Heather-Mary Jackson, stylist and co-founder of Brownstone Cowboys, on the view from her bedroom to her living room.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

HMJ I keep taking pictures of this same view as lovely light comes through the window at different times of day.

GB Is it that fundamental feeling of being at home that makes it so beautiful to you?

HMJ I think it probably is. I’ve lived here for a really long time now, the majority of my time here in New York. I like my things. I love the green sofa in the picture. I spend a lot of time at home so I photograph it a lot.

GB Is it interior designed? Do you pay a lot of attention to the way it’s organised?

HMJ Yes, I like to change it around – although I’m not into interior design. I like things like a colourful $20 Assan rug or old things. I’m not into new things.

GB Is the picture on the wall by your son, William?

HMJ No, that was a present from Secret, William’s best friend. It’s a picture of me. I put it there and never took it down.

GB Do you think home is more important to you because you moved so far away from your native New Zealand?

HMJ Maybe that’s what it is. It is really important to me and more so as I’ve gotten older and had a child. I don’t like going out that much anyway but it’s important that my house feels right and I have everything I need, just how I like it. I found this place on Craigslist. I took it on the spot. I just wrote a cheque as soon as I saw it. Sometimes I battle with the energy of the place. A lot has happened here, some things I’d like to move away from, but in New York you get locked into a place. Although I can make any space my own. Energy is a big thing for me. At least the good times outweigh the bad here for me. I’ve cleared out belongings and artworks that I don’t want to see any more.

GB Do you usually find beauty more in everyday things?

HMJ Yes, I love furniture and textiles, especially old things like leather-covered boxes. I definitely like ‘things’! Recently I went to Lola Kirke’s house because I was shooting her with Richard Kern. Her house was so perfect. My assistant said that it’s because it’s like my house but not my house. I’d be very happy living there.

GB Does beauty come up much in your work? Do people ask you to make people beautiful?

HMJ Beautiful? People don’t use the word much! I use it but a lot of shots aren’t supposed to be beautiful in a way. There’s a lot of androgyny and I like fashion that’s practical, that translates from runway to store. Although nowadays I might not pay $1500 for a ‘practical’ looking sweater. There are people living in Cartier and Chanel and sleeping in their cars!

GB You’ve always been close to the art world and curated a few shows. Do you see much beauty in contemporary art?

HMJ I can’t say I see too much but when I do it blows me away. The last thing I saw that was beautiful was Nick Cave’s exhibition. There were Golliwogs and Afghan blankets piled up really high, and a Burberry coat with loads of gold watches on the inside.

GB But did you think it was a cool statement to make or really find it beautiful?

HMJ I really did find it beautiful. We all had Golliwogs as kids then they were banned for being racist. I bought some for Brownstone Cowboys. But now fashion and art are so intertwined I find I’m often almost repulsed to look. It’s partly because of the commercial aspect but also because everyone wants to be cool and do everything. Whatever someone was before, now they’re an artist as well. Maybe that’s a good thing. I like Home Alone gallery who do affordable art like the Larry Clarke show where everything was $100. Nick Cave’s show was all made from recycled stuff but just had some good ideas.

GB Do you think there are any qualities that make a fashion photograph a work of art, rather than just context?

HMJ No. If it’s a good image it’s worthy of being on the wall.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

HMJ It needs to make me feel good. It has a lot to do with light. In Alabama I see a lot of lovely light, especially when I’m driving. It’s also very dependent on my mood. Everybody sees different things. You can walk side by side with someone on the street and have such different perspectives.


The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson, 2003, picture by Tate Photography ©Olafur Eliasson

The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson, 2003, picture by Tate Photography ©Olafur Eliasson

Rebecca Louise Law, floral artist, on Olafur Eliasson ‘s 2003 Weather Project in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall

GB Tell me why you chose this.

RLL When my art changed from painting to working with flowers it was a real shift from something 2D to 3D, so the work I was making became very physical and sensory. This was the first time I’d seen an installation that encapsulated where I wanted my own art to go, creating a sensory, physical experience. I felt like Eliasson got it so right. I still haven’t seen anything that’s captured a feeling of nature in the same way. I wish it was still exhibiting. It’s the only piece I’ve seen in the Turbine Hall that felt complete and right. You walked down the slope and felt as though the sun was rising. Then there was this humming sound and hundreds of people lying there as though they were sunbathing. The piece could speak to anyone, no matter what age or whether they knew about art or not.

GB Were the other people a part of it for you?

