Julian Bell, who among other things teaches at the Royal Drawing School, believes in the craft of drawing. The school was set up, he tells me, in 2000 because there was a fear that the practice of drawing was being marginalised, and it needed supporting. Last autumn Thames and Hudson published a book which emerged from the school, and was “compered” by Julian, called Ways of Drawing.
Besides working as a painter, Julian writes and lectures. But the painting comes first. And the drawing, for him, always comes before the painting.
His most recent exhibition, called When the City is Built, “depicted London through the eyes of four or five people passing through the city. I love stories,” he says, “though it’s not important for viewers to know precisely the story I’m thinking of. I mocked up metropolitan scenes – like the interior of a tube carriage – getting friends to pose in my studio in the country.” His method is to draw and redraw. “I am a drawing-led artist,” he says. “The seeds then blossom, thinking about colour. Choosing the colours, at that point, is a piece of cake. And a pleasure.”
So why London? “I haven’t lived there for 40 years. On the other hand, my whole life has been spent going up and down. And London is the big one.”
He says the capital feels livelier than it was when he and his wife Jenny lived there in the 1970s, “when more of the city’s life went on behind closed doors. Now, more life takes place on the streets. It’s become a world city.”
The pictures exude warmth. “Well, I’m no satirist, I’m no Hogarth. Contemporary London may be a mess, but when are things not a mess? I like rather steadily observing people and imagining things, and trying to see things broadly.” One painting is a summer night scene. A tired professional mother with her unsleeping baby on her lap sits before an open window, Facetimeing – a glass of wine waiting on her desk. “There’s the city lights beyond the window and someone in crisis beyond the screen – there’s care there, I hope”, says Julian.
His “largest adventure in writing”, as he puts it, was an earlier Thames and Hudson book: Mirror of the World. “I had been teaching international students, and I thought we needed an art history that reflected all the traditions behind them interweaving.”
Thames and Hudson gave him an advance for this global history, and with Jenny, he travelled to research – “we got as far as India.” Choosing the book’s pictures was, he says, “sheer joy. I had no insistent theory”, he tells me, “as much as to say this is all human – wherever, whenever – someone with a brush or a chisel has made these.”
So how and why, for our cover? “I wanted to draw the act of drawing”, he says. “Drawing like this is, for me, rehearsing the landscape, in my head – pulling out the way it’s structured; pushing the visual information – in this case, especially, the conjunction of road, river and railway… Pushing my luck, too: I almost tumbled down the cliff making it. That fencing on Chapel Hill has been sorely neglected!”
sarahokane.co.uk / jbell.co.uk