Rooftop Thoughts

The Gullies (Covent Garden, London)

I have a personal Thursday pleasure and it is to choose my PCF picture of the week over a strong black coffee. The ten I have chosen to date are a visual log of the last two months of my London journey. “The Gullies (Covent Garden, London)” is my picture from 19 July 2012.

The public send in comments via an online option called Art Detective and it is my duty to log these comment. As I do so, I click over to the image referenced in the message. Each week I enter a parallel world of a people’s art and social history. The Your Paintings archive has brought together the outer world of the UK’s paintings and the inner worlds of artists, institutions and lived lives, and put them in front of me on a screen.

I came across “The Gullies (Covent Garden, London)” by Peter Snow after logging an email about another of his works, “The Passing World” (1985).  Snow’s image caught my attention because the Public Catalogue Foundation’s offices are in Covent Garden, on Maiden Lane. The kitchenette windows look out onto similar rooftops and the back windows of rented office spaces. On a grey day, a wintery day, I can imagine that this is how these rooftops are shaded in similar dull shades, murky greens and weary browns.

My view from the computer is of arched windows across the road with three neat, potted round-headed topiaries on a sill. The colouring on this side is different, too: white, those green, topiary balls and bricks of a softer, warmer, baked biscuit hue. Heard though unseen, below bustles a street of restaurants and bars; in the morning string-armed delivery men unpack crates of alcohol, at lunch business commences. I think of as green and yellow/ gold as the colours of below. Firstly because the awnings of London’s oldest restaurant, Rules, are themed in these shades and the door to the PCF offices is green. Secondly, because the South African shop is down the street; the combination of ‘green and gold’ calls on an embedded memory of school-lesson patriotism.

“The Gullies” took me back to my high school art history classes in the early 1990s, in Cape Town. In those days Mr Cain still lit up the theory room wall with images from a slide projector. Those slides opened up the worlds for me. When I saw these Covent Garden gullies I remembered Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie – Woogie” (1942-43, oil on canvas, 50- 50 cm, New York, Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)). One of Mondrian’s last paintings, it captures his bird’s eye view, we were told, of the hustle-bustle and jazz-fuelled streets of 1940s New York. He was in a great city, but far from home. He looked down on his new urban landscape, as a voyeur of the urban maze.

Gan Gan was my London Granny, she was born in 1917 and raised in the city between the two World Wars. “My Fair Lady” was her favourite musical. In one of my last memories of her more lucid, we are sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed watching it. She was in her 80s; I about 12. This was 17 years before I came to London, when England was still as once upon a time as Eliza Doolittle, Dick Whittington, the bluebells and nostalgia in Gan Gan’s quarterly copies of This England magazine. England was a place of purple, blue, grey and rain. It was “The Cries of London” on decorative plates along her staircase wall. It smelled like Eau de Cologne 4711, tasted like milky tea with honey and Tennis Biscuits. (Coconutty Tennis Biscuits are not quintessentially English, but in Gan Gan’s kitchen at tea time they become so.) London’s song was “Knees up Mother Brown” and the pop of a large biscuit tin opening.

In July I was not so well, but remained hopeful and “The Gullies” maps out a grisly, possibly-paved-with-gold London for me. I love “The Gullies (Covent Garden, London)” for the free-running it gives my imaginary London and my recent real experience. There’s something very rich in it, and it sparks a leaping of parkour proportions in my creative brain. Not unlike the crazy time I have spent in this remarkable city.


My first volume of poetry, SHINING IN BRIGHTNESS is available for preview and purchase at

Follow my London adventures, North-South musings and hunt for good biscuits on Twitter. I’m @BeadedQuill

In respect of copyright, I have not reproduced Peter Snow’s lovely images with this piece. If you click on the painting titles above, you will be taken to the Your Painting’s website where these images are archived. “Your Paintings is a website which aims to show the entire UK national collection of oil paintings, the stories behind the paintings, and where to see them for real. It is made up of paintings from thousands of museums and other public institutions around the country.”


Here follows a piece I wrote recently about the work of contemporary Swedish artist, Per-Inge Isheden.


