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Merry Meetings


D3 Editions 2005

With an introduction by the artist and a preface by Norman Rosenthal
Format: 297mm x 210mm
Extent: 128 printed pages
4 process colours onto 170gsm matt paper
Binding: Cloth covered over 3mm boards. Embossed panel with tipped on 4 colour label. Gold foil blocking on front and spine. Head and tail bands. Marker ribbon.
Jacket: Translucent

ISBN: 0-9547324-1-3

Notes on this work

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Merry Meetings p28

Merry Meetings p32

Merry Meetings p86

Merry Meetings p96

Not Doodling But Drawing

This joins the great gathering of books that have enobled themselves by sneaking their titles from Shakespeare. Our own title comes of course from the opening speech of Richard III whose first line already gives us that old friend the Winter of Discontent, after which the dispraise of peace continues:

Our bruised arms hung up for monuments
Our stern alarums changed to‚

No one who saw Laurence Olivier deliver this soliloquy in his film version will forget the scorn that, as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, he puts into the next two words which describe the unworthy substitute for bellicose encounters - merry meetings.

I first wrenched the words from their context to give an alliterative lilt to the naming of a book in the series Humbert's Obliterated Rhymes. The only meetings I attended at the beginning of the enterprise were those at the Royal Academy, well accommodated in a copy of Humbert Wolfe with the simple inscription RA on the spine. But this was another garden path that would soon fork as I came to be invited onto boards that had nothing to do with the Academy, firstly as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery then of the British Museum. A new book to deal with these would have been one too many and I abandoned the project after a brief last attempt to keep all the balls in the air, in 2005. As can be seen here the matter of Merry Meetings was offered a tempting resolution by the presence of, among the necessary paraphernalia of glasses, bottled water, blotters and pencils, an abundance of paper germane to such events. After much furtive use of my little book I audaciously invited boldness to be my friend and came out as a person who would always draw as the words wore on. This part of the original project therefore migrated in about 2002 to the A4 sheets as supplied. I was of course not a lone penman. Others either doodled while the more diligent took notes of points raised, round which they drew emphatic boxes and arrows to other boxes saying 'nonsense, refer to minutes of June 26th re Grenville endowment' etc, thereby making their papers into palimpsests often visually more stimulating than the spidery diagrams of the doodlers.

Preparation for drawing can be easily disguised. Nothing is more natural than to sift through the current documents. Most board members are on the lookout for matters of special interest to themselves or areas where their expertise may be called upon. I however am seeking space to draw, enticingly bare expanses of usable surface. Yet more often than not I am attracted to the agendas since these set the scene, give it a local habitation and a name and a dramatis personae. Even a certain kind of light can be inferred from the given information: 'The General Assembly Room at the Royal Academy, 3pm' conjures up during the winter daylight greying in the South facing window as the meeting proceeds. Thus people, topography, light and matters of debate (though the latter have little to do with what I might draw) are all noted including the ghostly figures whose apologies for absence are part of the initial liturgy.

Not all rooms for meetings are as splendid as the General Assembly Room, which used to be more dingy and informal in character in its old worn livery of underwater green. Though we have retained the green baize for the table the rest has recently been restored to match the majestic suite of private rooms it belongs to (now renamed the John Madjelski Fine Rooms and open to the public). But the heritage engine's paradoxical task is to banish time and with it here the feeling of use, a sense of continuity, difference and particularity. This is where, looked down upon by the Gods from the painted ceiling and our dauntingly illustrious predecessors from the walls, academicians congregate to debate and cast their votes.

I'm not sure that I believe in feng shui but this gilded stage has certainly seen its share of drama and duels of temperament. Artists released from solitary toil prove splendidly volatile en masse. The Academy has recently, under a new and skilful president, Nicholas Grimshaw, entered a calmer period but Stern Alarums would lately have been a more appropriate title for its gatherings than Merry Meetings.

The National Portrait Gallery's board has its own room upstairs in the new Orange Street building. While it lacks the resonance of historic pomp it engenders an atmosphere of genial debate where strong differences of opinion seem to create warm interest rather than cold antagonism. But then the NPG has during my term of trusteeship been exceptionally lucky in its directors and chairmen.

Entering the designated boardroom of the British Museum one sees, as if set for a convocation of the Knights Extraordinary of the Long Rectangle a huge table which stretches from end to end. It is one of those rooms in which everything seems, whatever its actual colour, brown. Deafer trustees would hasten to plant their papers near the centre in the vicinity of the chairman, director, and the appointed Royal trustee who (until this year) was none other than Richard, Duke of Gloucester though it is hard to imagine a personality more unlike Shakespeare's Machiavellian villain who gave title to this book.

