Tuesday, June 16, 2015


After reflecting during the past several days on the natural frames made by windows, the wonder of trees, and spending our lives somewhere other than in front of a television screen, I read an essay about a British painter, mostly unknown (though probably better known now) named Stephen Taylor that somehow tied all those thoughts together.  

The essay appears in a book by Alain de Botton called The Pleasures and the Sorrows of Work (I also recommend de Botton's wonderful The Art of Travel).

Some excerpts:

"Stephen Taylor has spent much of the last two years in a wheat field in East Anglia repeatedly painting the same oak tree under a range of different lights and weathers. He was out in two feet of snow last winter and this summer, at three in the morning, he lay on his back tracing the upper branches of the tree by the light of a solstice moon"...

On a typical summer's day, this unknown middle-aged artist is loading his car, ready for work, by seven in the morning. He lives in a dilapidated terraced house in the centre of Colchester, a town of one hundred thousand inhabitants, ninety kilometres north-east of London. His sagging, dented Citroen has reached a state of decrepitude so advanced that it seems set for immortality. Across the back seats, strewn as if the vehicle had just been involved in a head-on collision, are canvases, easels, insect repellant, old sandwiches, a bag of brushes and a box of paints. There is also a suitcase jammed with scarves and jumpers, for outdoor paiinters tend to know the story of how Cezanne caught a chill one morning while painting a sparrow in a field in Aix-en-Provence--and was dead by early sunset"...


"Taylor first came across the tree five years ago, when he was out for a walk in the countryside following the death of his girlfriend. After stopping to rest against the fence which runs beside it, he was overpowered by a feeling that something in this very ordinary tree was crying out to be set down to paint, and that if he could only do it justice, his life would in indistinct ways be redeemed, and its hardships sublimated. 

It is not unusual for Taylor to forget to eat while he is working...

Taylor is tormented by a sense of responsibility for the appearance of things. He can be kept awake at night by what he sees as an injustice in the colour of wheat or an uneasy fault line between two patches of sky. His work frequently puts him in a tense, silent mood, in which he can be seen walking the streets of Colchester. His concerns are difficult for others to feel sympathetic about, however, for few of us are primed to feel generous toward a misery caused by a pigment incorrectly applied across an unremunerative piece of stretched cloth.

His progress is slow: he can spend five months on a canvas measuring twenty centimeters square. But his painstaking approach is in truth the legacy of over twenty years of research. It took him three years just to determine how best to render the movement of wheat in a gust of wind, and even longer to become proficient in colour. Whereas a decade ago he would have used at least ten shades of green to paint the tree's foliage, he now relies on only three, and yet his leaves appear all the more luxuriantly dense and mobile for this reduction in complexity. 

Taylor found his teachers on museum walls"...


"It is the close of an exceptionally hot summer's day. Taylor is outside in his field, preparing to work through the night...

As the night wears on, the human world gradually recedes, leaving Taylor alone with insects and the play of moonlight on wheat. He sees his art as born out of, and hoping to inspire, reverence for all that is unlike us and exceeds us. He never wanted to paint the work of people, their factories, streets or electricity circuit boards. His attention was drawn to that which, because we did not build it, we must make a particular effort of empathy and imagination to understand, to a natural environment that is uniquely unpredictable, for it is literally unforeseen. His devoted look at a tree is an attempt to push the self aside and recognise all that is other and beyond us--starting with this ancient-looking hulk in the gloom, with its erratic branches, thousands of stiff little leaves and remarkable lack of any direct connection to the human drama."

--Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and the Sorrows of Work, from Chapter VI, "Painting

stream of living water

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! Thanks for this, Heather. I both love -- and relate -- to the slow progress that Stephen Taylor finds necessary to his art. I hear insight and contemplation.


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