A version of this text was given as a talk at the Walker Art Gallery as part of the education programme for the John Moores Painting Prize 2010

Protest, April 1st 2009, oil on canvas, 116x204cm

In being asked to do this talk, inevitably it made me think back to the one I gave four years ago when I was last selected for the John Moores Painting Prize. The painting selected on that occasion was titled Scene From A Contemporary Novel and I began by referencing Victorian art at some length, in particular the anecdotal, narrative aspect of the art of this period which seemed to relate to the subject of my painting. My previous talk began with an apology for the terseness of my statement in the catalogue; I deliberately wanted the statement for this new painting to be drily factual [see appendix below].  However, this proved much more difficult than I imagined it would be. I simply wanted to state in simple terms the cost of the bank bailouts, which had in part brought about this protest, but I found it very difficult to get exact numbers for the statement from official sources.

I ended my talk four years ago with the notion of the narrative aspect of that painting opening it up to interpretation, enabling the viewer to have an open-ended subjective response to the picture. I would argue that the subject of my current painting is fairly circumscribed in terms of interpretations of the subject matter. I'd suggest that the content of the painting is fairly unambiguous, except perhaps in terms of what exactly what everyone is protesting for, or against. I've called the painting Protest to stand in for the idea of protest as a whole, yet the date in the title ties the painting to the specific protest depicted. Here in contrast to my previous John Moore selection, a strict interpretation of the subject is pretty much closed down, as this painting has a very different function to the earlier one. I intended it to have a documentary function and in doing so to embody an idea of bearing witness. Painting really doesn't have the power it once had to bear witness: photography and cinema have stripped these image-making powers away, which is entirely appropriate as those mediums do it better, they're more accessible and less elitist, and of course the tenacious notion of photographic truth, albeit belittled considerably by digital technology, still hangs on somewhere in our collective consciousness. Despite its documentary look, the role of the documenter in being a detached observer is not really applicable in this case. I did after all go on the protest to protest (which I will touch on later), yet I hope that the painting attempts a certain level of objectivity, partly thanks to the angle of view of the original photograph, although it is necessarily sympathetic to the idea of protest as a whole. The distance of the crowd, all a middle-distance foreground essentially, except for the backs of the figures leading us into the painting at the bottom left and lower centre (and the dancing couple bottom right), helps to heighten the sense of having a detached overview. I did edit out a couple of heads too close to the picture plane to make any visual sense. The clarity of the viewpoint is important, as it doesn't look like the viewer is placed in the middle of the crowd. When I sat down to attempt to write about this piece, I found it odd to have lived apart from it for many more months than I lived with it. It was useful to have a postcard from the Walker propped up as reference, reminding myself of what was actually in the painting.

In general, I have two different ways of working from photographs: the more complicated method is the one that produced my previous John Moores exhibit.  In this form, I tend to have an idea of a subject for a painting, and then take numerous photographs to combine in the final painting. The second method is that I select a photograph or photographs I've taken previously. I take a lot of photographs of things that interest me generally; there are therefore many paintings which are created from this image bank of photographs I take without the idea at the time that these will become the basis of paintings. In the past this store of images was used as material for paintings that took on a more collaged appearance (such as my work in the John Moores in 2004), but have subsequently served as reference for more straight paintings. Something which strikes me about a photograph makes me think it might be the basis for a good painting. The current painting is a case in point- I didn't go on the protest to take photos to make a painting, this may have been in the back of my mind, but it just felt like an occasion when I would be glad to have a camera with me. It might be worth explaining at this point I work with film almost exclusively so there isn't that instant feedback that occurs with digital. Most of what you can see in this painting is based on a single photograph. As soon as I developed the film and saw this frame it looked like an almost perfect composition. I may well have thought so at the point of taking the photograph, but the day was so full of incident that afterwards couldn't remember taking many of the photographs that I did. The composition has an almost classical pyramid in the shape of the crowd, around the statue of the Duke of Wellington on horseback, right in the middle of the scene, although one can only see the plinth and his horse's hooves amongst the protestors' legs where they have clambered up. The centre of the protest formed around this natural focal point of the Wellington statue, as its plinth is on a kind of raised dais or apron, which makes for a useful vantage point, higher up, to see over the heads of the crowd, and in terms of my picture, this gives it a sharp drop away to the background, which is fortuitous in that it makes the figures stand out against it. My photograph was taken from standing on a small wall around a flowerbed opposite. Within the pyramid of the composition the figure in the centre drawing makes a good focal point, thanks in part due to the whiteness of his drawing board. Essentially, I was lucky in the way all the figures were arranged as I took the shot: there's an almost frieze-like nature to the composition that enables one to look across it, almost as if the picture unfolds in time. Despite this piece being based mostly on a single photograph, there was some editing in the painting process: I did tidy up the foreground, and slightly increased the angle of view by adding narrow strips to either side of the original photograph from other photos taken at the same time.

