The Landscape Garden: Britain’s Greatest Eighteenth-century Export?

Last year I had the pleasure of attending the Hortus Inclusus conference at the British School at Rome. It was two fascinating days and featured a diverse and talented international cast of speakers. The ancient Roman content was for me particularly interesting and it sparked the thought that a meeting on the topic of the eighteenth-century English Landscape garden, so heavily influenced by ancient Rome, would be a worthy follow-up event. On 6 March 2018 that idea came to fruition in the form of a one-day meeting at the BSR titled The Landscape Garden: Britain’s Greatest Eighteenth-century Export?.

I have previously commented on my good fortune in acquiring speakers for past meetings and I was delighted that we managed to secure an outstanding group of individuals to speak at this event, including the excellent Professor Diana Spencer to lead a discussion on the central conceit of the day – was the landscape garden indeed Britain’s greatest eighteenth-century export? More on this issue later.


A week of bad weather in Italy and further afield presented travel challenges for delegates and speakers alike. In the hours before the meeting there was a flurry of ‘I might be a bit late’ text and email messages, but by mid-morning we had a growing audience and speakers ready to deliver. First-up, to set the scene, was the excellent Dr Laura Mayer who had kindly acceded to my request to deliver in slightly less than one-hour a keynote lecture on the English landscape garden from William Kent to Humphrey Repton, via Capability Brown. Laura delivered the perfect scene setter with ”Original & indisputably English’: the landscape gardens of the eighteenth century, no mean feat given the unenviable task she had agreed to.

With the scene so beautifully set I had the easiest task of the day with the presentation of my PhD research on the eighteenth-century landscape garden at Stourhead. This was the first outing for my critical review of authorial intention theories of Stourhead and my shift to focus on visitor reception. I was a little anxious at the reception of my ideas and research findings, so chose an understated title for my presentation: ‘Roman influences on Georgian Stourhead’. A robust question and answer session followed the presentation, which was very useful preparation for my forthcoming PhD viva.

Our final speaker before lunch was Dr Clare Hornsby who presented her recent research on the topic of Gardens at La Trappe: neo-classical display in the London suburbs’. Clare explained that this is work-in-progress, but it was clear from the content of her fabulous presentation that she has already achieved a good deal. The building she has painstakingly researched and described sounded truly magnificent and the account she gave of her research was so vivid it was almost like being in the various archives with her.

We commenced the post-lunch session with a consideration of art and literature’s impact on the English landscape garden. We were honoured to have well-known expert Michael Liversidge take us through a broad sweep of the influence of painting in his ‘Painting and planting: art, aesthetics and landscaping in Georgian Englandpresentation. Michael skilfully covered the better-known links between gardens and fine art, but very helpfully revealed what for me were a number of new links and perspectives.


Our final speaker was Dr Paul Gwynne, who is Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the American University of Rome. This was another presentation I was very keen to hear, having had my appetite whetted by Luke Roman’s presentation at the Hortus Inclusus event. Paul’s ‘The Italian Renaissance villa and garden: an overlooked source. Some observations and suggestions’, is also work-in-progress, but was hugely informative and thought-provoking. It inspired me to revisit the topographical poets I read as part of my Stourhead research.

A day of informed and thorough lectures led us neatly into the panel discussion. I think we came to this mindful that the landscape garden had considerable competition for the title greatest eighteenth-century export. Nevertheless, given that by the end of the eighteenth-century ‘English gardens’ could be found in Sweden, Germany, Poland, Russia, and even France and Italy,  it was certainly amongst the most important artistic exports. With this weighty issue partially dealt with we retired to the reception area of the BSR for further reflection over drinks and snacks.

In closing I’d like to thank the speakers for their wonderful presentations and the delegates for their keenness to participate. The success of the day owes so much to the BSR staff who gave so generously of their time. I would particularly like to thank Tom True, Alice Marsh and Christine Martin whose advice, support and participation helped make the day such a joy.