RLL Yes, massively. It was that experience of humans stopping to consider nature for a minute, only it wasn’t nature. You felt like you were in a pocket of the sun.

GB Eliasson let you see behind the scenes with this installation. You could see the lights and the screens and become aware of the mechanic behind it. Did that change its impact for you in any way?

RLL No, not at all.  It was nice to see how it was done. It felt like there was no trickery involved.

GB Your own art is usually temporary too. Would you choose to make these things permanent if you could?

RLL Well my own work is about pushing the boundaries of the flower and in the last year it has moved on to being semi-permanent through the process of drying. I’ve just created a long-term project for Kings Cross which will be displayed for years. The dry flowers have become my paint.

GB Your work and Eliasson’s involve more of the senses than painting. Is this important to you?

RLL I think fully sensory experiences that are contained and controlled are hard to come by. That is what I’m passionate about in my installations. They’re quite physical. You can touch them and smell them. I want my work to be accessible in more ways than just visually. Eliasson used mist to add a subtle element of touch. Touch is very important to me. I also thought the sound of his artwork was incredible. It was pulsating and to me it sounded like heat.

GB Have you thought of using sound?

RLL I’ve tried before, but I don’t want to use twee birdsong. I like the sound of a breeze but I feel that still might be a bit much.

GB You create work that is unselfconsciously beautiful which not many contemporary artists are doing. Was beauty one of your reasons for creating this work?

RLL The whole way through art school you’re pushed away from beauty. It’s like a dirty word. Now I’ve started to realise that it’s okay. I like people to see beauty in something that might not normally be so, especially the dried, dead flowers I use. We see beauty in fresh, live flowers and my work encourages people re-evaluate this.

GB Why do you think beauty is a dirty word in art school?

RLL I think because of the commercial side of art and design, colleges see beauty as a quick way to attract attention. It’s seen as an easy way out. The whole way through art school, you’re asked to challenge everything and beauty seemed like it had been overdone. I was drawn to flowers by the colours. I was obsessed with colour and oil painting and the effect that colour had on people. I transferred to the use of flowers because I couldn’t find another sculptural material that had such an array of colours. I immediately struggled with the idea of using flowers and its taken a while to admit that their beauty is really powerful and can be used in contemporary art. I went for a meeting in New York recently and brought up the idea of death being associated with flowers and nearly lost the whole pitch. Death would have gained you points at the art school I attended. It made me question how honest I was being about describing my art because I strive for my viewers to see life in something that may otherwise be seen as worthless and dead.

GB You’ve seen a lot of people reacting to this beauty now. Is there anything in particular you’ve noticed?

RLL The biggest response from seeing my work in 2D such as pictures in the press is mainly from women, but on the physical side of experiencing the installations , I’d say the biggest response is from men.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

RLL I’d say it’s being able to capture nature, even the smallest essence of it. Turner got it right, didn’t he?




Brix Smith Start’s labradorite rock in two different settings

Brix Smith Start, singer, guitarist, designer, stylist, co-founder of Start boutiques and television presenter on her piece of labradorite rock.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

BSS I have a very deep connection to stones, crystal, rocks, minerals, things from the earth. I can hold them and feel the energy contained within them. I feel this in terms of what’s almost a vibrational frequency and even without looking at different rocks I can feel the difference in the vibration that they emit. For instance, rose quartz is a very light tingling feeling, so light it’s frothy. Other things like black tourmaline are denser. In fact black tourmaline feels to me as though it’s pulling the energy into it rather than emitting it.

GB Tell me why you’ve chosen this particular stone as your favourite.

BSS My absolute favourite stone is called labradorite and each one is completely different, as stones are, but the reason this is the most beautiful stone that I have ever set my eyes on is the rumour that labradorite is formed beneath the northern lights, so each piece contains the colours of the northern lights. There’s a luminosity coming from the stone and every single way you turn it you see a different colour, a depth of colour, a marbleisation of everything from gold to black navy – and it shines. You can never see the same thing twice in each stone. You look twice and can’t find the spot you saw before. It’s the like the deepest, goldest, greenest abalone on steroids. It’s almost pearlised, it’s alive. So I keep three pieces of it next to my bed including one particularly large stone. Labradorite is also rumoured to be an amazing stone for healing and it’s also a stone for travelling, so if you do meditation and any kind of astral projection or travelling through different dimensions, it’s a great one to have with you. I’m not sure why that is but I think it’s because it really connects the earth to the cosmos. The northern lights are totally magical, like a vision into outer space and that’s reflected back into these stones.

