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Portrait of a Windsor Castle artist

By Keith J Fernandez




Alexander Creswell’s work hits you even before you enter Dubai’s Majlis Gallery. A huge silk screen of Dubai Creek, as viewed from the HSBC building about 15 years ago, has passers-by stopping to ponder life’s pace and peculiarities. His paintings, on show until March 31, are bold but accessible and display his passion for architecture and the spirit of a place.


Best known for his paintings of Windsor Castle after the 1991 fire, the artist, who was born in 1957, combines subtle colouring and architectural detail with a reverence for light in his paintings. While his chosen medium may not be fashionable, he (pictured above) constantly battles to bring watercolours into the domain of contemporary art. He is one of Britain’s most sought-after watercolourists and his work has broken the $100,000 (Dh367,000) mark, a high price for a watercolour.


Some of your paintings in this show are of Dubai and Oman. Do buyers relate better to what they know?


I am not sure. One’s got to be aware of what the buyers think, but it’s the gallery’s job, not mine. In the United States, I show a lot of interesting things that are not necessarily related to the Americans. But much of my work is about the cultural footprints of previous civilisations and I now want to take a show of paintings of Kabul, Isfahan and Yemen to London and New York. That would be interesting.


Do artists need to be businessmen?


You need to be seriously dedicated to the business side of art. I have got to educate three small children, so I work five days a week, if not six. When I am doing a show, it is seven. I get inspiration from working – if you sit around waiting for it, the only people who beat a path to your door are the debt collectors. I decided 30 years ago to do it professionally under a rigid management system: if I did not make exactly my salary from my gallery job in a year, I would forget the whole thing. And I did; and I have been reviewing it ever since.


Why do you work in watercolours? Why is that your chosen medium?


It is immediate, it is translucent, so you are painting with light. The greatest thing of all is you cannot correct mistakes, because you can always see the mistake under everything else. It is like tightrope walking, one slip and you have had it.


Are watercolours more accessible? Do people relate to them more?


Watercolour has always been thought of as a second-rate medium, for amateurs, little old ladies painting flowers. I was told that at art school but now I have been able to push the boundaries beyond what has ever been done. The words watercolour and contemporary often sit ill together; and I am finding it much more difficult to put watercolour back into the contemporary, sharp-edged world.


When you say contemporary art, people expect diamond-studded skulls and unmade beds…


That is what has given it such a bad name. I think my input is to challenge that. Many of the works you see in big art fairs are conceived by the artist and made by a computer. Human beings have not touched them. That is something we should be aware and wary of. In many cases, the art is in the price, not the value. That you can sell a digital print for $40,000 (Dh146,800) is a disingenuous market manipulation when the alternative is you can buy beautiful hand-made things that cost much less.


What was it like to paint the lying-in-state of Britain’s Queen Mother? A lot of your work is architectural, ruined buildings…


The residue of past eras, yes. Well, the lying-in-state work of a past era was quite a good one. It was largely an architectural work, but it was a great honour to be asked personally by the Queen to do it as a record for her. That is quite a serious sort of thing to accept.


You have done things for her before.


I was asked to do Windsor Castle after the fire. I did a whole series – after the fire and after it was restored. The royal collection now has more of my work than any other collector, so it is nice.


Do you charge the Queen less than other people?


Absolutely not. Any discounts to be had come from the dealer, not from me.


What do you invest in?


Oh, my three children. I suppose my most prized investment – it is not really an investment – is a 55-year-old Bentley, which I take cruising around in Europe.