All these questions end up pointlessly tying a brain in knots. However what Fiona Banner, who polished the aircraft and initiated the project and combined with the museum have done, is presented, or maybe represented, for us a beautiful object. So here I am ‘re-representing’, encircling a jaguar jet plane, at The Tate Gallery, with pad and pen revelling in the rows of flush rivets, sweeping lines and distorted reflections reminiscent of the steely dress pattern-like shapes in the Stanley Spencer Port Glasgow Paintings.
The Imperial War Museum houses paintings and sculpture under the same roof as aircraft and Tate Britain are doing the same with no distinction between ‘manufactured object’ and ‘art’. Now I feel at home! Somehow I have found a bit of spare time for painting this year! In my coming one man show, in Hong Kong, I have combined a recurring obsession for worn Chinese walls with a portrait of an erhu player whose notes seem to waft into the rendering behind him and become picked out in the brickwork.