When John Wonnacott CBE answered my phone call the other night and I requested an interview, he replied with the words: “well I’ve just put down my brush to sit back and look at my painting, so I can talk to you right now if you like.” His unusual profession also happens to be his great passion in life. In lockdown or otherwise, Wonnacott paints all day, every day – and never grows tired of it. Everything else is boring: art fascinates him today as much as it did more than fifty years ago as a young scholar at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in the early sixties. This is a milestone year for the artist, and today, on his birthday, I get an insight into his artistic world by looking back at some of the highlights of his career.
Highly thought of by his contemporaries, his work has featured in many exhibitions and art shows throughout his illustrious career including the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. The latter of which houses Wonnacott’s celebrated 12-foot tall painting of the Royal Family, completed in the year of the millennium and featuring four generations of the House of Windsor.
He reached a pinnacle in his artistic career with a series of grand portrait commissions that began with that of Sir Adam Thompson, founder and chairman of British Caledonian, once one of Britain’s most successful independent airlines, and followed shortly after by those of former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, Buckingham Palace and Admiral Lord Lewin.
Image credit: John Wonnacott, The Royal Family, a Centenary Portrait http://johnwonnacott.co.uk/
Prior to graduating from the Slade, he rubbed shoulders with other notable artistic figures of his generation like William Coldstream and Frank Auerbach. It was in this stimulating early educational environment, that he developed his passionate interest for observational realism and the innovative way of perceiving and interpreting paintings from the perspective of the individual which involved placing a prime focus on the spectator’s experience of viewing the painting, a mentality which has driven and defined Wonnacott’s artistic style ever since.
The first exhibition to display two of Wonnacott’s early drawings was held in the MacRobert Arts centre on campus and was organised by Andrew Forge, a distinguished painter, academic, art critic and writer. Forge had run part of the second-year course at the Slade, where he had become very interested in Wonnacott’s paintings. Wonnacot explains “Andrew put on a show at the MacRobert that was about the sort of thing that, as you know, Oliver, I am interested in, the relationship between painting and observation and how you see things.”
John Wonnacott’s contribution to this show consisted of two large, extreme pencil drawings: The Grandfather and Crescent Road, both of which represented his early experimental stage, in which he was exploring how far he could stretch and push the distortion of proportions in his drawings. Reflecting on this time in his life Wonnacot says “I was very young, only about very early twenties, and I was just trying to work out how far I could push these things that were happening in my painting. That’s what Andrew was interested in; he was interested in people who were pushing the idea of painting from observation to extremes,”
This stretched and extreme perspective, which can often reach incredulously obtuse angles of vision, some of them verging on the full 180 degrees, has come to be one of the defining features of Wonnacott’s style, and is particularly apparent in his landscape paintings. A significant influence for this can be seen in the Essex seascape where he spent his post-war childhood and where his studio, inside his home, is still based today. It is in Leigh-on-Sea, strategically overlooking the vast stretch of the ever-changing, ever-dynamic, Thames Estuary. It was inspiring “to be in an area where you could actually see the whole of the horizon,” he tells me, “you go down to the seafront and you’ve got this stretch that goes almost the full 180 degrees, so it was kind of natural as a subject for me once I had become involved in this business of how looking works… I think it probably influenced the whole way I was thinking right from the beginning,” John reflects.
Image credit: John Wonnacott, The Crabbing Bridge http://johnwonnacott.co.uk/
Wonnacott’s recent work includes two sobering paintings of the derelict remains of Grenfell tower, and two paintings featuring the suspended carcass of a dead goose with its wings spread out – a recent subject which has been very important to John. “When they covered up Grenfell tower so I couldn’t go there anymore, I was really a bit lost,” he recalls. “And then I found this goose hanging up in a butcher’s window. It’s a kind of goose you’re not allowed to sell. It had been shot by accident. And it looked so powerful there that I asked if I could have it.” What attracted John to it was “the sheer power and imagery of it.” John laments how “it was just hanging there and it seemed a tragedy like Grenfell tower that this beautiful bloody thing had been shot entirely by accident, couldn’t be eaten” and was just “purposeless destruction.”
He recalls how, when he hung it up in the studio, “it looked like a crucifixion and like Rembrandt’s great painting, Side of Beef, and Soutine’s Dead Rabbits…” He continues, “I’ve never painted as well as I did with those pictures. I’ve never found observation flowing directly into invention and back again like that. It just seemed to happen almost as naturally as breathing. I think it might have been getting Grenfell out of my system.” This is the kind of vibrant energy that Wonnacott’s art both creates and receives at the same time – a reciprocal interchange between the subject of his paintings and the observer.
Further commissions from the National Portrait Gallery are yet to materialise. This has remained the case since former director, Sir Charles Saumarez Smith – a fan of Wonnacott’s painting and the man behind his John Major and Royal commissions – was succeeded by other directors. “They have not been particularly sympathetic to my kind of painting,” as John puts it. Be that as it may, he continues to advance in his great passion: creating a unique relationship between painting and observation, and crafting the visual experience for the spectator. It is something that he will never grow tired of, as he sums up: “the new subject always provides some kind of stimulant that adds something new to the painting.”
The lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has forced all of us to radically change our habits and lifestyles by having to stay indoors. But here is one man whose number one daily activity has hardly changed despite these extraordinary times. “I paint all day and every day, Oliver. Everything else is totally boring,” Wonnacott tells me. “It gets more difficult and I get frustrated by it, but never tired and never bored.”
Feature image credit: John Wonnacott, Self Portrait with Goose http://johnwonnacott.co.uk/