John E. Harrison (Open University)




March Mostra 2018 / Meet the artists…Joseph Redpath

As we approach the March Mostra, our second exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architecture fellow. Our last interview is with Joseph Redpath, our Scholars’ Prize in Architecture Winner.


Photo: Antonio Palmieri

At the start of your residency you showed us some images of the maps of Gianbattista Nolli and Giovanni Battista Piranesi. How has your research developed?

The Nolli map has been a constant reference point during my time in Rome I began by looking into how Rome has been represented cartographically alongside studying recollections of Rome and walking through the city myself. The way in which the city is drawn often reflects attitudes to politics and the city, art and science, however written sources can offer a further insight into the life of the city.

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In Piranesi’s work, I was particularly interested in the manner in which he drew the mass of the city as tabula rasa which was then punctured by monuments, which was a theme that I discovered ran through historic representations of Rome — the focus of the city, as today, is very much on its mirabilia or marvels.

From here I started to think about the content of the tabula rasa. Particularly, I looked at the area of the Campus Martius – chaotic and typical of Rome at this time, it contains a disorder that contradicts Roman urban planning. One particular experience which continually surprises me is the moment in which one arrives feeling disorientated and lost into the Piazza della Rotonda and we’re greeted by the Pantheon. An incredible temple with such clarity and presence, almost lost and inappropriate among its context. I love that sense of surprise and discovery that can be discovered in Rome.

The idea of these ‘un-designed spaces’ which have developed as an urban palimpsest is something that as an architect I find incredibly interesting. My work entails six sculptures of some of the negative spaces of the city, in an attempt to transform them into precious objects with renewed meanings and contexts.


During this residency, which offers you time to approach your line of research in a more speculative way, are you thinking of working with new and less familiar material?

Rome its self is an unfamiliar place but obviously through the spread of the roman empire there is strong sense of familiarity. Working with the city I’ve discovered such a depth in history, which is difficult but exciting to deal as an architect. I have never spent so much time looking into a single city. It’s a huge luxury to have the time and the space to contemplate and to consider the city in new ways. I wanted to use processes with which I’m familiar in order to produce my final pieces, however I’m using plaster for the first time and adding pigment to give the works colour.

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But I am just touching on this topic – what I am really doing, and what I shall present for the Mostra, are personal observations of Rome. I feel like this experience stretches far beyond the Mostra and can be something which I will be able to draw greatly from later.


Joseph’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the March Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 16 March 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 24 March 2018, closed Sundays.

Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Photos by Joseph Redpath.

March Mostra 2018 / Meet the artists…John Rainey

As we approach the March Mostra, our second exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architecture fellow. Today’s interview is with John Rainey, our Arts Council of Northern Ireland Fellow.


Photo: Antonio Palmieri

You use a variety of techniques, from traditional forms of craft to more technologically advanced forms of fabrication. How do you think your interest in more classical forms of art, especially when considering the material available in Rome, will feed into your practice over the next few months?

Yes, my work has a dialogue with the history of manufacturing technologies and because of my interest in the copy, I tend to work with processes that are closely connected to reproduction and imitation. I most often work with slip-cast Parian porcelain, which was developed and used extensively in the British ceramics industry in the 19th century to produce the sort of forms we find in Rome on a domestic scale. So there’s a feeling of returning to the source about my time here, and a tendency to think in terms of originals, but what is becoming a particular focus of my interest is a more complex role of the copy within Roman sculpture. The displays at Palazzo Massimo have been particularly useful so far, for thinking around this entanglement of re-visitations, reconstructions and versions.



Being removed from my usual equipment and facilities is persuading me to consider alternative modes of production while I’m here. I will develop my work with digital fabrication (3D scanning and printing) which offers new possibilities for interacting with forms of the past, and disrupting the temporality and provenance of a physical artefact.


Could you tell us more about the project you will be doing for Ireland’s Biennial? Will you be developing part of this project while you are here in Rome?