Of course there’s a photograph of it here but you can’t capture the beauty in a photograph. You have to behold it, feel it and move it around under every different permutation of light from halogen light to sunlight. It’s like the sea, it’s constantly changing.

GB So on the one hand it’s naturally beautiful to you, but it also has a supernatural element to it.

BSS Exactly, It’s supernatural and natural and it’s magic. You look at it and cannot believe it was created on this earth.

GB Do you usually associate beauty with something supernatural?

BSS When I see things that are beautiful, in particular natural beauty like the Caribbean, looking at the turquoise blue, the plants and the atmosphere, I want to weep as my eyes drink in the natural beauty of the earth. That’s real beauty. I’ve also had dreams and visions where I’ve seen things that are so beautiful I’ve wept. They’ve always had incredible colours. Colour truly is vibration, through particles vibrating at different frequencies, so I think that very sensitive people can tune into that and literally feel the beauty that they’re seeing with their eyes. It’s that connection between the visual, the mental and the feeling body that understands beauty in all its depth. If you just see beauty with your eyes, you’re relatively unmoved. You need to feel it at the same time. That’s when it becomes so overwhelming that you weep with joy.

GB So beauty is obviously a big part of your life?

BSS I like to have things that feel good to me near me. If they’re beautiful to other people too that’s wonderful. Some people may find objects I have tacky, but everybody has a different perspective.

GB Is beauty a part of your work? When you make music is beauty a part of that?

BSS When I write or make music it’s completely about how the vibration feels in my body and how it feels in the space around me. If you hit a discordant note, people say that’s ugly and it feels ugly because it’s not harmonious. You can relate that to everything, even your relationships with people. You want to be around people it feels good to be with, where there’s no conflict. Some people love conflict but I personally don’t. I prefer everything to be resonating at a really high, clear, divine level.

GB Have you always felt this way? You’ve had quite a turbulent life.

BSS I don’t think I was always conscious about this, but life is about duality and from bad things you learn that things get better. That duality is totally important. Everybody’s opinion is valuable even if it’s not the same as yours. In my life I used to be a little bit addicted to drama. I used to cause conflict within my relationships as I was growing up and learning, but the reason I caused conflict was because I was doing something that didn’t feel good to me so I lashed out. Later on I learned to only be around people I feel good around and doing work that feels right. If work doesn’t feel right I actually can’t mentally and physically do it. Now I’ve become a honed instrument. I’m standing in my vortex and I won’t step out of that into a situation that doesn’t feel right. Everybody has this capacity to be attuned. If someone is walking behind you in the street and you don’t like that feeling, you cross the street. It’s the same way in my life.

GB So if somebody sees your rocks and things they’re just a bunch of boring rocks, do you think less of them?

BSS No way! I just think that they don’t get it and that’s okay. The main thing is that “I” get it and I love them and they’re mine. Maybe those people get washing powder or some random thing that makes them happy. The only negative thing I could possibly say is, it makes me sad that they can’t see the beauty in them.

GB Do you believe that there are things that are universally beautiful?

BSS Yes, there are clichéd things like the sunset. The sunset looks as though the divine source painted it like a picture. You’re just jaw-dropped and gobsmacked and breathless at this natural beauty and I do think that’s a universal thing. Unless someone has some sort of terribly severe mental condition…

GB Do you find beauty in man-made things? In art?

BSS I find loads of beauty in art because the art reflects the beauty from within the artist. It’s like little shards of their own interpretation of beauty coming out. Or even when they do something that you perceive as ugly there’s that duality that makes you appreciate the beauty. Everything is balanced.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

BSS It’s a feeling you get inside your body.


Many thanks to all our readers and contributors who have supported Gilded Birds throughout 2014. We were delighted with the response to Gilded Birds paper and will be expanding the print issues in 2015. Follow us here, on Twitter or on Facebook to get the latest updates. Here are the most popular posts from last year:


Photographer: David Cripps

“Not only does the sight of it produce awe and delight, but the idea of it invites questions about beauty. Why, for example, does an object that has been shrunk to a twelfth of its size have charm, while a twelvefold magnification of the same thing would not? How is it that scores of its household objects and features—wineglasses, mother-of-pearl, ivory and marble bathrooms, damask wall-coverings, a motorcycle and sidecar, a knife-cleaning machine—are at least as beautiful to behold as the paintings on its walls and ceilings, indeed, usually more so?”



