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Eric Rimmington: Interiors

by Brian Thompson November 09, 2008

Eric Rimmington: Interiors

Paintings by Eric Rimmington 1982 - 2007
In 2008 the Millinery Works gallery exhibited a range of Eric Rimmington's paintings, this time taking interiors and and the objects within them as their subjects. 
This exhibition ran from 17th October - 11th November 2008 at the Millinery Works


'What I saw when I was...' 1994


The following essay is by Angela Weight, and was included in our catalogue for Eric Rimmington's 2007 exhibition: "Interiors"


Thoughts on the Artist: Eric Rimmington

by Angela Weight, 2007


For almost thirty years Eric Rimmington has lived in a tall Victorian house in North London.  He has his studio in a room with a large, rectangular bay window facing north, looking across to other similar houses, with a view up and down the street through the sides of the bay.  Surprisingly for such a large house, the garden is tiny, constricted by the proximity of the houses in the parallel street to the south.  The paintings that the artist has gathered together for this exhibition go back almost to the beginning of his occupation of the house and with one exception are set within the studio or the garden.  In an understated way that is typical of the artist, this work is a reflection on his life and work in this house with his partner, the poet Mary Michaels. 

While primarily concerned with this space, the paintings carry references to the world outside the studio, or to interests and concerns which have been important to the artist throughout his working life.  He has said that world events impinge on his state of mind, and that `war has haunted me’.  But his personal beliefs are never overt, manifesting themselves only in his choice of objects to paint and the quality of illumination they receive.  There are little things off to the edge of the canvas, beyond the centre, like those green spots in the machine at the optician’s that tests your field of vision.[1]  The scraps of paper pinned to the wall are not there by accident.  A reflection in water or glass may be a charming effect of the light or it may be evidence of something quite sinister. 

The most surprising work is Mirror Image, the large self portrait of 1987, in which the artist is seated in front of the bay window, against the light.  It is an unsettling picture, although the artist says it was intended to be a light-hearted, a celebration of seven years in his house.  The tilting perspective, the symmetrical composition and the blue sky reflected in his spectacles give him an appearance of aloofness, which is misleading.  It shows a man comfortable in his own skin and without personal vanity.  The vapour trail of an aeroplane in the sky was a chance occurrence, but its appearance in the painting seems like a signifier of the modern world, with all its opportunities and threats.

 'Windows' 1992

Mirror Image was preceded by two other paintings, N16 (1982) and Looking East, Looking West, Looking East (1984).  The former, a view of the houses opposite through a net curtain that obscures the lower storeys, was influenced by Rimmington’s reading of the French author and film-maker Alain Robbe-Grillet (b.1922), a once familiar name now little known in Britain outside university departments of French or film studies[2]Robbe-Grillet wrote a novel called Jalousie, about a husband who spies on his wife and her alleged lover through the openings of a Venetian blind.  The French have Venetian blinds, the English have net curtains, but nothing is visible behind the elaborate Victorian façades of this London street.  Where Carel Weight would have painted anxious, disheveled figures on the pavement below, Rimmington avoids any suggestion of narrative; it’s the net curtain that creates the tension, denying our curious gaze.

Robbe-Grillet argued that `the writer should content himself with the impersonal description of physical objects. Psychological or ideological analysis should be excluded - the reader must guess what hides under details and events.’  It’s a good description of Rimmington’s method.  Take the empty cooking oil tin in Looking East, Looking West, Looking East: it is green and white, the national colours of Pakistan, and the text is in Arabic.  The tin is reflected in a mirror propped up in the bay window.  The synthetic shade of green on the tin is a little outside his visual comfort zone, but rather than looking for similar common or garish objects, he placed it against a sliver of pink and white streetscape and a soft evening sky.  London’s changing population, its culture and cuisine, is reflected in this juxtaposition. 

The Black Stuff in 1984 was painted in the year of the miners’ strike.  The lump of coal was purchased from a Hackney coal merchant’s yard and placed on a photograph of Sir Ian McGregor in a newspaper report of his union-breaking tactics in the United States.  McGregor was appointed Chairman of the Coal Board in 1983, after bringing British Steel to its knees, and was using the same tactics in the rationalisation of the coal industry, at the expense of thousands of jobs.  The coal has shed dust all over the newspaper as if symbolically blacking his reputation. 

