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Featured Artist: Nick Hugh McCann

Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead
July 9 – September 11, 2016

Interview by Carol Emmas

Describing the North West as an ‘emotional magnet’, Birkenhead-born Nick Hugh McCann may have left Wirral as a boy but his connections have continued to grow. In his first full exhibition: ’IT’S ALL ABOUT ME, DARLING’, at the Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, we see a bold and strikingly mischievous 8ft winged ‘Duchess of Birkenhead’ in basque and suspenders standing astride the city, and the former Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard sporting vermillion robes, as Caravaggio’s, Saint John the Baptist.

Congratulations on your first exhibition in your birth town. You recently took up painting seriously again, what has been your motivation?

Nick Hugh McCann: Thank you. It’s a privilege to have an exhibition in Birkenhead at The Williamson. I graduated from the renowned Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, way back in 1980 – although oddly, I don’t think I did one picture there; most of the tutors at the time seemed rather aloof and dismissive of traditional painting as an art form, so when a film skills element came up within the course I jumped at it. My first job was as assistant film editor on BBC TV’s Film 80 with Barry Norman, in the old Television Centre. I then joined Brookside at the launch of Channel 4 in 1982 and worked here in Liverpool for two years. Since then I have made a variety of personally motivated short films – most broadcast on television – and in 1993 I began to work in the publishing and photography sector of the heritage industry. I got to know this country’s historic sites, castles and cathedrals in some depth. After nigh-on 20 years in and out of Britain’s stately homes, in 2012 I decided to take up art professionally for the first time. Painting and drawing were my first loves as a boy and the time seemed right. The late, great, controversial art critic, Brian Sewell, the ‘Marmite’ of the art world, was a great supporter and mentor and he, along with my friends and family, gave me the confidence to pursue my art as a full-time career.

Although you have lived away from the Merseyside area, you have continued to have strong connections, what makes you continue to draw on both the people and the places through your work?

NHM: It was my father’s career that took the family away from the area in the late 1960s and I often wonder what would have happened if we had stayed in Merseyside. Although most of our remaining family in the region have now passed on, I gravitate to the area as much as ever, if not more so now. It’s always exciting to come back. Your birthplace is often an emotional magnet, especially if you’re removed from it at an early age, and I admit to having perhaps an over-romanticised view of the area. I recall my old boss, Phil Redmond, likening Liverpool in its importance, iconography and grandeur to New York, and the two places have links and similarities in many ways. Central Park in Manhattan and Birkenhead Park even share the same designer. When I was offered an exhibition of my first output of work at the Williamson – where I saw paintings for the first time as a boy – it was special for me. Many of my close friends are originally from the Merseyside area and it’s somewhere I feel very comfortable. The people of Liverpool and Wirral have a unique personality and irreverent, dry humour you don’t find anywhere else in the UK.

The work in your exhibition is very diverse and non-formulaic in style and subject matter, i.e. from watercolours in the style of old masters, to wildlife, or large, bold figurative works, is it important for you to experiment with different painting styles, subjects, and mediums?

NHMMuch – although not all – of the material at the Williamson is commissioned work completed over the last few years and varies in style, media, and content, accordingly. There are also several sentimental and personal works for friends and family. However, I like to inject, whenever possible, my own spirit into everything I produce. Working to someone else’s brief can be challenging and it develops a good discipline; you have to learn and experiment. I was asked to paint a copy – not a forgery – of Liverpool Master, George Stubbs’ Newfoundland, Nelson (it’s in the exhibition). Attempting to paint a reasonably convincing version of an original by someone like Stubbs is a challenge and you learn a lot about methods and materials. I am just beginning to get into a groove, with a clear vision for what I want to produce and how, and so the next period of my career is going to be interesting.

Are there hidden meanings/depths in your most recent work i.e. Steven Gerrard as John the Baptist  and/or When did you last see your father? Or do you consider your work more humorously irreverent?

NHM: How long have you got? When Brian Sewell was dying of cancer last year, we regularly chatted about this and that, and he was generous enough to discuss the Liverpool paintings I was working on. Brian helped enormously with the ‘Gerrard Caravaggio’, advising on materials and methods, and he was hugely amused by and interested in the And When Did You? picture. ‘How many likenesses Nick?’ ‘Eleven, I said, ‘including the second portrait of Barbara Windsor’.  ‘Quite a challenge,’ was his response. We also discussed art that could be pleasurable and raise a smile, or art that was easily accessible and intelligible to all, intellectually and emotionally. The best of television, film and theatre often has universal appeal and I think art should perhaps look to those aligned media more, and not cut itself off in its ivory – or plastic – tower. I personally do not respond much to conceptual or ‘contemporary’ art, art that has a political message, or art that purports to be ‘important’ and high-minded. I accept that much of it has merit, but I think artists were often entertainers in the past, and should concentrate on that a little more in their work today. Leave politics to the politicians, they make a wonderful job of it. Although we are encouraged to see ‘modern’ art as important, I wonder how relevant it really is to the vast number of ‘ordinary’ people. It’s vital for art to keep moving forward, but there is nothing necessarily great about ‘new’ or ‘different’. What’s wrong with just ‘good’ or ‘enjoyable’? I could not attempt to paint pictures that were ‘serious’ because I am not cut out for it. Some of the greatest pleasure I have had with my children has been sharing an enjoyment of comedy: beautifully crafted and produced pantomime (see Nottingham Playhouse for details); television greats such as Spike Milligan, Marty Feldman, Dave Allen, Frankie Howerd, The Two Ronnies, Monty Python and movies. I grew up with the Carry On films in the 1960s & ‘70s and I have inflicted them on my children, to their eternal debt and gratitude.