“The painting’s appeal for me is both immediate and hard-won. Hard-won, because when I first encountered David’s work, this picture included, I found it rather awkward and contrived: both too overt in its representation of emotion, and too strident in its use of distinctive forms. Immediate, because now I feel at home with the work, it has a powerful visual appeal, one that comes without effort, every time I see it.”



“Part of my moon love is dispositional. If you’re a nocturnal person like I am, the moon has a lot of appeal. It plays to what Don DeLillo called the “night side of the mind,” the creative state associated with magic and the poetic imagination. There is a duality to the moon that I also find appealing. Like all celestial bodies, the moon is otherworldly, in the sense that it is situated outside our world, and in the sense that it is a world unto itself, an alien place with it’s own landscape and sky. But for all its foreignness, the moon is also an intimate companion, of the earth, of course, but also the human mind. In fact, that’s one of the dominant ways you see the moon represented in poetry, as a friend for the lonely.”



“Over the years my summer holidays have probably been some of the more memorable markers in my life that represent what was going on my life. I often brought friends, and my girlfriends and I’m was always taking pictures so I’ve documented that beautiful warm light and taken pictures of lots of people in it. So as the years pass by it’s a kind of marker point for what’s going on in my life. I split up with one girlfriend in that room. There are times when the thought of going back there with all its memories has made me want to stay away – but most the time I feel nothing but positive about all my memories of Corsica.”



A folding book by Etel Adnan

A folding book by Etel Adnan

Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator and art historian, on Etel Adnan’s folding books.

GB Tell me what you’ve chosen and why you chose it.

HUO Etel Adnan is an artist who is in her late 80s now who works with drawing and watercolour and poetry, plays and novels and she links all the different things she does – there is a link to our sensibility to identity – it’s as though she’s inhabiting different rooms. But the room I find most beautiful is her work on these long Japanese folding books which combine drawings and handwriting. Adnan was born in 1925 in Beirut but went to the Sorbonne and studied philosophy. She has always been interested in the immediate beauty of colour in her painting. She also started to make tapestries in California. In the 60s she went away from abstract forms and started to mix her drawings with poetry and writing. Another beautiful moment was when she discovered Mount Tamalpais, which she calls her best friend and through this she explores links between nature and art. In a way, what is so fascinating about her and what makes her one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, is that I’m always struck by her energy and the amazing optimism of her work. I think we need optimism now. These Japanese folding books are full of pure energy and give out this courage. You see these books and they are tiny little books but then you unfold them and they’re four or five metres long. So she doesn’t colonise space like a big artwork that takes a lot of wall space. You can just fold it together again and put it on the shelf. I think that’s part of the extraordinary beauty of her work. But the beauty is not just in the colour, the energy, the dimension of her drawings but also in her handwriting. Handwriting for me is something very beautiful and it’s endangered. It’s in danger of extinction. There is so much in danger of extinction, not just animals but through globalisation we face the extinction of cultural phenomena. Many languages are disappearing.  I love to see variety and I launched a protest against the disappearance of handwriting that was inspired by these Japanese folding books. This is why there is so much handwriting on my Instagram account. So for me she has been an encouragement for years and is one of the greatest artists of our time.

GB What language does she write in?

HUO Mostly English, French and Arabic. She speaks many languages.

GB Would you say that the optimism you notice here is a rare thing? Do you see it much in contemporary art?

HUO I believe that art is the greatest form of hope. But what makes Etel so special is that in her literature she also talks about many dark matters, about the war and Lebanon and connecting that to what is happening in Syria today. But her artworks emanate this optimism and positivity.

GB You’ve worked with other artists from her generation such as Gerhard Richter. Do you find they share this optimism?

HUO I see optimism in the very young generation too but there’s something very wonderful about the freedom of artists when they reach old age. They’re just very free. Etel is working in so many different dimensions. She writes about natural phenomena and the seasons, she writes her novels and her plays, she writes political journalism, she’s a painter, she draws very regularly, makes these folding books, she works on public art, she works with architecture and she makes these incredible tapestries and textiles.

GB It seems as though she’s not focused at all on the commercial, because she works so broadly. Does that give her work a certain purity?

HUO Yes, her work has this great spirit of independence.

GB Do you tend to find more beauty in work that crosses different disciplines?

HUO Yes, I’ve always been interested in people and movements like Dada that link poetry, literature and art – a spirit that goes beyond national or geographic or disciplinary boundaries.

GB So if you find something visually appealing, is it more beautiful to you if it has an intellectual side?

HUO It’s a combination ; shape, colour, form, content!

GB Which factors might determine whether you think an artwork is any good or not?

