The Italian job: out to lunch with Stephen Chambers RA
Over pasta in St James’s, Stephen Chambers tells Sarah Greenberg about his motorcycle journey through Italy to see every Piero della Francesca.
Stephen Chambers likes to cultivate his own garden, as well as an air of mystery in his art. Both a painter and a printmaker, he doesn’t fit into any discernible group: his work hovers between abstract and figurative, minimal and decorative, with colourful images of figures held in a kind of suspended animation.
The Italian Job Stephen Chambers RA Stephen Chambers RAAt 46, he has recently been elected an RA. It is the first organisation he has ever joined. ‘I’m not someone who fits in easily to groups or movements,’ he says. What he likes about the RA, however, is that ‘it focuses a wide-angle lens on art. There are many artists here whose work I admire, and others I don’t, but the value of the place lies in its diversity. Other than that, it is all still a mystery to me.’
The greatest influence on his art has been his successive journeys to Italy. Because of this, he has chosen Fiore, a new Italian restaurant in St James’s, for our lunch. It is a glossier version of its nearby sister restaurant, Al Duca (already featured in this column) and specialises in modern Italian food, creating new twists on classic dishes. The atmosphere is more corporate than cosy – think slick Milanese restaurant rather than Tuscan trattoria – but the food is impeccable. Specials include basil fazzoletti, bright green, pasta strips layered with chunks of fresh crab, tomatoes and herbs. I start with this while Stephen opts for tagliolini with lobster. For the mains, Stephen is torn – each dish reminding him of a different part of Italy – so we agree to share everything, choosing grilled monkfish with garlic-flecked courgettes and wild sea bass with fresh tomatoes and olives, followed by strawberries with mint sorbet and an intense coffee granita – perfect pick-me-ups in the summer heatwave.
As we await our starters, sipping a crisp Pinot Grigio and nibbling on olives and home-made bread, Stephen talks about how his art and life have been marked by his encounters with Italy. ‘My first journey was the summer after my first year as an art student at St Martin’s. My tutor gave me an itinerary of great art sites and I travelled around by railpass ticking off the list.’ The next summer he returned by motorbike to look at every Piero della Francesca in Italy. ‘Piero’s paintings affect me on a visual and emotional level. It was an important moment because up until then I didn’t really know how to look at an old painting and understand it.’
He subsequently spent a year at the British School in Rome, a place he describes as ‘a typically English institution – a grand façade but crumbling behind the scenes’. While in Rome, he became more aware of the act of looking and being looked at, and he started adding figures to what had hitherto been abstract paintings.
He also developed a passion for early Renaissance art, notably the Sienese painter Sassetta, whose fairytale visions rely on flat planes of intense colour and pattern, rather than perspective – a quality that affected his art. ‘I get great pleasure from looking at his choreography of colours, for example the relationships between the deep olive greens and reds. Sassetta made me recognise that painting isn’t about recording what’s in front of you, it’s about an artist saying “this is how I’m going to deal out the information.”’
In his own art, Stephen edits that information carefully, paring it down to the essentials of figures and the spaces they inhabit. His pictures have an almost archaic strangeness, recalling images found in Etruscan tombs, while portraying a modern Everyman figure suspended between two states – leaping or flying or dreaming, often defying gravity. ‘I want my pictures to create puzzlement. I don’t want to tell you the whole story – I hope the viewer will finish them and engage in a visual conversation with the painting.’
He paints trademark dots and patterns swarming around his figures to show what cannot be seen. ‘They depict the invisible: the manifestation of what an aura, a personality, charisma or sound might look like. The patterns create a shimmer around the figure but they also slow the painting down, to encourage the eye to linger over the details.’
As we linger over our lunch, I ask him whether living in Italy affected his appreciation of food. ‘Definitely. I grew up in a west London household with a puritanical attitude to food as fuel, rather than as pleasure. There was a fear of unfamiliarity, which I now see as a great tragedy.’ He has since become a passionate cook, going so far as to grow his own vegetables in his Finchley allotment.
It is clear that Stephen enjoys getting his hands dirty, whether he’s gardening, cooking, or painting – for him all of these pursuits are ways of exploring the world. ‘I like art that transports me, I like books that put me somewhere that I haven’t been and I think food can do that too. I love starting from nothing and suddenly ending up with a feast. It’s also a way of creating something beautiful that is much quicker than making art.’
Stephen Chambers, Flowers Central, London (020 7439 7766), 8 Nov–2 Dec; Chambers is included in Disrupted Narratives, Emma Hill Fine Art, London (020 7833 2674), 14 Sep–13 Oct; Fiore, 33 St James’s Street, London SW1 (020 7930 7100)
© RA Magazine
Editorial enquiries: 020 7300 5820
Advertising rates and enquiries: 0207 300 5661
Magazine subscriptions: 0800 634 6341 (9.30am-5.00pm Mon-Fri)
Press office (for syndication of articles only): 0207 300 5615