'The Black Stuff in 1984' 1984

Then there is the
bulging black plastic sack, grotesque and mysterious, squatting on a white tablecloth against a silvery grey wall, also painted virtually in monochrome.  Why has it been dignified in this way?  Why have the contents of the street been brought into the house, threatening its sanctity?  It’s anyone’s guess, but Rimmington isn’t interested in satisfying our expectations.  He is just as likely to pick up a Hackney Council refuse sack as its visual opposite, a clean white cotton sheet, and drape it over a wooden clothes horse or hang it on a piece of string fixed to the walls of the studio.  New Cotton Sheet (1985) was the first large work to be painted in his first floor studio and is virtually life-size.  The perspective makes the clothes horse look as though it might topple forwards under the weight of the sheet.  Bought specifically to paint, its fresh, unused quality connected perhaps to the relative newness of the studio in 1985, when the floor and wall were much less abraded than they are now.  

Another crumbling dark object appears in Das Klagende Lied (1988).  A tin drum has almost rotted away from years of exposure on the roof of the artist’s house.  Its poisonous state of decay seems to threaten the purity of the water-filled bowl beside it, in which an electric light is reflected.  Rimmington saw a parallel here between the myth of `clean’ electricity from nuclear power (while nuclear waste rots in the ground) and the fairy tale on which Mahler’s cantata Das Klagende Lied (Song of Lamentation) is based.  In the story, an elder brother kills the younger in order to marry a proud queen.  But he accidentally leaves a bone as evidence of his crime. When turned into a flute by a minstrel and played, the bone recounts the murder to the elder brother and queen at their wedding. Wagnerian cataclysm ensues.  The moral of the tale is that truth can lie dormant in inanimate objects, but will (eventually) out.

Six years later, another cotton sheet hangs on a line strung from one wall to another.  `What I saw when I was…’ is a larger, grander painting, without the spatial distraction of the clothes horse.  The sheet is almost parallel to the wall and after a while the large expanse of its wrinkled, un-ironed surface begins to look like a shroud.  Inexplicably, there is a tiny lamp on the floor, the tea light casting a glow on the skirting board.  Looking up, you notice two bits of paper pinned to the wall.  Both lamp and papers are rendered insignificant by the size of the sheet, but nothing is in a Rimmington painting by accident.  He likes these contrasts in scale.  Although this is not discernible in the painting, one of the press cuttings concerns Boris Pasternak and the title of the painting is a quotation from something he said about the process of writing a poem, with which the artist identified.  It is dated 11 January 1991, when the Gulf War was imminent.


'Spanish Fig' 1992


The little lamp has appeared earlier in Cyprus Clay, painted in 1990.  Three cheap ceramic objects have been placed directly on the floor, close to the skirting board. In the semi-darkness, the lamp casts a yellow pool of light. The winter of 1990 was one of dread as war drew closer in Kuwait.  The Allied invasion would eventually take place on 17 January the following year.  Rimmington, with his long memory of war, was deeply cast down by these events.

There are four paintings from 1992-93 which the artist has grouped together as The Four SeasonsA Winters’ Tale was painted after Rimmington saw Eric Rohmer’s film, Une Conte d’Hiver, which came out in 1992 and is a modern parable of loss, faith and rediscovery.  Rimmington also cites a reference to Shakespeare’s play A Winter’s Tale (which itself was referenced by Rohmer in his film) and this explains why his title is in the plural.  The painting employs one of his favourite visual tricks, the painting within a painting, in this case one of his own works from the 1970s, when he made several large-scale versions of classical paintings with the figures removed.  Within this canvas itself is a framed section of another Poussin painting also with the figures removed – a triple illusion.  With its smoking candle and carefully arranged objects, the white clothed rectangular table has the appearance of an altar.  There are intimations of death, but the daylight flooding in from the left dispels them.


'Bharatpur' 2006

Clare’s Wall was painted in the summer of 1993 at his daughter’s house in Northamptonshire.  It’s a stable wall, perhaps recently vacated by one of Clare’s horses.  It still seems warm with animal and human presence, an effect created by the light falling on the rubbed plaster and brick, the sweet wrapper in the straw and the scrap of red binder twine.  Sonia’s Tree and My Autumn Fig show the front and the back of the London house.  In the former, a potted Benjamina fig has been brought into the studio, where it stands by the window overlooking the street.  The window, cornice, table and a large framed drawing on the wall, create strong diagonals which converge behind its leaves.  It could be seen as both a portrait of the studio and of a personage (represented by the fig tree), while the artist himself is present in the shape of the drawing in whose glass the fig tree is reflected.  The last painting, My Autumn Fig is a tranquil, sunlit, backdoor scene, where the comforting gloom of a domestic interior waits behind the French windows. Another fig tree stands in a butler’s sink, which appears in other paintings of this period containing buttercups and pink daisies and even a cluster of dandelions[3] – perhaps they propagated themselves - for wild flowers suit the kind of simple container that Rimmington prefers.  

