In True Demo­cratic Spirit

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Emma Crich­ton-Miller

Stephen Cham­bers: The Court of Re­donda, The Heong Gallery, Down­ing Col­lege, Cam­bridge, 24 Fe­bru­ary – 20 May 2018

Last year, as one of the of­fi­cial col­lat­eral events of the 57th In­ter­na­tional Art Ex­hi­bi­tion La Bi­en­nale di Venezia, London-based Bri­tish artist and Royal Academ­cian Stephen Cham­bers filled a six­tenth-cen­tury palazzo with 101 por­traits of imag­i­nary peo­ple. Known for his exquisitely ren­dered, in­tensely coloured, dreamy fig­u­ra­tive paint­ings fea­tur­ing sim­pli­fied peo­ple and ob­jects in pared down land­scapes or in­te­ri­ors, each evoca­tive of a mood or psy­cho­log­i­cal state, he has re­cently be­gun to work in se­ries. This in­stal­la­tion how­ever is on a new scale and level of ambition, of­fer­ing all 101 paint­ings to­gether as a single work.

In that el­e­gant apart­ment over­look­ing the Grand Canal, the white walls played host to rows upon rows of paint­ings, all ex­e­cuted in oil on panel, in a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent dimensions, with the head and torso of each in­di­vid­ual, ex­e­cuted in clearly de­lin­eated flat planes of colour and pat­tern, set against a strongly pig­mented single colour back­ground. The pictures fea­ture not what you might ex­pect, posed dig­ni­taries, ex­ud­ing wealth and power, but in­stead in­di­vid­ual peo­ple who look nei­ther quite real nor quite fan­tas­ti­cal, and who seem to hover, full of emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal en­ergy, in a par­al­lel uni­verse be­tween fic­tion and our own.

These peo­ple are of all races and mixed races, and of all ages, though none are chil­dren, and their idio­syn­cratic cos­tumes tie them to no par­tic­u­lar era or na­tion or so­cial class or in­deed pro­fes­sion. They have teas­ing ti­tles, the kind you might ex­pect in a novel by Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, like La Bi­b­liote­caria Eterna, or Baron H. el Coy­ote; Pre­fect of the Birdnests or The Dom­i­nant Florist. This is what Cham­bers calls The Court of Re­donda.

The in­stal­la­tion is in­spired by the sur­real tale of the King of Re­donda, a frac­tiously dis­puted al­though in­vented ti­tle, with mul­ti­ple claimants, and sur­round­ing this, an hon­orary royal court of real writ­ers and film mak­ers.

Re­donda it­self is an un­in­hab­ited rocky is­land in the Caribbean, to the north­west of Mon­ser­rat, cov­ered in guano, first dis­cov­ered in 1493 by Christo­pher Colum­bus and to­day in the juris­dic­tion of An­tigua and Bar­buda. Ac­cord­ing to the myth, in 1865, a Bri­tish trader, based in Mon­ser­rat, Matthew Dowdy Shiell, landed there and claimed it as his own king­dom, ap­par­ently be­ing granted the ti­tle of King by the Bri­tish Colo­nial Of­fice. The source of this story was Shiell’s son, the writer Matthew Phipps Shiel, who main­tained that he in turn had been crowned King there, aged 15, by an An­tiguan bishop, in 1880. Shiel moved to London in 1885, where he be­came a pro­lific au­thor of sci­ence fic­tion and fan­tasy, and where, in 1929, he first pub­lished his ac­count of Re­donda. On his death, in 1947, he be­queathed his monar­chy to his lit­er­ary ex­ecu­tor, the ex­u­ber­ant writer, lit­er­ary agent and mag­a­zine pub­lisher John Gawsworth, who styled him­self King Juan I, thus es­tab­lish­ing a lit­er­ary line of in­her­i­tance.

Shiel had al­ready be­gun award­ing Re­don­dan ti­tles to lit­er­ary friends such as Lawrence Dur­rell and Henry Miller. Gawsworth, hold­ing court at var­i­ous bars in Soho and Covent Gar­den, cre­ated an en­tire in­tel­lec­tual aris­toc­racy, giv­ing duke and duchess-doms to Rebecca West, Arthur Ran­some, Vic­tor Gol­lancz, John Heath-Stubbs and a slew of oth­ers. Fall­ing on in­di­gent times, he tried to sell his own royal ti­tle sev­eral times in the late 1950s. When he died, in 1970, the mud­dle of a con­tested suc­ces­sion threw up a num­ber of pre­tenders, with pub­lisher and writer Jon Wyn­neTyson (ac­knowl­edged by many as King Juan II), the most plau­si­ble. In 1997, he in turn anointed the cel­e­brated Span­ish nov­el­ist and colum­nist Javier Marías. Marías had writ­ten about Gawsworth in his novel To­das las al­mas ( All Souls). King Xavier took to the role with gusto, adorn­ing his court with ev­ery­one he ad­mires: Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, ap­pointed the Duke of Mega­lopo­lis; Span­ish film­maker Pe­dro Almod­ó­var, dubbed the Duke of Tré­mula; AS By­att, called the Duchess of Mor­pho Eu­ge­nia, Wil­liam Boyd, the Duke of Braz­zav­ille, Cuban writer G Cabr­era In­fante,

