Wappers at work: a visual record (part one)
Some Wappers, when painting on site, are pretty scruffy and some have occasionally been taken for vagrants, apparently cowering under trees or by railings near the Thames; some have even been offered money and hot drinks by compassionate members of the public. Other passers-by stop briefly to wonder, sometimes out loud, why any apparently sane person is standing or sitting in biting wind or virtually horizontal rain, under a failing umbrella, to paint when all the other options are patently much more appealing. As an American fellow painter (who had retreated to the sanctuary of a hotel) remarked: ‘You Wappers are really epic, you know’. Meanwhile the oil paint is turning to emulsion and hypothermia is a distinct possibility, and your own epitaph runs through your mind: ‘He died at his easel (or slumped over his pochade box), still clutching his brush… silly blighter’.
Sometimes it’s the heat that constitutes the major threat, and then the lone figure or isolated group cooking slowly in the sun provokes a mixture of admiration and mild derision. The plein-air painter defies the elements to stay at his chosen post, often oblivious to everything else and determined to capture something that has excited him. He might begin the process in the shade and find himself, sooner than expected, exposed to oppressive heat which dries the watercolour washes far too quickly. He may at some stage be faced with a serious dilemma: drink the remaining water or use it for another couple of artistic washes? The ancient Greeks made powerful tragedies out of that sort of crisis.
Every Wapper has different equipment and a distinct modus operandi; the old hands, who have been painting on site for decades, have pared down to the minimum the gear they bring and watching them set up and get underway is like watching a vintage sports car pull away and purr down the road. Some Wappers always stand to paint; this is an advantage because it gives them a better view and also enables them to step back regularly or periodically to evaluate their paintings. Others either choose or have to sit and this can be a handicap in certain places where the scene that inspires them looks full of potential until they sit down to find most or all of the subject obscured by a brick wall.
Once they have chosen a subject and get underway some don’t mind chatting to members of the public, while others are reluctant to respond and jeopardise their painting in the process; light effects are transient and the tide waits for no man, so total concentration is essential. Children, in particular, are fascinated by painting and often keep returning to check on the painter’s progress; some ask strange questions, such as the unexpected ‘Are you famous?’ and the disarming ‘What are you painting?’
Some onlookers can pester and, in this context, one of the best stories involves a Wapper who was being asked repeatedly how much he sold his pictures for. His reply is a classic one: ‘Look, let me put it this way - my pictures are so expensive that even I can’t afford to buy them’.
Quite frequently members of the public are surprised that two or more Wappers are painting, for example, a rusty old boat resting in wet mud by a rotting jetty. But then, very occasionally, they pause and the paintings (usually developing different compositions with different techniques) make them see something of what each painter is seeing; momentarily or for ever after, they look at rust and mud in a new light. Sometimes they disapprove of artistic licence, pointing out that the painter has left out the litter bin or the portaloo, but usually they forgive him. One Wapper, some years ago, used to set up his easel in broad daylight and paint a nocturne based on the view in front of him; one can only guess at what the public made of that.
Photos so far:
Derek Daniells being ‘epic’ at Faversham.
John Bryce drawing at Wivenhoe.
John Killens, Roger Dellar and David Penny at Chelsea.
Mike Richardson in the zone near Admiralty Arch.
A Wapper infestation at Heybridge.
Some more photos of Wappers at work:
Above left: the late Bill Davies ‘supervising’ John Killens at Richmond.
Above right: the late John Worsdale.
Above left: the late Dennis Hanceri.
Above right: Geoff Hunt at Isleworth
Below: Robin Mackervoy at Spitalfields.