At YCBA, a Londoner’s portraits of parks and people
Eileen Hogan describes herself as an “urban-based landscape painter.” Enclosed green spaces, the patches of natural world that coexist with human society, are her principal fascination. From sketchbook studies and photographs, she recreates London’s most beloved public and private gardens and parks in her Kensington and Chelsea studio. When Hogan isn’t painting landscapes, she’s painting people — from war heroes to British royalty.
Amy Meyers, director of the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), called Hogan “one of the pre-eminent portraitists in the world today, whose portraits range well beyond the human face,” at the opening of the YCBA’s summer exhibit “Personal Geographies” — the “first North American survey” of Hogan’s work.
In reference to Hogan’s portrait of a D-Day veteran, the YCBA is holding a screening of “Overlord” (1975), the fictional account of a British soldier’s journey from basic training to the beaches of Normandy, at 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 6, D-Day’s 75th anniversary. Admission is free.
“Personal Geographies” grew out of a personal relationship between its artist and curator. Elisabeth Fairman, chief curator of rare books and manuscripts at the YCBA, first met Hogan nearly two decades ago when she was “thinking about Hogan’s bookwork projects” and began a lasting friendship and professional collaboration with the painter.
A few of the bookwork projects that initially attracted Fairman to Hogan’s work are in the exhibition, including a handful of her early experiments in letter art — which she studied at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts where she began her formal artistic training at 16. But besides these miscellaneous studies in letter art, the exhibition keeps its focus on Hogan’s portraits of parks and people.
Hogan’s fascination with green spaces began with the common green in her hometown of Tooting, a suburb south of London. She recalls the Tooting Common as both a place of personal escape from troubled family dynamics and the inspiration for some of her earliest artworks. From age 12 until she left for art school, Hogan spent hours sketching trees and people on that flat, public lawn on fair-weather days — some miles away from the Garden Museum in London, where several decades later she would become the artist-in-residence.
The centerpiece of “Personal Geographies” is a series of green-space paintings that Hogan began in 2015. The Garden Museum of London had invited her to be its artist-in-residence for the 2015-2016 season. Though the museum was going to be closed for renovation that year, Hogan was undeterred.
“I decided I was going to be the artist-not-in-residence,” she said at the exhibition opening. Hogan invited 90 people to submit a green space in London that matters to them and describe why. Her job would then be to observe and paint the submitted spaces, pulling them together in a year-end exhibition that would become a “virtual Garden Museum.”
“People selected very different spaces,” she said. “I had an idea that people would be very interested in our great London public parks, and there were some of them. But they were also very interested in the private space. The unexpected space. The secret space. The place that you see every day. The regularity of seeing the place was very important to them.”
YCBA director Meyers suggested the Chelsea Physic Garden, London’s oldest botanical garden, for its cultural and historical significance as a crossroads for advances of both empire and science. The Chelsea Physic Garden was created in the 17th century as a place for apothecaries to grow their medicinal plants but by the 18th century had become a power-player in the global seed trade; it is believed to be responsible for, among other critical exchanges, introducing cotton to colonial Georgia. Taking a different, more personal interpretation, Garden Museum director Christopher Woodward submitted the football pitch in Victoria Park, one of London’s well-known public parks and the place he goes every Sunday to watch his 12-year-old son play for the East London League. Another submitter, artist and designer Jake Tilson, offered the top of a gate pillar in his own front lawn on Talfourd Road in Camberwell, which he described as a “micro-plateau garden,” for its likeness to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional “Lost World,” an Amazonian plateau where dinosaurs still roam.
After collecting all 90 suggestions, Hogan then visited these places that mattered to other people to find out how they would matter to her as an artist. She considered them all, she said: the mosses, the football pitches, the regularly tended beds of flowers and herbs. She now credits her experience as artist-not-in-residence with “crystallizing” her relationship to the garden as an artistic subject.
“I became very interested in the dynamics of the garden, and how gardens are controlled,” she said. “Gardens as a place of play. Gardens as a sanctuary. Gardens as somewhere to work and the working garden.”
Hogan’s painting of the Chelsea Physic Garden, the focal point of “Personal Geographies,” captures the idea of the “working garden” in an image of the head of a rotating sprinkler, an object Hogan observed as central to the experience of that garden in the summertime. The sprinklers are activated at precisely the same time each day and cause visitors to change their interaction with the space, giving the spray a wide-berth, she noted.
