The Oxford Art Society is about to have a show of theatrical paintings. Like most people I have never done any, so I asked a local theatre if I could go there to do some sketching. Their publicity lady offered me the chance to see a set going up and to attend two rehearsals and an evening performance. I was almost overwhelmed by the possibilities. It was not to be. After one hour in the stalls with my pencil and paper, a company manager in large brown shorts loomed up and told me to stop immediately.
She said the producers had not been informed. More importantly SHE had not been.
‘Every single bit of this theatre belongs to a different person,’ she said. ‘If you take a photo or draw any of it you will be in breach of copywrite.’
Copyright only applies to the work of living artists and as I wasn’t going to publish any drawings commercially it was not an issue, but the myth of copywrite infringement is spreading like soya margarine over gluten-free bread; another way for pompous bullies to impose control on the rest of us.
In the National Gallery recently the only noise you could hear was an attendant crying ‘No photos!’ I often join in, urging groups of grinning tourists grouped in front of well- known paintings to go and buy a post-card. But I’m changing sides. The V & A now forbids photography and sketching in its temporary exhibitions. This began with their money- spinning David Bowie show in 2013 and carried on with their Botticelli and prurient ‘History of Underwear.’
They say this is about ‘strict loan and copyright agreements.’ That can’t apply to Bowie, Botticelli or ancient bustier so they also add, more realistically that it’s to prevent ‘congestion.’ The masses they now haul in often look like football crowds and they want them moving along swiftly, ultimately towards their gifts shop, the size of Harrod’s make-up department.
The first time I was asked to stop sketching and move along was in the last National Gallery Rembrandt show. Later, in the crush, I saw an old woman fall and hit her head on a low bench. There were pools of blood on the floor, brighter than anything in the paintings, and it took a long time for the stretcher party to beat their way to her through the crowds.
It’s particularly sad that the National Gallery, with its 2,300 paintings, now part of mass market entertainment, also has a shrinking space for artists. In the past it was a special resource for them; the great pre-1914 generation from the Slade, including Stanley Spencer drew there, and latterly Paula Rego, Peter Blake and Hockney.
In 1941 the critic Herbert Read called the gallery, ‘A defiant outpost of culture.’ He’d be sad now if he saw how it’s becoming just another stop on the uncomprehending tourist trail. That market is now nearly ten percent of UK GDP so it’s hardly surprising that artists are getting pushed out, but when money doesn’t stop you, our new bullying culture will.
In the Oxford theatre the woman in shorts said my sketching might make the actors ‘uncomfortable,’ and ‘show a lack of respect.’ When I looked sceptical she said that if I drew them they would have to be paid.
I called to one crossing the stage, asking if I could draw him for a fee. He said, how about a fiver? After failing to sound convincing about her colleague pitched in with that most manipulative of arguments: child safety.
‘Our department works with children,’ she said. ‘We would need to gain permission from all the parents.’
They lobbed me the full cocktail; commercial interest, provincial pomposity, political correctness, and virtue signalling. I still had my free ticket but was told that I mustn’t get up to anything pictorial before or during the performance. I gave it to an elderly foreign tourist.
‘Haven’t seen Shakespeare before,’ he said. ‘You can take photos, they won’t mind,’ I told him, ‘And it’s the custom here to make a big booing sound at the end.’