I’ve been working on a commission for EVA International – Ireland’s Biennial 2018, which will open in Ireland in April, so this has been a main focus of my first three months in Rome. I’m producing a sculptural architectural intervention where I’m staging a section of a museum’s façade in ruins. It refers to the 18th century landscaping tradition of building Greek and Roman ruins within wealthy gardens and estates across Europe and has links to major themes in my work such as artifice, pretence and imitation. It’s the largest project I’ve worked on to date and part of the fabrication has been happening in Ireland while I’ve been in Rome, so it’s been a good experience of managing a project from abroad. For the March Mostra I will show some documentation of the project that reflects this experience of working remotely, along with a life-size 2D reconstruction of a section of the sculpture.

John Rainey EVA image 2 - 6 Feb

Because of the nature of the project, I spent my first few weeks in Rome visiting ruins across the city. One of the features of the ruins that kept drawing my attention was the metal collars that you find retrofitted to architectural columns at sites like Largo Argentina and the Forum, for conservation purposes. I started to think of these as another type of intervention, connected to ideas about control, staging and display, and this has started to influence new work that may feature in the June Mostra.


John’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the March Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 16 March 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 24 March 2018, closed Sundays.

Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Photos by John Rainey.

March Mostra 2018/Meet the artists… Marie-Claire Blais

As we approach the March Mostra, our second exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architecture fellow. Today’s interview is with Marie-Claire Blais, our Québec Resident.

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Photo: Antonio Palmieri

You set out as an architect and made the choice to become an artist. How has that informed the way you develop your ideas?

For me it is impossible to separate art and architecture. It is only in our sectorial vision of differentiating practices that they take two separate roles.

We can see here in Rome many examples of the strong relationship between art and architecture. For example if we think about Bernini’s project for the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria, the pictorial and the spatial world are tightly connected and interact in an expressive way with each other.

Studying architecture has informed my understanding of space and the way it affects human perception and culture. It has changed the way I look at my surroundings, integrating notions related to space such as movement, time and materiality. This idea was very important in my decision to move to art to get closer to the creative process of materialization, making sense of this being part of my work.


At the moment you are researching various pigments which reflect many of the colours we find within this city. Could you tell us about this ongoing research?

My passion for the pink and orange palette is well known to my colleagues in Montréal. To be surrounded by these colours every day has made them even more attractive and encouraged me to explore them. This has coincided with my growing interest in fresco. Which has been a major discovery for me. I don’t remember having seen such beautiful and impressive frescos before coming to Rome.



I understand fresco as a way of interpreting the interior space in relation to the exterior world. The necessity to stretch it into the imaginary field of mythology and further.



Multiple layers of meaning between image and space and the ubiquitous use of the same colour palette to paint buildings has deeply interested me while here in Rome.


Patterns seem to have had a central role in your practice over the years. You also mentioned in previous conversations your interest in many of the mosaics you have seen around Rome. Is there a relationship between the two?

It is strange, I never thought about them as being patterns, but rather geometries. Mosaics by the process of repetition become patterns, but initially they are much more related to a certain mastery of geometry. Patterns are for me rigid constructions, that tend to format one way of living and thinking, this is perhaps why I wish to transform them. I have never liked the idea of control being behind the concept of formatting.

But perhaps that isn’t the real question here. When I first arrived I went to see the Baths of Caracalla. It was the first ancient monument I wanted to visit because of its close relationship to water. There I discovered magnificent mosaic floors, incomplete but what I could see challenged me a lot. From there I followed the path of water, the idea of dissolution of shape and memories, the transformation over time, the birth of a city and it brought me here, where I stand right now in my own work.


Marie-Claire’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the March Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 16 March 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 24 March 2018, closed Sundays.

Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Photos by Pascal Grandmaison.

March Mostra 2018 / Meet the artists…Deborah Rundle

As we approach the March Mostra, our second exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architecture fellow. Here we speak to Deborah Rundle, our BSR Wallace New Zealand Resident.


Photo: Antonio Palmieri

Could you talk to us a bit more about your interest in Gramsci and potentially how it will loop back into the work you are producing?