HUO As Edgar Allan Poe said, there is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.

GB Is beauty always immediate for you or can it grow on you over time?

HUO With time, beauty grows inwards.

GB Do you believe in universal beauty? Do you think Etel Adnan’s folding books are universally beautiful?

HUO In Adnan’s work the universal is linked to the particular and that relation is contingent.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

HUO As Kafka said, “Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”


LaocoonFrancesco Prantera, Vatican art restorer, on the sculpture, Laocoön and his Sons.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

FP The answer lies everything I am about to write. I believe that to understand the beauty of a work of art, it’s not enough just to look at it and feel a sense of pleasure related to personal or communal taste. To really enjoy the work of art, one must also understand its deeper meaning and try to grasp the spirit of the people who made it and understand its history. This is why I chose the sculptural group, the Laocoön. Here is the mythological background:

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.” [“Beware the Greeks, even when bearing gifts.”] These five words of Virgil that relate to the death of the Trojan priest, Laocoön and his children. Have been carried through the ages and are still used metaphorically to say: “beware of the enemy who, inexplicably, offers you a gift.” The Greek army had left a gigantic wooden horse in the desert plain in front of the city of Troy with Greek soldiers hidden in its belly. After ten years of war, it was just too tempting for everyone to believe it could be over. Everyone except Cassandra, doomed to clairvoyance and ignored as she implored the citizens to stay away from the mysterious gift. Laocoön intervened with those five famous words to convince the Trojans that nothing good could come from the enemy. He picked up a javelin and hurled it violently against the belly of the horse from which came a hollow sound. Finally the Trojans started to doubt the gift. But then the goddess Athena, siding with the Greeks, sent two giant sea snakes to strangle Laocoön and his sons. The Trojans were confused by this but trusting in the will of the gods, took the horse through the city gates. The epilogue of the story is the destruction of Troy and the escape of Aeneas, the Trojan hero, who fled the burning city for the banks of the Tiber in Italy and founded Rome. The dramas of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid all centre on those five famous words.

GB Why did you choose this work and not a work of Michelangelo, for example?


FP It’s true that am a restorer of paintings, work on canvas, painted boards, particularly on frescoes and murals and the Laocoön Group is a marble sculpture. In the first century A.D. a powerful Roman, (perhaps the Emperor Titus), commissioned three Greek sculptors from Rhodes, Aghesandro, Atanadoro and Polidoro, to create a sculpture of Laocoön. The powerful Romans still admired Greek artists as the best. The work these three created was so astonishing that, Pliny the Elder described its beauty in his “Historia Naturalis” which is still studied today. Pliny died in the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii when his curiosity about nature led him too close to the volcano. For Pliny, nature was the ultimate beauty.

The whole body of Laocoön is tense with resistance to death, the muscles, tendons and arteries swollen in effort. His face is turned toward the sky, frozen in the moment of understanding the futility of resistance to his inexorable fate. The younger son, who expects his father to save him, seems somehow lost to the observer – the figure of the father is so much bigger. It is at this fundamental moment that the artists chose to represent the story, at the end of a race and of an era, the synthesis of a whole period of history in a single moment. Even the veins pulsate with life – every square inch expresses vitality, health and strength, so much so that, the work seems to be alive. It remains unexplained how it was possible that the artists had such a profound knowledge of human anatomy, as inexplicable as the idea of the beauty and perfection of a male human body remaining so constant over time.

And then the sculpture was lost to the world until 1506, the height of the Italian Renaissance when the courts were full of extraordinary artists, when Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo Buonarroti strolled through the streets of Rome and Florence. Michelangelo and Raphael were summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II. Raphael was a young and exuberant painter of 23, Michelangelo a surly sculptor of 33. They were given the task of painting the Pontiff’s rooms. On 14 January 1506, at Opium Hill, near to the residence of Tito in ancient Rome, during the excavations at the ‘Domus Aurea’, the sculptural group of the Laocoön was found. It was slowly removed from the earth and emerged in all its beauty. Experts, sculptors and artists were called to the scene to study it, among them Michelangelo. The statue was quickly identified as the Laocoön that Pliny had described.

Michelangelo was so deeply touched by its beauty that we might even say that if we fully grasp the beauty of Laocoön, we understand the art of Michelangelo more deeply. The art of Michelangelo simultaneously expresses the greatness and the frailty of man. Look at the characters in the vault of the Sistine Chapel: the bodies contorted, quadriceps and biceps so powerful that they express the greatness of the human being, yet at the same time we see fragility expressed through the watchful, worried, scared expressions on their faces. Michelangelo paid homage to the statue when he painted the last portion of the fresco on the ceiling, God separating light from darkness. Look at the chest of God: it is the chest of the Laocoön.