When I had the exhibition at the Garden Museum, the writer Nicola Shulman described the finished project as a board game where I was a kind of principal piece,” said Hogan. “I was sending you all over London not by the roll of a dice but by the coordinates of people’s choices.”
In the YCBA exhibit, Hogan’s “game” even has a board: Fairman asked Hogan to create maps that would situate the gardens within the geography of London for exhibition visitors. The finished maps not only emphasize the scope of Hogan’s project but also underscore the quiet ubiquity of green spaces — public and private, known and secret — across that city, notes Fairman.
Hogan herself submitted the green space she encounters daily — Edwardes Square, a private park she passes on her walk to her Kensington and Chelsea studio. While not quite a replacement for Tooting Common, she said, it’s a garden that has become a part of her everyday practice. Hogan wrote of its inclusion, “[Edwardes Square] is so close to my studio it almost feels like an extension, an extra room.”
In stark contrast with her richly layered landscapes that reach edge-to-edge across the canvas, many of Hogan’s portraits of people appear to be unfinished. The painter has left white space around several of her subjects’ heads and bodies, sometimes even leaving the hair incomplete or a chin or — in one instance — half a face. One of these floating subjects is a 90-year-old veteran, Robert Antony “Tony” Leake, who dropped into Normandy with a British parachute battalion on D-Day.
Prince Charles asked Hogan to paint Leake’s portrait on the occasion of D-Day’s 70th anniversary, along with 11 other commissioned artist-veteran pairs. In Hogan’s portrait, Leake is seated in a blue armchair against an otherwise white ground. Hogan said that when she sent a preview of the painting to Leake, “he rang me up straight away and said, ‘I don’t like it. I’m not smiling. I don’t want to sit in Buckingham Palace like this.’”
She laughed, recalling what Leake said once he saw the rest of the veterans’ portraits unveiled. “He said, ‘Well, I thought yours was a bit scruffy, but then I saw all the others.’”
It wasn’t just Leake who initially found the portrait “scruffy,” Hogan said, “A lot of people said to me, ‘It’s unfinished. Is there going to be another finished version?’ And there isn’t another finished version. Because it is that emptiness that’s important to me, really.”
Prince Charles liked Hogan’s portrait of Leake so much that he asked her to do a second WWII veteran portrait, this time of Alistair Urquhart, a member of the Gordon Highlanders, an infantry regiment from Scotland. Urquhart was captured by the Japanese in the Battle of Singapore, and as a prisoner of war went on to survive not only years of labor on the infamous “Death Railway” in then-Burma (the subject of the film “The Bridge on the River Kwai”) but also five days without food or water after being caught in the deadly wreck of a prisoner transport ship. On Aug. 9, 1945, Urquhart was in a labor camp just outside Nagasaki, where he survived the second atomic bomb.
Hogan painted Urquhart in his ninth decade, capturing his sparkling blue eyes and slight smile, and — just as she had with Leake — leaving the canvas around his chair blank.
Hogan said she’s interested in the idea of the unfinished more generally, as part of her process but particularly in relation to portraits. “I think one can always describe the portrait as being in the past tense. I like the idea of feeling that the person having perhaps walked on,” she explained.
She doesn’t begin her final portrait compositions until she’s back in her studio, often using the sittings with her portrait subject to “think about the person,” waiting until the studio to “think about the painting.”
Hogan uses the sitting as an opportunity to watch somebody “settle into themselves,” noting how their posture changes and their shoulders adjust as they get more comfortable. When commissioned to do portraits of Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, she requested to sit on the floor in front of their desks to watch them go about their daily paperwork while chatting and putting the royals at ease. Charles and Camilla, two more “unfinished” portraits, are on display in the penultimate bay of the YCBA’s exhibition.
Whether portraying a park or a person, Hogan still begins the process in her sketchbook — nearly 20 of which are on display throughout the exhibition. Although she supplements with photographs, she believes it’s absolutely essentially to start with sketching.
“I think starting with photographs can cause you to become too inhibited and too controlled,” she explained. “The act of looking and understanding what you're looking at and what matters to you is really important.”
“Personal Geographies” will be on view in the second-floor gallery through Aug. 11. The Yale Center for British Art (1080 Chapel St.) is free and open to the public Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays and major holidays. For more information, visit the center’s website or call (203) 432-2800.