As I settle in to my late seventies, like many of my age I have a tendency to look back and remember earlier times with tinges of regret and affection. My niece turned 60 recently and I have memories of driving her in my Morris Minor when she was around 18 months old, sitting on the front seat not secured by a seat belt let alone in a capsule, to see my future parents in law. How times have changed, mainly for the better I think in that regard.

My craft of painting places me the art world and in the early 1960’s as a budding artist I painted in the cubist manner and eschewed any ideas of traditional painting as old hat and outdated. I got the smell of oil paint, linseed oil and gum turpentine in my nostrils and have wielded the brush ever since. I knew then that I needed to learn to paint rather than pose as an artist and almost accidentally fell into a school teaching traditional realist painting from life. The wonderful perfume of those materials permeated that studio and I found that I enjoyed the discipline required to become competent in this craft.

So how has this world that I now inhabited changed? It is not the most progressive of worlds. Some of the materials have improved I guess but the biggest change has been in the people inhabiting that world. Whilst unavoidable these changes have not been advantageous in my opinion as this change alongside the rise of the internet is slowly destroying traditional realist painting in its pure sense.

The motto of the Victorian Artists’ Society, of which I am a fellow is ‘Ars Longa Vita Brevis’ and translates roughly as art lives forever but life is short’ and whilst the work of painters and sculptors etc. endures the artists die and are mostly forgotten.

Of course some artists are perennial and their work commands extraordinary amounts of money at auction but is the high price for the work itself or for what it represents? The further away we are from the times of Leonardo the more the dollar value of his work rises until it is out of reach to all but a very select few. Even the great galleries of the world can raise the funds to buy them. Why is this?

In a recent Netflix documentary, Fran Lebowitz in an interview with Martin Scorsese points out that at an auction of a work by Pablo Picasso the room does not applaud the work, they applaud the price. This shows the type of people who attend such events and their priorities but it shows how much works of art have become commodities whose monetary value out ranks the quality of the work itself.

Academics and such search for ever more meanings in the brush strokes of great painters in their quests for their fame or a PhD. They add to the mix of gossip and innuendo confusing the art loving public into thinking that these human beings had some special quality or magic power rather than concentrating on the hard work and dedication necessary to produce great work. Sure, some painters have led what could be called romantic and exciting lives but in essence, hard slog is what produced the results.

The idea of the artist starving in a garret or living on coffee and absinthe among prostitutes in the Latin Quarter of Paris may seem romantic to us in the twenty first century but most died young and in penury, never to benefit from the madly inflated prices of the their works being achieved today. Their stories, like the prices of their paintings have been exaggerated beyond belief by curators and dealers. All grist to the mill, I suppose.

I realised some time ago that my work could never approach the quality and appeal of many those who have preceded me. I also realise that this is mainly due to the fact that i was never driven enough to put the necessary work in. Given the advantages that I have had in terms of instruction and support I feel more than a tinge of regret and a deal of shame but one thing I have achieved is that I have passed on the knowledge generously given by my teachers and mentors to a number of my students of whom I feel rightly proud.

Of late I find that new students who have had previous instruction whether privately or in an art college have little or no knowledge of the basics of the craft of painting. They seem not to have been taught to recognise the degrees of tonal or colour variation or even to measure. it used to be a joke amongst students that teaching in some of our institutions consisted of receiving a set of materials from the teacher and being told to go and create. Nothing about the materials is taught apart from the dangers owing to OH&S requirements A joke no longer apparently!


Dr Pozzi – The Man in the Red Coat

Since 1979 when I first set eyes on the work of John Singer Sargent I have been a big fan. He was the epitome of the ‘artist’, painting in both oils and watercolour and drawing like a dream, apparently having little else to do throughout his rather privleged life during the Edwardian era. I was in London with my family in September-October of 1979 and my teacher had advised me to visit several galleries, one of which was the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar Square. I had no idea who Sargent was and had been looking at the paintings of Velasquez and Rembrandt in the National Gallery, extending my art education and dutifully went next door to see the Portrait Gallery.