GB The statue depicts intense suffering. For you, does this make it more or less beautiful?

FP The expression of intense suffering can make art beautiful, profound and poignant, because it is through suffering that the man is brought closer to the mystery of life and death. The sculptural group was transported from the excavation site to the palaces of the Vatican and placed in the Octagonal Courtyard where today six million visitors each year stop to admire it. This was the start of the Vatican collection that fills the museums today. In the last years of his life when Michelangelo became blind it is said that he would go the courtyard to touch the statue in order to still perceive its beauty. Raphael was in turn deeply affected and since then, generations of painters, sculptors and artists of every genre and era have been transported by that beauty.

GB Do you think it can be considered an example of universal beauty? Does the consensus of people over thousands of years makes it objectively one of the finest works ever created?

FP Yes. Ever since the Laocoön was created, its beauty has struck any observer like an arrow, even the multitude of tourists who wait in endless queues to see it.

GB It has been restored several times. You have never worked on it?

FP I have not had this good fortune, but I know those who have worked on it and are responsible for its protection and maintenance. I have been able to observe it in special circumstances: when the museum is empty and at night by torchlight. The Laocoön Group was found intact, but not completely. The work was missing the hand of one child, the arm of the other, as well as most one of Laocoon’s arms. There was an attempt to complete the work. In 1532 the artist Angelo Montorsoli, a colleague of Michelangelo, was commissioned to reproduce and add the arm and probably on the advice of Michelangelo himself imagined it as reaching upwards. But in 1905 in Rome a merchant named Ludwig Pollack went into the shop of a Roman craftsman and recognised, in an arm tangled with a snake, the arm of Laocoön. So the arm was once again mounted onto the statue, and it is bent at the neck with bulging biceps as Laocoön tries to free himself from the grip of the serpent.

In 2009 I was sent on a mission to Berlin for work and I went to visit the altar brought to Berlin from the Pergamon in 1886. The work dates back to 156 BC and was dedicated to Zeus two hundred years before the Laocoon was carved. The theme of the altar portrays the struggle of giants. Strolling along the perimeter of the altar I was struck to see a sculpted bust identical to the Laocoön. So the Laocoön itself is a replica, not only of that portion of the Pergamon altar but probably other prototypes and, as many argue, perhaps taken from a bronze original.

GB In your work you are constantly surrounded by works that are considered among the most beautiful and important that we know. Do you ever take that for granted?

FP Three years ago something very beautiful happened one night: I was with a colleague working in the Sistine on routine upkeep of the paintings, when we were asked to stop work and wait for about an hour, because there would be a concert. We sat on one side as guests and musicians arrived. The music was from the sixteenth century, the era of Michelangelo. It’s hard to describe the incredible beauty of that experience.

GB What makes something worthy of the word beauty to you?

FP I believe there is a universal consciousness that recognises beauty in an object, beyond our personal tastes. However, it is the beauty of nature that we all recognise, in front of a sunset, or the sea’s horizon, in a storm, a flowery meadow or a snowy mountain. I chose the Laocoön because its creator have attempted to create human perfection and beauty.




Miles Aldridge, fashion photographer and artist, on his copy of The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

MA This is a copy of ‘The Garrick Year’ by Margaret Drabble. It’s one of many paperback books my father created the cover for during his tenure as art-director of Penguin Books between 1965 and 67. I’ve grown up with these books. As a child I remember them piled up in my father’s studio while I’d sit on his lap, inhaling the smoke from his cigar, watching him draw. When he was at Penguin there was this colour-coding scheme for the spines of the books with orange for Fiction, green for Crime, blue for Classics and black for Science-Fiction. So across his bookshelf and stacked up on the floor I remember these kaleidoscopic towers of literature – and as I turned from a child into a young man these books remained a curiosity to me because if you could be bothered to open them you might find something remarkable like the opening sentence to Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ or a description of the conquest of the Aztecs. However I chose this one as an object rather than a book because I have to confess, I’ve never read one word of it. Looking inside it states it was published in 1966, which is when I was 2 years old. Strangely it also states it is Penguin number 2549 which has a sinister feel to it like a prisoner’s number. On the cover is a photograph of my mother taken by my father at the family home. I know that my father took this picture with a Nikon F, which was the camera that he then passed on to me when I became interested in photography as a teenager. He wasn’t a professional photographer, he was an art-director who then became an illustrator in the 1970s. Like a lot of people from swinging London, after the psychedelic late 60’s he moved to the countryside where he lived a bucolic life of cloudy beer and lazy days. There in a Georgian rectory he drew Hieronymus Bosch-like images of giant insects waltzing and dinning at a Victorian banquet, all meticulously airbrushed in Pop-Art colours.