the Duke of Ti­gres, Jonathan Coe, the Duke of Prunes, Ger­man nov­el­ist WG Se­bald, the Duke of Ver­tigo, and so on. Marías has even set up an ac­tual lit­er­ary prize, the Reino de Re­donda Lit­er­ary Prize, judged by these distin­guished Dukes and Duchesses and awarded, for in­stance, in 2012, to Philip Pullman, who took the ti­tle Duke of Cit­tàgazze.

It was this heady mix of the true and the ab­surd that ap­par­ently caught Cham­bers’s imag­i­na­tion when he came upon Marías’s writ­ings about Re­donda. Jet­ti­son­ing the his­tory, he says, ‘I was en­gaged with the idea that some­thing could be both whim­si­cal and rel­e­vant.’ Through his al­ter­na­tive hon­ours’ sys­tem, Marías has es­tab­lished his own lit­er­ary and cin­e­matic canon, valu­ing highly a par­tic­u­lar kind of eru­dite wit and play­ful­ness. His is un­doubt­edly a king­dom of the cul­tural elite.

Cham­bers of­fers us a quite other vi­sion. He has seized the idea of cre­at­ing an ideal com­mu­nity. His imag­i­nary in­hab­i­tants re­flect, he says, the pop­u­la­tion of Hack­ney where he lives, ‘surrounded by the cos­mopoli­tanism of London.’ With his spare but em­phatic draughts­man­ship he con­jures the in­di­vid­u­al­ity of each char­ac­ter. Be­tween them they rep­re­sent al­most ev­ery race and phys­i­cal type but these are not stereo­types: each per­son is dis­tinct, ris­ing above mere ge­netic and cul­tural in­her­i­tance. Not one is con­ven­tion­ally hand­some or pretty – these seem ir­rel­e­vant con­sid­er­a­tions – al­though the paint­ings them­selves, with their pre­cise and ex­quis­ite paint­work, are beau­ti­ful.

On the whole the fig­ures wear the clothes of or­di­nary cit­i­zens, no sump­tu­ous gowns or busi­ness suits or em­blems of state, al­though there are some won­der­fully ec­cen­tric hats and some fan­tas­tic beards. A few peo­ple hold sticks, with cut twigs, a Cham­bers spe­cial­ity, like the em­blems held by saints in early Ital­ian paint­ing, and one, Prince of All Mod Cons, holds a spoon. Cham­bers, with his ad­mi­ra­tion for Mughal minia­ture paint­ing and Matis­sean re­spect for dec­o­ra­tive sur­faces, dwells lov­ingly on all these clothes and ac­ces­sories. There be­ing no ac­tual real-world con­text for these char­ac­ters, he is free to in­vent their ev­ery at­tribute. But in fact, what you see here are peo­ple who make up, one feels, Cham­bers’s peo­ple, in the spirit of

Re­donda but with a dis­tinctly egal­i­tar­ian twist. These are not the masters and mis­tresses of the uni­verse but the free­lance masses who work from their home or their stu­dio, in their own clothes – artists, ar­ti­sans, writ­ers, bee keep­ers, mechanics, cooks, dress mak­ers, or­nithol­o­gists, as­tronomers, mu­si­cians, math­e­ma­ti­cians, philoso­phers, who make things, in­vent things and mend things. Yes, there are the in­dis­pens­able teach­ers, ac­coun­tants and doc­tors and even a po­lice­man but no one is pompous, and you are hard pushed to work out with­out the pictures’ ti­tles which are roy­alty and which com­mon­ers. And then there are also the wastrels ( Dauphin Li­a­bil­ity and Harold the Bum), the scoundrels (the Dis­hon­ourable Shep­herd, Em­bez­zler Royal), the en­ter­tain­ers and pros­ti­tutes and even the fat cats, ( Mar­qués del Mer­cado).

Some peo­ple are known sim­ply for the qual­ity of their per­son­al­ity: Cam­pesino (who has de­spair in his heart) or Charlotte the Im­pu­dent. The 101 pictures (a prime num­ber; cho­sen to refuse all di­vi­sion into groups or parts; an awk­ward per­fec­tion) as­sert inclusiveness.

