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Spring on the Cam


Another diagonal composition, sliced in two with a vertical group in the centre. That’s it in a nut shell but it has had a complex, indirect, gestation. There was no preliminary sketch, just drawing straight onto the canvas.


A couple of weeks ago we had to go to a celebration of the life of one of our contemporaries and that set me thinking about how some things change but others do not. I had been looking forward to seeing the Henry Moore reclining figure outside the big brick boiler house that had been such a show stopper when I was an undergraduate. It was not there anymore, replaced by a rather anaemic assembly of steel tubes. The big Barbara Hepworth was still there, however. The William Mullins designs that won the competition for Sheppard Robson still looked good whist some of the more recent buildings looked insignificant. What had all the fuss been about?


We did not have time to go into the centre of town so my reconstruction here of college life is of necessity based on memories. Back in the day we used to spend a lot of time sitting on the wall at the end of my college’s riverside court overlooking the Cam. Sharing the view with us was a white mallard drake who fought with any other drake who appeared in “his” stretch of water and attempted to mate with every passing duck. We called him “Simon’s Duck” after one of our number, for reasons I do not think I need to explain. Just reflect for a moment on what I have just told you. This drake has to be there as a link between times past and present.


I liked to imagine that he had some success and a descendant sits in the more or less the same place now. There is flight of steps down to the water next to the Jerwood Library designed by another of our contemporaries so he has been moved along a bit. I don’t imagine student life has changed. Consequently, I drew these three young people sitting in the sun with a bottle of something to drink, trainers and a laptop beside them. That tells you it is now, not back then. We did not have either of those and we dressed somewhat differently.


A lot of my recent paintings have had a diagonal composition. It denies the conventional layering of space. Cropping close to the figures also denies the conventions of spatial representation. There are three figures because three seems to work for me when I am painting. I turned them into a single mass by making their clothes the same Indigo blue. This was generated by the pink brickwork which is also reflected in the river. I made this an olive green, approximately close to the real colour and contrasting with the pink and blue. For me the brickwork was pink because the buildings on the edge of the court were pink but the real river wall is made of the ugly Cambridge gault bricks, an insipid dirty yellow.


I seem to have painted several versions of water. Here the water is not ruffled by wind but swirls lazily along. I allowed myself to play off watery arabesques against the geometrical cut of the wall. I imagined a bit of blue sky reflecting in the water – I introduced this to highlight the group of figures – and I put some reflections of the brickwork in the water as well.


So long. As they are we once were.




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