If my memory is correct, we entered and almost immediately faced a staircase at the top of which was hung the large portrait of the Daughters Of Edward Darley Boit. Measuring some 84 inches square with the four girls spaced well apart on a Persian carpet with a couple of large oriental vases, it certainly stopped me in my tracks. At this stage I had not heard of Sargent but soon realised that, having entered a travelling retrospective of his work, that my life had changed forever. The portraits in this exhibition stood out for me, their colour, composition and what I can only call life made me observe other portraits with new eyes. Paintings such as Lady Agnew of Lochnaw and Carolus Duran, Sargents teacher as well as the Boit children remain as some of my favourite paintings to this day.

In my more recent experience of Sargent’s work I had come across a very striking portrait of a Dr Pozzi, another spectacular example of his work. In the painting Dr Pozzi At Home, the doctor is portrayed full length against a red background on a red carpet wearing what looks to me like a red dressing gown. The only areas that are not red are his head and hands, his white frilled collar, shirt front and cuffs and his slippered toe peeping from beneath his robe. I love red, it is my favourite colour but this painting is not just red, it is ****ing RED as Billy Connolly would say. however, it works! Have a look at it, it is brilliant. It can be found online at-

I have just read a book with this painting on the cover. Its title is The Man In The Red Coat written by Julian barnes. Although it is said that you cant judge a book by its cover, I couldn’t resist buying it and have enjoyed the read immensely. The cast of characters include the likes of Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Marcel Proust and of course John Singer Sargent. It is essentially a potted history of the transition from the 19th to the 20th century as it concerned European society.

The Man in the Red Coat Julian Barnes. Pub. Jonathon Cape 2019

One passage in the book got me thinking about the fact that when we look at a painted portrait, whether historical or current, we cannot help but make assumptions about the sitter. Of course, this communication with the sitter is second hand via the eyes and the mind of the painter.

Our knowledge of the person painted may be great or none, personal or studied but our reaction to the painting will contain our prejudices and desires as well as those of the artist, whether scientific or emotional.

On page 205 of his book Mr Barnes makes what is to me a profound observation on this point and I quote:

“An artist paints a likeness, or a version or an interpretation, which celebrates the sitter during life, commemorates him or her after death, and perhaps sparks curiosity in the spectator centuries and more later. This sounds straightforward and sometimes it is. I was drawn to Dr Pozzi by the Sargent portrait, became curious about his life and work, wrote this work and still find the picture a true and dashing likeness. But it doesn’t take much for this collusion between dead painter, dead subject and spectator to go wrong. “(1.)

Mr Barnes then goes on to describe his relationship with a particular portrait, making incorrect assumptions about the sitter’s personality and having these assumptions changed by studying the man’s history. He comes to the conclusion that;

When we look at a portrait – of an Elizabethan child, a Georgian worthy, a Victorian matron – what we are doing in part is trying to bring them back to life, to have have an ocular conversation with them, as we look at them looking back at us. And in this exchange we may mistakenly assume that their feelings are versions of our feelings – or what our feelings might be if we were in their place; also, that they are, somehow as interested in us as we are in them.“(2.)

When I look at Dr. Pozzi I see a handsome dashing man of middle years, quite well off and possibly slightly dissolute. Maybe I am projecting my desires onto him , being an elderly rather arthritic man who is not well off ,but on reading this book I find that I am close to being correct about him, although Pozzi is so much more. He is well a read celebrated gynaecologist who pioneered that discipline in France and the UK at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. He was also a brilliant surgeon bringing Dr Lister’s ideas regarding antiseptic practices into his own and other hospitals. He travelled widely and was acquainted with poets, authors, actors and artists of the day. So much more to the man than my first assumptions.

