T02404 ALBANY FLATS 1977–9
Oil and sand on canvas, 77 3/4 × 110 (194.4 × 275.2)
Purchased from the Angela Flowers Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1979
Exh: David Hepher, Angela Flowers Gallery, October–November 1979 (no catalogue, 3 on announcement card, repr.)
Lit: David Hepher, ‘Urban Realism’, Artscribe, No.22, April 1980, pps.46–48
Repr: Angela Flowers postcard 1980; Artscribe, No.22, April 1980, p.47; Architectural Review, CLXVII, No.998, April 1980, p.227
At the time of its completion, the artist considered ‘Albany Flats’ the most successful of a series of paintings of high-rise council blocks which he has worked on since 1974. It was first exhibited at the Angela Flowers Gallery in 1979 (loc. cit.), together with ‘Peckham Flats’ (1975–6) and ‘Walworth Flats’ (1976–9); the first two paintings in the series, ‘Stockwell Flats I’ (1974–5) and ‘Stockwell Flats 2’ (1975) having been shown together in New Work, an Arts Council group exhibition, held at the Hayward Gallery in November–December 1975. Between 1969 and 1974 Hepher made meticulous analytical paintings of suburban house fronts and has described the tower blocks he now paints as ‘a kind of inner-city suburbia (which) perhaps house the next generation on from the people who first lived in the pre-war suburban houses I was painting earlier.’ (David Hepher, ‘Urban Realism’, Artscribe No.22, April 1980, p.48). The subject of T02404 is Bradenham Block, a block of flats on the Albany Estate, which is situated between the Walworth Road and the Old Kent Road in the London borough of Southwark and which is one of the largest public housing estates in Europe. Believing that the best work comes out of the familiar experiences of daily life, he deliberately chose to paint a building near his home and place of work, to which he could have regular access.
In his article in Artscribe, Hepher denies that his paintings are intended to be seen as overt political or social comments on the way people are forced to live in the inner cities. ‘Inevitably, in painting these buildings questions about society that interest me arise, but it is not because of these questions that I paint the flats. I have always painted houses, or housescapes. A house, or more symbolically a home, is one of the earliest images a child paints. In many ways it represents, particularly for the English, the face people present to the world, at the same time providing a refuge from too close a contact with other people. All the owner's personality is revealed in his home. This is why I only paint residential flats - they have a soul that glamorous office architecture doesn't have. In spite of their beauty I don't want to paint the sleek and shiny city blocks. I think there is a danger of that becoming incestuous, too much like art celebrating art. I like best to work from council blocks, preferably stained and eroded by the dirt and the weather, where the facial appearance is continually changed by the people who live there, their comings and goings, and the changing decor. I would like to think that the pictures could make people look differently at the flats around them, to see beauty in objects that they normally dismiss as ugly.’ He acknowledges that the hard-edged geometry of such buildings allows him to pursue certain formal interests in his paintings, ‘I wouldn't be painting them without abstract art and while drawing them I am constantly reminded of the grid structure of Agnes Martin or Mondrian’, but is more concerned with attempting to record as accurately as possible what he sees when confronting a specific building than with exploiting its formal possibilities.
Hepher worked on ‘Albany Flats’ over a period of about eighteen months in a studio at the Camberwell School of Art where he teaches. He worked from detailed annotated drawings and visited the flats regularly to make notes on the particular section he was concentrating on, or to refresh his memory. He regards his working drawings as means to an end and seven of those made for ‘Albany Flats’ which he presented to the Tate Gallery Archive in 1979, contain not only structural information about the architecture of the building and colour notes but also incidental details about specific flats or groups of flats, as he found them on the days he visited the site. The artist feels that one of the dangers inherent in choosing a subject as apparently banal as a tower block is that the resulting painting could be read as a statement about banality. He avoids this by concentrating on the way in which the building's superficially unified facade is broken up or altered by such reflections of the individual lives of its inhabitants as for example, pot plants, ornaments, window boxes, the different patterns and textures of curtains etc. Nevertheless, he is aware that too much anecdotal interest can interfere with the overall idea and sense of mass in his paintings and, in consequence, he sometimes omits certain small human details recorded in the drawings, from the finished work, in order to retain the sense of grandeur and menace which such buildings communicate. For example, on one of the Tate's drawings for T02404 he has shown a woman leaning on a balcony and recorded ‘hot weather - doors open, presence of people implied but not visible’ and on another ‘pretty woman appeared briefly at window’, although no figures appear in the painting.
When he began the painting, Hepher first drew out the basic design on the canvas and blocked it in in an elementary way. Starting with an area in the centre of the canvas, he then painted to a finished state blocks of between four and six units of flats, building up the work section by section so that no area of the painting is more emphasised than any other. It is intended that the viewer's eye should range over the surface of the work, picking up areas of interest and activity, a process which echoes the artist's own close scrutiny of his subject. In order to heighten the sensation of standing directly in front of the block of flats, he has employed natural rather than conventional pictorial perspective, (the horizontals are slightly bowed) so that the building appears to tower above the viewer.
In general, Hepher wishes his paintings to communicate to the spectator his experience of confronting his subject in a direct, tactile sense, (in T02404 he mixed building sand with oil paint to approximate the concrete texture of the tower block's facade) and, in consequence, prefers not to work from photographs, finding the information they provide too superficial and insubstantial to be of use when he starts to paint.
Unless otherwise stated, this entry is based on a conversation with the artist (22.1.80) a note from the artist (30.11.80) and a statement he contributed to the catalogue for the exhibition Working Process, Sunderland Arts Centre, February–March 1978 (n.p.). The entry has been read and approved by him.
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981