Six years ago, at a party on Dartmoor, Trevor Felcey asked a local man called Martin Hall, to sit for a portrait. This initiated six years of regular sittings, usually 3 or 4 times a week and a series of remarkable portraits.
Although Felcey has painted portraits throughout his career he does not accept commissions. He says that he was only once asked to paint a portrait and he found it totally impossible. “Because the model had a vested interest in what I was doing it completely undermined my freedom. I have got to have absolute freedom and control over what I’m doing. Three times I’ve tried to do a commission in my life, one was this portrait, the other two were landscapes and they have always been disastrous. I couldn’t do it.”
This determination to remain his own man has characterised Felcey’s career and produced a remarkable body of work. However, this exhibition is only showing Felcey’s portraits of Martin Hall.
At the beginning there was no intention to paint a series. “I just thought that he would be interesting to paint. Then it turned out that he was able to sit terribly well. Some people look interesting but as soon as they try to keep still they crumble, the life goes out of them. He seems to be able to remain a real presence….
It just developed. I have painted series before but I never actually mean to paint a series. It’s just that one painting doesn’t contain all the ideas that I’ve got about that subject so it just goes on.”
When I asked Martin why he thought that Trevor had asked him to sit for a portrait he replied that he thought that it might have been something to do with colour (Martin has striking ginger hair and he was apparently wearing a vermilion jacket to the party)
In the first portrait that Trevor did of Martin, it is the colour that makes the initial, striking impression. Martin is wearing a yellow top over a red shirt, the yellow and the red picks up the colour of his ginger hair. The pale skin and ginger stubble almost seeping from his chin continue this harmony which contrasts with Martin’s green eyes, giving them a particular potency. The positioning of the head within the canvas is unusual. The comparatively large space at the top of the canvas contains a slab of purple brown, which, together with a brighter patch of background colour at the back of the head makes a triangle with Martin’s green eyes. (In order to keep this space at the top of the canvas, Felcey was forced to add a strip of canvas to the bottom of the picture in order to achieve a balance). The overall impression has a peculiarly religious quality; the space at the top of the canvas providing a contemplative aura which seems to emanate from the luminosity of Martin’s face.
In the next two pictures this numinous quality is even more pronounced. Trevor jokes that he calls them his “Saint Martin” pictures. Even the red collar, straight in the first picture is now circular, like a slipped halo. The heads have echoes of Christ, the eyes look towards heaven.
After the first three smaller works, Felcey felt able to make a commitment to a larger work. Martin is wearing a colourful Bolivian jacket and his hands and the chair on which he sits are woven into a complicated composition. The painting opens up towards the spectator and is filled with light. It would not be unreasonable to assume, on being told that this was the fourth painting of a much larger series, that the following works would see greater complexity and more vivid colour. Yet as if in shock from the process of attempting to deal with Martin’s coat of many colours, for his next portrait Felcey stripped down his palette to black, blue and yellow ochre.
Martin is dressed in an army surplus overcoat, by now enlisted for a long campaign. His hands are clasped together and comparatively large in relation to the head which sits on the top of a distant blue mountain.
This painting sees the start of a process in which Felcey further reduces his palette to black (blue-black) and white. Further versions of Martin with clasped hands create a series of ovoid compositions where the eye travels around the arms from the head to the hands in an unending voyage.
When Felcey moves back into the smaller portraits which concentrate on the head, he often paints with acrylic on unprimed canvas. While the earlier colourful heads come towards us, we are required to sink into the black and white versions. Although they are remarkably varied, some are reminiscent of Van Gogh’s early work where the peasants that he painted seemed to be enmeshed in the soil and mud which gave them their livelihood.
Felcey is perhaps better known for his landscapes than his portraiture but even here he says
“In a way a lot of my landscapes have been portraits, portraits of trees, portraits of a wave. I feel that a tree has a presence in the same way as a portrait has.
I think I find it even more complex painting a person, this absolute presence.
There is that weird thing about painting an eye, you’re painting the head, trying to paint this thing with the shape of a nut, the hard surfaces of the forehead, the skull, and suddenly an eye will appear in the picture and the whole form crumbles because of the eye.”
When painting a landscape, it is easier to project one’s self upon the subject matter than when painting another human being who is able to resist such projection. As the presence of another’s independent reality is acknowledged, the vision can either marry or must disintegrate. This process finds an analogy in alchemical writings where if coagulato, the engagement with the intractable clay is resisted, the spirit flies off into unreality. It is the repeated testing of the vision against reality, that initiates a process of integration in which the base metal is transformed into gold.
It is alarmingly easy to find metaphors for almost any emotional process within alchemical writing. However , the proposition that new situations can disturb the ego sufficiently to intitiate the nigredo, where the light element has to be completed by the integration of the shadow, perhaps has some relevance to the reduction in the range of his palette. The early Christ like aspect of the portraits, if extended throughout the series would have slowly degenerated into kitch. Felcey is a good enough painter to have used the multi-coloured complexity that he discovered in the fourth portrait to go into a series of highly appealing set pieces. Yet he seemingly turned his back on both lines of enquiry to go into a period of intense struggle with wilfully limited resources.
The reality of Martin’s physical presence demanded that he could neither move onto a private spiritual quest nor produce a series of tours de force.
At a fairly early point in the process Martin Hall had begun to practice open eye mediation during the sittings. Even in those paintings completed before he began his meditation, while he does not stare directly at the spectator, he is not staring at directly at anything else either. His gaze appears to be both inward and outward.
All the portraits, whatever else is happening within them, contain this sense of someone who is neither gazing at the artist nor turning away.
A reproduction of Rembrandt’s portrait of Margaretha de Geer has been pinned to the wall of Felcey’s studio for many years.
This, one of the great portraits in Western Art, synthesizes a confrontational pose which seems to address the viewer directly, the eyes gazing straight out of the canvas at the spectator – yet those fathomless black eyes are turned inward. The left hand extends towards the viewer, not quite a fist, while the other is folded back into the body, holding a white piece of cloth. The lack of symmetry within the composition corresponds with the viewers emotional experience.
When Felcey once more attempted a more complete representation of Martin, including his hands and torso, he broke the ovoid form created by the clasped hands and instead, influenced by the Rembrandt portrait, had one hand extended towards the spectator in a fist with the other folded back towards the body.
This symbol of an equilibrium between the outward and the inward gaze indicated that a point had been reached where colour could be reintroduced.
The final portraits in the show return to the format of the first works. Yet here, after a long journey, that initial vision has been more fully integrated with the reality of Martin’s presence.
I mention to Trevor a remark of Bonnard’s which at first sight might appear to contradict his accumulative, interrogative practice – that it was the first impression that was the most important.
“I understand that in a way. You started the picture for some reason and you have a capacity to understand something totally in an instant and then you spent two years trying to understand what that was; trying to get back to freshness of revelation”
I asked whether he thought that he would do more portraits of Martin:
“I’m hoping that the one I’m doing at the moment is the one, but then I hoped that with all of them. They all seem to go into different areas. All the paintings are so different, they are of the same person but they are all very different paintings. The one I’m doing at the moment I’m just trying to push as far as I possibly can. One’s hoping to paint something new and different. Maybe its arrogance that makes one fell one can go on and on and on and end up with something new, different and surprising.”
Peter Stiles 2012