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Interview with Tony Beaver

Tony Beaver is a painter living and working in South East London. He went to Goldsmiths’ College in the mid-Eighties where he was taught by the conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin. Having moved away from painting at College he gradually returned to it and has been shortlisted for the Garrick Milne Prize, The Celeste Prize and the Discerning Eye.

What was the first thing you painted?

My original subject was potatoes. To teach myself to paint technically I wanted to be able to paint solidly with light and shadow. I chose a potato because I’d never seen a picture of a potato before, so I didn’t feel I was in competition with anything. A couple of months turned into a year, and then into 4 or 5 years.

There was a moment when I had to decide whether I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. People have had sillier lives than that! I realised that my potatoes were my attempt to do portraits and what I wanted to do was portraits.

The way you paint potatoes changes with time, so they become self-portraits of where one is in one’s life. I think if you were to paint a potato every day for the rest of your life, some would be about death, some would be about children, some would be about doubt, some would be about celebration. That’s just the way self-expression is, you can’t keep it in.

How many potatoes do you think you’ve painted?

I’ve lost count. I am still interested in painting potatoes. I go back to it to see what’s happening with it. They have become a point of connection. People recognise them. When you’ve been doing them for a long time and people like them and buy them, they become adverts for themselves. That’s another reason to keep on doing them. Every house should have one! That would be brilliant.

The potato lead you to painting portraits of recognisable figures like Tommy Cooper and Kenneth Williams. What attracted you to them as subjects?

Both of them are from that generation of people who did national service; they are very rich psychologically. I choose lots of people because of that. I have also done portraits of Tony Hancock, Charles Hawtrey… They don’t have the spin that people have nowadays. They don’t seem so self-aware. They express themselves so strongly.

I think of them as archetypes of ways of being men. I want the paintings to be about a way of being a man, that is unusual and admirable, and to do with not-obvious qualities. The paintings of Tommy Cooper came out of the fact that he died on stage. I find that a very rich, full of meaning moment that Tommy Cooper did the most serious thing that you could possibly do, in front of an audience of millions. The paintings imagine the moment just after he has gone to the other side. I want them to look as though he’s emptying. He’s like an astronaut going into the after-life, exploring on behalf of us all. Because he was so loved, he can take people with him.

What about Kenneth Williams?

I’ve been painting him for years. I’m interested in him because of the type of man he was. I’m interested in the notion of Britishness and what these men represent about Britain. Kenneth Williams represents a whole huge chunk of a type of Britain. He’s a national treasure. And yet he was a very brittle personality and misunderstood and difficult and like a hedgehog, very defensive. I’m trying to capture something of that.

Your paintings of pots seem to be related to your potato paintings…

I like painting lowly things. I started doing them because they were lowly, like the potatoes. Lowly is good. I was drawing in the British Museum and I noticed that there were rooms and rooms of these kind of pots. I noticed that they had more pots than anything else and they were utterly ignored but they had a strong feeling of the ancient. They are painted from photographs I take at the British Museum and bring them back to the studio. I do a bit of drawing there too.

You are a self-taught painter. How have you taught yourself to paint?

I go to the National Gallery and I have a day of doing fur and looking really closely at all the fur, trying to work out how they have done it. It’s a joy for me to do that. And then do metal the next day. It’s so marvellous. Painters look at paintings to see how they have been done. The technical aspect of painting really fascinates me.

I have done a whole series of works on water, based on looking at baroque paintings, and Caravaggio. When you see paintings in situ in churches in Rome by the Masters, you realise that what they are trying to do is create a miracle, or a feeling that a miracle is about to happen. They have the power of that. And that’s why I like Baroque painting because it’s to do with acknowledging the miraculous. I think that’s one of the things that painting can do, that nothing else can. It can make that acknowledgement to the miraculous. So I did a series of paintings of water because I wanted people to look at it and wonder how it had been done, like a magic trick. Painting is like a magic trick, and it’s also alchemy. It’s changing oil paint into water.

You have recently started making paintings of guinea pigs. What interests you about the guinea pig as a subject?

I like the idea of a really, really tiny life, that doesn’t have a lot of effect in the world, put in a big space. Those are the two ideas that I want to bring together. A small life, big space.

The guinea pigs are the easy bit. It’s the space that’s hard bit. I want the space to be enormous and psychologically enormous, like a dream space, or a heaven, or something. So it’s really difficult. I’m not there yet and I’m beginning to worry slightly. I haven’t cracked it yet.

The subjects are very diverse. How would you sum up what you are looking for in a subject?

I try new subjects all the time, but I look for a subject that has legs and that you can do again and again and get deeper into.

There’s an expression that cricket commentators use, and they say ‘the ball got big on him’ and it means that the ball bounces a bit nearer to the batsman than they had judged and suddenly it’s heading towards their face. That’s what I’m looking for in a subject. I want the ball to get big on you.

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