People are always fascinated by the backstory to a painting – the idea that it might not simply go from the easel straight to someone’s wall, that there are layers of meaning and reasons for putting the scene together. Sometimes ideas for paintings come fully formed, sometimes I have to chip away at them, sometimes I have to paint stuff without really any clue as to why I’m painting it.
The inspiration for Angel (Red Door) came from a book I noticed in the bookshop at Jerez Airport. Depicting a girl with a pair of angels’ wings lying on the ground beside her, it just leapt out at me and I thought: that looks like one of my paintings. And that’s it really: I saw a striking image, it appealed to me and I decided to do something with it.
The girl who posed for it is the daughter of close friends and is actually now a young woman, and I’ve known her mother since we were kids. One day she said to me, Gerard, you do know what you’re painting here don’t you? And I replied, no, not really. And she said you’re painting Elaine. When that was pointed out to me I was in shock. My sister Elaine would have been roughly the age of the girl in the painting when she died. An angel. Presented in that way it’s so obvious. But it still hit me like a thunderbolt. Like many artists I’m digging deep from personal experience, using painting as a way to unpack and make tangible what is buried inside.
This painting is one of a series of the same name with the same compositional elements that I’ve been painting for the last 11 or 12 years. They are different sizes and different backgrounds but essentially the same scene: the child, the doves, the urban background and the graffiti which actually echoes the idea of an angel. The notion is literally embedded in the canvas through the Hebrew word ‘malāk’ meaning messenger, from which the word angel is derived. It is also shown in ancient Greek and as an anagram, so the young girl is surrounded by the word – in all of the Angel paintings.
I painted one version about ten years ago and it went over to a bar in New York called the Mary Queen of Scots and it hung there for just over a year – which is about as long as the bar lasted. The reaction it got was quite incredible. Staff said they would catch people gazing at it, and even found one person standing in front of it in tears. After the bar closed the painting came back to Scotland and it sold relatively quickly.
Then just before Christmas 2018, I got an email from someone in New York saying they had seen this painting in the bar and couldn’t get it out of their head and asked if it was still for sale. I had to tell them it had gone but that I could paint them another version with the same elements in a slightly different composition. It was agreed and I painted this, Angel (Red Door). Interestingly the would-be buyer didn’t go for it. He liked the girl in the original he had seen because she looked fierce. This seemed strange because for me the heart of this painting is the vulnerability expressed in it; the implied innocence of the girl is actually heightened because this portrait is much softer.
It’s always a disappointment when a painting doesn’t sell, but to tell the truth, I would never have painted this if that person in New York hadn’t got in touch. And I’m delighted to have this piece on my wall at home because I find something very comforting in it every time I walk past.