By Richard Belfield
Charles Williams is a local artist with an international reputation, exhibiting his work in the USA, UK and elsewhere in Europe. A multiple award winner including the Royal Watercolour Society Prize, the Royal Academy Schools Prize for Anatomical Drawing and joint winner of the Real Turner Prize, which was created in opposition to the Turner Prize.
He studied at Maidstone College of Art and at the Royal Academy in London and is one of the founding members of Stuckism, an art group whose aim is to advance contemporary figurative painting as a means of conveying emotion and life experience. For them, much modern art is merely decoration. Pictures without any soul.
He is a member of the Royal Watercolour Society and the New English Art Club.
Charles was Programme Director for the Fine Art degree at Canterbury Christ Church University and has taught Art in many different contexts and levels, from Primary School to Postgraduate. Describing himself as a painter who writes, he has published books on technique “Basic Drawing” and "Basic Watercolour" and taught at Canterbury University.
“I grew up in a very academic environment. My parents were grammar school scholarship kids who had done really well, but out of their work rather than out of their political or social abilities. So, I grew up in a very lonely, very quiet, very literary household where if you wanted to entertain yourself you read a book!”
When he left school, he had no idea what he wanted to do, but always knew he loved drawing so enrolled at Canterbury College to do an art course.
His talent was obvious and he got into the Royal Academy, one of the pinnacles of achievement for British artists.
“I remember looking at some paintings and thinking ‘this is great, this is a place where you can just make paintings without having to think too hard about it.’ I thought I could live with that. It’s always easy to look at other people’s paintings and say “’Oh I can see how you did that’ but the reality is, in order for them to get there, they had to fight and battle until they get to that simplicity.
His first proper exhibition was in the Cadogan Contemporary gallery in Knightsbridge, London in 1992. The timing could not have been worse. He was hanging his paintings as the pound collapsed. Even the Bank of England could not prop up sterling and the UK had to leave the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Black Wednesday. The British economy fell apart and it rained really heavily on the opening night. He had spent months putting the exhibition together, spent a lot of money on frames and only sold one painting.
A year after he left the Royal Academy he made his first big sale, a painting for £1,600. “My dad said: “£1,600? That’s wonderful! Well done! What kind of an idiot pays £1,600 for a painting? The sad truth is that when he said it, I thought “Yes, what kind of an idiot spends that sort of money on a painting?”
Thankfully for all of us, he did not give up.
“I got a job as a dustman in the Medway towns. In the life room, you’re just practising. Outside, playing around, I could not find anything that I felt was enough. Because I was working in the urban environment, I felt that I had a subject, I felt that I owned it and then that was fine. As a dustman, you finish your work as you finish your load, so sometimes I would come home in the afternoon or at lunchtime and I would just paint in watercolours. Fantastic! Watercolours sort of rescued me, they pointed the way.
For the next ten years he worked part-time and exhibited, sending paintings to galleries. He got better and people started buying. “I got taken up by a gallery who gave me an exclusive deal. He would buy my paintings at an outrageously small price but he would regularly buy them. He would have exclusive rights, so he was in command. It went on for quite a while.”
Being a kept man was double edged. The gallery bought his paintings, which gave him an income, he was still enjoying what he was doing, but he needed some focus and direction. They had “a hideous row” and went their separate ways.
By the mid 2000's he found his voice and his unique style of painting. He had two more shows in a London West End gallery. “The first one did sell out. It was fantastic. At last!”
His second exhibition was set for November 2008. Once again, external events conspired against him. For the second time, just as his paintings were going up, the economy was going down. Thanks to the short-sighted greed and stupidity of American banks, the global economy collapsed and the world slid into the worst recession since the 1930’s. Once again, his ambition was smashed by a fragile banking system. “I thought it was a really good show! People were not interested in buying paintings because nobody had any money.” Just like his first exhibition, he only sold one painting.
“Then a friend of mine offered me a job at Canterbury College. But that job would have been about wearing a suit and it was full-time. It was more money than I had ever made before. We were on holiday in France, I was standing there thinking “How long before I retire?” Could I stand 12 years of that? No. I had also got a scholarship to do my PhD full-time, which was enough money to survive on but it gave me three years doing what I wanted to do. What I’ve done during the PhD was trying to understand and make sense of all the things I’ve been up to. It’s an extremely baggy and messy process because I need to be making the work, doing the research, thinking and writing.”
He decided to just paint, starting with objects, moving on to portraits.
“Within quite a large part of the context of art, if you make a portrait of somebody, there is an expectation that this person is real. There is an expectation of truth or authenticity about it. This sort of artifice business is very important. It seems to be bubbling around in how we look at art. Any art is artifice. It is a picture, it’s not the person. I think very carefully about the details, the kind of little things that would make you think that it’s real. That is what you do when you paint a picture”
During lockdown, he has painted two pictures. One of them, Boy with Monkey, was inspired by “a lovely little drawing I think in the Queen’s collection by one of my favourite painters, Annibale Carracci, of a monkey on a man’s back, which was a study for a painting now in Rome. I had been meaning to paint from the drawing and then I heard a chap on the radio talking about primates and their need for touch, to maintain social bonds and connections. We are primates too. In the lockdown we are all on Zoom and House Party and on the phone to our friends and family and people we love, but it isn’t like the real thing. I met a friend on the street, and it felt so wrong not to shake his hand, or bash his arm or something. “
Charles Williams is now firmly settled in Faversham, which he revels in as a highly creative community. “It is actually amazingly and surprisingly full of interesting artists and interesting things going on. I don’t know whether it’s more so in Whitstable, but it’s just quieter. It allows you to get on with doing these things, you don’t feel you have to be part of this scene, you’re not being forced into. It’s sort of surprising really. Weird isn’t it? I quite like it being quiet and I don’t have to bother too much. “
He will be appearing at the Faversham Eye Autumn Festival later this year.