One of the things about Antonio Gramsci that captured my imagination and excited me about coming to Rome, is that he lived and worked here, and it’s also where he was initially imprisoned, under Mussolini. Events that took place in Rome sowed the seeds for the writing of the Prison Notebooks. In these notebooks Gramsci forms and develops, among other things, his ideas around what he calls ‘common sense’. This is somewhat different from what we might ordinarily consider to fit the notion of common sense, i.e. practical things/sound advice such as ‘don’t put your hand into an open fire’.

Rather, Gramsci was interested in ‘communal sense’, or senso comune, which refers to ideas that are generally bubbling away in popular consciousness, but that don’t tend to serve the populace. For example, ideas that meet the needs of the ruling elite, yet are wholeheartedly adopted by ordinary people and which can lead to them doing such things as voting against their own interests. For example, this idea recurred in the media following the election of Trump.

‘Common sense’ can also be used to refer to the kind of thinking that motivates people to turn against the vulnerable ‘other’, instead of focusing their attention on the ruling elite. They might criticize, even demonise new immigrants, refugees or the unemployed instead of reflecting on such things as a taxation system that enables the ultra-rich to have such an extraordinary separation from the rest of us.

My work has always investigated the play of power. This can often be quite an oblique or a tangential exploration. Yet, that is one of the things I enjoy about making art; it vibrates in a different territory to that of theory or journalism, or any other investigative process. It is a way of thinking about things in a cultural, creative field.


You have been planning visits to the Fondazione Gramsci over the past weeks. Tell us more about what you discovered?

I visited the Fondazione Gramsci last week and was very mindful that, in engaging with Gramsci’s ideas I am not focusing on biography, or a form of nostalgic exaltation. Whilst there I looked at some of the materiality of his work, which I found really interesting.

I had the opportunity to see beautifully bound reproductions of his notebooks, and I was able to spend some time with these. They are handwritten in tiny script in everyday notebooks. In the process of revising his writing, Gramsci crossed out the earlier text using an open diagonal grid, as opposed to crossing or scrubbing out the words as I might do. Instead he drew beautiful, feathery lines across many of the pages, meaning that what came before could still inform what came next. I really like that. We might be able to do this using technology now, but how he did this was very novel to me. I have never seen this technique as a way of thinking through and as an editing process. He did not want to lose what came before as he moved on to a new draft — and thus neither have we.


Other than the Prison Notebooks, have you been able to see any other archive material at the Fondazione Gramsci?

Gramsci had a journalistic background, and he initiated and wrote for a daily Communist newspaper. He also served briefly as a politician before he was arrested. It was great to see these newspapers, I was particularly interested in some of the visual vocabulary – such as the typography and the cartoons. The drawings were – not surprisingly – overwhelmingly violent with lots of shooting, stabbing, and betrayal, reflecting a very highly charged political context.

Another thing that drew my attention at the Fondazione Gramsci was the use of flags to convey meaning. When I first arrived in Rome I went to the Viva La Befana parade, down at the Vatican, and there I observed synchronized flag throwing as various groups progressed along the route. I have made some semaphore flags in my studio, but I am now thinking about the possibility of using them in a different way, in fact I might throw them. In the political cartoons in L’Ordine Nuovo, I noted the frequency of flags in the illustrations, where they functioned as a symbol of the group or of protest. I am interested in finding a way of using my flags as a signaling device that links into my political interests.

One of the things I am always interested in doing is going backwards and forwards in time to see if there are ideas or events from the past that I might pull forward into my making now. A continuing theme throughout my work has been the idea of the ‘state of emergency’, and the way that this can have more than just one meaning. Historical events, points of crisis, can bring about something different – not just the awful (the emergency), but also the new in terms of a jolt, and then this can stimulate a different way of thinking.


A State of Emergency III


A State of Emergency III (detail)


Have you been researching in detail any other avenues while here in Rome?

The other thing I have become interested in is how the Italian typewriter business owned by Adriano Olivetti was developed into a very progressive model of the workplace. The typewriter itself brought about profound shifts as a tool of communication and it also stands as a symbol for women’s early representation en masse in the workforce.

