A closer look at 'Jubilee'
In previous centuries, the type of painting with the highest and most prestigious status was not portraiture, landscape or even religious painting, but paintings of historical subjects. In this spirit, my painting ‘Jubilee’ records an event that took place on June 4th 2002, the grand finale of the four days of celebrations for the Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee - a fly-past over Buckingham Palace of twenty seven aircraft culminating in Concorde and The Red Arrows. The Queen and members of the Royal Family watched from the balcony as a crowd of over one million people packed the Mall and surrounding streets for one of the most spectacular royal events in recent years.
This painting isn’t just meant to be just an illustration; first and foremost it is a work of art. Its composition has been designed to express joy and unity. It is also a creative statement recording an important event where people came together to celebrate something. So far, the 21st century hasn’t given us too many of these occasions.
More than a commemoration of a major public event, it is also a memorial to Concorde, arguably the most beautiful thing to be made in the 20th century. As such, this fly-past has a deep poignancy because it took place in a precious window of time - just over eight months after Concorde was reintroduced back into service after the Paris crash, but less than a year and a half before Concorde stopped flying for ever.
For me, Concorde’s rolling rumbling roar above me, homeward bound, beautiful and stately, is already a distant memory that raises both a smile and a tear. I feel strongly about this; it was and is more than just a beautiful sight. Everything about its development in the 1960’s - not just its technology and appearance - represents a lost age; it was a time of optimism where the future was bright and gleaming. Our current cynical age even has trouble trying to imagine such a viewpoint.
As an image this painting is unique. This daring viewpoint was never captured on film of any kind; I had to invent it because this viewpoint was both impossible and dangerous! The dramatic composition shows the climactic reward for anticipation - the crowd’s cheers blending with the low growl of 10 jet aircraft sliding majestically overhead as a myriad of cameras clicked and flashed trying to capture the moment before it passed.
There are three equally important subjects within the painting, Buckingham Palace, Concorde and The Red Arrows. Each has been deliberately and carefully positioned so that they are on a par with each other. The historically accurate flight path shows that the aircraft did not fly exactly in line with the Mall but slightly at an angle to it, allowing my painting to reveal the royal balcony and what is probably the smallest ‘portrait’ of the queen in oils that has yet been made.
The planning and execution of this very complex painting has been painstaking and very time-consuming. I have had to laboriously and carefully compose the painting and work out the extremely complex perspective and spatial relationships. The detailed research that had to be done in the course of preparing for this project has been a huge commitment, taking up a great deal of time before I even picked up a paintbrush.
I spent a lot of time in and around the streets seen in the painting taking photographs and doing drawings, but the urban landscape changes subtly and continuously in the same way that the rural landscape does. Although 2002 isn’t that long ago several buildings seen in the painting have since been pulled down and so researching what they looked like hasn’t been easy. The same is true for all the temporary pavilions, seating, and stages etc in the palace gardens and foreground of the palace that were specially erected for the four days of the Golden Jubilee celebrations, most of which have been very hard to research. It has taken a lot of detective work to find out what they looked like, especially from above.
All this has only been a part of the background research and development of this painting which has included a variety of activities not normally associated with being an artist, such as badgering my way onto on various rooftops, making models of the aircraft for reference, and being questioned by the police who presumed that my frequent photographing of nationally sensitive buildings such as Buckingham Palace and Wellington Barracks amounted to ‘hostile surveillance’!
On a technical level, the painting was done using the best quality oil paints (by Michael Harding) used on a hand-primed fine linen (flax) canvas measuring 127x137cm. After gathering all the references and visual information I was able to fine-tune the composition on paper before transferring it meticulously to canvas. Though many variations on my basic concept were considered, and one false start was abandoned (on a square canvas), a final arrangement was eventually chosen and I could begin the main painting process - again.
Firstly, the largest areas of tone and colour were broadly ‘blocked-in’ with thin paint; shaping, describing and focusing all the elements roughly before any detailed painting could be started. All the rest of the work was done with small soft-haired brushes and patience. On many levels it has presented a challenge, for example in trying to exactly judge and control the mixing of tones and colours to make the scene both ‘believable’ and exciting. The hardest part was preserving the unity and natural progression of the colours, from the furthest distance (where colours become bluer due to ‘aerial perspective’) to the punchiest and strongest colours and tones on everything that is nearest the viewer.
I worked traditionally, background-to-foreground, adding forms and details slowly, mostly using a ‘wet-in-wet’ technique. In order to work on some particularly detailed or subtle areas, such as the palace facade or the heat from Concorde’s engines making the air shimmer behind it, I had to chemically slow the drying time of the oil paint in order to work on those areas very slowly over a sustained period of time.
Unsurprisingly, people, both individual figures and the crowds, took the longest to paint. These areas were not painted using the ‘wet-in-wet’ technique but were multi-layered, starting with the ground, then the shadows where the figures would appear, then the figures themselves, then details such as clothing, faces, flags and banners etc. Where the crowds are at their densest in the painting, instead of painting individual figures I had to develop a kind of Canaletto-like shorthand way of painting them consisting of extremely small dots and squiggles which made no sense close up but did make sense from only a short distance away. If I didn’t do this the painting would have taken twice the time to paint, but even so doing this with extremely small brushes on a large canvas meant that making progress was very slow work.
I started the painting in 2005, and it took me over 2500 hours of work to complete it; it could even be a lot more since I gave up keeping a lose track of the hours I spent on it.
Personally speaking, if this painting is looked after carefully then it will outlast me and be seen by many generations hence. In this way I want to leave something behind me that says something positive about what I want from life and art, which is to create something uplifting and pleasurable – in contrast to so much contemporary art which is dreary, dour, dismal and depressing.
As a work of art, is ‘Jubilee’ fussy or over-stated? No. As a testament to the better side of human nature – and at the risk of sounding pompous - posterity demands this kind of treatment of this kind of subject. Bear in mind that we are living at a time when even important events flash by and become forgotten quickly; something that is exacerbated by the often ephemeral and trivialising nature of our dependence on information storage and exchange via the internet. Everything about this painting is designed for permanence.
Events come and go, moods change, people change, buildings change and art changes, but my aim in this work is to provide a permanent statement about a single moment in time. More than this, my aim is to provoke an emotional reaction and to connect to a permanent and unchanging aspect of human nature - our response to drama.
Leo Stevenson April 2010
NEW I am now selling limited-edition prints of my ‘Jubilee’ painting. These stunningly impressive prints measure 30 x 35 inches. Each print is numbered and signed individually, and this edition is strictly limited to 850 worldwide. The cost is only £190 (see ‘Aviation Art’ for details)
Me with former Concorde pilots at the Royal Aeronautical Society. On the left, Captain Mike Bannister, Chief Concorde Pilot and Concorde Fleet General Manager, the man who flew Concorde during the 2002 jubilee and who planned most of the event! Behind me you can just see one of my giclée prints of the painting – it’s not the original painting – which is much bigger of course.