Richmond railway bridge (with houseboats), Oil on Canvas, 32 x 39 inches
I was painting on the foreshore in Hammersmith, facing west, when I heard: “Oy mate!” from the bridge above and behind me.
This is the kind of thing artists who work outside dread to hear: people who want attention. As any plein air painter will tell you, for every normal, polite member of the public respectfully interested in what you’re doing, there are at least two dozen crazy people who want to talk about themselves.
On this occasion, I ignored the calls from the bridge, because I thought I was far enough away to pretend I couldn’t hear. The “Oy, mate!” was repeated several times, each louder and more insistent, and it reminded me that ignoring people can be a risky tactic.
Once, when painting on the Chelsea embankment, a recent graduate of Her Majesty’s prisons (I know this because he told me), complimented my painting. I quietly thanked him but because I didn’t immediately turn round and engage in conversation he became angry and threatening. I was on a ledge with a big drop down to the shingle below, so I had no choice but to placate him.
When I started this painting in Richmond, I wondered what sort of visitors I would get.
The first one arrived on a bicycle.
“You’re like me,” he said.
Succinct, I thought, people don’t usually reveal their narcissism so quickly.
It’s always the same dilemma : do you rudely and blatantly ignore people, in which case you risk getting pushed into the river, or do you engage with them, in which case you waste a lot of time. I tried to have it both ways. I glanced at him, but carried on working.
“You’re like me,” he repeated. “You work for yourself.”
I carried on painting. I wasn’t going to take the bait.
“I make cellos,” he said.
Unfortunately, at this point, he had me. It actually sounded interesting, and before I knew it, I was asking him questions about his job.
“But, isn’t a new cello, made today, always going to be inferior to a Guarnieri or an Amati or a Stradivari?” I asked.
“No, absolutely not!” he said and his tone shifted. Soon he became more and more worked up. There was a conspiracy, he explained, on the part of the classical music establishment to make you believe that new cellos were inferior. But in fact, this was a lie.
“Fair enough,” I said, seeing the deep frown in his forehead.
“No, no, I believe you,” I said, as the blood rose to his face.
“You obviously know a lot more about this than I do,” I said noticing an alarming change in his eyes.
Eventually, still frowning and out of temper, he looked at his watch and said: “I really must be going,” as though he was annoyed that I had detained him for so long.
My next visitor arrived about half an hour later. At first I didn’t really notice anything except a persistent clicking sound behind me.
When I turned around I saw a tall man dressed in a black cloak, wearing a turban pinned at his forehead with a large diadem.
“I am a magician,” he announced, and resumed taking photographs of me with his expensive-looking SLR camera.
“Good, yes, like that…” he said, directing me.
I tried very hard to ignore him, but after a few more minutes of clicking he came and thrust the camera in front of me.
“Here, look, pretty good I think…” he said, scrolling through his photos.
“These ones are particularly good,” he continued. “Look at this one – look at the way I did the composition… Look at those diagonals meeting in the centre. Wow!” Then, still gazing at his own photo and shaking his head in wonderment,”Wow, that’s brilliant!”
“Aha,” I said, and tried desperately to carry on working and get him to see that I wasn’t interested and that he was disturbing me.
He stood and played with the knobs on his camera for a while, and I thought he might be about to leave, but he came up to me again, this time shoving the camera against my mouth.
“Say something about colour,” he said.
“I-You-What?” I stuttered.
“Say something about colour,” he repeated, “I want to record a sound file to go with this photograph.”
I finally cracked. “Please go away and leave me alone!” I said.
I expected outrage, fury, abuse, but instead he just nodded. “Okay”, he said, and wandered off.
That was so easy, I thought. Like magic.
The sun was going down, the tide was beginning to creep on to the bank. I had done enough painting for the day and thought I better pack up. Then I had my final visitor: a beautiful sleek water rat that scurried across my feet, perhaps to let me know I’d outstayed my welcome.