On seeing the main photograph used as the basis for my piece, it reminded me of nothing so much as the classic mid-Victorian paintings by William Powell Frith (1819-1909). Frith's best known painting is Derby Day (1858) although his first success with a 'modern' subject was Ramsgate Sands: Life At The Seaside (1854; two other similar paintings followed in this vein: The Railway Station, 1862, and A Private View At The Royal Academy 1881, exhibited in 1883). Frith's success was partly due to a newly literate middle class gallery-going newspaper-reading public - and his genius partly resides in his ability in depicting a broad range of social classes and types interacting all within the new modern spaces of public life. In academic circles, so-called history painting (which in practical terms was largely confined to Biblical and classical subjects) was held as the highest branch of art, landscape, still life and genre painting were officially held in lower esteem; subject paintings in contemporary dress such as Frith's were known colloquially as 'hat and trousers' pictures. Part of the popularity of paintings like Frith's Derby Day is that the Victorians as a whole liked to see themselves represented in such works of art, being easier to relate to than some of the higher-minded moralistic pictures which were intended to impart some kind of noble lesson on the humble viewer. As a footnote, I'd also like to mention the fact that William Powell Frith did use photographs as reference material for Derby Day, which was looked down upon in the mid-nineteenth century generally speaking, leading Oscar Wilde to quip "Was it really all done by hand?"

The germ of a tempting idea was planted in my brain: to do a modern Frith, and what was really tempting about it was the idea of how gloriously anachronistic it would be, in the true sense of term, meaning literally 'out of time', on the one hand, but on the other hand it also felt like a natural step: to take this image which already reminded me of a certain kind of painting, and make a painting of it. I really felt like this would be a stupid thing to set myself to do, stupid in terms not only of the sheer amount of work involved, but also stupid in the very contrariness of making a painting like this. This felt like a sufficient reason to do the painting in itself. I was also pretty sure that there wouldn't be anything like it entered into the John Moores this year.

Having referenced Victorian painting this year and in my talk four years ago, I wouldn't want people to think I had an uncritical love for it. A great deal of it is truly terrible, but there is an interesting intersection of art with the society it reflected. Subsequently the self-conscious idea of the avant-garde stopped this, or more accurately caused a split between progressive artists, if I can use this term, now appealing directly to an elite, and more demotic art appealing to masses (also mostly terrible, but rarely given any notice by critics; in the mid-nineteenth century there were of course progressive artists, but these still used a language of address recognizably familiar to the common viewer): again photography, cinema, and now television are more relevant art forms in their relation to society as a whole.

In thinking about the subjects appropriate to painting, I suppose my work is partly informed by a genealogy of ideas originating from Baudelaire's essay 'The Painter Of Modern Life' from 1863; this was recently referenced in the title of an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London of contemporary artists working from photography as The Painting Of Modern Life (2007). In conversation with Mark Lawson (on Radio 4's Front Row), Gary Hume described this painting as "a history painting, but more like a flatscreen history painting, maybe it's the right proportion (sic) for a time of people not really caring much." I think Gary Hume's observation is apt. It's history painting or rather it's conceived in a style deliberately intended to remind the viewer of history painting, but not the painting of grand narratives of heroic deeds or moral lessons. Part of the project of the painting of modern life is to reflect how we live now, telling stories about ourselves in a form neither too obscure, nor too divorced from everyday life. I realise a demonstration such as this isn't everyday life, but I'm talking more about reflecting experiences many of us share or are able to empathise with. Many of my other large-scale paintings feature single figures, caught in an absorptive moment, where I intend the viewer to empathise with the figures, how they feel to be in this particular moment in this particular space. Apart from its documentary aspect, this painting differs from those paintings in showing multiple figures, it's got more to do with dialogue, a coming together of many people. There are about thirty-odd 'portraits' visible in the painting, and since the exhibition has been open, I've had an email from someone who was recognised in the picture (the man playing the violin). We notice in the painting figures which seem to be together, we can link the glances between different figures in the painting, interpret various expressions on their faces, there are a couple of people within it who look out towards the viewer, and these figures generate an impression of the movement of the crowd, a swirling coming together of diverse people who would otherwise be atomized, separated, divided. It may only be a temporary community, with many different aims, but there is a feeling of togetherness in the crowd, a spontaneity, and a feeling of agency, a way of expression in a parliamentary democracy, other than the casting of a vote once every four or five years.