Olivetti believed in fostering a sense of community in the workplace, reducing working hours and in the consultation of workers at all levels – anybody could rise to the top, you did not need to already come from the top strata. He also undertook the building of houses for staff and developed health provisions, amongst other things. This was a very different way of organizing the workplace and I am really interested in that.

I have just bought an Olivetti Studio 45 typewriter and I’m keen to make an artwork that relates to some of this history of ideas. And this is again bringing something lost from the past, in terms of an organizational model, into some contemporary thinking that ties in with my explorations of ‘common sense’.


Have you found inspiration in unexpected places while here in Rome?

On the visit to the excavations under San Giovanni in Laterano with Ian Haynes (Newcastle) we saw examples of opus reticulatum ancient brickwork (diamond-shaped bricks, creating diagonal lines, dating from the Second century AD). These rather lovely diagonal forms really made me think back to my visit the previous week to see the notebooks and I really liked that. When coming to Rome, I had not thought that the ancient world would inform my visual vocabulary. But now I am thinking of what connection I might make between these two uses of the diagonal grid.


opus reticulatum under the Bapistry at San Giovanni in Laterano


Throughout your career you have employed many different materials and explored a variety of ideas. Will you be focusing on something specific, or will you be investigating a number of ideas during your stay at the BSR?

I never particularly know beforehand what kind of material exploration I am going to embark upon. The way I work is often with quotidian objects that I source; like a typewriter, or a slide projector, – I use these things as a tool for expressing ideas that I am exploring. This can make the work quite hard, as I am often struggling with materials that I have never worked with before, but I don’t think I shall ever work any differently because I find it interesting to work these into my conversations and productions.

At the moment I have been working with a tapestry. I am stitching a quote from Gramsci into the reverse side.


Tapestry work in progress

At the moment I have been working with a tapestry. I am stitching a quote from Gramsci into the reverse side. I have also been captivated by the murmuration of starlings: an annual migratory visit that induces both wonder and antipathy in the human inhabitants of Rome.

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BSR artists in residence assist Deborah Rundle in the making of a stop motion film

Coming from Aotearoa /New Zealand and only having been to Rome once before there is a lot that is very new to me, and I am liking that. There is a great sense of wonder when you come from somewhere very different, in everything from the built environment and social organization to the political landscape. That is one of the really great things about residencies, they really throw you into a different environment, and as an artist I enjoy being able to be responsive to that in the making of new artworks.


Slowdown (neon)

Deborah’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the March Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 16 March 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 24 March 2018, closed Sundays.

Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Photos by Deborah Rundle.


March Mostra 2018/Meet the artists… Josephine Baker-Heaslip

As we approach the March Mostra, our second exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architecture fellow. Today’s interview is with Josephine Baker-Heaslip, our Sainsbury Scholar in Painting and Sculpture.


Cause, effect and chance are recurring themes in your work. Could you discuss the relevance of this triad. Has its meaning to you changed at all since being in Rome? 

I am interested in the relevance of duality, distinction and causality, and comparing the ways they manifest in human and earthly events. In physics, causes and effects [causality] are thought of as many transient and temporal processes which always need a broader context to get just a vague picture of them, but in another sense cause and effect has become a cliché of simple distinction. I see it representing the human propensity to categorise things as being the opposite of one other, basically this supposed need to make binary distinctions. This is a huge problem since we know that the world is much more complicated than this, and differences suffer from this simplification. The relation of cause and effect is also predicated on their separation, which has to occur for ideologies to become institutionalised belief-systems.

In terms of chance, I guess I’m often thinking about catastrophism, the theory that the world has in fact been shaped by a series of rare but global events, kinds of ‘accidents’. I think a lot about the inevitability of the impact of human climate change, and to what extent this can be considered one of these catastrophes. I guess the pressing difference in the way I’ve been thinking about these themes here in Rome, a city of ruins, is the lull of this question in my mind: what will our ruins look like? Perhaps a linearity of trash, expenditure, wastefulness — cause and effect separated from one another, the result of linearity in place of cyclicity. The reality is that these oppositions could not be more interrelated. For example, figuring out the cause of acid rain would now involve studying the emissions of nearby factories and the atmosphere, not just noticing when a volcano erupts. There has been no other time in human history that certain natural disasters cannot be distinguished from man-made catastrophe.

