Decades of arts research to discover what lies beneath

PUBLISHED: 10:20 12 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:47 07 September 2010

This month two Queens Park art experts, who are neighbours, have their first books launched – both the fruits of decades of research. Philippa Abrahams reveals the secrets and techniques of artists through the ages in Beneath The Surface: The Making Of Pa

This month two Queens Park art experts, who are neighbours, have their first books launched - both the fruits of decades of research. Philippa Abrahams reveals the secrets and techniques of artists through the ages in Beneath The Surface: The Making Of Paintings. Magdalen Evans revives the reputations of an English landscape artist and his Austrian-born wife in Utmost Fidelity: The Painting Lives Of Marianne & Adrian Stokes.

Alison Oldham talks to the authors about what inspired them to write.

In the late 14th century the artist and writer Cennino Cennini said of the visual arts: "Some enter the profession through loftiness of spirit and some for profit." Philippa Abrahams selects this observation - still all too true today - as the first of many adroit quotes in her entertaining, informative book Beneath The Surface. Cennini's summary of motives omitted one of the guiding forces behind Abrahams' own successful career in art - sheer joy in the many facets of creative making that she easily communicates to inspire others.

She brings art history to life with her research and reconstructions of methods and materials - whether favoured by Renaissance masters or employed by Jackson Pollock. Abrahams' take is always that of the practitioner, even in something as simple as using a quill pen: "Certainly the requirement for frequent sharpening allows for thinking time."

Some reconstructions cited in the book are from television programmes to which she has contributed, starting with Titian: The Artist's Studio, for BBC2 in 2003. For this she recreated a detail of Bacchus and Ariadne, as pictured. But many reconstructions were carried out especially for the book and several break new ground for her.

"Fresco was a technique I knew about in theory but in practice it is, as Vasari implied, not a game for sissies or older ladies," Philippa says.

"It's tough, it's wet and you can't have a break all day." The result is in the book - and on the back wall of her house.

This is very much an "I tried this at home" book, with innovations such as a burnisher fashioned from a baby's tooth - one of her children's. It includes the revelation that an obsessive researcher at the V&A made a parchment from a mouse skin in a quest to understand how thin this material could be.

Abrahams has a fine appreciation of the practical advice of past masters, including Nicolas Hilliard who wrote in the early 17th century about the optimum conditions for painting miniatures. He advocated wearing silk to avoid fluff and warned: "Take heed of the dandruff of the head shedding from the hair, and of speaking over your work for sparkling, for the least sparing of spittle will never be helped if it light in the face, or any part of the naked."

Philippa Abrahams was studying fine art at the Slade in the late 60s when what was to become a consuming interest in pigments and past methods was sparked by seeing a reconstruction of a work by Siennese painter Duccio at the National Gallery. This led her to study conservation at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and she became a pioneer of technical art history.

In Beneath The Surface her enthusiasm, sense of humour and expertise are pervasive - both in the text and lavish illustrations. As critic Richard Cork says in the introduction: "Abrahams makes me imagine that I am an artist, right there in the studio or the chapel, deciding on the best way to take a work-in-progress through to a successful conclusion."

Beneath The Surface (£25) will be launched by Kentish Town publisher Frances Lincoln on January 27 at the library and museum of the Knights of St John in St John's Gate in Clerkenwell, followed by a two-week exhibition of the reconstructions of masterworks that appear in the book.


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