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The Golden Section

After Raphael

acrylic on canvas 
122 x 102 cm
1972 - 2004 

Notes on this work

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After Veneziano
watercolour on paper
23 x 41 cm 

Votive Picture: Umbrian School
c. 1490-1500
Walker Art Gallery 

Grand Sonata

Raphael Revisited
oil on canvas

Golden Section Cancellations
oil on canvas
101.6 x 127 cm 

Like most Welshmen I have short legs and a long back, but you may find (especially if unclothed before a mirror you remind yourself of a greek god or goddess) that the distance from your navel to the top of your head is, to the distance from your navel to the bottom of your feet, as that distance is to the whole length of your body. If this is so, then your enviable physique expresses the divine and ideal proportional relationship known as the Golden Section or Golden Mean.

In mundane geometrical terms a line is divided according to the Golden Section when the shorter part is to the longer as the longer is to the whole. (1:1.614 or, roughly, a division of an eight inch line into 3' + 5').

Euclid, who called this 'the extreme and mean ratio', thought it possessed of the highest geometrical economy. Platonists and Neo-Platonists have seen in it a mystical harmony that pervades all nature. It has been used (not without success) as a key to unlock the mysteries of the growth of things from the galaxies down to the spiralling of the shell of the smallest snail.

Its history in art is just as long. Even the most ill-proportioned visitor to Greece will have it in his bones before he leaves: temple and statue, pillar and pavement, speak the same harmony. Its rediscovery as one of the lost truths of antiquity lay at the heart of the Renaissance. As in the paradox of the poet freed by rhyme, the artist can be liberated by a system of great rigidity. The airy, tender and spacious compositions of Piero reveal, under geometrical analysis, that not an eye or elbow has its place but at the conjuntion of lines generated by the overall proportions of the picture.

I first became interested in the theory via one of those crackpot books which expound the secrets of the universe as revealed by The Great Pyramid with a little help from Stonehenge, and in 1964/65 made a number of abstract pictures based on it. One of these, a version of Domenico Veneziano's lovely Annunciation from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, still hangs on my bedroom wall. This preoccupation with mystical proportions seems to crop up whenever my work causes me to look back to an Italy or Greece of the past for inspiration. 

It was in the seventies however (this obsession seems to return at regular intervals) that I made my most concentrated effort to construct a picture according to the dictates of such a network of co-ordinates.

In 1972 when helping to judge the John Moores competition I and the other jurors met in a room just outside of which hung a painting with the unexciting label, 'Umbrian School, c. 1490-1500. Votive Picture'. Looking at a lot of assertively 'modern' art all day (at a rate of four or five pictures a minute) can be hard on eye and soul alike, and it was after a particularly bruising session that I found myself gaining solace from this little picture, which I had first come to like when visiting the gallery in 1968. Speaking later to the director I discovered that he shared my enjoyment of it. He told me that it had frequently been attributed to the young Raphael. By the time my judging duties were over I had become very fond of the picture and had decided to make a work based on it.

I had a canvas made the same size and started a copy. Wondering whether its fascination lay in some proportional system I subjected my photo of the original to a spider's web of geometrical analysis that revealed precisely nothing. It was a purely instinctive job on the part of the artist who made it. This very absence of order decided me to abandon the copy and work on a picture in which an imposed system would conflict with the compositional arrangement of the original.

The need to produce a small canvas for the set of retrospective pictures I was making for Works/Texts gave me a chance of a trial run and the markedly vertical format imposed by this series guaranteed a sharp battle in which the visual elements of the putative Raphael would have to fight for survival in a straitened space. They just managed it. That they did so seemed to suggest that the composition of the little Umbrian picture was somewhat spun out (its artist after all was probably constrained by a predetermined shape). I attempted, after a further visit to the gallery when the director kindly let me see the panel out of its frame, to find a format which the figures could comfortably inhabit, yet would give the sensation that any move, however small, by any of them to right or left, would create a chaotic congestion.

Four hundred and fifty years of rubbing, restoration, cracking and fading have only left hints of the original's evidently once rich colours. I tried not to be over cautious in guessing how bright these must have been.

The final version of the picture took the form of a diptych with one canvas showing all the constructional elements and the other the finished painting. A larger single version combines both these elements on one surface where the network of lines which guided every nuance and interval of its configuration can still be clearly discerned. This was also the case in a silkscreen print which bears the guarded title After Raphael (1972-73). It gave me a lot of pleasure when the diptych joined its source material in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery.

Works and Texts (1992),  p. 214-218.

Editor's note: After Raphael was extensively reworked in 2010 and a new version (see Raphael Revisted in Editions) was published in 2011 as a screenprint by CCA galleries.