One of the striking things about the picture is the sheer number of different kinds of recording devices visible, digital and film cameras, video cameras, mobile phones, but it's also interesting to see the figure in the centre of it all using the oldest method of recording: he's drawing. It's now a necessity of both demonstrators and the police to have the ability to record the events at protests to provide evidence from conflicting claims as to the veracity of eyewitnesses. I wanted to mention the death of Ian Tomlinson in my catalogue statement, but due to a strict word limit, I cut this, as well as a reference to the 86 arrests on the day, and 15 injuries. The first response from the police was to deny any contact with the dead man had taken place, and so the official line might have remained, had not someone come forward with a video showing an officer of the Territorial Support Group striking Ian Tomlinson and pushing him to the ground. Although this tragic episode from the day of the protest rightly dominated the subsequent press coverage, I did not want this to dominate the ideas around my painting. Perhaps I do find that the lack of police in picture is somewhat problematic as it does miss out an important part of the experience of being on such a demonstration, however everyone in the painting is doing a good job of policing themselves. Judging by the clock in the background, it was twenty-four minutes to one when I took the photograph, so it was still very early in the protest and good-natured at this point. The police lines had only just closed, or were just closing, and no one wanted to leave at this point, and were not prevented from doing so. Also, during the time that I was there, there was generally a gap in the road between the police lines and the protestors, especially once they had let a couple of the processions join up (the protest outside the Bank of England was made up from four marches from different starting points which converged there; for a time the police blocked the roads and prevented them from joining up).

If the painting is about bearing witness I should mention my reasons for being there, although I didn't want this talk to be me bashing the audience over their heads with my own politics. At the time of the protest last year I believed that the banks should be allowed to fail. Through the Thatcher-Major-Blair years the mainstream political parties embraced the ideology that the free market is the most efficient way to run institutions. When market forces are going to be applied to everything from the railways to the NHS and Royal Mail, I couldn't see why this did not apply to financial institutions. Supposedly the 'invisible hand of the market' was to take care of everything. If the people running banks turn out to be not very good at it, why should the taxpayer have to pay for their mistakes? At the time of the protest I thought that those banks which needed government help should simply be allowed to fail. Having read more on the subject since then I do think that the government probably had to stop the banks from collapsing, being too interconnected to fail thanks to the complicated financial instruments such as the CDS, as well as being too big to fail, although I disagree with the way it was done: if banks are going to be de facto nationalised by the government buying a majority stake in shares in the bank, then they should be properly nationalised, i.e. run as a not-for-profit public service. On top of that there should also be some protections against this kind of collapse happening again. Two years on there aren't any. In his wonderful book (Whoops! Why everyone owes and no one can pay) which I would recommend to any one trying to understand the financial crisis, John Lanchester pulls off a neat typographical trick when informing the reader that in the next paragraph he's about to survey all the relevant legislation passed in the two years since the crash: you turn the page and there is simply a blank space.

