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Sunday, October 24, 2021

What Boris’s brushwork tells us about the fine art of painting on holiday

The pursuit of art is as relevant now as it was during the 18th century, when the Grand Tour became an established part of educated life. As an institution, it has fascinated me forever: comfortable fast cars are called GTs via Italy’s debt to English travellers; Gran Turismo being the quintessence of consumer style, and something that connects Lord Chesterfield to Ferrari.

During the recent Great Isolation, people found solace in making art. Sales of artist supplies continue to expand. The pleasure of making something tangible and pleasing has become more intense since we have been stifled by the intrusive, yet impersonal, horrors of internet culture. Now that we have been released from captivity, we might all become Grand Tourists again.

DH Lawrence insisted that the Englishman only feels comfortable when travelling south towards the sun. Few of us would disagree, even if the Prince of Wales prefers the Highlands to Marbella.

While low-cost air travel has its perils, they are as nothing to the horrors experienced by 18th century Grand Tourists in pursuit of art. Think images of mules carrying hungover English aristos en route to Italy along precipitous ledges above sublimely terrifying Alpine gorges. Still, it was the invention of leisure travel.

The Grand Tour was somewhere between a painting holiday and a gap year: 12 months or so of wandering from Calais, Paris, Lyon, Chambéry, Turin, Genoa, Florence, Rome to Naples, then on to Venice and back home again, with the more ambitious returning via Prague, Berlin, the Low Countries. Only this year has Marbella been added to the list.

The Grand Tourists discovered sightseeing and shopping. The first thing they did in Paris was dump drab English clothing and get themselves up in coloured stockings and gay continental finery. They also discovered recreational sex, less of an option at home. Once they had re-wardrobed, the second thing they did was promptly make for the brothel. “Make love to every beautiful woman you meet, and just be gallant with all the rest,” was Lord Chesterfield’s memorable advice to his son travelling in Europe.

Of course, nowadays, no one wears a raw silk suit to travel. No one packs bespoke pigskin luggage and expects to be carried over the Mont-Cenis pass in a sedan chair. But wouldn’t we actually prefer it to a 737 or an A320 ? And shouldn’t we, like Boris, all paint and draw when we arrive?

On your next trip, my advice is sling your smartphone. The accuracy of its pictures is deadening and delusory, even if it is seductive and easy. Better an honest drawing than an easy snap. Use God’s synapses, not Apple’s sensors and accelerometers.

Try drawing a building or painting a landscape. To draw a building is to understand it. Why? Because drawing is a function of intelligence. Perhaps a small one, but a function nonetheless. If you truly understand something as apparently simple as a terracotta flowerpot, then you should be able to draw it accurately. But, first, some scrutiny and careful contemplation are required. Execution is the last thing you do. It’s all a matter of thinking.

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