Cham­bers’s demo­cratic spirit ex­tends also to his ma­te­ri­als and com­po­si­tions. The paint­ings are on ply­wood board, robust and eas­ily trans­portable, re­flect­ing Cham­bers’s re­cent habit of re­lo­cat­ing for a few months at a time. These pictures were cre­ated over two years in New York, London and Mex­ico. And while in the past Cham­bers has had a ten­dency to try for per­fec­tion, like a Per­sian mas­ter, these por­traits he has de­lib­er­ately painted fast, and scraped back the sur­faces, so some ap­pear dis­tressed and aged, with paint miss­ing, while oth­ers have a more pris­tine ap­pear­ance. He says:

I like to abuse them. I wanted to take the con­trol away. They are as good or bad as they are. I didn’t want them to be too pre­cious.

The poses are spon­ta­neous and in­for­mal, ex­press­ing mood and char­ac­ter rather than so­cial po­si­tion and the com­po­si­tions are var­ied - so that some fig­ures look left, oth­ers right, some to the mid­dle dis­tance, oth­ers to the sky. Some of the por­traits show just a head and shoul­ders, oth­ers in­clude arms and tor­sos, and while many are in por­trait for­mat, oth­ers are land­scape.

This va­ri­ety plays with our no­tions of time. In some ways the char­ac­ters seem like fig­ures in a play, en­tirely out of time, wait­ing to be ac­ti­vated in a spe­cific nar­ra­tive; in other ways, par­tic­u­larly where Cham­bers has used an ac­tual per­son as his model, they seem closer to liv­ing peo­ple, less like car­toons, caught in mid-flow in their on­go­ing lives. And yet also there is the ar­ti­fice of this be­ing a col­lec­tion painted over many years, by a court por­traitist who chooses in one decade, one for­mat, and in an­other, an­other.

In Venice, this ex­tra­or­di­nary project took on a spe­cial res­o­nance. This city is it­self poised be­tween fan­tasy and quo­tid­ian re­al­ity, a con­struct of imag­i­na­tion brought into be­ing orig­i­nally to re­flect the wealth and power of a mer­can­tile em­pire. Through­out its his­tory the city has been a melt­ing pot of ad­ven­tur­ers, mer­chants, sailors and sol­diers, artists and spies from all over the known globe. It was the Vene­tian Marco Polo who first brought back de­tailed in­tel­li­gence to the West of the won­drous wealth of China and other Asian cities and whose ex­otic tales in­spired Christo­pher Colum­bus to set sail. As soon as you ar­rive in Venice you be­gin to live with one foot in the present, one in the imag­ined past. The paint­ings respired eas­ily in this at­mos­phere, re­flect­ing the city’s mul­ti­cul­tural en­ergy.

In the newly built Heong Gallery in Down­ing Col­lege, Cam­bridge, opened in 2016, the in­stal­la­tion takes on a dif­fer­ent sig­nif­i­cance. In this clean white space, the for­mal qual­i­ties of the paint­ings come to the fore, en­abling Cham­bers to play sculp­turally with the pictures, plac­ing them in re­la­tion­ships with each other, ac­cord­ing to colour, for­mat and pose as much as to any po­ten­tial nar­ra­tive in­ter­ac­tions be­tween the char­ac­ters. There is an al­most mu­si­cal pat­tern to the dis­play as you walk around the room. Inevitably, how­ever, the ar­ray also al­ludes to the walls of for­mal por­traits of past Masters and Fel­lows which lie be­yond the gallery, in the grand neo­clas­si­cal Ge­or­gian and Re­gency build­ings of the col­lege.

At first sight, you might feel that Cham­bers’s ironic, rag­gle tag­gle court bears lit­tle re­la­tion to those pa­rades of learn­ing. But his in­stal­la­tion is a re­minder that if a col­lege is partly an ex­pres­sion of tra­di­tion and author­ity, it is also a com­mu­nity, if one a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from the Re­don­dan Court,

and one that can evolve and change. For while the por­traits hang­ing in the cor­ri­dors may seem largely white and male, to­day Cam­bridge Univer­sity, fer­vently anti-Brexit, is a thriv­ing com­mu­nity of men and women from many dif­fer­ent coun­tries, eth­nic­i­ties and points of view. In­deed Cham­bers, al­ready a Royal Aca­demi­cian, is him­self a hon­orary fel­low of the Col­lege, and al­though self-con­fess­edly white, mid­dle class and male, pos­sessed of an artist’s out­sider sen­si­bil­ity. Into these ex­clu­sive halls he has brought with his paint­ings a beau­ti­ful vis­ual epic poem that is also an ar­gu­ment for open­ness and mul­ti­plic­ity, an as­ser­tion of the val­ues of dif­fer­ence and orig­i­nal­ity and hu­man par­tic­u­lar­ity. Not a bad mes­sage to the world from a bar­ren rock.

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