Since Neil McGregor became director and began at once to envision a Second Enlightenment for the Museum the board has met in the less corridor-like but still not ideal Hartwell Room. These deficiencies were well shown up when on an away day to Paris we met in premises of magically faded splendour in the Louvre. There is a fairy story element to the presence in every building that we think we know of secret chambers suddenly revealed behind a hitherto unnoticed door or up a naked staircase known only to a few.

Occasional emergencies at the Royal Academy have led to the discovery behind the often opaque facades of the other Learned Societies around the courtyard of Burlington House of intriguing environments in the Society of Antiquaries or the Geological Society and once, memorably, in the ancient quietude of the Linnaean Society's library.

These august boards are of course not the only meetings I attend. Discussions of designs for an opera or mosaics for a chapel need their venues though such gatherings are usually small and leave no room for wandering of mind or pen since practical and pressing problems have to be addressed. These usually take place in rooms that are otherwise much in use as when, in the theatre, all the technical team are hurriedly convened among skeletal sets and half finished props for the current show together with some inexplicable left overs from the last pantomime. The studio we met in at the Derby Playhouse where I worked on the sets and costumes for David Freeman's production of John Osborne's The Entertainer, gives some of the flavour.

Having thus discussed the manner of conception, location, gestation and birth of the project I must, in proper Shandean fashion, attempt to get to the heart of the matter, the drawings themselves. Nonetheless, I should first however explain the title of this introduction 'Not Doodling but Drawing'. The differentiation is critical, as Norman Rosenthal point out in his preface, though the outward appearance of the activity is fortunately the same.

Anyone who has sat through a two or three hour meeting knows that mere attentiveness is itself a challenge. It might seem however that attempting to do formal drawings could be construed as dodging the issue of concentrating on committee’s proper affairs. As far as I am concerned, the opposite is the case. Occupying the visually active part of my brain frees my mind to focus on what is being said. Being aware (and guaranteably awake) I can thus take a more informed part in the discussion. We have all read about the areas of the brain and their specialisations and I am not expert enough to plunge into still unresolved theories. I can certainly vouch for the mirror image of the meeting/drawing syndrome when in the studio. Optimum concentration while painting I have noticed has been when listening to speech, especially the cricket commentary on the radio. No worse news in a day's painting can be imagined than the announcement that rain has stopped play at the Test Match, for then work resumes its full burden of toil and the mind has to fend off its own arguments and the intrusions of worries financial, fantasies sexual, ailments trivial, obligations unfulfilled and the whole repetitive circuitry of irrelevant preoccupations. I am not alone for I know of at least one well regarded artist who actually records test match commentaries he listens to, playing them over also at a later date when the result has been forgotten.

Thus in meetings one soon learns to judge the critical moment, the increase in tension or heat of the argument, when one's whole mind has to focus on the game of debate rather than the development of the drawing, just as at the fall of a wicket the brush in the studio stops in mid air.

There is a passage in any meeting when somnolence threatens. The sounds of deliberating voices become an ever blurrier drone as if the proffered tea had been cut with poppy and mandragora and all the drowsy spirits of the world. Classically this moment tends to lie somewhere between the treasurer's endless report and a numbing paper, referred via the standing committee by the ways and means sub committee, dealing with health and safety considerations in respect of the provision of fire doors in etc. etc. Only the most assiduous doodlers and devoted note-takers (is the endless writing of notes verbal doodling?) are still fully alive to what is being said. It is here that the alternative action of making coherent marks gives rather than depletes energy. If necessary certain automatic-pilot processes in drawing can serve as a bridge to the next period of wakefulness. The inner narcolept can be triumphed over by any of the techniques of shading, especially the rhythmic bliss of cross-hatching, which is a form of doodling within drawing.

Doodling alone however is akin to non-purposive knitting; knitting as it were, in the abstract without a garment in mind. Knitters have their styles and tendencies for one has seen calm knitters for whom the activity is therapeutically restful and also heard the frenetic motion of the needles of those who seem to knit in anger. Not to delve too deeply in the psychopathology of doodling it can be remarked that the manner of the doodle does not always match the doodler. The quiet committee member who speaks rarely and deferentially is often the one who produces the most jagged conjunctions of scissoring triangles as his or her pencil grinds away surrounding some initial crystal with a mesh of expressionistic angst. Meanwhile the assertive and red faced arguer makes ever blossoming flowers of a thousand delicate petals in charming rings of concentric efflorescence.

