London painter Marguerite Horner: career sea change and symbolic suburban journeys
By James Brewer
At one stage of her career, Marguerite Horner revelled in colour, painting the backgrounds used for sets in BBC Television dramas and backdrops for fashion magazine spreads, and working with top photographers to create ads for products from soup to bras, and.
These days, the London-based artist is known for paintings of a deeply contemplative nature. Her palette has changed too. She used to tote huge cans of paint to apply on scenery of huge dimensions. Now the spectrum is usually monochrome, in grisaille hues – the neutral tones associated with a good deal of sculpture – and the scale is much more modest. By chromatic means, a far-seeing, philosophical artist is drawing out profound sentiments.
In between the two cycles were occurrences that gave a decisive impulse to her personal colour revolution. First was bereavement: the sad loss of two brothers. Secondly were striking vistas of the sea, while staying briefly in Cornwall, a county where one is never more than 20 miles from the coast.
The professional change of direction is bringing her renewed success, adding to the awards and prizes gained in earlier years.
Most immediately, she has been showing five of her works at Edgelands, a ”cross-arts” group exhibition in the refurbished crypt of St Marylebone Parish Church, a show that continues until 30th June 2016 to be followed by a nationwide tour.
The exhibition was so designated because at the opening in April the six artists were introduced at the church’s magnificent portico by performances from 12 dancers and a solo viola player –with the roar of the Marylebone Road traffic adding to the mix.
Latest news is that one of Marguerite’s drawings, in graphite pencil on paper, has been selected for the Derwent Art Prize show which will be at The Mall Galleries from Sept 19th-24th 2016, before touring to other UK venues between October and December. The drawing is called Going Under and is in similar style to her other recent work. A judging panel at the Derwent event chose it as one of 80 works out of hundreds of entries. Half a dozen entrants will later be presented with individual awards.
Of her time accomplishing scenic art and painted backcloths commissioned for the BBC at its Wood Lane Studios, Marguerite says that substantial sums would be spent on building a set. “I found it terribly creative and exciting, and at the same time really ephemeral.”
Varied film and advertising work followed. It included composing Picasso-style backgrounds and interiors for Knorr soups and for Triumph bras; and a picture in the style of Cézanne for Crown Paints.
At the Sunday Times, meanwhile, fashion editor Caroline Baker was breaking the mould with her innovative ideas, and liked Marguerite’s style. Editorial projects commissioned for the paper included what was known as ‘The Gainsborough Girls, ’ in which fashion models recreated the work of the great English landscape and portraitist.
To paint the huge backdrops for the photographic shoots of celebrities and rising stars, Marguerite would cart two- and-a-half litre cans of paint into the then headquarters of the Sunday paper, in Gray’s Inn Road.
“By mixing reality and painted objects, and using the advantage of being able to fix the viewers’ vanishing point with a 10 by 8 plate camera, you can create all sorts of illusions, ” she says. Leading photographers with whom she worked included Adrian Flowers (best known for his Swinging Sixties advertising campaigns and portraits; he died at the age of 89 in May 2016), and David Bailey.
Together with other projects including murals, these assignments supported her less pecunious practice as a fine artist. “I would not be able to paint like I do now if I had not had that experience. I learnt so much from painting for years commercially and it helped my confidence, but ultimately I felt frustrated because by its nature it lacked meaning.”
Marguerite, who already had a BA in Fine Art, decided to break from following other people’s concepts and to do her Masters in Fine Art “to get my voice back” – to get back to the person she was before she was involved with television and magazines. Her graduation works for the MA she achieved in 2004 were awarded with the Kidd Rapinet prize for outstanding work, presented by Sir Peter Blake.
She began to use images of nondescript American suburbia: cars, highways, bridges, houses, tall trees, always without people. The settings, with their wistful atmosphere, are largely based on observation in Long Island, New York state. They are not to be read literally as about roads and cars and streets. “The cars were initially symbols for people. An early painting, Empty House, was to do with spaces being deserted.”
All the images she gathers, her source material, “will be about contemplation. I feel in that space of contemplation you become more yourself. When you are deprived of contemplation, you are in danger of losing yourself.”
The monochrome theme originated one day in an art class when a tutor saw work in progress with colour yet to be applied. “The tutor said ‘why don’t you leave it as it is?’ and I realised that this was my natural style.” More accurately, the result might be described as duo-chrome, as her method is to use two colours, “a warm and a cool colour.”
For her, this approach is more expressive than other techniques and gives her more freedom of working, but equally brings colouration demands: “There is a way of putting on paint thinly that allows the white ground to come through and create air, to go beyond the picture plane, back into the illusion of space.”
She was greatly affected by the deaths of two brothers. “You go through certain traumas, and this spills out into the way you handle the paint. You are processing things internally and this would unconsciously come out into the work.”
Marguerite avers: “There is something that happens when you are painting; especially if one is responding to an impulse to action without conscious motivation: something comes out that needs to be conveyed, taking form on a two-dimensional scale.