GB Tell me about your mother as well because it’s a picture of her.

MA She was a very young and beautiful mother as can be seen on the cover. The synopsis on the back of the book states that the story is about infidelity and divorce, which is incredibly ironic and poignant. Five years after posing with this impenetrable Mona Lisa smile and an apron as the beautiful housewife for a novel about fictional infidelities her own wrecking-ball of a divorce would smash her and her home to pieces. So this old dusty and battered book is a souvenir from my childhood and works almost like a ‘memento mori’ reminding me about the transience of all things; this marriage, these children, this house, these people can all just vanish overnight. My father’s still alive but my mother died very young, at forty-nine. She never recovered from the shock of the losing everything and my sister and I had to watch her hide her sense of failure behind a mask of beauty. But the chasm was too deep for her to climb out of and that endless sadness turned into cancer and then she died. The end of the marriage had left her with a lack of self-esteem and emptiness. For me, as an artist, the wounded mother figure who wears a mask to conceal her wounds is an archetype in my work. Like my mother on this book cover, staring blankly out of the frame she is not just a Stepford-Wife, but a complex woman, who through some kind of shock has outwardly turned to stone. That’s the way I remember my mother and I feel that it’s often the case: there is a child, the child has their dreams, they grow up into a person and suddenly the dreams aren’t there any more and the face forms a mask to hide the disappointment. That was certainly my mother’s story. I think that’s why my work resonates with so many people. It’s not fashion photography. They see through the veneer of the beauty and the style and all this rather faddish stuff, to humans who are questioning their lives. Like my mother on this cover, having attained the home and the husband, it can vanish in an instant. Marriages don’t always fall apart but this happens to be the experience of my childhood. So here is my mother frozen in time as a young woman awaiting the promise of a happy marriage and not ravaged by cancer. I still feel incredibly connected to the child I was of seven or eight years old, holding this book in my hands and realising for the first time that it’s my mum on the cover.

Also, one of the first things I felt when I saw my father’s book covers was a realization that this is how you can live as an artist; you create a picture, put it on a book cover and you’ll get paid. Back in the 1960’s when my father was an artist most people were much squarer and came to pick up their children from school in pin-stripe suits. The differences between the cool people and the very square people were really profound. My father would dress in a very flamboyant, psychedelic way. He had long hair, which he dyed platinum blonde and fashioned into a slightly weird comb-over because he’d started to go bald quite young. He wore these incredible flared orange tweed suits over shirts covered in hand-embroidered butterflies with a jewelled dragonfly broach. He was a rockstar father: I wanted to be like him when I grew up.

Long before I’d been given any career advice at grammar school, I had made the calculation in my head that if I could design thirty or forty book covers a year like my dad I would make £100 per book cover. And so when I went to art-school I became an illustrator just like my father. At art-school, surrounded by new influences I began to question my father’s aesthetic. By that time he was in Los Angeles and he had left me all his books.

GB You’ve said in the past that you use beauty in your work so you can pull people in and then unsettle them somehow. Are you trying to give people a warning? That they can be surrounded by beauty but it hides this darkness?

MA Yes I think so. I don’t know if it’s a warning or just a fact. That is what I’m trying to convey because it’s something that I’ve seen through my mother and my sister. My sister surprised me by becoming a model when she was fourteen. We had that kind of relationship where we literally fought every day. There must have been something in our astrological charts that meant we were like oil and water. Now, we get on very well but when she became a model I couldn’t believe that this was possible. I didn’t see her as beautiful at all, I saw her as this monster that always pissed me off. Then I’d visit her on Bruce Weber shoots as her career exploded and I saw her transformed like the Pygmalion story into a lady. She was, I believe, the first model to be given a Ralph Lauren contract, which meant that she was paid a huge amount of money to do a very small amount of modeling and legally forbidden to do any other work. It was a really bizarre time for her. She was in her teens and she had to just sit around waiting for the next ad campaign in the next exotic location. So my sister presented me with this contrary image of a woman seemingly with everything but actually with nothing. Success and discontent simultaneously.

GB So that’s where you get this feeling of emptiness in your pictures?

