Van Kos Profile:
At Home with the Artist
By Nico Kos Earle
UPSTAIRS in the north-west corner of her house, away from the symphonic chaos of family life, Nancy Cadogan is painting again in a room of her own. Its walls are the palest of teal blue inviting the sky in through the gothic windows that peak rhythmically along its rear walls. Delicate fingers of light fill the space between two easels set up facing each other with works in progress. At the centre of each painting is a closed book.
It is the stillness of the image that is most arresting – as if she is capturing that moment when you stand at the edge of a pool and consider jumping in, or linger over a bookcase with familiar titles. It is a composition that unites two great artistic traditions in one moment – the still life and the novel.
“The first books that inspired this series were a set of three Charles Dickens novels given to me by my mother.” Copies elegantly bound in calf leather with gold inlay; beautiful objects in and of themselves beyond the magnificence of their literary interior.
Once the books were painted she saw that as a composition there was too much flatness, “I needed to add something to create a visual narrative within the piece.” Carefully she chose another object for its singular levelness, a playing card, and painted the image on its back. Although the image itself was quite arbitrary, and was by no means conceived as a clue to her reading of Dickens, it worked as a visual aid to the closed book.
Soon the idea of a series took hold in which this visual interplay was developed and explored, whilst staying true to her initial point of departure. “I am interested in stillness, not only in the sense of a still life and how that tradition explores the passing of time, but actual physical stillness.” It as if she is referring, subtly, to the stillness that has settled on her career since having three children and what it means to jump back into the flow of her own artistic creation.
Based in Northamptonshire, Nancy Cadogan is better known for her landscapes (from Ghana to Utah and Lake Como) with three major solo shows at Frost & Reed in New York and Sladmore Contemporary in London. After a foundation course at the City and Guilds of London Art School, she was spotted painting en plein air on Dartmoor by the painter Trevor Felcey and sent to an appointment with David Shutt in a gallery on Dover Street. At this meeting, portfolio in hand, she was given a place at the Canterbury Christ Church, set up by a group of painters from the Slade, trained under Euan Uglow, who wanted to continue teaching narrative and figurative painting at a time when the major art schools had all but dropped it.
Although much narrative painting portrays action – a lot of it requires a kind of stillness, not only its freeze-frame composition, but in the way it demands the viewer to stand still and unlock its story: think of Veronese’s sweeping biblical scenes cast with Venetian high society.
Cadogan’s early paintings demonstrate a skilful and purposeful use of colour, balanced with planes and spaces that draw your eye out into large vistas. With this new series it is as if she is looking inwards, and only partially revealing to us what she sees. By choosing to paint these closed books she is reminding us that the landscape of our imagination is shared with great difficulty, and that nothing is ever what it seems. Although times have changed dramatically on the surface of things for women in the 21st century, underneath a century of feminist triumphs family life still clashes with the professional one, and what creations we bring forth into this world engender responsibilities that grow exponentially. It is no small feat to have a room of your own in 2014.
Take Annie Kevans’ recent show at the Fine Art Society , curated by Kate Phelan, which addresses this very subject, her first show since having her own child. What Kevans found in her research post the birth of her child is that historically women did not stop painting after they had children, but rather they socialised less. When they were not painting they were with their children instead of frequenting art salons and befriending critics who could give them a voice. In this sense what Nancy Cadogan is exploring through her evolving book series is very apposite – what works in theory is often very hard to practice.
Equally it is an homage to a much loved but precarious art form, the printed novel, that is slowly being pushed into the dark corners of dusty libraries by the ever multiplying production of screens that lock the direction of our gaze. Which leads us back to the theme of stillness. While technology and flat screens provoke a passive stillness in the viewer, books evoke the opposite – an active stillness where the imagination is engaged. These are two faces of the same coin, the meaning of stillness shifts completely depending on the moment and the things we are looking at, just as our identity shifts depending on the roles that we embody.
“Having children gave me a moment to look back over what I had been making – while taking stock of all the clutter and stuff I had accumulated around me. I didn’t want to make any more ‘stuff’ unless it was a necessary and honest articulation of my own interior life. The book project is about stillness but it also draws on my deep love and connection to writings and how important these objects of quality are to me, how I need them around me,” says Cadogan.
Cadogan is both lyrical and eloquent with a searing depth of knowledge, but her bookishness is also a place where she can retreat. Literature has long been a strong theme for the Cadogans, her brother Leo Cadogan is an antiquarian book dealer, her mother a writer and her father an academic.
Incidentally, she received her highest praise from the art critic Hillary Spurling about a portrait she did of her great uncle, the director Frith Banbury, seated calmly in his preferred spot in the corner of his blue sofa. He is in the drawing room under his favourite painting surrounded by his most treasured possessions.
So what has prompted this landscape artist, first discovered outside on the moor, to retreat from expansive vistas to the still life? “With having to grasp at moments of creativity between my other roles of mother and wife I am constantly aware of my reduced time and energy. This forces you into a place of emotional honesty… and trying to illustrate something in its truest and shortest form.” Cadogan may know what it is that she is telling us by representing her books closed, but to me, the viewer, it raises a multitude of questions. Why that particular book? Does the sequence she is painting relate to her own emotional landscape? Do we all have a need to contain our lives in a single volume?
Even her studio layout seems to elegantly express this need to be two things at once, the receiver and the giver, the enabler and the able. Her two works in progress look across at each other and work in contrast – they are almost having a conversation. To the left, the yellow tinge of artificial light saturates the night study of a closed book taken from a collection of Shakespeare’s works, Volume I The Tragedies. Within the painting is a study from De la Tour’s Mary Magdalene.
“At first what I was painting made no sense: Magdalene sitting there by candlelight considering her former life, and yet the painting was day lit. The connection seemed arbitrary. So now I am giving it night lighting and cast shadows,” she says, offering me a rare clue into what lies beneath the surface.
Opposite is a study of Wordsworth’s Prelude (1805 version) shimmering in the studio daylight with no other visual motif to accompany it, yet. “This is very much a day piece. The Prelude was written in the major key, early on his career before his writing became tempered by life and experience,” Cadogan explains, “he had his whole career ahead of him.”
Leaning against the back wall of her studio, her pale blue eyes looking right through me, she is silent for a moment. I am given a fleeting glance into her stillness, and what it takes to find the balance. “Maybe there will be a butterfly there, resting on its cover” Nancy says in passing as we go back downstairs leaving me with the question. What is inside the pages of these books coiled up like a spring and ready to explode with meaning?