A painted conversation

Van Dyck’s portraits of Charles II and Thomas Wentworth are radiant with a reverent mixture of the authority and humanity of the two grand sitters. Mediated through time we can’t experience these paintings now as they were conceived, our relationship to both people is so different to the audience Van Dyck had in mind, but we can forge our own context and meaning from them. We all know young boys who stare coolly in full military dress (albeit a Star Wars outfit) their life before them. We all know busy men with the pressures of work bearing down on them, mindful of their status and public role.

These two paintings have been beautifully responded to by artist Jéréme Crow in his new body of work for the Harley Gallery.

In the first place he has taken the idea of mediation further – looking to the massive proliferation of digital imagery and social media and its effects on how we ‘consume’ portraits. In the gallery we can spend time with the paintings as hand crafted objects in their own right as he gently reminds us of the fast flowing river of digital images flowing wirelessly past our heads.

Secondly, a portrait painting is always both things; a portrait and a painting. Jéréme is a natural painter who enjoys the materiality of paint – how it feels and what it is made up of.

Here paint’s ‘personality’ is articulated both with precise careful glazing and swift painterly expression. All good paintings are always ‘about’ painting on one level – Van Dyck’s own responsiveness to paint’s qualities is wonderfully sensitive and assured. Jéréme Crow has thoughtfully and inventively separated out some of the strands of the relationship between paint and subject here for us to consider.

Finally, and for me most wonderfully, Jéréme has considered the social relations and personal relationships between sitter, artist and audience. Who are the sitters worthy of portraiture today? What did Van Dyck feel as he walked up a driveway to paint the portrait of a new customer? The conceptually and materially playful works developed from tweeted historical Van Dyck’s share a space with a rich and generous set of contemporary portraits of the people who currently work in and occupy the Welbeck Estate. For me, this brings the work right back to the direct relationship between the artists and sitters as humans. The radiant humanity visible in the Welbeck Van Dyck’s is visible once more.

Emma Drye  (programme leader for painting, OCA)

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