MA The nicest way I can say it is that I’ve been married to, been the son of and the brother of three very beautiful women all of whom, just like many human beings, were complex, broken and flawed but coupled with beauty these secret wounds and scars seem more shocking. I believe in beauty and naively imagine that it should equate with happiness but it doesn’t. This idea was really brought home to me by the contrast between my shell-shocked post-divorce mother and the women I saw in her copies of Cosmopolitan where everyone was so bizarrely happy, excited and jumping for joy. I‘ve read that Richard Avedon had a beautiful sister who was locked away in a mental institution in her twenties. I sometimes wonder if this flawed beauty in his family closet was what drove his obsession with women and beauty.

GB Do you think that being surrounded by beauty is a consolation? Can it make you feel better?

MA Beautiful things or beautiful people?

GB I’d like to know how you feel about both.

MA I do think that beautiful things have a wonderful psychic energy. If you think that you can create the same art in a kind of fluorescent-lit windowless bunker as you can in a space where you feel very comfortable with some objects that are touchstones to things in your life, I think you’re wrong. I definitely need to have things of beauty around me. But people that are beautiful are far more tricky. A person who looks beautiful but is actually riddled with anxiety is not a beautiful thing. This is the contrast and the conflict that my work is really about. It’s wonderful for me being in the pages of Vogue Italia, in a way, passing comment on the fact that these objects, these things, even these hair-colours and lipsticks won’t bring you the happiness the advert on the next page proposes that they will.

GB I suppose being beautiful can only get you so far.

MA I know a lot of young beautiful girls and mostly that beauty means that they end up with some awful man. Beautiful people don’t always end up with beautiful people.

GB Are you influenced by classical art?

MA I am. I’m constantly on the lookout for old books with reproductions of Renaissance paintings. I seem to buy several a day at the moment. It’s a strange addiction and a new hero of mine is Kenneth Clark who was the director of The National Gallery through the 1930’s and 40’s. In these days of huge art fairs and super-galleries and auction houses that look like car-showrooms servicing a lot of rich people with wall space to fill, all the pomposity of the art world just seems to turn to dust when reading Kenneth Clark’s sharp and precise thoughts on Art. This is a man who loved and felt deeply about art and the message he shares again and again is always about a love of the beautiful and human in Art. I saw the recent Tate Britain exhibition on his personal art collection and then re-watched his famous television series ‘Civilization’ on repeat. The stories he recounts throughout the centuries of image making are peppered with truths we recognize as human behavior and I’d like to hope that’s what’s happening in my work too. I try to bring the grandeur and humanity that I find in Renaissance paintings to my work. Quite often it happens that I’ll be talking to journalists or collectors about my work and they’ll make this wonderful Freudian slip and refer to my photographs as paintings. I still shoot on film, which means I operate in an ‘old-school’ way to convert what’s in front of the lens into pure colour, which is much closer to painting than a digital capture of an image. Digital photography will never have that shock of colour. It’s just too flat. I always get a thrill opening my Kodak box of contact sheets, seeing what I’d only seen as a Polaroid now as pure chemical colour.

GB It is always possible to recognize your pictures from the colours in them.

MA It is remarkable to me that given how much visual garbage there is in the world that my pictures are somehow able to hold there own against this flood of images and I am sure this is a lot to do with my use of colour. Billboards full of stupid pictures make me fume because in my mind the world should be full of fabulous imagery. It’s a shame that beauty is so often sidelined in today’s magazines, film-posters and adverts.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

MA I might have to pretend for a moment that I have my hair combed back with thick Brylcreem, rather bad dentistry and am wearing a 1940’s Harris Tweed suit. I’m now Kenneth Clark… and so can talk in perfect BBC RP about what he described as being… “transported by Art”. I think beauty in Art is a transporting quality that momentarily stops time and then returns you to the world more alive and sensitized to the sensations there. The women in my pictures seem to have stopped time in the way that they’re frozen in a moment of deep thought. Marilyn Manson wrote something about how the blankness of the figures in my photographs allow the viewer to enter their heads and see the world through their eyes. My work is something I take very seriously. It’s a deep meditation and a desire to tell my story. It’s an instinctive search for beauty and the strangeness behind the beauty and not as facile as ‘this image’ equals ‘this feeling’.

GB I love the way that people like you and David Hockney are so shamelessly into beauty.

MA My mother gave me David Hockney’s book on his early work [goes to find it]… Inscribed inside it says, “For Miles who may one day be just as successful, much love, mum.” That was Christmas 1988.