I found the picture below in one of those protective sleeves we use for storing photographs and immediately thought I could use it on the blog. There was a contact sheet of pictures from the same photo shoot which were sufficiently large to scan and use as well.
It isn’t often I can make a post around a single image but this is one of those pictures. It has the slightly misty background of the river bed, the barges which look like mall abandoned warships, the mud, the metal detritus in the forground on which sits the young artist sketching (or pretending to be sketching) and looking very fifties-Italian in his sharp shoes and coat, a bit like a character in La Dolce Vita or one of those moody art films. Or maybe a little later in the sixties – early Mad Men perhaps.
Looking east you see the proper houseboats, and the embankment wall, and that the artist wasn’t just pretending to sketch.
The background is almost disappearing into the mist and looks a little like the background a photographer would have seen a hundred years before.
This is a good shot of the shoes. A shoe historian could probably date the pictures from them. You can imagine the session proceeeding as Bignell tries different angles.
Take your coat off, you don’t want to get it muddy.
This was a favourite spot for Bignell, not too far from his studio. He loved pictures of the river especially on the transient zone of the foreshore.
Look at me now. Is that a better one, I hear him asking himself.
A bit of pose striking here, using the barge as a dramatic place to sit looking visionary. Is it my imagination or does he look a bit cold? Time to go indoors.
We’re back inside now in the artist’s makeshift studio.
Empty bottles, sketches on the floor, a telescope, the same misty scene outside and the reflection in the mirror caught nicely by Bignell.
Now just look out of the window. You could probably sequence these pictures the other way round and tell a story with the artist seeing the mist on the river and going out to make a sketch on the foreshore. So that’s the post nearly wrapped up.
Now, here’s the thing. On the back on the first photo is written “Annigonni?” And in the packet were some other pictures of an older man also labelled Annigonni in Bignell’s handwriting.
Here’s one of them. Annigonni is in Douglas Anderson’s studio in Glebe Place, cigarette in hand.
So I took it for granted that the pictures on the foreshore were of the young Annigonni. Bignell had evidently known Annigoni quite well and had many pictures and negatives of him.
My knowledge of Pietro Annigoni at that point was simply that he was an Italian artist who was well known for painting portraits, the most famous of which was his 1956 romantic painting of the young Queen Elizabeth wrapped in a dark cloak with a royal insignia on it.
There’s always a bit of fact checking to do when writing a blog. Due diligence you might say. And the more I found out about the life of Annigonni the more I began to wonder about that first photo. The pencilled “Annigonni?” on the back was looking more and more tentative.
According to Annigonni’s autobiography he didn’t come to London till he was 40, in 1950. Is the man in the picture that age, or up to ten years older? Probably not. And the self-portrait of Annigonni done in 1954 doesn’t look much like our artist on the foreshore.
But is this also him?
I’m inclined to think not. Something about the hairline, and the eyes. I showed the pictures around the library and the verdict was unanimous. So the sharp looking young artist has to be reclassified as unknown. He’s in good company. There is a whole box labelled Bignell – Unidentified People downstairs in the archives room (on Bay X appropriately).
I still like the photos enough to write a post about them. Sometimes pictures speak for themselves. Sometimes you’d like them to say a little bit more.
I am of course open to suggestions as to the identity of the unknown artist. Or do you think it is Annigonni? This post was just about written when I began to have doubts and I didn’t want to waste it as next week’s isn’t written yet and I seem to be on a bit of a roll with posts about artists. It seems odd that I now have no idea who the young artist was but that is one of the traps of photography. Because a photographic image is as near to permanent as we can make it we imagine it’s all we need. And the photographer thinks he won’t ever forget the identity of the person in the picture. But these crucial pieces of information do slip away like the people in an old family album who nobody recognizes now.