Doodling is a perseverative habit not far above pimple scratching or nail biting. Its recidivists are prisoners condemned to produce, meeting after meeting, the same result as if qualitative progress might suggest a risky break in the pattern of their sentence. What eventuates is often reminiscent in a diminished degree of those books dealing with art by the insane with illustrations, interesting at first glance in their obsessive complexity but finally announcing that they come from the oubliette of a shuttered mind. Although doodles can be referential incorporating faces or schematic figures, they are predominantly subjectless suggesting that the seeds of abstract art have been with us for a very long time, as indeed has treatments of text as I can attest, having sat next to someone who could be relied upon to fill in all the o's in the Director's report.

It was from this kind of prison that I wished to escape while retaining the same level of compulsion. I set myself a rough drawing program with strategies to combat the drift into doodling by veering at times towards studies of ornament. Perhaps these occupy a no man’s land between doodle and drawing and could be dignified by some modish term (metadoodle? paradoodle?). This is not to diminish the idea of ornament itself, which though little regarded, is one of art's highest forms of expression.

As one is driven up rather than climbs the meeting tree one finds oneself a chairman of a committee or board that ten years earlier one had attended as the diffident recruit. Since chairing a meeting obliges one to be alert and watchful for any colleague that might show signs of wishing to speak drawing is ruled out, which accounts for the relative absence here of paper from the Exhibitions Committee of the Royal Academy. It is many years since I sat as a member pleasantly engaged in drawing while Norman Rosenthal who has kindly provided a preface to this book embarked on another fervent and unstoppable monologue.

Thus having reached the point in this introduction when I might be expected to talk about the drawings themselves I find myself, like the protagonists of Sterne's novel, on the landing of the house with little to say. Occasionally projects or commissions that were on my mind rose to the surface as can be seen in drawings that relate to the designs of St George's Chapel in Westminster Cathedral. The only artistic problem I have ever solved on a piece of boardroom paper was at the 38th meeting of the Management Committee of the RA where my thoughts were struggling with a task new to me, of designing a coin. The Royal Mint had suggested many rigmaroles of loyal wording and intimated that they might call on the poet laureate for a text. Since the coin was to celebrate the Jubilee of the Coronation it dawned on me that the straightforward utterance God Save The Queen would be the most appropriate. As can be seen I squared the drawing up when I got back to the studio and in essence the eventual model for the coin differed only slightly. Certain drawings echo each other with recurring motifs as in the dream life for indeed there is a trance like element in their making. They only rarely refer to the surroundings of the room or the assembled cast.

This book contains the majority of drawings done over a period of four years. A few were lost or given away and others are excluded because they took wrong turnings or came to nothing. Only one drawing, the frontispiece portrait, was not done at a meeting, but in the friendly room I stayed in at the Chelsea Hotel, New York.

In general the drawings hold their own meanings and are autonomous and if words would do their job then drawing itself is in question. They also generally obey the rule that the limits of the meeting are the limits of the drawing. This sole restriction (apart from the format provided) means that I am often the only person not praying for the order of release, just as at school the bell so longed for to mark the end of a double period of maths became an enemy in the art room. Only in rare cases (as in the coin design mentioned above) have I added to the drawings later though once or twice, when a session was more than usually abrupt I have, for the sake of coherence, continued a process of shading or emphasis that was already well established. I did this in a way reluctantly since by and large I enjoy rules.

Nothing has been meddled with in the scanning or computer adjustment process other than bleeding out the tone of the paper in order to give some sense of the difference between surface tones. The absolute facsimile game as well as being beyond the resources of this publication is for dead artists. The living can say they are happy with this or that slight distortion of colour or density. The pens I have used are in any case themselves filled with arbitrary ink by their makers.

Almost all the drawings were done of course on the generic paper that the computer printer feeds on. Just occasionally they inhabit some kind of top copy whose ersatz chryselephantine glow we try to match. That bright vision that once delighted the prophets of technology, the paperless society, has not come about. These meetings have caused trees to topple in far lands and helped the world to want. We bin them in bundles inches thick. My final vanity was to think that using some of the sheets for drawing would be at least in a sense recycling them. But what have we here? A second and larger vanity that has multiplied them in book form making five hundred sheets for every one that I thought to rescue, and in discussing them here, use up thousands more.

So with guilt I should hasten to end what vanity would tempt me to continue and leave you with a few drawings which I hope, if doodles could be said only to mumble and mutter, speak for themselves.

NB. In the case of the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy whose official papers have been so to speak inadvertently published I have passed them through the secretariat of each institution to clear them. Most in any event are like board meeting agendas a matter of public record. I have always avoided drawing on confidential documents (and there have been some pretty hairy ones to choose from).

From the Introduction to Merry Meetings