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The Line of Beauty

Jean, Pablo, Amedeo & Keith.

Few things are more expressive than the simple line. A sweep or curve, an outline, a bold shape, these are the elements of visual language we all understand.

In his Analysis of Beauty (1753) William Hogarth proposed a theory of aesthetics in which the term Line of Beauty was used to denote a serpentine line or S-shaped curve, this, he contended, suggested liveliness and movement. Think of a giltwood, Rococo framed mirror and you have the idea. Everything about it suggests life, a certain frivolity, motion and drama.

We may talk about the overall look or feel of a piece, but very often what we are really drawn to is the line. Is the shape right? Do the proportions work? Is the back of a chair a good curve, do the legs follow an elegant line?

I try to create window displays for Guinevere that show the beauty and sheer breadth of antiques we have for sale and I suppose I could just put them against a white backdrop and let them speak for themselves. However, that wouldn’t be much of a display would it? As exquisite as the pieces may be, I think a really good window display causes one to pause, to think and for a brief moment to be reminded of the joy it is to simply see.

So I decided I wanted to create a new set of windows that were all about the line, the shape and I would be inspired by the work of some of my favourite artists to produce displays, that I hoped, would cause clients to engage with visual beauty.

So often, we are caught up with the idea of trying to find a console that fits, a table of a maximum diameter, a pair of vases in a certain shade of red, that we forget to just enjoy looking at things.
Let me give you something fun to look at, this is where my inspiration came from.

I have always loved the drawings and sketches of Jean Cocteau, for me they have a delicious playfulness with a dark underside. I’m not sure why, but whenever I look at them, I seem to hear Debussy’s l’apres-midi d’un faun in my head. It’s a hypnotic and very beautiful piece of music, do listen to it.

I remember a wonderful exhibition I saw at the Estorick Collection in 2015, Modigliani: A Unique Artistic Voice. If you don’t know the Estorick Collection give it a go sometime, it’s one of those slightly under the radar places that are a delight to discover. A lovely house in Canonbury Square, its core collection is of Italian Futurist paintings and it has interesting sculpture. I was mesmerised by Modigliani’s figures, particularly the large-scale caryatids, clearly showing an African influence they have a heroic yet serene quality.

I find something rather poignant in Keith Haring’s work. The energy and economy of his simple, clean lines inspired by 1980s dance culture and subway graffiti encapsulate a brief moment in time; vibrancy, a sense of fun and a triumph of humanity in adversity. He died in 1990 aged 31 of AIDS related complications. His voice, however, lives on in the boldness of his drawings and the hope they convey.

There are so many Picasso drawings to inspire, I couldn’t limit myself to his dove of peace and as I have large, long walls in one of the windows a full-scale mural was the end result. Based on one of his, the dove at it’s center flies in a space of strange silhouettes, their outlines forming a bizarre dreamscape. What could be more eye catching than that?
I started with simple, outline pencil lines drawn by hand. I didn’t try to exactly reproduce the work of artists far greater than me and had no intention of trying to become an art forger, as some of my colleagues suggested! My desire was to create a mood, a backdrop against which the furniture could interact.

The simplest things are often the hardest to get right, as I scaled up and slightly distorted images to fit the wall space I had available, I quickly realised that what looks like a few simple lines can so easily become jarring if slightly out. The correlation between that and the design of a piece of furniture is obvious. For a long time, I couldn’t capture the enigmatic gaze of Cocteau’s Apollo. Elegance and economy, I realized, are actually natural partners.

Things didn’t become any easier when I started to paint, I’m not an artist, I’m a visual merchandiser, I create displays. My surface is a wall, not an easel and my paint, ordinary emulsion, not gouache or oils. Emulsion paint is hellish to try and paint with, it drags rather than sweeps and curves are, therefore, particularly difficult. I struggled with the caryatid’s breasts; women’s breasts are clearly not my area of expertise!
The Haring figures were great fun, I positioned them atop a marble column (Guinevere # 55010) and dancing around a rather impressive C18th Italian giltwood mirror, their playful feel an irreverent contrast to some of our grandest pieces.
I decided to do a rather ‘decorator’ thing with my Picasso mural and adjusted the colours to compliment a wonderful C16th Flemish tapestry of the Fall of Troy (Guinevere # 53168). I doubt Pablo would have approved but it worked for Guinevere.
The boldness of the image called for strong pieces and a pair of 1970’s black marble console by Mangiarotti (Guinevere#57043) sat well in front of both the tapestry and my mural.

It seemed rather amusing to position my interpretation of Cocteau’s drawings in such a way that they interplayed with the furniture & I couldn’t resist the idea of re-directing a male profile based on one he drew in 1960, so that it looked down onto a circa 1790 Italian trumeau mirror (Guinevere #56470) or to have a faun emerging from the silvered leaves and branches of a chair by Joy de Rohan Chabot (Guinevere # 55917).
All the designs, in the end, proved to be amazingly versatile, they evolved alongside the furniture, but never overwhelmed it.

Like so many of my ideas, it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, but I’m glad I persevered.
I can usually gauge how successful windows are going to be by the amount of people I see watching me work from the pavement and these ones proved to be no exception. It’s re-assuring, in a world where things seem to happen so quickly, where so much is produced en-masse and brand identity is so prevalent, that people are still intrigued by something being created by hand, slowly, with occasional re-working and moments of “why on earth did I even start this”.

You the viewer, however, will be the final judge & if you should see them, I hope they make you smile.