The English artist Edward Povey was born in a faded suburb of fog and bombed buildings in the post-war London of 1951. He was the only child of a seamstress and a merchant seaman, and they lodged in the damp gas-lit home of his kind Great Aunt Violet. Edward’s father was unusually handsome, but was also abusive and dictatorial, unwittingly building a refuge of camaraderie between the boy and his loyal mother, from whom Povey inherited his cheerfulness and practicality. Delicate and talkative as a child, he drew and painted prolifically, deriving a comforting euphoria from art as a distraction from the palpable tension in his home.
After giving little attention to his high school education Povey worked for two years in London City as a race horse shipper’s runner, now feverishly writing prose poetry and music whilst planning his emigration to Canada at the legal age of eighteen. Canada was a great relief and liberation for him and after a couple years of drawing and playing his songs in folk clubs, he returned to England to court his London sweetheart.
It was during a working summer in Israel that he painted his first mural on the walls of a Kibbutz bunkhouse: a painting of Abraham and Isaac appropriately, while at night he and his fiance laid on their cot underneath the painting, listening to the bombs falling on The Lebanon, and the Israeli planes returning overhead.
Their home on the South coast of England now provided Povey with his first studio, allowing space for more ambitious paintings of figures and townscapes. He enrolled for an Art Foundation year at Eastbourne College for Art and Design, and it was here that an enthusiastic professor introduced him to the profound experience of drawing, not based on formulas so much as intense seeing.
Povey’s burgeoning tendency to figurative symbolism was out of favor with the anti-narrative Postmodern ethics in Art Colleges, so by age twenty-four he had begun a self-designed apprenticeship painting murals in Wales, which quickly brought him acclaim with the BBC and newspapers, and by 1981 he had completed twenty-five complex multi-story murals and had transformed areas of North Wales and England. During this six year chapter of his life, in addition to his murals he had written a novel, toured extensively with his band and done a four-year degree in art and psychology at the University of Wales. In the meantime, his two sons, Daniel and Thomas were born.
The sheer scale of his 60 foot murals had excited Povey, but he became frustrated by the technical limitations which their size inevitably brought, and so he took his young family to the Caribbean island of Grenada, where for seven years he would work earnestly on canvases in a studio in the tropical hills. But within a year of their arrival a hardline communist junta drove the small island into war, and the Povey family were held under house arrest through a week of shoot-on-sight curfew. After hundreds of deaths, a sky filled with helicopter gunships and jet fighters, desperate Cuban soldiers and bombed-out pajama-clad mental patients wandering through the streets, an uneasy peace was restored.
Povey deepened his knowledge, studying tonal composition with the Geometric Abstractionist Paul Klose, researching color in Belgium with art connoisseur Jan De Maere and with Malcolm T. Liepke in New York. Each of Povey’s paintings began to require a solid month of meticulous drawing and writing in which he evolved and built compositions that were then transferred onto canvas using tiny squared grids. He combed over the art of Stanley Spencer and Tamara da Lempicka, always sure that if he thought more deeply and researched more broadly, that he could break through to a better way of showing the complex emotions of human beings. Living on a flow of commissions from his newfound American art collectors, in his whitewashed tropical studio his art inexorably gained maturity.
He returned to England in 1989, and until 1992 Povey remained in the English market town of Guisborough, whose mayor had provided him with a studio. Povey had entered psychotherapy to deal with his unresolved childhood, yet ironically his turmoil deepened and darkened his paintings, improving them and attracting the attention of John Whitney Payson in New York, and the Madison Avenue art dealer Alex Raydon. He was now forty one, and was exhibiting beside Paul Cadmus, Walt Kuhn, Jack Levine and George Tooker.
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Edward Povey has traditionally founded his subject matter deeply in his life experience, virtually interrogating himself through reams of writing, all done to ensure that his paintings contained a much sought integrity. As a child he was regularly accused of lying by his father, and on occasion his father’s accusations were well founded, as the boy covertly hatched plans to avoid punishment or blame. It was probably this past that led him to become scrupulously honest as a painter, always dreading that a nugget of falsity might lurk somewhere in his art. Similarly he researched and learned techniques, and studied style and symbolism, concept and composition, scouring his ideas and methods for more congruent ways to provide a transparent lens of process, through which his viewers might receive his work.
"These paintings began from a seed which was my friendship with Mehrangis Mahboubian. Moments in the 1970s that were emotionally arousing, both sweet, bloated with cherishing and deeply sad at the same time. My first wife and I had acquired this Persian lodger: a short and beaming, pretty young woman whose brother was imprisoned in Iran. As a result she could never sleep, never sleep knowing that he was in a prison cell. I sat through long nights serenading her, and within months the news came that her brother had been shot by a firing squad.
In 1999 the lovely young woman died tragically herself, and like anyone will, I blamed myself for not doing more to save her. Those mixed feelings led to my painting Serenading The Lodger - which was all kindness and tenderness really, and provided me with a doorway to the feelings of that time beside her bed and singing through the endless nights.
This painting never entirely let me go, and its doorway stood ajar until recently when I found myself going back to that bedroom in my mind, but now I feel I'm unfolding the humanity of the situation that had affected me so much in the 70s. In the National Gallery of Art in London I stumbled upon Raphael’s Ansidei Madonna (1505). He had used a way of painting flesh that provided a vulnerability, giving me a tumbling feeling in my chest when I see those hands and delicate features looking so exposed, as if they would easily bleed. Raphael forms the body exquisitely in greens somewhat like Vermeer, only to add a ‘blood glaze’ to bring the warmth and transparency of the nose, ears and fingers, and a ghost of internal blood around the joints of the body. Perfect, not to duplicate the appearance of my Persian Lodger, but to show her extreme tenderness.
I have done something else that seems at odds with Raphael’s Early Renaissance flesh: intentionally, I have tipped up the table top so that we see it via two vantage points quite impossibly, like Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings, which attempted to see around corners and suggest the reality of the form, rather than merely offering a two-dimensional depiction of it. I slam the table and crockery up against the picture plane, and the man’s jacket does a similar thing by being one unaltering block of plain chocolate brown on the surface of the painting, establishing the color that we take for the darkest black in the world of the painting. In the same way the lute is often skewed, allowing us two angles from which to see it.
Do you see that these tricks are Modernist gambits, emphasizing the design of paintings? They make it flat and strongly arranged in blocks of clear tonal value, but then I deliberately set all this strength against the tender religious flesh painting, and fabric and paper from the Dutch Golden Age still lifes, as well as the realistic-looking (but entirely made-up) lute. I’m in love with this blatant paradox because I believe it speaks volumes.
Just like on those enchanting and beautiful nights with Mehrangis - because her company was always kind, always appreciative. But all that sweetness was haunted by the image of a brother in prison, and over time it would be driven deep into my heart by both their deaths, making a ripping contradiction. All the softly defenseless skin and creased fabric, in a Cubist mixed perspective design. Beautiful paintings I think, with a tension."
British National Library
2019 - An interview of Povey detailing his extraordinary life and career, as commissioned by the British National Library (equivalent to the US Library of Congress). The project is “For Walls Have Tongues” and is the first in a series of video interviews. The videos will be preserved in the National Library’s archives, which documents national treasures for the British public.
BBC Wales Interview
Povey is interviewed via Skype for a BBC WALES, S4C television program, in which he is asked about proposed plans for a restoration of his iconic Caernarfon, Wales mural HELTER SKELTER.
Povey and his American artistic partner, Tolar Schultz, were honored to be asked for their 2016 collection of paintings to be included as artworks in the inaugural white paper, Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems.
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