Rupert Dixon – Time Traveller to a Whole Different World
Rupert Dixon – a Grand Love Affair with the Room
Rupert Dixon’s remarkable body of work appears to occupy the liminal space between our own times and both past and future times, between the familiar and unfamiliar and between reality and fantasy. His reimagined portraits of rooms are deeply possessed of a lyrical romanticism often reserved for human subjects or landscapes. This is a grand love affair with the room – not any old room, there is a type – and one that is unexpectedly infectious. Habitually undressing rooms of their often gaudy and always transient furnishings with his eyes, Rupert’s poetic portraits are a studied paean to the spirit of a very special type of room.
Rupert Dixon graduated from Cheltenham School of Art with an honours degree in 1993, since when he has lived and worked in London. His work is internationally collected and in a Royal collection. It is inspired by the internal architecture and spaces of palaces, villas, opera houses and other grand buildings.
Here he talks to us about his mal d’ailleurs, his connection with great rooms and his recent transitioning to a contemporary abstraction.
Interior of Bath, mixed media by Rupert Dixon
Your work appears to be preoccupied with a very specific sort of architecture, history and heritage. Can you explain why and the origins of this preoccupation?
Because it’s yesteryearic, a word I coined. I always think I was born in the wrong time for this life. I have one foot very firmly in the past, the romantic Byronised grand tour beginnings of stately homes being built in this country by the Palladians and Nash. The beginnings of dreamlike, unimaginable, spaces and places. It’s to do with huge ceiling heights and vacatious theatrical rooms. I have always liked being made to feel small by a room.
What I paint does that, it’s my personal taste. I like the romance of the period from the Restoration to the Victorian, from Sir Christopher Wren, to Nash, Adam Senior and Junior, it’s dream-like.
You can put yourself from now into an empty room from history, more so than you can do with a highly populated room. I have always been fascinated by stately interiors since I was a child. As a family we went to a lot of stately homes in England and Palaces and museums in Europe, for example Venice, Paris, Salzburg, Florence, and went to a lot of theatre and read a lot. It fascinates me because I reckon I was around in that period and I probably still remember it, I would like to go back in time, it fascinates me that much. I would like to be a time traveller to a whole different world – I always think it’s unspoilt.
When I see something like a beautiful room, even on TV or in a magazine, I can almost envisage it, and live it, be in it, put myself in it. The architecture, history and heritage absolutely transports me. I can’t explain why, the origins, it seems to be something that’s inside of me. I feel like I must have remembrance from a past life, and I want to time travel backwards.
An Interior of Paris, oil on canvas by Rupert Dixon
Your earlier work often depicts dream-like impressionistic reimaginings of the stripped bare interiors of historic grand houses, palaces and opera houses from across Britain, Europe and even Istanbul. Would you say that implicit in your work is a deep love for its subject?
Yes, but the stripped bareness is almost like a movie in my head. I like art that has something of an unfinished quality. Previous sets of my work were called ‘To Let – Unfurnished’, in a tongue in cheek sort of way.
But it is like that for me, painting somewhere that the dust sheets are on. To me the room is better like that and you are going to uncover it, then it’s going to come to life. Remove everything from a room and it’s speaking for itself and then you can furnish it in your own mind.
Take a very grand room. The room is then speaking, and not the furniture in it. The room came first and then the furnishings came afterwards. It’s there, empty, echoey, it’s the scale of the space. As soon as you take the furniture out of the room it’s ten times larger and it’s yours to do what you want with. It’s almost like an empty stage. To me a room is not about the furniture in it, which may not be to my taste. People can ruin beautiful places with the furniture they put in, and I like the uncomplication of an empty room, when they are so grand they need to sit empty.
The room first, before you put stuff in it. Let the room speak for itself, and then you can add your layers, your settees, your furniture, your people. It’s like for a dinner party, it’s almost a shame for people to come and eat off the immaculate set table that then becomes messed up when people use it. You have more romance, echoes, imagination in an empty room than a furnished room. I wonder what it was like. There must have been some sofas here, there were curtains, mirrors and paintings here or there, my imagination loves to know what it was like. That’s what I am putting across. That it’s up to you, as the viewer.
A State of Interiors, mixed media by Rupert Dixon
Why has your work focused on interior and rarely exterior architecture?
Because the interior has more to tell, has more re-imaginings of what went on in an interior space than an outside space. It’s the inside that counts. Other people’s taste is more put into the interior, that’s where the differences happen, where fashions are followed or not followed. I strip it out so you can refurnish it yourself.
Even at a young age at a prep school in a grand Italianate villa I always had re-imaginings of how the room, now with desks and a blackboard, had furnishings as the drawing room. This is why I leave them unfurnished, it’s maybe a frustration I felt. I would not paint an exterior although they appeal to me, I love Palladian architecture and grand houses, columns and neoclassical houses. I paint it inside. It exists on the inside too.
A state of Interiors no 2, mixed media by Rupert Dixon
Palaces are crumbling… even dearer in their day of woe
Than when they were a boast, a marvel, and a show.
Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
An Interior of Istanbul, oil on canvas by Rupert Dixon
An Interior of Venice, oil on canvas by Rupert Dixon
You have exhibited your work accompanied by lines from Byron’s poetry that eulogise the melancholy beauty of ruins. What is the attraction of such ruins for you and what is the role of this aesthetic in the 21st century?
I am painting ideas. I nod to the contemporary with my classical roots. My palette is white, to black, through all the greys, with red. I can conform it to an interior scheme for commissions. The old paintings were of interiors, the new paintings will hang in an interior.
The new paintings are not of the room but in it, a modern aesthetic with a classical footing in the original floorplans that mirrors the original ratio of the Palladian conception. Byron was the pop star of his day, selling the adventure of the grand tour and romanticising it. I am trying to do the same, tracing my own origins.
An Interior of Brighton, oil on canvas by Rupert Dixon
Traditionally interiors paintings are devoid of people, yours are also stripped of furnishings and sometimes modified. Why?
A room removed from its utility. It’s to do with my frustrations as a boy, it goes back to my prep school, I want to see how these rooms were furnished originally and how they were meant to be. In my book collection of interiors I have a brilliant book of photographs of London Interiors from the archives of Country Life, as they were meant to be, not National Trustified, how they were furnished complete with their pot plants. I’d like to know how it was so I don’t furnish it. I don’t populate my paintings, because if you do it almost makes them pedestrian, how you would expect them to be.
I leave that to your imagination and to my imagination. I like playing with the architecture, to modify the images to achieve impossibly vast, theatrical spaces. I make the ceilings higher than they should be, I add height, I take pieces out, I put rooms together that don’t exist. Imaginary rooms are a playing field for the mind.
As an artist I am creating symbols of some kind, that people can identify with in their imagination
Opera 8 and Opera 9, by Rupert Dixon
WITLEY 2, by Rupert Dixon
Your work seems to have undergone a radical change from an historicist impressionism to a contemporary abstraction, yet the underlying theme of architecture and heritage remains. What brought about the change?
As I got older I became a cleaner thinker and maturity brought a more modern aesthetic, yet it’s very much in the mid-century or earlier than that. If you put a gilt frame on my new work it’s back in that period. Maybe it’s to do with my mother, who I almost lost in 2014, so I had a whole summer often away from my studio, visiting her every other day in a country hospital. Then I got a new studio and the following year I wanted a cleaner aesthetic, but it still has its footing very much in the foundations of my other work. I wanted to chuck out the old and bring in the new!
With the radical stylistic changes in your work, would you say that the feeling of bittersweet melancholia of your earlier work has been replaced with a youthful optimism?
Yes. Because it’s new, for me, and it’s exciting, and it’s relatively unappreciated by people because it’s so new, so I do have a youthful optimism because it hasn’t really been put out there like my previous work was. So I am excited about it. Again, it reminds me of my youth.
CASTLE 9, by Rupert Dixon
Which artists do you admire from the past?
Caravaggio for his lighting, De Laszlo for his unfinished quality portraits, Sargent for portraiture (Nonchaloir – Repose) and interiors (The Athenaeum) and exteriors (Portico di San Rocco and The Pavement) watercolours, Whistler for his London and Venice (Blue and Gold St Mark’s Square) moody scenic qualities, Turner (not just for his interiors!), Boldini (Duchess of Marlborough and her son) for his stylisation and fluidity, John Piper including his abstracts, Lautrec especially for his studies for his posters.
Who do you admire among more modern artists?
Mark Rothko (I love his room at the Tate), Pierre Soulages, Jean Rets, Anselm Keefer, John Virtue, Franz Kline, László Moholy-Nagy, Richard Diebenkorn, and Frank Stella and other Bauhaus artists.
THEATRE 12, by Rupert Dixon
Bearing in mind that the Turner Prize recently went to a non-artist collective, what do you say to those who say that painting and figuration is dead?
Who are you basing it on? What really goes on behind closed doors? I believe that everything has its time and place, and I believe that what goes around comes around. It was only a couple of years ago there was a feeling that everything was moving back to the figurative rather than the conceptual. I don’t believe that there should be a trend to follow in art. Art should be created for the sake of the artist, and that alone.
What do you think about the conceptualist emphasis in art colleges and public art institutions like Tate Modern, and how has this affected you?
It hasn’t. I don’t follow modern art movements or the movements of the institutions. The only times I go to these galleries is when they show specific artists that I like.
RED HORIZON, by Rupert Dixon
What is the role of art today and is it more important than say pop music?
The artist’s job is to create whatever it is he wants to create, because he wants to not because he has to. As an artist I am creating symbols of some kind, that people can identify with in their imagination, which is very personal. You are giving a piece of yourself. My new geometric abstraction is almost soul-baring, it’s so stripped back, it almost creates more conversation than a space you can look at – you have this shape there, that doing that, why? It asks more questions this geometric abstraction than the more figurative previous interiors. Everybody is an artist in some way, they decide what to wear in the morning, how to kit out the homes they live in. Everybody is an artist, in their own right.
WAVE, by Rupert Dixon
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