“When people write about my work they point to barriers [trees, grilles, telegraph wires that disrupt the composition], things blocking things and I would say that is probably a physical manifestation of my psyche. I just set out to work. Painting in particular is such a sensitive medium, and you want that sensitivity to come across.”
Such emotions are timeless. She cites the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, in which a woman conveys an interpretation of reality that is imagined, only to find the facts are quite different, but affect her emotions none the less. By sensitively describing that inner life Daphne du Maurier affirms our own similar feelings and experiences: we feel a connection.
“When I see something in the world that seems to me to be a metaphor for my inner life, then that is the foundation of my paintings, but I do not go looking for it, it finds me; however I have to be… in ‘a state of reverie.’”
Marguerite is critical of the notion of making art “that sets out in its aim to manipulate people, or follow what is prescribed by the `art world’ or art institutions.” A piece of art is “the one thing where no one can tell you what to do, because it has never been made before. Art, in my idea, is something unique because the artist is a sentient person and it is intimate.’
“I feel one of the things that people are hungry for is not to see more commercial vulgarity, perhaps because such work does not feed your soul; if anything it is draining it. When you see really good art you see more in it every time you look at it, the sum of the time and reflection the artist has put into it. This is not about playing Art games.”
The contrast might be exemplified by Barbara Hepworth and Jeff Koons. The latter produces clever and ambitious work in which he is putting a mirror up to society; a classic Barbara Hepworth work, Infant 1929, a life-sized wooden sculpture of her baby son, is sensuous and evolves deep feelings. “Anish Kapoor creates work about the phenomenology of perception [the study of structures of consciousness free as much as possible from preconceptions]. He can produce strong work over and over again.”
Among the images that Marguerite gathers as a basis for inspiration were brief moments of natural phenomena, such as the effects of light on the sea. ”I managed to record a great number of these fleeting pools of light on the dark winter sea in Cornwall one Christmas while studying for my MA, and when I returned to college this led to a whole series of skies and seas and light. I did small drawings in charcoal, some very big paintings and a very large one in oil, which eventually made up my degree show.”
In 2006 she was short-listed for the first Celeste Painting Prize, and has since been exhibiting widely, including seven of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions (including the 2016 show) and seven editions of the ING Discerning Eye Exhibition.
When in 2012 Marguerite had her first London solo exhibition entitled The Seen and Unseen, Lady Marina Vaizey (former art critic for the Financial Times and Sunday Times and a Turner Prize judge) wrote the essay for her catalogue.
The previous year she exhibited at the 54th Venice Biennale with WW Gallery, and her work has since been selected for public museum collections in the UK and US.
Marguerite feels sympathy with the insight shown by critic Anna McNay in an essay in art-corpus.blogspot. The latter characterised what Marguerite aimed for as “bringing the sublime into the mundane.” The critic noted that ideas of the sublime have been dated to the first century AD, when the Greek author Longinus wrote on the subject. The sublime can be defined as that which transports, moves and dislocates us from our self.
While the suburban depictions are the stuff of the everyday, the cars for instance become “vehicles of transcendence, ” wrote Ms McNay. The scenes “are familiar, yet strange – estranged. A seemingly mundane image… can contain the seed, or essence, of a memory or state, that can lead the viewer to transcend his or her physical being and cease to feel ‘mediocre, contingent, mortal.’”
In the show Edgelands, alongside fellow artists Day Bowman, Dan Coombs, Barbara Howey, Lee Maelzer and Sean Williams, Marguerite “explores and documents the wastelands and the neglected environs to be found on the margins of urban living, ” as the publicity has it. Paul Farley and Michael Symmons-Roberts, authors of the book Edgelands, wrote of great “unnamed and ignored landscapes…places where our slipstream has created a zone of inattention” yet where all manner of interest and beauty thrives.
First-time visitors to the vaulted crypt of the Anglican parish church are surprised how capacious it is, and what a wealth of rooms and offices – including health and counselling centres – it contains. Constructed in the early 19th century, it extends under the whole church – an edifice that has played a part in the lives of many residents of the area. Lord Byron was christened there in 1788.
The catacombs of the crypt were bricked up in 1853, and much later the coffins were transferred to a cemetery in Surrey. The Prince of Wales formally opened the newly refurbished crypt in 1987. In 2013 the church began a series of exhibitions there of contemporary British painters.
Where next in Marguerite Horner’s art practice? “I have started to do smaller paintings, but they are just as intense. I am exploring some ideas around the concept of beauty, mixing studies from 3D reality and 2D images using blossom and flowers, and they still have a subconscious motif of metaphysical existence.” Again the works will be mostly monochrome – “one I did with too much colour I found ‘too sweet.’ As has been said, colour [is a perception], it does not exist except in our minds and its perception is always affected by its relationship with its surrounding colours.”
Edgelands is at The Crypt, St Marylebone Parish Church.17, Marylebone Rd, London NW1 until June 30 2016.