Whether one is a painter or a student of history you should find this book a fascinating look at Europe at the fin de siecle, in Paris in particular. A time and placed which has interested me since first coming across the work of Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec as a teenager.

1 and 2.. Julian Barnes. The Man In The Red Coat. Published Jonathon Cape 2019

Don James 26th September 2020



This blog was inspired by a Facebook post by a fellow painter regarding an exhibition entitled “From Edwin Dickinson to the Perceptual Painters, Observation and Invention: The Space of Desire”

It can be viewed at:

Several years ago, I coined the phrase ‘a collage of ocular facts’ to describe what I aim to have collected on a canvas when I have completed a painting. The phrase could be deemed accurate in its use of the words collage and ocular, but I guess that some may quibble at the word facts. Ones perception of the accuracy of this word as it relates to any finished realist painting depends on one’s knowledge of the subject represented, and virtually nobody gets to see that from the same physical viewpoint as the painter, let alone through the painter’s eyes, so to speak.

Having just watched a video entitled, “From Edwin Dickinson to the Perceptual Painters, Observation and Invention: The Space of Desire.” I was reminded of the general tone of Max Meldrum’s book, “The Science of Appearances” which stresses time and time again the necessity for the tonal realist painter to forego all thoughts of  modification of the natural world in our work and to paint only what we see.


Her we have a problem. As painters, is what we see modified in the process of visual interpretation due to our different experiences of the world?

I suppose that Mr Meldrum may say ‘so what?’ We can only put down what we see if that is our aim, and the differences in perception will be governed by our ability to be objective about what we see. This is why I believe that it is easier to paint a portrait of a stranger than a close relative. We face fewer pre-conceived notions or imprinted memories.


In our need to label things Max Meldrum’s work has been called Tonal Realism and I will happily wear that epithet for my own work. I note that Edwin Dickinson’s paintings have been variously labelled Expressionist and Neo Romanticist, probably because some are hard to categorise. According to his daughter Helen, he became enthralled by all he could see and learn of early modern art from abroad, when he went to New York in 1910 to attend art school. This interest would set Dickinson apart from Meldrum who showed no interest at all in Cubism and Impressionism and what would come to be known as Modernism.


The major similarity between Dickinson and Meldrum to my mind is their insistence that the painter work from life only, without the assistance of two-dimensional data, particularly photographs. They appear to have understood the difference between painting an instant in time from a photograph and working from life to produce a picture which includes some of the changes that occur during the time spent in front of the subject.



Apart from possible changes in light, still life does not change, but all other subjects from flowers to portraits and especially landscapes change constantly, and my belief is that these changes are what gives work done in this way a greater reality, hence the ‘Collage of Ocular Facts.’


On scanning Dickinson’s catalogue raisonne and comparing it with my knowledge of Meldrum’s work I would say that Meldrum is by far the most conservative painter of the two.

From what I have seen of Dickinson’s work it shows more variety and experimentation than that of Meldrum. The work of his which appears to have been commissioned shows his apparent need to represent reality in much the same way as Meldrum did in the bulk of his work but when painting for himself, Dickinson moved away from reality, sometimes to the point of abstraction.


Both Dickinson and Meldrum were classically trained utilising the skills passed to them by their teachers and continuing in that line of painting ancestors which stretch back as far as Caravaggio and beyond.


Meldrum had developed a method of painting which involved, as far as possible a scientific approach to the mixing and application of tones and colours as a set of patches on the canvas without any preliminary drawing as he believed ‘there are no lines in nature.

Landscape. Max Meldrum

For someone who wants to be an artist, this method can be seen as restrictive but for one who practices the craft of painting from life and who is interesting in representing reality on canvas and producing work which will last in a physical sense, I believe it is the way to go. Once the painter has achieved sufficient skill using this method, moving to the realm of the artist is not just possible but readily achievable as the painter will know how oil paint works, a skill that is sadly ignored by some artists today.


Don James


11th September 2020.