In True Democratic Spirit
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.