This present collection of work is has almost entirely been completed in your new studio, whereas all of the work we have exhibited from 2005 to 2017 was set within the limited confines of your old attic studio space. Has the new studio liberated you, or left you searching for new compositional anchors?
Settling into a new studio space is always challenging, especially for a figurative painter. After 30 years in the old attic, the time warped elm floorboards, crumbling plaster and 'oven ready' distortions created by sagging rafters had become so familiar as to become a kind of visual shorthand for me. I knew exactly which aspects could be exploited or manipulated to which effect. Although I creatively thrive on familiarity, in the end I began to find it rather oppressive and as with tram lines my intentions began to get hijacked, the same problems inevitably began throwing up the same solutions. Looking back I realise that for the last few paintings I did there, such as ‘Figure with Box’ or ‘Still life with Orchid’, I was actually constructing little sets within the space, deliberately excluding the studio in a bid to move forward, so I have welcomed the challenge of settling into the new space. The light has a wonderful clarity to it, and the ceiling high enough to stand to work, a real liberation after the low ceiling I was used to, and it means I have reattached the top of the easel I had sawn off!
One often hears portraitists referring to their desire to capture the inner essence or character of their sitters. Is the same true for your studio figurative work where the figure is not strictly speaking a portrait study? What do you hope to convey through your models?
For me 'portraits' and 'figure paintings' are very different beasts, requiring an equally different technique and approach. I do not take on many portrait commissions now, but when I did I made it my primary task to concentrate on the sitter’s unique distinguishing qualities, those that define their individuality and which taken together differentiate them from everyone else. Conversely, in the figure paintings the sitter is employed to focus attention on those elements common to us all, in much the same way as a novel differs from a biography. They are both collaborations between artist and subject, but differently weighted.
Your wife, Caroline, has been your muse and model for years. Has this been an easy balance for both of you to strike given the act of creating these images is no doubt emotionally and intellectually intense?
We have been making these pictures together since we met at the age of 17, so it has obviously been a somewhat intense process, and keeping it going through all the normal life events like young children, house restoration and aging parents has created its challenges. Working as I do on only one canvas at a time helps, but it also adds to the intensity, creating along the way a kind of visual diary, a chronology that becomes part of a journey. I feel very fortunate to have met someone who was prepared to travel this road with me, and whose judgement I can trust.
There is often a considerable element of wry wit in you works, not least your self-portraits where you depictions are rather self-deprecating, and hint a certain innate futility in your metier. Is this a fair comment?
Your most well-known portraits are often of musicians, and music is clearly an important part of your life. Aside from the depictions of musical instruments (in various states of repair), does music influence or affect your work in any other way?
It can do. Noticing the way a composer will take a simple theme or melodic idea, turn it inside-out, fragment or echo it has in some ways influenced the way I compose a painting. Also, although I plan pretty meticulously, I always like to leave some room for spontaneity along the way, which is analogous to the way jazz musicians rely on harmonic structure to improvise around. As far as listening while working goes, I have a box set of all the Haydn string quartets in the studio which I can always rely on to recover my focus on bad days. The measured argument and emotional sophistication of these works creates a good foil to painting, and of course as a bonus the instruments themselves are ravishingly wonderful things to paint (I could happily paint violins for the rest of my life). I think it's the conversational to-and-fro of chamber music that fascinates me. While I admire and enjoy Jazz for its collaborative improvisations or the Romantics for their emotional clout, playing them in the studio would be a disaster for me, and be certain to sweep me well off course!
Your still life’s are often anything but ‘still’. Many of the objects you represent appear to be in the act of doing or transforming something. Whilst these elements are clearly not anthropomorphic, do the inanimate objects act as substitutes for figures?
As I grow older I increasingly feel that still-life has poetry at its heart, so I am very attracted to the contemplative or meditative qualities it offers. Via the medium of paint, objects can be impelled to carry a symbolic charge that reveals elusive thoughts and feelings in a similar way as words do in the best poetry. To spend weeks, sometimes months in solitary communion with one or two insignificant often overlooked or discarded objects, while lavishing care and respect on their depiction strikes me as an entirely fitting way to spend my time. Inevitably, during the process human qualities seep into these objects; they develop relationships with each other, with the light, with the surface upon which they stand, and they often subvert or distort each other, along with their surrounding space.
I remember asking you years ago about why you never painted landscapes. We were driving through the rolling Dorset countryside and you said something along the lines of “just look at that”. Could you elaborate on this?
I have always felt my artistic battle ground to lie within myself, and within the realm of my fellow humans and their creations. I can admire and enjoy landscape painting, but find it very hard to consider them as a subject for painting: I am a human being after all, and the landscapes around me are definitely an external thing. I find them very beautiful, and recharge my batteries after work by walking in them, but really wouldn't know where to start… I suspect I'd just spoil them, whereas people of course are spoilt already, so to speak.
We have rarely shown your drawings formally. What is your relationship to drawing generally?
I have never felt comfortable showing my drawings. I can do hundreds in the course planning a painting, but they are generally merely diagrammatic notes for my own use; rhythms, geometry, spatial concerns and so forth, but I have never felt that they have much aesthetic or artistic merit. I do however make occasional 'studies' in the traditional sense, when I need to get to understand the way a new model looks, and I have recently been attending life classes again. There is nothing like the rigour and discipline of objective drawing for sharpening up the brain and eye.
Allow me one ‘silly’ question. If you had a free choice to paint any historical figure from life, which sitter would you choose?
I have long wished to paint a poet, so I could do worse than asking John Donne to sit for me. Although I am very attracted to his verse, there is something elusive about it that I can't quite put my finger on, something mysterious which could make for a very stimulating encounter. I have found that for me creative people make the best portrait subjects. They are as vain as anybody else of course, often more so, it just tends to be a more sophisticated class of vanity!
Michael Taylor will be the subject of a major online exhibition at Waterhouse & Dodd between 20th October and 13th November 2020. The exhibition can be viewed in person at Waterhouse & Dodd (London) between 20th October and 6th November.