Clive Head's National Gallery exhibition draws record crowds
A little-known Yorkshire painter has become the talk of London's art world after drawing record crowds to an exhibition at the National Gallery.
Visitors have queued in the first fortnight to see Clive Head's modest sideshow to the gallery's current major display of Canalettos – a linked display commissioned to give a contemporary twist to the great Venetian's work.
Based in Scarborough, where he headed the art department at York University's local campus, the interest in 45-year-old Head's three large "cityscapes" has astonished gallery staff.
"He has broken the record for a contemporary artist in Room One [the gallery's small temporary exhibition space]," said Colin Wiggins, the National Gallery's chief curator.
"But it is the time which people are spending in front of his pictures that is really impressive. The room is always thronged. We are busy, busy. The statistics speak for themselves – 7,300 visitors in the first week, 9,300 in the second – but the level of interest defies that sort of analysis by numbers.
"Head's work seems to be the kind of painting that people really love. There's a sense of delight in discovering that it is alive and well, alongside what might be seen as 'Turner Prize art" and the work of more highly-publicised artists."
Head is by no means a secret in the art world, with his paintings fetching up to £160,000 and appearing regularly in West End galleries, but his name has seldom made major headlines. His career was knocked back by a muscular condition five years ago, but he recovered and developed a style variously described as Hyper or Cubist Realism.
"I rate him as the first artist to create a visual language of the 21st century," said Michael Paraskos, an art critic and former colleague of Head's, whose monograph on the artist came out this year.
"His technique is complex, detailed and apparently realistic – but only apparently. Just look closely, as all these visitors are doing, at what is going on."
Head, who discusses his work with Paraskos at the National Gallery on Monday, said that he was warmed and intrigued by the interest – to the extent that he spent time this week watching people watch the paintings.
"There is an appreciation of technique – you know the sort of thing: 'This chap knows how to paint,' but what really seems to appeal is the gradual discovery of how much is happening in the paintings. It's the spatial complexity, the sense that different times and places are contained within initially seems a straightforward, hyper-realistic picture."
Head's guest stint in Trafalgar Square followed a visit by Wiggins to the Marlborough Fine Art gallery two years ago, when negotiations for the Canaletto exhibition were in progress.
Wiggins said: "I went there to have a look at their summer show, which features work by all their artists. I saw the effect of Head's work. People were mesmerised."
Wiggins and his colleagues sensed a connection with Canaletto's own spatial mastery and intrigue, and decided to offer room for three paintings, which will be followed in December and January by a second guest exhibition by another "cityscape" master, Ben Johnson.
"Contemporary work in the National Gallery is a very delicate matter. When artists are exhibiting alongside Rembrandt and Michelangelo, there is a clear risk that it can end up looking stupid," said Wiggins. "That is certainly not the case here. We have a very fine example of contemporary and classical art which connect."
Head works mainly in London, and the trio of paintings are of Haymarket, seen through almost 300 degrees, a cafe in South Kensington, both inside and out, and a stairway in Victoria Underground station, which gives a powerful sense of taking in different views.
Head said that living in Yorkshire had allowed him detachment, something which has also marked the drama of Scarborough's best-known resident, Sir Alan Ayckbourn. Head said: "It's helpful to keep a distance from fads and fashions. You are more likely to find your own path.
"Scarborough is a very level-headed place. People know who I am but they have other things to get on with. I get stopped in the street more often in Mayfair than I do in Scarborough."
Head's agent at Marlborough, Armin Bienger, said that the reaction in Room One had not surprised him, after previous experience in the West End. He said: "Every time I have showed Clive's work, I have had this experience. It is like a magnet. People become more and more fascinated, the more they look.
"This is not remotely like photography, nor like traditional photorealism. The landscapes exist in the real world, for example at the Cottage Delight cafe near the Natural History Museum, but they are not as Clive shows them. He has found a way of creating an image which takes us through time."