I was talking to an academic here at the BSR recently about what we are calling an ecological turn, or environmental turn, of certain focuses of research in his field and art practices in mine, and that they are quite emotional reactions to the current state of the natural ecosystem. He suggested that partly what humans need right now is a new structure of myth, to collectively persuade ourselves to change our habits, to prevent further ecological separations. I have been thinking about this recently, how this is possible in a century still devastated by the memory of recent history of acts of totalisation, of course as well as those that still exist — those myths that justify inequality amongst human beings as well as towards animals and natural resources.


How do these ideas manifest themselves in your work?

I like this word ‘matter’, which has a double-meaning. If something ‘matters’, something is important. But it can also refer to physical matter. I love this linguistic crossover and its implications. It’s a sort of proposition: what ‘mattering’ can actually mean.

I’m interested in structures of myth and ideology — their place in architecture or politics or religion for example – and the way they operate throughout history in iconographic imagery and composition. I feel the potential and the complexity of ideas when they become physical: imaginable. They are real when they become vulnerable, malleable, open to change. Being an artist, and not an architect, politician or theologian, I work with the materialisation of these structures, and process how these ideas appear physically in the world, or the way they become quasi-explainable in diagrammatic, almost illustrative form. I think of my practice as a process of interrogation, of constantly questioning the status of a certain materiality of value, or belief, or meaning.

These ideas matter and are particularly at stake in these themes of causality. For example in the saying ‘there is no smoke without fire’ – essentially, there is no effect without a cause.


In many of my drawings there is this motif of fire and smoke overlapping, crossing one another out. It represents to me a world where they have been disentangled, and re-placed in an arbitrary relation, one that is visual and legible; a stamp or a logo — commodified and simplified. For me this image is also incredibly emotional, as a reference to the Grenfell fire tragedy last year: the slow gradual excuses for separation, the manipulation and erasing of actual causes, negligences, by people in positions of power.

There is this strange little line by the French surrealist poet René Char, which goes, ‘a cage went in search of a bird’. I think about this a lot, what happens when you reverse the common metaphor — to put a bird in a cage — taking the thing that is considered ‘free’ and constricting it. It makes you think to what extent the idea of freedom is defined, where and how it is constructed. Is it defined by an authority or is it defined by invisibilities or unknowns, or (the worst kind!) invisible authority, and if so what does this incarceration look like, how can it become more tangible? Kafka was the best at this: making physical-emotional-tangible relations of power.


I often use architectural structures in my work to define space as both sheltering and imprisoning. To force the image of an environment onto a pre-existing one, in order to ask a question to it, maybe ask how permanent actually are the stabilities we rely on. The status of the representation of nature through history, as permanent or not, and the relevance of images of landscape as reminders of temporality… these are all things I set out to construct and question in my work.


Following the December Mostra what have you been working on this term?

I found this mass-produced terracotta ‘brick’ tile in Leroy Merlin, a hardware chain in Rome. This is how I often start a body of work: looking for a material that is standardized, easily accessible and identifiable — it offers me a framework for ideas to take place. From the tiles it is possible to construct a basic grid, both a space of possibility and a space of limitation at the same time. From there you can create images with them, stagger them, create situations with them… I discovered this material in December and I have started to use it in baby-steps. It will take me some time to understand where I want to go with it, but I can imagine in the future constructing a language with them which problematises the relationship between physicality and symbolism.

For the upcoming show, I have been creating wall works and structures, drawing onto the brick tiles with chalks, reusing the tiles by wiping off the chalk, as well as reusing the broken ones to make puddles of earth on the floor. Sometimes it seems like I’m trying to create my own kind of microclimate in the studio.


I have been drawing repeated motifs on the tiles, starting to emulate this non-distinction between being identical and being different: the pattern is the same, but every time I draw it, it is different, and each tile occupies and demarks different literal space.

