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Interview with artist Richard Twose

Just last autumn Richard Twose’s work adorned the walls of the Victoria Art Gallery and Beaux Arts. From designing bespoke jewellery collections for the likes of Sting and Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones to becoming a successful portrait artist, Richard explained his free and experimental approach to painting and his deliberate non-precious approach to artist’s materials.

“If I was a sculptor I was going to be Elizabeth Frink and if I was a painter I was going to be Rembrandt,” says artist Richard Twose. “So I did lots of copies of Rembrandts to work out his techniques, how he used layers and colours and how some paint was thick and some thin – you get this glowing quality with the thin paint and reflective qualities with the thick paint.” While Rembrandt’s work has been pivotal to Twose’s engagement with painting and the techniques he uses, he has developed a style, of portraits and of more personal compositions, that is utterly distinctive.

Strange, then, that this is just his most recent artistic pathway, as after Twose graduated in 3D Design from the University of Creative Arts, Farnham in the 1980s, he based himself in London and became a jewellery designer. For the next 13 years Twose sold his collections worldwide to stores such as Barneys in New York, Harrods and Harvey Nichols. He also designed bespoke collections for Ally Capellino, Margaret Howell and Paul Smith, as well as designing one-off pieces for clients including Sting, Joan Collins, Theo Fennell and Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones.

Stepping into portraits

The jewellery business came to an end in the late 1990s when Twose and his wife felt it was time for a change, left London and moved to Wellow. Teaching art and history of art at a sixth form college in Bristol, Twose began to paint portraits. “I painted for seven years before I showed anything and before I thought anything was good enough,” Twose explains. “You have to find your subject and I didn’t know what my subject would be. But then I started painting portraits.” After entering the BP Portrait Award in 2014 with a painting of Jean Woods – the glamorous grandmother who had appeared in the Channel 4 documentary Fabulous Fashionistas – and coming second, things became serious as the portrait commissions kept coming. Twose has been painting full time ever since and his list of portrait commissions include filmmaker Ken Loach; Alice Prochaska, principal of Somerville College, Oxford; and Viscountess Rosie Grimston. He is currently working on a painting of Lord Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions for Tony Blair.

Experiments with flying

The recent sustained theme of the artist’s work has been instability, flying and falling. The idea was born when he was working on a portrait of quantum physicist Jonathan Knight. “He said that the laws of classical physics, in particular gravity and our perception of time and space, apply in very particular ways here and now, but space and time would appear very differently in other parts of the universe. Whereas in the quantum world the laws apply the same way everywhere and at all times,” says Twose.

“I did this big painting of him. I put him in this very classical world where he is standing on this pile of chairs dropping apples and eggs onto the floor, a Newtonian reference. That was the beginning of the instability theme.”

Much of the work in the two forthcoming exhibitions was made while Twose was doing a residency in 2018 at Elisabeth Frink’s studio, Woolland House in Dorset, and references Frink’s themes of falling figures, classical symbolism and animals. Twose’s paintings revel in balance and imbalance, showing animals moving at speed, human figures balanced precariously on animals and a canon of mythological references. “It’s all about the idea of how we invent stories to live by. Even when I was a jeweller I did lots of things on Icarus, contemplating what would happen if a figure like Icarus landed. What people would make of it.”

“I’ve got to be prepared to destroy a picture. Going too far is deliberate to know what the point is to come back from”

Twose’s approach to painting is free and experimental, catching a point between representation and abstraction. “I always want there to be a balance between representation and the abstract qualities of paint,” he says. “There is no reason for this texture other than to disrupt the image, to break it up, to force you to confront the nature of paint,” Twose says, gesturing at a piece where the paint looks as if it has been gouged and dragged with a comb. His approach can be forceful and uncompromising. “I’ve got to be prepared to destroy a picture. Going too far is deliberate to know what the point is to come back from,” he says. “My studio is full of ruined paintings.”

Sleeping Mintoaur by Richard Twose

Twose has a deliberately non-precious approach to artist’s materials and working processes, so when drawing he might call on media as broad as oil pastels, inks, pencils, knives, tea bags, sandpaper. “I draw with whatever comes to hand and then I scratch it. I paint on wood as well. I sand it away and then paint it back again.”

Might it be hard to keep focused, through the balancing of such powerful themes and the need to edge towards destruction? In fact all that’s needed is a regular regime: “I get in about 12pm and I paint for five or six hours. After six hours I start going insane. I play very loud music and work on three or four paintings. That’s why I have a palette on wheels (an Ikea cook’s trolley) so I can move it between paintings.”

richardtwose.co.uk; victoriagal.org.uk; beauxartsbath.co.uk

Main image: Bull by Richard Twose