John Wonnacott

Studio Conversation I


Not on display

John Wonnacott born 1940
Oil paint on fibreboard
Support: 2441 × 1222 mm
Purchased 1996


Studio Conversation I is one of several portraits set in John Wonnacott's studio in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, which overlooks the Thames estuary. The central image is that of the artist reflected in a mirror, which occupies the place on the easel that would normally be taken by the canvas. The cloud-like form at the top of the mirror represents the accretion over time of pieces of masking tape, used to secure the mirror to the easel.

The other figures in the painting are friends of the artist: the painter and art teacher, Ian Cox, seen to the left, in a striped shirt; the mathematician, Bernard Neumann, seen to the right, in checked shirt. Both live locally to Wonnacott and have been painted by him before. Also visible is the artist's wife, who is seen, reflected in the mirror, through glazed doors leading to the room 'behind' painter and viewer.

Wonnacott arranged the relative positions in the room so that he was the same distance in front of the mirror as the figures of his two friends were beyond it. Thus the three figures, though located in reality on a triangular plane, are seen as if in line. The mirror itself was painted life-size, which accounts for the strikingly large scale of the objects resting between it and the viewer. The images of the two friends were painted from photographs and from drawings done quickly from life while the friends held the difficult poses.

The painting uses images reflected in two mirrors (there is a second mirror on the farther easel) and in the glass of the windows. It exemplifies Wonnacott's interest in representing both substantial and insubstantial, that is to say reflected, imagery in such a way that the two kinds of reality fuse in the finished work.

In his studio interiors, the use of reflections is one of Wonnacott's means of enhancing the viewer's awareness of spatial complexity. Horizontally, the eye is drawn on an extended journey from the room 'behind' to the street lights on the right, which are perceived as reflections in the window on the left. Though the room is relatively small, it is opened up in the painting by the large expanses of ceiling and floor. The viewer's attention is intended, in Wonnacott's words, to 'ricochet' around the space: from near to distant wine glasses, for example, and from a real light source to the many reflected ones.

When work began on Studio Conversation I all three figures were seated conventionally. But as work progressed Wonnacott decided to develop the 'zig-zag' movement he found to be latent in the painting. In part this was a result of his renewed interest in the work of such sixteenth century artists as Michelangelo, Tintoretto and El Greco, who had presented the human form in striking attitudes. Wonnacott has described this aspect of the painting as a 'Mannerist twist'.

Further reading:
John Wonnacott, exhibition catalogue, Agnew's and Hirschl & Adler Galleries, London and New York 1996, reproduced p.2, fig.4
Recent Paintings John Wonnacott, exhibition catalogue, Agnew's, London 1996

Toby Treves
March 2000

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Display caption

This is one of a series of self-portraits and studio interiors in which Wonnacott has used mirrors as a device for disrupting the viewer's sense of space. His obsessive pursuit of objectivity in depicting perspective and proportion, modelled on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian art, can lead to strange, distorting effects. The figure in the mirror is the painter, while the two other men are his friends. His wife is also visible, reflected in the mirror through glazed doors leading to the room behind the painter and the viewer.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Technique and condition

The painting was executed in oil paint on a single piece of 6 mm MDF (medium density fibreboard). The MDF board is reinforced with six wooden battens glued to its rear. Four of these make up a frame work around the borders of the MDF panel and there are two additional cross-members, so that the four horizontal members are positioned approximately equidistant from one another. The panel was prepared with a layer of white priming, which is probably oil-based.

The paint was applied in a fluid manner and exclusively by brush. The oil paint appears to be straight from the tube, and has not been thinned down at all. It is mostly paste-like in consistency, but some darker paints appear slightly more medium-rich. The resulting paint films are highly textured. The composition seems to have been altered at several times during the execution of the work, as the forms of many of the brushstrokes bear little resemblance to the top layers of paint. For example the light bulb in the top left corner was initially painted approximately 90 mm lower than it is now. These numerous alterations add to the overall texturing of the paint layers. In most areas there appear to be more than one layer, but this is mainly due to the reworking of the painting's composition during its execution. There is very little layering in the form of glazing or scumbling. There is no varnish layer.

The frame is original to the piece and consists of a wooden moulding painted black, constructed by John Jones (as was the MDF panel). An L-section-type construction but with its forward face attached to a piece of reverse moulding. The part of the frame which is visible from the front is painted black.

The painting appears to be in excellent condition. The support has remained totally flat and is showing no signs of any deterioration. The only slight damages to the paint layers appear to be small losses around all four edges which have been toned down.

Tom Learner
August 1997

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