And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Sir Frederick Yeames, is one of the Walker Art Gallery’s most famous and popular paintings. It’s part of the fabric of the collection and one I clearly remember when, as a boy, my grandfather Joe, a really good amateur painter, took me there to gaze up at naked ladies and guys with swords and sandals. But it’s a miserable painting. The Victorians, possibly influenced by the relentlessly mourning monarch, Queen Victoria, often went in for mawkish and moribund subjects. What better way to give it a nod of respect and blow an affectionate raspberry at the same time, than to have it played out by the cheery cast of a Carry On movie, with captions.

Steven Gerrard, to me, has always come across as a reflective and on occasions, somewhat  pensive individual. And for the vast majority of his playing career he gave his skills to Liverpool FC alone; loyalty and devotion, traditional qualities quite unusual in today’s football stock exchange. The image of the Baptist, associated of course with feet and his vermillion red robe, somehow worked well and the frame has Liverbird motifs. Caravaggio’s original circa 1604 (commissioned by a banker in Rome), is exactly the same size, but my version is reversed and without the oak leaves and woodland in the background. I certainly didn’t intend for it to have any hidden meaning, but the juxtaposition of the elements within it may give people cause to create their own interpretations. That’s what paintings can – and should – do. The challenge in my next collection of work will be to see if my paintings – for want of a better expression – can not only be good but also entertaining and occasionally humorous.

There is an underlying saucy sexuality in your paintings and a reoccurring interest in these themes, where does this stem from and why do you wish to capture it?

NHM: Sauce and sexuality: that famous firm of high street solicitors. Again, what a question to try and answer in a sound-bite. Sex, call it ‘sauce’ as a euphemism, is with us 24/7, 365 days of the year, in every country and in every sphere of life. It influences the great and the good, major political events, our history, all our media (where would they be without it?) – and it is the very reason we exist. The problem is, it is such a hot potato, as far as gallery art is concerned, and it always has been. But for me, just because it is a challenge, does not mean that one cannot attempt to express oneself personally, even if the results are not to everyone’s taste. To combine sex – from a heterosexual perspective – and humour is perhaps a herculean challenge in painting today, but nevertheless relevant. Again, that’s what art does – cause debate and stir emotions. Remember Lucien Freud’s maxim in relation to the ambitions of painting (now emblazoned on porcelain coffee mugs): ‘Astonish Disturb Seduce Convince’. If one manages to fulfil even half of those ambitions in a work, it’s an achievement.

Alongside all your other professional interests and involvements (from looking at your website you have many), will you continue painting and if so, what are your artistic aims and ambitions for the future? 

NHM: My heritage publishing and photographic work helps to fund my painting and film-making, and yes, it is painting that will now occupy as much time as I can devote to it. My next body of work will have a more cohesive theme and I hope to become more courageous and bold as I go along. It would be nice to think that one day I became a good painter, of naughty things.

On the back of your film; Liverpool’s Historic Waterfront, how do you think Wirral and Liverpool have changed culturally and artistically over your lifetime?

NHM: When you put a piece of music – especially such a resonant, emotionally charged, ‘not a dry eye in the house’ theme as John Barry’s Out of Africa – to something as epic, gritty and photogenic as the Liverpool Waterfront, it is an easy matter to make something that speaks in its own language. (The little film, ‘Liverpool’s Historic Waterfront’ on my website, was essentially a teaser I made as part of a presentation for a Liverpool Council-related project.)

To answer your question: see my painting, Omnia circum me versantur, Carissima (Its all about me, Darling.) It tries to make sense, or more likely, non-sense, of who I am and where I’m from. I was born in 1957 in St Catherine’s Hospital in Tranmere, only 12 years after WWII ended. My mother was what they then called ‘a bathing beauty’ and she appeared at outdoor arenas such as the New Brighton Open Air Swimming Pool and at Formby, where literally tens of thousands of people would watch in deck chairs, all merrily chuffing away on their fags; sexism, smoking and probably sunstroke, all in one afternoon! The films of 1957 included Hell Drivers with Patrick McGoohan (and Sean Connery in a bit part) and my particular favourite, Night of The Demon, with the gorgeous Peggy Cummins and the somewhat wooden Dana Andrews. The towering winged  Demon from hell has stayed with me – and many boys of my generation – ever since; wooden like Andrews and somewhat homemade but nevertheless terrifying in its way. (‘It’s in the trees! It’s in the trees!’) It was a very different world back then, and Liverpool and Merseyside mirror those changes over time. As heavy industry and shipbuilding gradually declined from the 1950s and ‘60s, other things have taken their place. I was proud to be a very tiny part of Liverpool’s renaissance as an increasingly important cultural and media centre in the early 1980s with my work on the ground-breaking Brookside, and that reputation grows year on year. The John Moore’s Biennial (coincidentally also founded in 1957) is a world-renowned painting competition and music and comedy are of course always pre-eminent. The words ‘Scouse’ and ‘comedian’ are one and the same. I once said to Brian Sewell, who brilliantly acted the part of hating everything and everyone north of Watford (in fact Kensington). ‘You do realise Brian, that I’m from Birkenhead don’t you?’ There was a long pause and he pursed his lips in mischievous response: ‘It doesn’t show.’ I am very proud of coming from Birkenhead and if I have any ambition it is to continue to link myself with the region and to find ways of incorporating the people and culture within my future work as an artist

The exhibition runs from July 9 – September 11, 2016.

Nick will be giving a guided tour on August 6 at 11am.