Ask yourself, where would you rather be: in Heaven, with all those vacuously grinning robots and choirs trilling night and day forever; or in Hell, among ingenious, swashbuckling and dissolute sinners? No contest. Hell and Satan get all the best lines. Whether it ‘s Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Devil is always the most charismatic character, and with so enviable and exciting a life. Those condemned to Hell are a far better class of person; real people, failures, those who lapse and repeat their mistakes, and so often just for the hell of it.
Give me any time Hamish Blakely’s grubby Apollo busking with his lyre in Baker Street tube over the suited commuter on the daily trek to and from Metroland tedium. And give me any day of the week the fallen woman over the nun. There’s no room left in secular modern life for angels. Disaffection with religion means that few believe in such whimsies any more. Priestly threats, scriptural warnings, eternal damnation… we’re no longer that stupid. We’ve seen through all that ridiculous hocus-pocus and have grown to live with our imperfections and shortcomings. We let ourselves down, we let others down, but we forgive one another – it’s that simple. And that’s why Hamish’s pictures are so satisfying. When judged by the standards of the angelic, we failures are in good company here. His beautiful people are our soul mates. For most of us, burdened to breaking point with daily cares, there’s too much mileage and enjoyment in the sort of errant conduct which might politely be described as unangelic. Hamish depicts the prospect of sinfulness, the piquancy of temptation. This makes the pictures exciting because we know already by the look of resignation on these would-be angels’ faces that the battle is lost, the towel thrown in. They are already fallen and are going to do what is on their inds. Yes, Hamish’s angels feel guilty about their unholy thoughts and temptations, but it won’t stop them. Our collective lack of ability to meet the standards required of angels is the subject of these pictures. These are not the pouting, simpering bores of Raphael and Perugino – thank God.
They are modern art’s modern women, but with doubts, disintegrating haloes and delicious vices to accumulate. They could so easily pass as Madonnas and ecstatic saints but they aren’t going to be. They will instead be exemplary, imperfect followers in the footsteps of Adam and Eve. How tedious life would be without this free will to behave badly. To get beyond the weary angel stereotype Hamish uses our knowledge of film posters and glamour imagery, of scent and jewellery billboard advertising, and of commonplace religious iconography. He sows the seeds of doubt through a telling look or a seductive pose, a neckline just a shade too fetching, or that peremptory cigarette holder of the femme fatale. One of these ‘Madonnas’ even adopts the infamous reverse-chair pose of Christine Keeler; an allusion whose significance many of Hamish’s fans will be too young to understand. But to the generation raised in the 1960s this pose itself signifies everything there is to know about permissiveness, sinfulness and liberation.
All Hamish’s angels and goddesses are adorable precisely because they are defeated before they even begin acting. They are Mary Magdalenes: they believe in ideals but are prey to human frailties and desires. All those improbably large wings are just exaggerated symbols of the depth of their descent. So, I’m delighted Hamish is leading us into temptation, but only providing he doesn’t intend delivering us from evil.
David Lee Editor: The Jackdaw
Hamish Blakely’s Muse at The Halcyon Gallery, Harrods
Art has a beauty, whether it depicts the beautiful or by creating something that inspires, thereby becomes beautiful.
The need to record or honour the magnificent, the awe-inspiring, and to capture it for the artist’s own enjoyment and that of others is the most common thread in art.
A pillar of this is the artist’s muse, the history of which is long and storied. And most artists have had them whether they be women or men.
There have been ‘real’ subjects like Lucian Freud’s Perienne Christian or Modigliani’s Jeanne Hebuterne, and there have been exquisite beauties such as Arshile Gorky’s wife Mougouch or Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Elizabeth Siddal, who dominates the work of the Pre-Raphaelites.
There is something highly seductive too about the depiction by a master artist of the thing he loves most, the thing that drives him and that artist’s need to preserve it for all time as some kind of marker of the universe’s greatness.
So, it is with no little feeling of envy a walk through Hamish Blakely’s latest exhibition can produce.
The artist has spent three years on this collection of about 40 paintings of his wife Gail, a petite brunette who reclines, sits and stands in various nude poses, her face often looking away or partly concealed.
