Meeting Overton artist Charles Lutyens
PUBLISHED: 15:08 03 March 2015 | UPDATED: 13:58 25 March 2015
From powerful portraits, to carefree landscapes, Overton artist Charles Lutyens is an interesting personality who adds meaning to his creations says Sandra Smith
“I paint an inner landscape, my experience of the world and its existence. I have a window in my head and the world comes in. I’m always busy with inner life.”
There’s a risk involved in talking to Charles Lutyens. Not that he will avoid discussing his approach to the topics that preoccupy him, or decline the opportunity to reveal his personal struggles, such as discipline deficit or a conviction that work hasn’t sufficiently preoccupied him during his 81 years. This predicament, thankfully, is one which holds infinitely more appeal. For Charles radiates a curiosity about life to the point that being sidetracked by religion and philosophy during our talk is a regular possibility. And one that quickly becomes an ongoing reality.
“I don’t have a faith,” he declares after detailing the years he spent creating a 15’ wooden sculpture which he christened Outraged Christ, “but I am in the world. Religion is a word I don’t like using, it seems really trite. There’s only one person, I am me - and that’s a fantastic phenomenon.”
The clarity with which Charles articulates his viewpoint is sometimes at odds with his ageing memory. He doesn’t readily recall early titles or sales of his work, and details of his spells at Slade, St Martins and Central School of Art are sketchy. Nevertheless, his commitment to painting is ingrained in his recollections.
“I have been painting all my life. At my first school, where I was a boarder, I kept watercolours in my desk and painted during breaks, and at public school I spent most of my time in the art room. When the Art Master came in I would hide in a cupboard until he left so I didn’t get into trouble. It never occurred to me he would see my painting had changed.”
Radiating from the numerous oils Charles has since painted is a tangible sense of circumstance, as concentrated expressions on the faces of his subjects provoke a parallel depth of thought in the onlooker. The Supper Table, particularly, is striking in its intensity. Here nine adults and two children battle with a range of emotions which manifest themselves in remarkably varied body language - from direct communication to avoidance of eye contact - so that you can’t help but sympathise with the downcast expression of the younger boy, or wonder the situation which brought so many pondering grownups to the table?
Charles explains the concept behind these works: “I paint people I know from feeling and memory. I don’t call it a portrait but a portrait of an experience. I try to get a likeness of course, but maybe there is something in a subject that awoke what was in the painting; though how much is their thinking or how much is mine, I don’t know. I did a painting of my mother and whenever she looked up she smiled. It was quite charming, but I had to hide behind my canvas then quickly look out so she didn’t have time to smile.”
That this accomplished artist can produce powerful images in his studio (an extended garden shed) while his landscapes convey a more carefree air is intriguing, though not surprising given his dedication to painting the latter plein-air where mapping out an image in pencil - common among many artists - is not an approach that appeals.
“For landscapes, I look and see what the day is like and pull out about 10 colours on the palette. At the same time I develop a feeling about colours. According to that feeling I take a smaller or bigger brush, then look and think whether I have all day or not much time. I respond to that. I love landscape painting; it’s an immediate thing. I never finish landscapes in the studio. I may go back to the same place but because of the weather in England, there won’t be the same mood or light.”
Although these images are arguably lighter in emotional expression than his portraits, they encompass instead a sensitivity of the elements. Both Forest Trees Munich and Austrian Valley, for instance, depict nature at its finest. How tempting it is for our imaginations to invoke the rustle of leaves or the aroma of wild flowers whilst enjoying these scenes.
Completion of a painting usually comes within anything from half an hour to three hours for Charles, who favours brushes (“I don’t like to use my fingers or throw paint”), and lists Tracey Emin, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Bacon as some of his favourite artists. So is he influenced by them?
“No, I’m very ignorant. I have one problem before I die,” he continues, his mind bouncing from one topic to another, “I haven’t worked enough. Another problem is I dislike myself for watching television – it’s a waste of my life. But I’m satisfied with a good night’s sleep. There may be complaints, criticisms and all that but I’m most satisfied just to be here.”
In contrast, however, his religious paintings suggest a degree of conflict within the artist. On several occasions during our interview he refers to Being in the World. This was the title of one of his exhibitions, yet I suggest it also alludes to a recurring deliberation of existence he is keen to resolve. “What’s that? Who’s that? How did it come about?” are questions which are frequently thrown into our conversation. That is not to say his mindset is easily distracted. Nevertheless, such thinking surely fuels his eclectic range of artistic subjects.
And soon we’re back to portraits: “I think it’s time I painted myself again. I painted someone who lived in the village and then I painted his wife. Now I’m busy with the idea of painting my wife, Marianna.”
The couple moved to Overton four years ago. Charles has since fallen in love with the Hampshire countryside and is particularly enjoying this appealing village where the locals are, “Really nice, thinking people.”
The family creative lineage includes Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, the celebrated architect who designed many English country houses and adapted traditional architectural styles. He was Charles’ great uncle although the two met only once.
“I was about four years old, but in the last 20 years I have come to comprehend what a professional he was and the beautiful work he did. At one of his exhibitions I attended, his daughter Mary thought I was her father, the likeness was so acute. When I saw his work I felt I knew him. He had a fantastic amount of energy, he was a disciplined man.”
Having come to know this artist, my fascination now extends to several levels. To appreciate the methodology Charles uses in his paintings and understand his technique is rewarding. Yet it is impossible to develop an admiration without also acknowledging the layers of reflection that shape this interesting personality.
He may declare that his career has been less prolific than he would have preferred, but the paintings this remarkable octogenarian produces are immensely thought provoking. “I have a good opinion of my work and most people are not left unaffected by it,” he states, a belief which demonstrates a shrewdness as impressive as his canvasses.
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