Every picture tells a story… Jim Davies turns the age-old idiom on its head by bringing art to life with words in another dispatch from Story Works with D&AD.
Every picture tells a story, so they say. And the National Gallery houses over 2,300 of them. One of the greatest collections of Western European painting in the world belongs to the public and entrance to see them is free. Trouble is, people either don’t know this, or they just take it for granted… it’s there, it’s not going anywhere, we can always catch some Canaletto another day.
Which is why in 2007, the National Gallery approached The Partners to create an awareness campaign. And they cleverly turned the problem on its head. If the people won’t come, we’ll bring it to them, Mohammed and the mountain style. We’ll hang 42 life-sized reproductions of the Great Masters on the streets of London — next to cafés and corner shops, bus stops and revue bars. What better physical demonstration could there be that these works of art belong to the city and its people?
Vermeer to eternity
The juxtaposition (deliberate or accidental) of subject and situation added another layer of resonance, like Caravaggio’s ‘Salome with the Head of John the Baptist’ positioned outside a Soho sex shop. But more often, just the sheer surprise of turning the corner and seeing a giant framed artefact from 15th century Italy made you look at the image with fresh eyes. You could also download a variety of maps and audio tours, walking you around a themed selection of paintings, hence the historically resonant name — The Grand Tour.
So where do I fit into this story? As it happened, I was working with Rob Ball, then Design Director of The Partners, on another project. He mentioned the Grand Tour almost in passing, apologising that there wasn’t much budget, but adding that he thought it could be quite an interesting writing challenge. He wanted 200-word stories to sit alongside each of the 42 Grand Tour paintings on small plaques (or to use the correct term, ‘cartels’). These would give viewers context, colour, a nub of rare insight… and finally, a sign-off encouraging them to come and see the real thing hanging in the gallery.
I like Van Eyck
I said 42. In fact, it was 41. Rob had written the first one himself, for Caravaggio’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’, setting up the artist as a swaggering man-about-Rome in really punchy, up-to-the-minute language. His 200 words were undoubtedly the best tone of voice brief I’ve ever had. Then, working from crib sheets supplied by specialist curators, I started getting to grips with some of the most celebrated works of art in the world.
Luckily, I more or less knew my Ast from my El Greco. I’d done Art History at S-Level, and being of Dutch extraction, always had a soft spot for 17th-century masters Rembrandt, Vermeer, and the rest of the gang. But even so, this was somewhat unchartered territory for someone more used to mobile phone branding or writing about typefaces.
Some subjects were quite obscure, others complex, symbolic, religious, classical, or based around a particular historical event. The key was unearthing something that ‘the man on the street’ could relate to now, a shiny little nugget that could be expressed in current, everyday language. Like the first line describing Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’:
“This is a huge, full-length portrait of a couple of young men who had it all.”
Or Bermejo’s ‘St Michael Triumphs Over The Devil’:
“Bartolomé Bermejo was a loud, proud 15th century redhead, signing his pictures in Latin bartolomeus ruebus (‘Red Bartholomew’).”
Some captions homed in on the subject or style of the painting, others peeked into the life of the artist — whatever offered the best hook.
I’d wrapped up about 20 and was just hitting my stride, when Rob called after a meeting with the client. The captions needed to be more snappy — 100 words max. Annoying, but the cue for an even more distilled, pithy form of storytelling. Even so, I did my best to inject humour and innuendo where I could. As in Bellini’s ‘The Doge Leonardo Loredan’, described as
“top dog in the Venetian Republic, shown here in full ceremonial regalia”.
And Botticelli’s Mars,
“Clearly spent after a vigorous love-making session… sleep[ing] it off while Venus looks on.”
I Canaletto a lie
Of course I had no inkling what a huge success The Grand Tour would go on to become. Even when D&AD kept calling and persuading me to come along to the awards night. So I wasn’t actually there to join The Partners in picking up their well-deserved Black Pencil. I just felt lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, and to have my work acknowledged in my alma mater the Guardian as “witty… sharp, informative and unpatronising” — exactly what it was supposed to be.
It wasn’t so much a case of every picture telling a story, as every story telling a picture.