In my last blog post, I posed the question of whether the title of a painting mattered, and concluded that it definitely did - a good title adds very significantly to the power of a painting. This post continues that theme, looking at certain paintings we have in the gallery, and how their title matters.
My Father Back from the Front by Olga Geoghegan is an intensely personal painting and is directly biographical. This is unusual for Olga, who is generally reluctant to talk about the stories behind her paintings - one of her favourite expressions is: “You want literature? Go and read a book. Paintings aren’t about anything, they’re just paintings”. The painting portrays Olga's father, who survived being shot in the head by a sniper during WWII. Conscripted at just 17, she says he spoke very little of his wartime experiences in the Caucasus, but did describe how outgunned, literally, his unit was in comparison to the crack Austrian alpine regiment they faced. "My father said they had one gun for three soldiers and so they had to take turns to shoot it. The other two had crude wooden paddles and were told to slap them together to make shooting noises. Small boys playing soldiers. They didn't stand a chance. My father was very lucky to survive," she says. This story – to which we are guided by the painting’s title – turns a magnificently painted image into a complete painting.
But making a picture so personal by its title can be a double-edged sword, particularly commercially. For example, we recently nearly sold a small Ghislaine Howard painting. I say nearly, because the sale was scuppered by the title of the picture – My Mother and Her Carers.
This title made the picture so personal to Ghislaine that it overpowered any thoughts or emotions - or even relevance - that the prospective purchaser had transferred onto the painting. Imagine instead if the picture had been called Saying Goodbye, or something like A Tender Moment. We almost certainly would have sold the picture to a very happy customer. But I think this is missing the point somewhat – I would argue that it wouldn’t have been possible to paint such a beautiful picture if it wasn’t driven by strong personal feelings - those feelings are part of the picture itself and it would be a purely mercantile act to divorce the picture from its true title.
The Phone Call by Moira Beaty, which we sold earlier this year, is an example of a different type of title. This one doesn’t superimpose the artist’s feelings or memories onto the picture. Instead it hints at a story, but a story which it is for the viewer to recount. Is the woman making or receiving a call?
Has the call finished or about to start? Was the news good or bad? The ambiguity of both the painting’s title and the subject’s expression heightens our uncertainty and invites us to reflect on a similar moment in our own lives.
Perhaps the best titled painting we have in the Gallery is Steve Bewsher’s Somebody Else’s World. This is an example of a painting which truly is incomplete without its title. The painting shows a number of items in a doorway, and we infer from the title that these are most likely the possessions of someone who is homeless.
The composition and the title work perfectly together, creating the idea that what we see is the entire worldly goods of their unseen owner. All the possessions are bounded by the walls of the doorway, suggesting that the life of the subject of the painting is similarly bounded by their lack of resources or opportunity. The use of the impersonal “Somebody Else’s”in the title subtly highlights the sense of otherness of the homeless, this is nothing to do with us, not our problem.
Sometimes a simple descriptive title is all that’s needed to give a painting some context. This is particularly true if the painting is representative of something from the past that is no longer there. Roger Hampson is a great example of this. He is a painter whose titles are generally purely descriptive, but it is what they are describing that is important. The Demolition of Musgrave Mill, painted in the 1970s, is a parable of the decline and fall of Lancashire’s once great cotton industry.
Musgrave Mill was part of the giant Atlas Mills complex in Bolton, which were – in their heyday - one of the largest concentrations of cotton spinning capacity on one site in the whole country (and therefore in the World), with over 400,000 spindles in use and some 2,000 people employed across 8 mills owned by the Musgrave Spinning Company.
Musgrave had collapsed by 1926, and the area went into decline over many years. Although mills 6, 7 and 8 remain, the rest are long demolished. Hampson painted the decline of Atlas Mills many times, using a variety of names including Victory Mill (after the area of Bolton) and Musgrave Mill.
Without knowing the title of this painting, it is impossible to appreciate its broader significance. Without the title, it’s an interesting picture of a building site. With the title, it becomes part of the North’s industrial history.
Of course, when you are looking at a painting you are not looking at its title, but a well-chosen title adds so much extra richness to a painting. It points to what the artist is trying to say, it gives you a waypoint to the story behind the picture and so It changes and influences your relationship with the painting. A good title can do this to such an extent that I think a painting – no matter how good as a stand-alone image - is somehow incomplete without its title. It’s Lennon without McCartney, Rogers without Hammerstein, or perhaps Gilbert without George.