Swagger Portraits: Tim Kent is at ease in the dowager’s dressing room
The renowned painter of stately homes on why he works outside the patronage system of the contemporary gallery.
“I do my nighttime reading with this book,” says Tim Kent, on my arrival at his orderly studio home in a former factory on Brooklyn’s Moore Street. He is referring to Ralph Mayer’s The Artist’s Handbook. “This is the artist’s bible,” he continues, handing me a mug of tea and a ginger cookie – which marks the end of pleasantries. Kent is all about painting. “Naples Yellow… here we are. Made since at least the 15th Century. Thought to be first made from volcanic earth found near Vesuvius.” He looks up. “I’m trying to work out how to make an egg-oil emulsion that Dutch artists used that is almost like a transparent pigment, it adds luster. It’s usually done with white. Van Dyke used it. It was a Dutch painting trick, you see it in the eyeballs, that oily watery look. Oh, they had so many tricks!’
It begs the question: Is painting a trick? “Yes,” Kent replies, unhesitatingly. “I like the Degas saying: ‘you do anything in your power to make it work’. Unfortunately,” he laughs, “some of my tricks don’t work. But I have some that do. So I don’t open up my studio to many other artists, only to close friends. That story about Pontormo, about how he’d keep his assistant in his studio, which was on stilts, you know it? The competition was cutthroat, they were all prima donnas.”
Known for his bold, light-filled architectural interiors, Kent is now also exploring robust, often darkly moody, portrait painting and drawing. He was born in Vancouver of a Turkish father and English mother, and by age 15 was living in New York. He studied at Hunter College and at West Dean College in the UK. Having helped organize TAG projects while working in an artists’ collective, his career took off in 2005 when a residency with Moncrief-Bray gallery in the UK was followed by solo shows there. Back in the US, Kent has done public pieces for Miles Redd, Diesel, Levi’s, and Lacoste, and his work is in the collections of The Duke of Buccleuch, The National Trust, Sir Cameron MacIntosh, The Edward James Foundation, The City University of New York, and Oscar de la Renta.
Kent talks easily and eloquently, roaming over the broad subjects of painters through history and describing the glorious and luxurious act of painting. “I love painting” he exclaims with passion several times during my morning visit. Yet, despite being given a set of oil paints by his mother he chose to study drawing – and continues to draw as much as he paints today. Having majored in art history at New York’s Hunter College, he did his masters at West Dean in England where “a teacher from the Slade in London showed me a trick on how to mix color so I could develop my painting. I began painting the fantastical buildings at West Dean as backgrounds, then saw that they were the best part: they said more when there was nothing else.”
Being a realist artist is simply not an issue for Kent. “It’s what I can do. It’s important. We are so far removed from tactile experiences now, so much is in cyberspace. Transforming something from reality into the fake zone – that is, onto canvas – is important. You add something.”
His studio has one wall hung with a dozen or so small oils of interiors. Each depicts a room so suffused in light and color that it blurs the physical with the abstract. They are mostly rooms in British country houses. He’s worked at Uppark and Petworth houses, and is now making paintings at Holkham Hall, Burghley House and Boughton House. “I love this one of Burghley because it is loose and colorful,” he reasons. “That one on the left is the old dowager duchess’s dressing room at Bowhill in Scotland. I’m leaning toward a more expressionist type of work for my interiors – Turner was the epitome of this, so is late Whistler, Degas, Vuillard. They are looking at texture. There is no line, it’s all color and volume and pattern.”
Bowhill and Boughton are owned by the Duke of Buccleuch. He bought a couple of Kent’s paintings, and so began their patron-artist relationship. “I visited him three months ago. I don’t work on site – they don’t want dirty painters hanging around their priceless collections. I take photos, do sketches.” He fetches a photo of a room at Boughton. He has started to do a painting to capture its light but is just as excited by its contents. “See those pictures, they are all Van Dyke studies – not studio work, his very own studies!”
Kent prefers to work directly for patrons, rather than with a gallery. “I’ve learned I have to maintain as much control as possible,” he explains. “The patron has an idea. So, no matter what you do, he or she will be disappointed. It’s kind of cool to work with such a constraint. But I like having time so I make a long deadline of six months.” He will do paintings on spec, then gift one in the hopes that the recipient will commission others. “My system models are the artists of three hundred years ago. I go out there and find people. I enjoy being a salesman.” He’s quite hard on gallerists – perhaps because the right one has not come along yet. “I have a love-hate-distain relation with galleries because on the one hand I’d love to work with a gallery and have a career develop through one. On the other, I’ve seen so much crap out there, and I find the whole thing contrived. It’s too much of a filter, it’s too much fanfare and hype – those openings!” That said, Kent has showed in England with Elspeth Moncrieff, and at Factory Fresh, one of the first galleries in his neighborhood of Brooklyn.
In the US, Kent wins commissions for portraits as well as interiors. ‘One was for three boys. Children are so difficult, it took me ages. There are lots of children’s portrait painters but it’s skilful factory painting. Look at Pompeo Batoni” – he grabs a postcard of Batoni’s 1770s painting of Thomas Coke, hanging in Holkham Hall – “look at the quality! And dressed up in those swagger clothes. Great.” His own portraits have plenty of swagger about them. “It’s about fantasy and fun. We have the worst possible portrait painting in America now. Look at Boldini, Rubens, Van Dyke, you have that fluidity, those sensuous alive people.”
What really consumes him as a painter, however, is color. “My paintings don’t sing with color – yet. But I am trying to be a good colorist. Look at Hockney’s landscapes. How does he look and then choose that particular color?” Now 38 years old, Ken has a new determination to conquer color. “I’ve canceled my Facebook account, and my chess account, and taken up physical training. I need to stand up and work all day.“ He’s paying his trainer with a painting: “that will take care of one year.”