A lesson in looking – Chardin and white chocolate truffles

Homemade-teacakesBack in May I tried out a new recipe for cranberry and white chocolate truffles. They were too sweet for my taste so I rolled them in toasted, chopped almonds to add a nutty flavour. It was a slight improvement, but in all honestly they looked a lot better than they tasted so I decided to photograph them before chucking them in the food recycling caddy.

truffles teapot
Bowl of white chocolate truffles and teapot reminding me of the paintings by Chardin.

When I sorted through the photos I’d taken this one (above) stood out and the more I looked at it the more it reminded me of something. And, then it clicked – it had a ‘Chardin’ like quality. I think it’s the restricted palette and lighting, and the pared back nature which made me think of Chardin. It was totally by accident as when I tried to deliberately recreate a Chardin style photograph I found it impossible.

Every now and then it’s useful to step back from your own work and refresh your creative juices by looking at the visual world through another’s eyes. I thought attempting a Chardin style photo would help me to look and observe in a new way. For this exercise I chose the still life painting ‘White teapot’ as my starting point.

'White teapot' still life by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. (1699 - 1779) Private collection
‘White teapot’ still life by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. (1699 – 1779)
Private collection

Firstly, I collected together the subject matter including a couple of bunches of grapes saved from the blackbirds.

First-arrange-still-life

Instantly I realised I was going to have to change the background for something plainer and less obvious.

Change-of-background

Then plenty of looking and re-looking at the original painting and adjusting the position of the objects to work with the effect of the camera lens in an attempt to achieve an image more like a painting. Of course, a photograph does not reproduce how we focus on the world anymore than an artist’s interpretation does. But, through looking at still life works by artists such as Chardin you can certainly appreciate how skilfully and subtly artists manipulate what is in focus, what they guide us to attend to and how their compositions evoke a response from us. In the end, for me, my most interesting photograph was the shot that captured a sense of drama through the lighting. And, the lesson for my own work – ‘think tonal contrast’.

And-some-time-later-framed2

What happened on 11 May 1812?

Close-up-Spencer-Perceval-by-Joseph-Nollekens-1813The English famously cut off the head of a king over 350 years ago, but assassinating Prime Ministers has not been the British way, except once, in 1812. During that momentous year Napoleon invaded Russia and the USA declared war on Britain and on this day, 11 May 1812, a lone, disgruntled merchant, John Bellingham shot and killed Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister. Perceval’s last words, according to the UK Government’s ‘History of Past Prime Ministers‘ were ‘Oh, I have been murdered’.

Prime Minister from 1809 until his assassination, Perceval was in office through turbulent times with the Napoleonic Wars unsettling the British and the Industrial Revolution gaining momentum spawning the ‘Luddite’ riots. There was also an on-going issue of the national debt – sounds somewhat familiar?

gilray john bull sinking fund
James Gillray – ‘John Bull and the Sinking-Fund-a pretty scheme for reducing the taxes-& paying off the National Debt!’
Etching, 1807, with hand colouring, on wove, with margins, published February 29th by Hannah Humphrey, London

Make of the Gillray what you like, I couldn’t possibly comment. But instead we could take a break from all the gloom, and now as then, have a nice cup of tea – very British!

love and live happay teapot 1800
‘Love and live happay’ teapot.
Pearlware teapot painted in underglaze colours.
Liverpool, Staffordshire or Yorkshire?
c.1800