Monday, January 02, 2006


I enjoyed watching the TV programme last night about Rolf Harris painting the Queen's portrait. I found it insightful. I learned a bit about painting. Given his background - an entertainer - it does not surprise me to learn that Rolf is not the world's most respected artist. But he can paint.

I grew up in the era of his Saturday night variety TV show and the best bit (I hated his songs by and large although he is a brilliant boogie-woogie pianist) was always his large-scale painting. He was the Banksy of his day.

I don't know enough about art to know if his portrait of the Queen is any good. The painstaking, multi-layered work of capturing pearls and a broach seemed to require composite skill. Capturing the exact colour and weave of a piece of fabric looked very difficult. He demonstrated a range of skills unfamiliar to me. The end result looked like the Queen. I didn't particularly like it and I don't think it was anything like as impressionistic as he had stated he wanted it to be. But it was well done.

His banter whilst doing it was woeful but who wouldn't banter woefully in a room alone with her Maj, several courtiers and a film crew.

But yet, yet, yet...

In an Observer profile yesterday Rolf's lack of respect from the arts establishment was reviewed. Apparently A.A. Gill said '...he is a difficult man to hate but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try,' and dismissed Rolf's work as 'remorselessly naff.' Jack Vetriano regularly gets treated the same way. Too harsh surely.

I bet most of the British population loved Rolf's picture. The Queen doesn't ever comment on portraits.

I think the work of popular criticism is the hardest job in the world and few get it right. Empire Magazine reviewers seem to manage to remember that most of us see a film at the movies once a month not once a day and review it in such light. Is it a good night out? Yes or no? Newspaper film reviewers don't.

Equally we drink a good bottle of wine once a month and a great one once a year. We don't want our day-to-day drinks compared to a fine vintage. Sunday magazine wine columnists, with some exceptions, can forget this.

How do you become a specialist in an area and still manage to communicate truth about that area to the masses? This is also the conundrum for the theologically educated preacher - a conversation I had briefly with an ordinand from our church, back for a few days after his first term away. He realised how much harder preaching to the masses is than he ever thought.

Rolf is popular. He has been asked to paint the Queen. This is an honour. In time the judgement might be that he managed to capture what us 'ordinary' humans thought the Queen looked like in a way none of the 'respected' artists who have ever had a go did.

The curse of generalism (being quite good at quite a lot of things) is never being respected at any of them.

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