Tuesday evening Thomas More College was privileged to have the distinguished English Catholic artist, Mr. James Gillick, as a guest lecturer. The College’s students, returning only a few days prior from the holidays, were nonetheless stirred by Mr. Gillick’s presentation. The lecture focused on the vocation of the artist and the role beauty has to play in the contemporary world. Soberly realistic about the need to make a living, Mr. Gillick drew on his own extensive—and highly successful—experience as a painter in the figurative tradition of Baroque art to explain the challenges in store for aspiring artists.
Mr. Gillick is one of the most successful artists in the United Kingdom, selling through the top galleries in London. He is unusual in being able to both paint well and know how to market his work. He sells to both the secular and Catholic markets, religious and non-religious subjects. Grinding his own paints and framing his own canvasses, he draws on both modern and traditional artistic techniques to create paintings that will last for generations. In addition to his own work, Mr. Gillick employs up to four apprentices a year, offering intensive, highly directed training in everything an artist needs to succeed – from painting technique to marketing and book-keeping. Jacqueline Del Curto, a former Thomas More student, is currently studying under his direction.
Focusing first on the historical difficulties present to artists, particularly the post-World War I popularizing of what he termed “reactionary art,” Mr. Gillick turned to the contemporary situation of art. While it is difficult to find patrons for traditional figurative painting, he noted, a market that will invest in highly-skilled, beautiful works of art is still open in certain places.
The role of the artist today—especially the Catholic artist—should be to combine both a keen business sense with superb talent, aiming at making a living from painting and not simply romanticizing about whether beauty will save the world. “If you can’t work fast; if you don’t have the talent,” he said, “don’t pursue being an artist. Most artists are poor as church-mice.”
Despite insisting on realism, Mr. Gillick was still able to propound the necessity of beauty for a culture that seems to rejoice in ugliness. “Much prayer is necessary,” he said, “much skill, and sheer pluck.”
Exhorting the students of Thomas More College to hold fast to the lessons learned from their consideration of the good, true, and beautiful, Mr. Gillick concluded his lecture by taking a series of questions and answers such as: why does apparently ugly art seem to sell? Is there a danger for Catholic artists of being compromised in their work? Is it beneficial for an aspiring artist to study under a professional? Thoughtfully addressing students’ questions with wit and dexterity, Mr. Gillick’s lecture opened the winter semester on a rousing note.