Lisa Milroy

Finsbury Square


Not on display

Lisa Milroy born 1959
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1755 × 2291 mm
Presented by the Patrons of New Art (Special Purchase Fund) through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1996


Finsbury Square is a large painting depicting the façade of a building in the City of London seen from across the street. Milroy has framed the image to emphasise the building’s symmetrical structure. Only a section of the building’s façade is depicted. It is cropped as though viewed through a camera’s lens in a composition based on horizontal and vertical lines. A narrow strip of tarmac edged by a single yellow line runs along the bottom of the painting. Above it and parallel, the pavement is contained within a horizontal strip. Horizontal parallels continue up the painting, following the base of the building and the grid of its regularly spaced rectangular windows. The windows extend four storeys in height and nine in width. At the bottom centre of the image, the building’s entrance consists of dark doors flanked by an imposing pair of columns above three steps. At ground floor level the windows are blank white as though covered by blinds. The windows at the level of the first floor bear a row of decorative metal tracery at their base. It is both ornamental and protective, echoing the metal railings at the foot of the building. Dark vertical bars painted over the door suggest impenetrability. This sense is heightened by the folds of curtains half visible behind the glass of windows on the first, second and third floors. On the first floor these vertical lines combine with the geometric reflections of buildings in the square, which are visible all along this line of windows. The windows of the two upper floors reflect the sky. The patterning of the pale beige stone work covering the façade is neatly detailed. It is stylised and diagrammatic in appearance. At the same time, perspectival distance indicated by the gaps between the stones on the pavement and the contour of the railings as they join with a section of low wall on either side of the entrance confers a sense of three dimensional space.

Finsbury Square belongs to a series of Travel Paintings Milroy created between 1993 and 1995. The result of recent trips abroad, the paintings depict street scenes in Tokyo, Kyoto, Rome and London. A single interior, Vancouver Living Room 1994 (private collection, Italy), is also part of the series. Milroy was born and raised in Vancouver and came to London, to attend a foundation course at St Martin’s School of Art, in 1979. Based in London since that date, she became known in the mid 1980s for paintings of objects arranged in grids. Initially the objects were completely contained within the picture frame. In such paintings as Shoes 1985 (Tate T06532), the image of a pair of ordinary black court shoes, arranged in differing configurations and viewed from above, is repeated neatly in rows over the canvas. Later, in such paintings as Light Bulbs 1988 (Tate T05217), clusters of different kinds of light bulbs extend to be cropped by the painting’s edge, approximating the plane of canvas with that of a photograph or other form of printed reproduction. The objects in these paintings are painted realistically enough to be easily recognised, yet loosely enough to draw attention to the materiality of the paint and the artist’s brushstrokes. The objects cast shadows on the neutral white ground against which they are represented but, without visual hierarchy, become a form of patterning over the surface of the canvas reminiscent of wallpaper. Between figuration and abstraction, the paintings offer simply representation, what the artist has called ‘giving space to looking’ (quoted in Lisa Milroy, p.17). Milroy’s paintings share common ground with the drawings of household objects by Michael Craig-Martin (born 1941), who taught her on the BA course at Goldsmith’s College, London (attended 1979-82). Like such works by Craig-Martin as Reading with Globe 1980 (T03102), Milroy’s paintings may be read as an exploration of the basic language of visual representation.

In Milroy’s Travel Paintings, scenes resembling tourist snapshots in Tokyo are painted with the hybrid style referred to above, in which the act of painting is a means to reflect on painting as representation. Buildings and street scenes in Rome were painted in the same manner. By contrast, the series of four houses and one warehouse in Kyoto, like the four buildings in London to which Finsbury Square belongs, consist of flat areas of colour in which brush strokes are barely visible. While the Kyoto buildings are softened by undulating tiles on the roofs and the occasional plant, the grid-lines of the modernist architecture portrayed in the London buildings emphasises their graphic qualities. Entirely emptied of human and vehicular presence, they have a blank, eery quality. In Finsbury Square this is redeemed by reflections of sky and other buildings in the windows which open up the imaginary space of the painting to a vast arena behind and beyond the viewer.

Further reading:
Lisa Milroy, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 2001, p.22, reproduced (colour) p.103, pl.105
Lisa Milroy: Travel Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Chisenhale Gallery London, Fruitmarket Gallery Edinburgh 1995, reproduced (colour) [p.31]
Sotiris Kyriacou, ‘Lisa Milroy’, Art Monthly, September 1995, pp.30-1

Elizabeth Manchester
February 2003

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Display caption

Milroy's work in the 1980s depicted household objects such as shoes or lightbulbs set in rows against a neutral background. In the 1990s she began a series of travel paintings, which take their subject matter from three capital cities, Tokyo, Rome and London. Milroy's London paintings focus on the clinical facades of office buildings in Holborn, Euston, Old Street and Finsbury Square. Depicted in flat unmodulated colour the usually teeming streets and busy offices are unnaturally denuded of human life. This paring down suggests both the idealistic purity of modern architecture and the alienating effect of some urban environments.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Technique and condition

Lisa Milroy’s Finsbury Square is painted in oil paint on primed cotton canvas. Correspondence with the artist in September 1996 yielded information about the artist’s materials and techniques.

The medium weight cotton duck canvas, supplied by Russell & Chapple was stretched by the artist onto a Bird & Davis stretcher. The canvas was sized with a coat of Spectrum Matt Acrylic Copolymer, thinned with water, followed by a single layer of dilute Spectrum Acrylic White Primer. The surface was then shaved with a razor blade to remove any debris or knots in the canvas weave before applying a final ground layer, consisting of two parts Spectrum Acrylic White Primer to one part Spectrum Non-Matt Acrylic Copolymer.

A preparatory drawing sketched in thinned yellow ochre oil paint was applied to the primed surface. The image was subsequently built up in two layers of paint, using a combination of artists’ oil paints made by Spectrum, Schevengingen ‘Old Holland’ and Talens ‘Rembrandt’. The paint was diluted with turpentine and linseed oil. Cloths were employed to wipe off dilute paint during the initial stage of drawing, and brushes for the final applications. The painting was executed over a period of five weeks, allowing for sufficient drying time between the application of layers and final modifications to the surface.

The painting is not varnished and is in good condition. Finsbury Square was acquired without a frame and the artist would prefer that the painting remain unframed.

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