I have recently started thinking about musical scores and notation. I want to make an environment of works about composition and music, sinking notes into landscape to address the place of abstraction, both of nature and of sign. This has already begun to happen in the studio and I can anticipate it making up the next body of work after the March Mostra.



Joesphine’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the March Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 16 March 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 24 March 2018, closed Sundays.

Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Photos by Josephine Baker-Heaslip.

March Mostra 2018/Meet the artists… John Robertson

As we approach the March Mostra, our second exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architecture fellow. Our third interview is with John Robertson, our Abbey Scholar in Painting.

John Robertson

Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Over the past years you have worked with language, paper, and faux techniques. This is not dissimilar to the publication of a book. Is there any relationship between your works/practice and the world of typography/bookmaking?

A very good question. Firstly there is a material similarity, in that everything is paper and I buy the glue that I use from a bookbinding shop in London. So some of the processes are the same. But, I think more interesting in all this, is the idea of language and how faux has a relationship with language, especially bad faux. When I use this faux wood technique I’m not trying to fool anyone into thinking that this is actually wood. I mean…it’s a different colour, and I rip the paper to show that it’s paper, or sometimes disrupt it by running a brush through it when the paint’s still wet. It’s more indexical, a sign, it’s more like the word wood.


Since the December Mostra I have been focusing on doing mono-prints of brush-marks, thinking about these as faux brush-marks, and from this thinking about what a faux painting might be. This, you could say, is analysing the language of painting, taking apart the painting to its elements and putting them back together. All painting is basically an arrangement of marks on a rectangle and I’m doing this too but quite stupidly literally, cutting out the brushstrokes so I can move them around and try them in different places, a matter of syntax.

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S, Acrylic on paper on panel, 42.8 x 29.7 cm.

I noticed some of the books around your studio – books of poets, and artists, like Picasso. How do these feed into your practice/current research?

There is always this Picasso book in my studio, which is my favourite possession.


This is a book of his paper collages from 1912 to 1914 and there’s a debt to these really early paper collages in my work, especially the use of faux-bois (false wood) technique — my use of it is kind of a nod to that. There’s a lot of writing about what he and Braque were doing as a linguistic project.

And the poetry?

Well, Mallarmé hangs around, who I like to think about for the way he arranges things on the page, how the structure of a thing can be such a large part of its meaning. He’s into the definite article and he wants to make the poem into a thing. But to be honest I don’t really read him, I read Robert Creeley.


He always takes a breath at the end of his lines, so when he reads out his poems they’re oddly staccato. I recently wrote a little thing about punctuation/pauses and how brush-marks look like punctuation marks. Basically I was wondering whether you can consider a brush-mark as a pause, as room to breathe, and how if you think about all the marks on, let’s say, a Cézanne, as commas and apostrophes, it becomes a really weird piece of concrete poetry made entirely of pauses.

Then there’s the fact that most Creeley poems are love poems. People write love songs and love poems, but nobody really talks about making love paintings. I’ve been thinking about whether this is possible and what on earth they might be. I don’t mean it in the way of a painter painting somebody that they love, but more how a painting could be a metaphor for, or analogous to love. I think maybe there might be a path toward this in thinking about how both, at their best, can really trump the intellect.

There’s something running through all this about painting and romantic painting that needs to be explored and I feel like I’ve only just reached the edge of it. I’m romantic about painting but also a bit guilty about it, I mean, all this stuff about the brush-mark. There’s a romantic idea of ‘the hand’ – gesture as direct expression – which I think is completely ridiculous, that somehow a painter might feel something and channel that feeling in a gesture through the brush. So in mediating my brush-marks by mono-printing them I’m sort of taking the piss out of this idea, but at the same time I still believe in painting’s ability to have this strange force that’s really nebulous and difficult to talk about. There can be a power to painting, and it’s a cliché but I think that power is in its silence, its inaccessibility. So all this analysis of the language of painting is really just drawing a circle to let the blank space in the middle do the talking, like Creeley taking a breath.

John’s work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the March Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 16 March 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 24 March 2018, closed Sundays.

Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Photos by John Robertson.