Up to the minute thoughts here – this story, poem and picture are about a moment in a day in November 2014! My thoughts go back to it from time to time, and for a number of reasons. Why write it today? I’m not really sure – but here goes anyway.
This picture was taken in the National Gallery in London in mid November 2014. I would have been unable to take it the week before, because the week before was the last in which visitors were not allowed to use a camera in the gallery.
I have a pretty poor memory, but I do remember a few things from that day. As well as the many tourists taking this new opportunity to snap their way around the nation’s artistic highlights, I’m pretty sure this was the first time I stood in front of a Caravaggio. The painting was ‘Supper at Emmaus’ – the flashier version, the one with high drama and big hands. There is something unique about the way light interacts with layers of oil paint. Something that defies reproduction in any other medium. No matter how fine the quality of a photograph or print, it cannot record the confusions of depth, those ambiguities of transmission that, in the hands of a master, seem to make the thing just, well, glow.
I stood and stared while the cameras clicked on. I didn’t want to photograph this amazing thing in front of me, I wanted to breathe it in through my eyes.
Further along the gallery I found something I did want to photograph, in front of one of the English artist George Stubbs’ most famous horse portraits ‘Whistlejacket’. This shows the ribbon of vibrant muscle that is an immaculate Arabian thoroughbred – rearing on a field of gold. The horse was a race winner owned by Stubbs’ patron the second Marquess of Rockingham. At the time the painting was first shown, some, reacting to the absence of rider, or any other details other than the horse itself, suggested it was incomplete. Stubbs, however knew his craft exceptionally well, and knew the object of his purpose in painting, perhaps to the point of obsession.
My photograph wan’t Stubbs’ painting – what interested me was the intense attention of a young draughtsman sitting in front of my it. Drawing in the National Gallery is a long-standing tradition. Artists seek to learn from those who have gone before, or bring their own technique or observation into sharper focus. I am and will remain a dedicated photographer, but still I can see that drawing like this can involve a more intense and active way looking. Being there, it transpires, is often everything.
Until yesterday – you had to draw
to make an image in this place.
From today – photography is allowed –
just click to capture (but no flash, please).
I was there, and so was Christ –
Caravaggio’s, supping at Emmaus.
Have you seen the painting or
only pictures printed, or on a screen?
Fermat’s principle is confounded in oils –
refraction confused as rays are cosseted,
kept and honeyed through the layers.
Additions are made, and given back.
It’s more than OTT – it’s airborne.
“Just back from the dead – yeah, but … Shh!”
I don’t believe, but I can’t photograph magic,
so I simply stand beholding, breathing light.
Twenty paces on another immortal
hangs on the opposite wall,
glowing chestnut on a field of gold.
All racehorses are minor gods.
The critics balked – “When will you finish?”
“Where’s the scenery?” “Where’s his rider?”
He knew. The thoroughbred rears forever –
heartbreak still, eyes high-strung in doubt.
I found a photograph to keep the day.
Back to me, eight perhaps, sat on the floor –
drawing the horse, his horse, his racing lines –
the crowd invisible, his gaze alight.