VIEWING ‘INFERNO’                         Inferno-2434-286x300

In London’s Mayfair is a Regency building with eight flights of narrow stairs. Above those stairs, in the highest apartment, I first viewed “Inferno” (2007; image right). The vollmilch nymphs pouring champagne and the domestic and psychological interiors hinted at fin-de-siècle Vienna.  Although I didn’t recognise the man in the painting, he had the air of a Freud, a Marx or a Mahler. So I deduced that he might be a nineteenth-century man of letters, shadowed by his boy-self in the open doorway behind him. The door ajar, open books and mirror called up Jung, Derrida and the liminal zone so beloved by psychoanalytic cultural theory. I sipped my drink and in reverie marvelled at how the canvas-now-painting, and even the nymphs’ reflective champagne bottle, functioned as zone bending lintels.

My host brought me to focus, “That’s August Strindberg, the famous Swedish author and playwright. He had many troubled relationships with women. And this portrait of him was painted by a contemporary Swedish artist, Per-Inge Isheden.”


“Inferno’s” internal narrative and Zeitgeist references transferred the significant dimensions of the story: the psycho-creative biography of a noteworthy, nineteenth-century man of letters. That it so deftly crosses generational and national boundaries is one of the strengths of Isheden’s work. This is made evident by his online popularity, for most of his followers know his paintings via MySpace, Facebook and his website. Fans from as near as the Netherlands and as far as Japan and Brazil have been prompted to visit his studio in Sweden. Fan ‘MCS’s’ online comment, “I love your painting techniques. The colours always reach out to me,” echoes the sentiment of viewers from across the globe. Isheden’s art touches them aesthetically and viscerally.

A pan-global consumerist, metropolitan experience permits so many of us to access Isheden’s work. “I have fans from almost every country I could think of: Japan, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Gambia, Puerto Rico, Indonesia, Tunisia, Taiwan, Martinique, Croatia, South Korea, Argentina,” notes the artist. Certainly, Isheden’s nudes and Icon portraits relate to a now international Western visual vocabulary. Yet, even his Sweden-specific images resonate with non-Swedes. The Stockholm cityscapes parallel other metropolitan scenes, while those of the Swedish countryside echo a nostalgic familiarity with distant pastorals.

Outside NKIn cityscapes, like the series “Outside NK” (2005-2013; image left), Isheden captures the artificial light that punctuates Sweden’s winter darkness. Identifying these paintings as, “experiments in light, colour and texture,” Isheden sets his approach within an historical fascination with painting’s technical elements. Inevitably the Impressionists, those recent masters of capturing light, come to mind. But the preoccupation may be traced back further in art history, and Isheden also names predecessors such as Tintoretto (1518-1594), Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Vermeer (1632-1675) as influences.

An artist pivotal to Isheden’s work is Cezanne (1839-1906), whose exploration of picture plane and composition Isheden has studied for decades. “In the dislocation of the surface, the ‘bent up’ table, the flatness of the painting and the guided tour for the eyes,” Isheden identifies “That Summer When…” (2008) as a painting which exemplifies his integration of some of Cezanne’s pictorial concerns.

Artist and ModelIn a step-by-step documentation of “Artist and Model” (2011; image bottom left), a portrait of Picasso (who, interestingly, was also influenced by Cezanne), we see Isheden’s trademark approach in his Icon portraits of creating many picture planes on one canvas. The portrait’s physiognomy, composed of references to Picasso’s well-known works, the model and the artist, is reminiscent of Arcimboldo’s playful composite portraits of circa the mid sixteenth century. In one uncanny instance – the portrait of a gardener – the items in the composition echoed the sitter’s profession, as the paintings and model do in this work.

1960s icons and a wink to Pop Art reverberate in Isheden’s work. In adhering to the tradition of the painted canvas and exploring compositional planes, Isheden’s Icon portraits resound with Lichtenstein’s comic-frame paintings (1960s) and, interestingly, harks back to Isheden’s earlier career foray in comic-book illustration. In subject matter, Isheden’s Icon paintings echo with Warhol’s celebrity portrait prints (1960s-80s). However, there are differences. Isheden explains, “I have, as Warhol did, painted Marilyn Monroe. But for totally the opposite reason! Warhol stated, ‘There is nothing hidden underneath my work, what you see is all.’ His portrait simply shows what Marilyn looked like.”