I am well aware that government policies are unlikely to change through protest (there are precious few exceptions to this rule - the poll tax riots being one, but backed up of course with a massive public non-cooperation by the simple fact of people not paying; and then there are strategic protests, such as the relatively recent fuel protests, the idea that a small group with strategic action can "hold the country to ransom"). Governments in democratic countries can generally rely on apathy to pass unpopular legislation and the public's short memory between elections; at its least efficacious, demonstrations and protests visibly act out non-compliance in that apathy. I also have no illusions about the efficacy of political art: it does not change anything: one is generally preaching to the converted, if anyone is listening at all. Arguably the greatest political painting of the 20th century, Picasso's Guernica did not stop Franco ruling Spain for nearly four decades, nor did it stop both sides in the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in the Second World War. However I feel the need to do something to avoid feeling impotent: as an individual I am unable to change anything, and yet I'm unwilling to be silent. My painting is a documentation of that: bearing witness, being able to say: "I was there." I don't know whether documentary is a useful function for painting any more. There's a danger of kitsch, of producing something with no lasting relevance; and yet, we have just seen the biggest economic crash for 80 years, and one has to wonder what is it going to leave behind culturally? From the previous economic depression of the 1930s, which has been the benchmark for the current financial situation to be compared to, the cultural products that stand out most obviously from England are literary, such as George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, or Walter Greenwood's Love On The Dole. I realize that these are just partial examples of what came to my mind, but it's hard to think of too many paintings from the 1930s that dealt with the subject, I'm sure that there must be some.

I find it difficult to say too much about the process of painting. It is fairly prosaic, I paint largely wet-in-wet, one section at a time, and for most of my work the creative part of the process is finished before I pick up my brush. What I have wanted to achieve with my technique is a certain transparency to the work, and the effort of making it should not get in the way of the subject. I'm not really concerned about fooling people into thinking that my paintings are photographs, that's just an unintended consequence. In the John Moores four years ago I won the Visitors' Choice Prize, and the Walker were kind enough to photocopy all the many voting cards with the visitors' comments upon them, which was an eye opener in terms of public feedback, which is something I haven't ever experienced before. On first reading my way through the comments I felt a little deflated by the sheer amount which simply referenced the skill, disappointed that many comments were expressing disbelief that it wasn't a photo, or that it had momentarily fooled people into thinking that it was one: "Lots of detail - could be a photo"; "I was astonished to discover it was NOT a photograph" and so on. My immediate response was wrong: I was wrong to be disappointed in this. I don't think you can underestimate that quality of visual pleasure manifest in just looking at something painted 'well'. Despite a work's subject matter, you cannot insist on viewers' responses, and I accept that there is no right response, the pleasure in viewing is innate to each individual: if the appreciation of technical skill is the foremost response, or the only response, then at least to have done so, to have touched someone with my own creation, is really the most we can ever hope for as artists.

Sources:
Whoops! Why everyone owes and no one can pay Lanchester, John, Penguin Books London 2010
The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, Baudelaire, Charles, translation Jonathan Mayne, Phaidon 1964
The Painting of Modern Life, Hayward Publishing, London 2007

The Victorian Painter's World, Gillet, Paula,Alan Sutton, Gloucester 1990John Moores Painting Prize 2010, Bukantas, Ann, Ed., NML 2010


Appendix: Statement for the John Moores Painting Prize catalogue 2010

Timed to coincide with the G20 summit of industrialised nations on 1st April 2009, 5000-60001 people demonstrated in London at a number of locations over various issues. This painting depicts the Financial Fools' Day protest outside the Bank of England.

Bank of England Special Liquidity Scheme extended by £100bn in October 2008, £185bn lent by February 20092

Credit Guarantee Scheme £250bn; £91.2bn guaranteed by May 20093

Northern Rock cost of nationalization: £26.9bn4

Bradford & Bingley cost of nationalization: £48bn5

Lloyds Banking Group 43%6 publicly owned at a cost of £21bn7

Royal Bank of Scotland 70%8 publicly owned at a cost of £31.8bn9

The measures taken to prevent the banking system from collapsing have added an estimated £1tn10 to public sector debt. On the estimate of £1tn given above, this equates to £16,000 per person in the UK.11

1. Public Sector Interventions in the Financial Crisis, Kellaway, Martin, the Office For National Statistics 2009, p8
2. Ibid, p81.
3. Ibid, p108.
4. Ibid, p32.
5. Ibid, p44.
6. Voting share capital, not including non-voting B shares, UK Financial Investments Annual Report 2008-09, UKFI 2009, p2.
7. Including acquisition of HBOS, Kellaway, Martin, op cit, p75-77.

8. Voting share capital, not including non-voting B shares, op cit, UKFI 2009, p2.
9. Kellaway, Martin, op cit, p68-69.
10. Ibid, p79.
11. Based on UK population figure of 61,414,062, World Development Indicators, World Bank 2008.


Copyright Nicholas Middleton 2015