Spanish Fig is a complete demonstration of Rimmington’s art and method: through an assemblage of objects from various sources he creates a web of associations which may be barely discernible to the viewer but which nevertheless give the painting its air of intrigue – there is almost always more to a Rimmington painting than meets the eye.  The ochre colour of the terracotta pot -  unearthed in a garden while clearing ivy - brought to mind Velasquez’s painting The Waterseller of Seville.  The visual association Rimmington made with The Waterseller led to his purchase of the wine glass, whose scale, refinement and luminosity contrasts with the texture and robust, functional shape of the pot.  The fig floating in the glass came from the tree in My Autumn Fig and refers to a Spanish tradition of putting a fig in water to keep it sweet.  The press cutting showing an older man in conversation with a younger one could be a deliberate echo of the old man and boy in the Velasquez.painting.  There is no literal resemblance whatever between the Velasquez and Spanish Fig – it is not a transcription like those he has made of Poussin - but a comparison of the two reveals the extent to which he has translated the former into a contemporary language of his own. 

Two large paintings, Saltimbanque and Siempre Te Ven Mis Oios (both 1997) elaborate on a more immediate connection with Spain, the many summers he spent there during the 1960s.  The former in particular is a layering of earlier paintings, including a painted wood construction, one of many made from materials picked up on the beach, together with objects like the chair and pomegranate that have been used in other paintings. The real subject of Siempre Te Ven Mis Oios is not the grid construction on the wall in (made in Benajarafe in 1968), the painting face to the wall or the cardboard view finder, but the wall itself, from which the artist had begun to strip the lining paper, creating a patchwork of white, yellow, pink and brown.  An artist’s studio is by definition a place of experimentation and process.  Rimmington’s studio is itself a work in progress, its surface becoming gradually more distressed, its imperfections exposed to the artist’s and our scrutiny.

'Cyprus Clay,'1990

Writing about Rimmingtons’ still lifes, Laura Gascoigne has commented that `there is a sense of anticipation, as of an arcane game about to begin or of actors taking their positions on a stage in preparation for the curtain to go up.’

Rimmington tends not to group his objects together in depth, but disposes them laterally on a draped surface.  Another favourite format is the shallow depth of field provided by a shelf, on which things can be ranged in a linear fashion.  Le Rayon Blanc (1987) (a punning reference to another Rohmer film, Le Rayon Vert 1986) was in fact a storage shelf for still life objects, carefully re-arranged with the lit candle dead centre.  Pinned to the wall next to the shelf is a self-portrait drawing, indicating that this is a mini-catalogue of the artist’s life and the studio contents.  False Dawn, painted twenty years later in 2007, takes a similar upward view of a shelf of objects, but the mood is less optimistic.  The wall behind is pock-marked and discoloured, and the plethora of objects has been reduced to four, including a copita of water and a transcription of a detail from Poussin’s Diana and Endymion.  The small dried out squash on the right also appears in Bharatpur (2006), still orange but already livid with decay.  Here is the same shelf, with a numbered artisan brick, brought back from India by the artist’s daughter – herself a ceramicist and painter – set slightly on the diagonal in front of a stretched stained canvas dating from 1968, its brownish hue almost matching the bare plaster of the studio wall.  


In his short essay Easel Words, Rimmington says that there came a point in his teens when he realised that he wanted to study art rather than languages: `I realised that I thrilled more to orange and green themselves than to words about orange and green’.[4]   His frequent references to European art and literature indicate that languages continue to interest him, and that he locates himself intellectually within 20th century European culture. The associations he makes in his work are literary, art historical and occasionally political.  His philosophical mentors are mostly French – Alain Robbe-Grillet, Eric Rohmer (both near contemporaries); his artistic ones Nicolas Poussin and Spanish old masters.  But when all is said and done, the paintings stand alone as a testament to a life, their magnetism – a word Guy Brett used about them in 1991 – present in the solidity and fullness of the objects and the light that shapes them.


© Angela Weight

November 2007


[1]  A Visual Field Analyser

[2] That said, Robbe-Grillet was the subject of `Art, Architecture and Cinema’, a celebration of his work and influence, at the Serpentine Gallery on 15 September 2007

[3] The dandelion is a common Christian symbol of grief

[4] The Jackdaw, November 2004

Brian Thompson
Brian Thompson


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