Blakely, like the classical masters places her on a pedestal, not literally, but by making her aloof and even disdainful of the viewer. She is at once the vision of Bathsheba King David spied bathing on a rooftop, independent, but aware of her beauty and the power she exerts over the viewer.
Whilst described as a figurative painter, these images are more Neoclassical, Neo Grec, and hark back to such movements as British Orientalism or the paintings of Jean Louis Gerome (Selling Slaves in Rome, 1886 and Pygmalion and Galatea, 1890).
Blakely says: “Sometimes the greatest inspiration is right in front of you. It had been right beside me all that time… the fruition of two people simply knowing one another very well.”
Indeed that seems to be the case, and while Blakelyhas been a man inspired, he has produced some beautiful works that will delight many others as well.
Art critic and Author
Muse by Hamish Blakely
In ancient mythology the nine muses, young virgins all, were the offspring of Zeus and Mnemosyne. They were the collective inspiration for all the arts and the driving force of those pursuing eternal beauty. Their importance lives on in our own word ‘museum’, which means literally the place where the muses live. If the Greek oracle had been consulted as to the actual appearance of these inspiring girls, the description that came back through the mouthpiece of the ingeniously contrived sculpture which delivered the verdict would undoubtedly have been close to what we see now in Hamish Blakely’s paintings of his wife. Curiously, there was no muse for painting although, if there had been, she must surely have looked like this.
These paintings are celebrations of admiration, respect and devotion, all other ‘real’ considerations having been excluded. Narrative is usually a forceful element in Blakely’s painting, where what has happened before and after the painted scene are left open to speculation. Part of the enjoyment of looking at such pictures derives from deducing what has led to the tension of the depicted moment. But here, in ‘Muse’, figures are enclosed, isolated outside of all time and beyond all worldly, material concerns. We ask ourselves ‘What are these figures thinking?’, and the only narrative resulting from the question is the invention of the viewer’s willing imagination.
Blakely is a knowledgeable painter and he comes to his subject well versed in the traditions of his genre. It is fitting that the artist is aware of the distinguished history in which he works, for there has been no more constant subject in the male-dominated history of art than the naked female presented for universal adoration. It is the form in which men celebrate their attraction and enslavement to women. And there is surely no clearer passage into the artist’s fundamental feelings and beliefs than in any paintings of his wife. Those well-versed in the history of depicted nudity, from Velasquez, Rembrandt, Delacroix and Etty to Degas, Alma-Tadema, Russell Flint and Lucian Freud, will recognise in these paintings, echoes of the Old Masters, as their lessons of pose, drapery and fruity colour, not to mention their use of mythological camouflage, are absorbed into Hamish Blakely’s personal vision. Particularly strong is his appreciation of the balanced composition so important in pictures where any jarring ingredient will undermine the all-important mood. His developed appreciation of sculptural form, and in particular of making complex poses appear natural, is achieved by catching, in shafts of bright sunlight, figures in otherwise gloomy interiors: thus is the drama of these pictures intensified. Such techniques come naturally to good painters and scarcely need pointing out because, as Sickert wrote, “If the subject of a picture could have been stated in words there had been no need to paint it”.
Hamish’s wife is his still life, his exhibit, his living statue, his idol of secular worship. As the 19th century illustrator and designer Walter Crane once famously declared: “Nothing in art is of any worth unless done for love.” Never more true than here. Sometimes her mood is warm and beguiling, while in other guises she is cooler and more distant. In some accounts she grows naturally like a flower from a mound of drapery, while in the next she is Marvell’s teasingly coy mistress. Elsewhere, she is the femme fatale, the forbidden fruit whose attractions are tinged with danger.
I am heartened that during an age in which artistic conventions are routinely, thoughtlessly cast aside to allow the most abysmal charlatans free passage, and where the muses are more often those of Success, Notoriety and Money rather than Art and Beauty, there is an artist still prepared to take on with conviction, skill and accomplishment such a difficult conventional subject.
Art critic & Editor of The Jackdaw