“In my work most of the content is ‘hidden underneath.’ In the face of the young beautiful woman you see a middle-aged overweight woman in a messy bathroom. This invites you to reflect over what growing older means to a beautiful woman.”

In painting an imaginary, ageing Marilyn Monroe, Isheden presents two related themes of Western visual culture: beauty as it is embodied by the female form and the meanings this embodiment might sustain. Isheden’s portrait of Norma Stitz, situated by its title within the tradition of Venus paintings, explores these two themes with its referential visual overlays.


In “The Venus of Arlington (Norma Stitz)” (2008; image right) the subject is clothed rather than nude, as is traditional for images depicting Venuses and Odalisques. However, her clothes draw attention to her voluptuous form rather like the drapes and sheets in other Venus images. The clothes worn by our Venus are comfortable.  She is not the wasted prostitute of Montmarte nor is she the fleshy concubine of court. This is a Venus who lives the ordinariness of our modern world. However, she is not the airbrushed, slender blonde considered a normative beauty by many magazine covers.Venus of Arlington

Stitz poses next to a section of the late fifteenth century Cluny Tapestry, ‘À Mon Seul Désir.’ Considered one of the great treasures of Western visual culture, it falls outside the conventional High Art canon. Likewise, the statue of the Willendorf woman, previously known as the Venus of Willendorf (c. 25,000 BCE), is another visual treasure referenced in the image that falls outside this canon. Stitz’s voluptuous beauty, these referenced treasures and, indeed, Isheden’s style – described as “a mixture of refinement and vulgarity” – gather together in a figurative corner where they create their own, new visual magic.

Stitz had requested that Isheden paint her and declared the result, “closest to my true image.” This paired with suggestions that the Willendorf figure may be a self-portrait adds further echoes. “Venus of Arlington’s” allusion to the Willendorf woman therefore fuses ancient fertility rituals with a mode of self-representation. Viewers have commented on this visual sustenance, with one online fan unwittingly referencing language of ancient earth goddess traditions: “Dear Per-Inge, Norma is wonderful. She is like one of your ripe pieces of fruit begging to be bitten into. How wonderful for her to have been touched by your brush.” Through this representation of herself, Stitz – our Venus – has gifted to the artist and a modern Post-industrial humanity, a renewed visual fecundity.


“Venus of Arlington,” “Artist and Model,” “Outside NK” and “Inferno” present visual escapades both in subject narrative, composition and references. Isheden’s work is deceptively unpretentious. Yet, it consciously and conspicuously wears an impish manteau of representational and aesthetic traditions. Fan Renate Kauffman notes of “Inferno” what can be said about many of Isheden’s layered panoramas, “It presents a complete story, while still casting questions about the scene. I could hardly take my gaze from this work.” With their mini-storylines writ in swirling composition, Isheden’s puckish paintings draw us in and we cannot but be touched by his brush.

You can view more of Isheden’s masterful paintings and learn more about his prolific career at

You can read more of my writing in my recently published volume of poetry, SHINING IN BRIGHTNESS. It is available for preview and purchase at

For more of my comments on art, visual culture and things puckish, follow me on Twitter. I’m @BeadedQuill

The hummingbird stands for love

In old Dutch paintings

a green-winged hummingbird

might stand for love

when it’s on the inside of a pane of glass.

Hovering outside, it signifies the woman within

has been betrayed.

How would you know this

were it not for the scholars and books?

You would have to be Dutch from 1656.

In my notebook, this poem is preceded and followed by a few lines.

Preceding is a criticism, “There you go doing that thing again, where you write something obscure that no-one else can understand. What’s in your mind?”

After the last lines of the poem, are these comments, mine:

You expect  some easy icons

Tins to pick from Tesco shelves

Or marked down shoes from TKMaxx

My poetry’s just not like that.