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What exactly is the Prime Minister doing on his terrace in Marbella? Photographs showing Boris busy at the easel, in pursuit of truth and beauty, are not just a photo opportunity. No matter what Keats insisted, truth and beauty are rarely the same, as most politicians would, on cross-examination, concede. But images of Boris painting on holiday excite other thoughts as well.
The answer to what he is doing is engaging in a noble activity, one that has beguiled the middle classes for nearly 300 years. Namely, the pursuit of art in hot countries.
Not just art as dutiful observation of established masterpieces in the great museums and galleries, but art as a matter of personal engagement with the senses, of art as a means of understanding the world, of art as technique, of painting (possibly) as a way to escape a wife, child and annoying house guests. Of art, to be frank, as a form of therapy.
While no one doubts the Prime Minister’s intellect, recent photographs of the interior slum of his MPV and his chosen jogging outfits exhibited a combative attitude to beauty and undermined any reputation he might ever have had as an aesthete. So Boris as artiste, happily occupied in Spain, is an interesting exercise in self-invention.
Historically, most painters have been born under Saturn: moody, intransigent, solitary. So Boris as a painter denies this stereotype, as he denies so many others.
Many national figures have found recreation and solace in painting. Boris’s great hero, Winston Churchill, picked up his brushes and propped up his easel at a testing time, when the black dog of his depression leapt out of its basket and embraced him after the disaster of the Dardanelles in 1915. He was taught by his sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline Bertie, and painted for the rest of his life, notably in Morocco but also Madeira. Among critics, he won only modest acclaim, although he devoted a whole book to his art in 1948.
Then there is Prince Charles, taught watercolours by the architect Hugh Casson, creative director of the 1951 Festival of Britain, a masterly draftsman himself. Casson’s visual wit may have been finer than Charles’s, but there is a touching delicacy in the Prince’s paintings that may be the truest and most beautiful testament to his love of nature.
But who were Boris’s tutors? While his late mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, was an artist of some accomplishment, whose own robust style was idiosyncratically identifiable and certainly not part of an ‘ism’, it is irresistibly tempting to consider other sources of inspiration.
Grayson Perry seems unlikely, not least because his own art tends to the kiln and the loom, not the canvas. Nor do I imagine bolshy Tracey was a volunteer help; nor Damien. Hockney? Not really: his vision is so idiosyncratic and personal, it cannot be taught.
So, until Boris’s first exhibition – these are doubtless not his only daubings – we can only speculate on what it is he is painting. But one thing is already certain: he is representing a model that many will want to imitate.
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.
I do this myself. My own travel itineraries follow, some would say slavishly, the template made by the Grand Tourists. People tell me I really should go to see Kazakhstan and I reply that I have not yet seen enough of Rome or Florence. I have notebooks full of puerile, but satisfying, drawings of Italian townscapes made with a fine Rotring pen or a very sharp 6H pencil. In fact, my tools are finer and sharper than my vision.
Never mind the art involved in drawing the façade of Santa Maria Maggiore, painting is altogether more complicated. With buildings, the architect has already worked out the composition for you. But with painting, you need to decide for yourself.
Then there are the infinite possibilities of colour, contrast and the capture of light and transient effects of weather. What about the extent to which the brush itself determines the effect of the whole? Should you make an accurate impression or an evocative suggestion? These are questions of relevance to all of us, not just holidaying Prime Ministers. The camera never lies, but paintings often do.
I cannot wait to see Boris’s paintings, because they will explain something about a man so very well-known, but at the same time utterly enigmatic. Will they be true or beautiful? Both – or neither? Will he reject the realist option? What a thing to discover: a non-objective, abstract Boris!
The Expressionist painter Alexei Jawlensky believed that a work of art should be a world in its own right, not a docile imitation of nature. So there is the truth and beauty conundrum again. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé agreed, saying we should not paint what we actually see, but the impression it makes. (Hence ‘Impressionism’.)
With sharp pencils, art paper, sable brushes, canvases, colours and a measure of independent spirit, we can all explore these sacred mysteries. And I think we should. In testing times, when so many established values are under threat, the Grand Tour and the painting holiday are waiting to be rediscovered. I actually think they should be made compulsory.
The Art of Living by Stephen Bayley is available from Telegraph Books for £16.99. To order, visit books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514. Stephen hopes one day to complete his history of the Grand Tour