Painting Through the Pandemic

muses in the time of covid adapted by Michael Alford
Article image: duddon estuary Lake District

Michael Alford paints in the Duddon Estuary’ “These views have timeless appeal.

What has it been like for you, working during the Covid period?

There weren’t many physical restrictions on me, luckily. Several commissions and exhibitions fell through at the very beginning of lockdown and I stayed at home for a few weeks. After that, that there was nothing to hinder me getting back into to the studio or working. Life carried on pretty much as normal.

In many ways being an artist means living in social isolation most of the time anyway. I often work through the day without seeing anyone, even if there’s no pandemic. But the building where I have my studio did get very quiet back in March-April. The building itself remained open, however, unlike some studio complexes that were entirely locked up by the management, the artists locked out.

One of your favorite subjects to paint is the city of London. Have you been able to get out and gather primary material?

That has proved very difficult indeed. The weather has been nice and there aren’t many restrictions on access to the city, especially if you cycle, as I do. Yet London became, and in many ways it still is, a very dead place, completely devoid of the normal bustle and activity.

I’ve never been interested in painting architecture unpeopled by any sort of human life. My cityscapes have always been humanscapes that show people in relation to one another and their surroundings. So the city’s emptiness is depressing to me. I’m sure many people feel the same. I don’t miss the huge packs of tourists, but I do miss the normal street life and the social activity. That has been, and it continues to be, an artistic problem for me.

My biggest practical problem, however, especially during the height of lockdown, was getting hold of materials and supplies. Art materials, framing materials, paint, anything that came from abroad—it was all hard to come by. Even buying online was problematic as was having things delivered on time or anything like on time. It’s been difficult, but the situation is improving now. Let’s hope it doesn’t revert.

article illustration: the south downs

A sunset on the South Downs way.

How have you continued working even under these difficult circumstances?

I still have to find subjects and use my time well whatever the difficulties. I can’t this situation defeat me. If my main subject isn’t available I have to find another, simple as that. I’ve been looking at older reference material—I have a large archive of photographs and sketches of London dating from the early 90s. I’m trying to use the stuff I have in hand, the things around me, to continue working.

I’ve also done a few things just for fun. As a favour to my wife, I adapted an image for a women’s writing group she runs that shows the muses wearing facemasks. You have to try to keep your spirits up.

Travel is another important source of inspiration for you. What has the pandemic meant in that respect?

It’s put travel out of reach for a while. Going abroad is difficult and the rules keep changing, making it impossible to plan. I did manage to make it to Greece during a brief window in the restrictions and I’m trying to work on material I gathered during that trip. But the future is uncertain.

On the positive side, I’ve been rediscovering the landscapes of Britain during walking trips. I did a long walk along the South Downs Way in a blazing, very un-British, heatwave and a trip to the Lake District more recently. Those landscapes have timeless visual appeal, but it’s difficult to find new ways to paint them. We shall see if what comes of it.

More about the Muses

Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel, 1778. Depicting Elizabeth Carter, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Hannah More, Catharine Macaula, Elizabeth Montagu, Angelica Kauffman, Elizabeth Griffith, Elizabeth Ann Linley and Charlotte Lennox. @Wikimedia Commons Adapted for the Upper Wimpole Street Literary Salon by Michael Alford.

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