Friday, 25 May 2007

Fly on the wall

I bumped into the friend of a friend of a distant relative when I was on the bus recently, and, not knowing them so well wondered what on earth we were going to talk about for the ten minutes until I had to get out at my stop. I needn’t have worried. “I can’t tell you what pleasure we get from your drawing hanging in our dining room,” he said. (It was a drawing of a town in Cornwall.) “It brings back such happy memories of when we were there.” I settled back and was so carried away talking about it with him I nearly missed my stop.

The thing is, I had quite forgotten that he had bought it. I had an exhibition about 10 years ago and invited as many people that I could, and the trickle-down factor – the network of family and friends gossiping away - meant that quite a few people turned out. As I wasn’t present at the exhibition all the time it was on, I didn’t know just how many had turned up. But there were a few sales, mostly to people I didn’t know, and some to those I did.

My record of sales isn’t perhaps as well maintained as it could be, and is a document I should read more often, firstly so that I remind myself I have sold quite a few paintings over the years, which is kind of cheering, and secondly because those buyers are exactly the people I should be keeping up to date with current and future artistic ventures. But thirdly, it is worth remembering that those paintings and drawings, although largely forgotten by me, still mean something to the people who have them.

That our paintings go and have a life of their own when we part company with them was brought home to me even more forcefully just the following day when I had an unexpected phone call. It was from a man in Portugal who was trying, he said, to trace an artist called James Hobbs, as the collection of art in Lisbon he was employed to catalogue held a number of his paintings.

Perhaps I have been watching too much bad TV lately, but my first reaction was to look around to see where the hidden cameras might be. I was standing in an office corridor as I took the call and expected for a moment that I was going to be the subject of one of those fly-on-the-wall programmes. But the paintings sounded from his description to be like mine, and the phone number showing on my mobile phone was an international one. Besides, why shouldn’t my work be bought by someone on the other side of Europe? If someone was playing a trick it wasn’t a very good one, because a private collection is just the kind of place that an artist’s paintings could end up.

I gave him my email address, and later that evening he sent me jpegs of the four paintings. They were mine. He also sent me details of the collection of 4,000 works of art, built by mining millionaire Joe Berardo, which happens to have some of the biggest names from 20th century art among it. “But why have they got yours?” a friend bluntly put it later. My inner voice has also been asking that question and wondering how soon they will sell them, but another voice (perhaps a few too many voices in my head at the moment, but I promise I’m not cracking up), this other voice keeps saying, “You’ve been making work for years, and this is what can happen if you stick at it.”

I sold those paintings more than 15 years ago, and how I wish I could have been a fly on the walls upon which they have been hanging during that time. How the hell did they end up in Lisbon? Who has bought and sold them during that time? Where have others I have sold gone? Where have yours gone?

Philip Thompson 1928-2007

Last week I went to the funeral of Philip Thompson, who created cartoons for the letters and agony pages of Artists & Illustrators magazine throughout my time as editor there from 2001-2004. Cartoons is perhaps not quite the word - they were drawings with a kind of spontaneity that sprang off the page, belying the experience, knowledge, sense of humour and humanity through which they had percolated.

After several years, I met Philip with Roger Bates, the writer of the agony page (and of an obituary for Philip in the Independent), for lunch in a Soho restaurant. They got on well immediately - we all did - and Philip's rich past as an artist, illustrator, designer, lecturer and author was gradually revealed, as was even more of Roger's extraordinary artistic knowledge, wit and insight. Their conversation was an education to me. That they both usually tended to spurn such social occasions made it particularly miraculous they met and were able to develop this friendship.

The highlight each month during my time at Artists & Illustrators was to receive Roger's singular, knowledgeable and hilarious responses to readers' queries and then Philip's cartoon to illustrate them. It was a marvel they would work for us within our meagre budget. They worked together on this page for more than 12 years, until a few months ago when Philip became too ill to work. A relaunch for the magazine, now under new owners, means that Roger's wit and wisdom will now also be lost to its pages.

The two worked on a book of their work together, and despite Philip's distinguished publishing past, they were unable to find someone to take it on. "I've written to scores of publishers but they don't bother to reply," Philip wrote to me. "I spent my early years as a designer in the fifties doing book jackets for every publisher in London but all my contacts are either dead, doing time or in homes for the terminally incontinent. It's like starting all over again with 12-year-old editors and art editors."

I will most remember Philip's quiet voice as he answered the phone each month, the beauty even of the envelopes in which he would send his drawings, the visual splendour of his invoices and the ever-present threat of his Lyme Regis home being covered in a landslide. We left his coffin to the sounds of Miles Davis, retired to a nearby pub, and laughed in his memory.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Fair trade

Things here being the way they are – ie, artistic production still inexplicably outstripping public demand – the house has gradually filled up with works of art. Artist partner, too, has been cranking up creative production since the children are now both at school, so competition for having a work hanging in the sitting room’s much-coveted chimneybreast spot has hotted up. We are reaching the stage when we need to have regular rehangs, similar to those at Tate Modern, so that works don’t have to languish for too long in storage.

A leaflet arrives as an insert to a magazine with details of a way that may help our situation. Ever tried showing at an art fair? You hire wall space at a large venue and sell your work directly to the public. There are a number of advantages of doing this over showing in a gallery. You don’t have to say goodbye to a hefty percentage on each sale, you come face to face with your buyers and other artists, and show what you want to show at the price you choose.

It looks promising. The dates are convenient, and I’m up to a new challenge. A deadline gets my creative energy going. Before anything, though, I get the calculator out. The list of expenses soon mounts up. Hiring of the space, framing, printing, transport, time spent manning the stall, the loss of other paid work… Some services are included in the cost of the space, including publicity, packaging and a credit card payment service for buyers. But how many paintings can I show in the space at one time, how many am I likely to sell, and how many spare ones will I need to take the place of any that sell? How many works, in short, do I need to sell just to break even?

I have a track record of letting my imagination run riot before my work goes on sale; how much will I make if I sell everything I show? How much could I turn this into annually? But selling out has, of course, rarely troubled either me or extended the abilities of my accountants. I usually manage to sell something, and have sometimes surprised myself by selling more than I expected, but usually – and perhaps this is true for the majority of artists – I’m left thinking that things could have been an awful lot worse, as well as bit better.

We can make art for a variety of reasons, not all of them to do with making money, which is why most of us have day jobs. But while I may want to get some paintings off our walls and onto somebody else’s, I’m certainly not prepared to be out of pocket for the privilege. Would it make me feel any less an artist if I handed out my paintings to passers-by in the street who wanted one if it worked out a cheaper way of disposing of them than arranging to attend an art fair?

What an art fair can offer, though, is the opportunity of contact building and finding new, perhaps regular, buyers. Maybe that’s what I’m hoping for most now. I give the organisers a call, and they ask for a selection of jpegs of my work so that they can decide whether it is good enough to include. I may appear to have occasional wobbles about my work, but as I hit the send button I don’t have the slightest doubt that they should agree to include me.

But let us remember that success in such a venture is not just down to the quality of the work, the right frame, the right subject, the right price and unerring self belief. There is one more vital ingredient that defines whether such an event is a success or failure: the right buyer. Without a good supply of potential customers with cash in their pocket our chances of a satisfactory result are low, and how many of these lovely people will turn up we can only wait and see.