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Living (and painting) large
Anthony Palliser brings ‘Big Heads’ and big new work to the Jepson Center
A sketch for the 'Diver' piece, debuting at the Jepson

HE HAS A charming English accent and spends most of his time in Paris. His portraits of celebrities have made him one of the world’s most sought-after artists.

Though born to a British father and a Belgian mother, Anthony Palliser can lay claim to being a great Savannah artist as well. As with many short-term visitors here who end up staying, he simply fell in love with the place.

To be fair, he not only fell in love with Savannah, he fell in love with a Savannah woman: the former Diane Lawyer, now Anthony’s wife. Together, the two spend several months a year in Savannah, and even when in Europe are never far away in spirit.

At long last, Palliser will open a show here, the succinctly-titled “Palliser” at the Jepson Center Oct. 16-Jan. 28.

In addition to featuring ten of his famous “Big Head” portraits of various celebrities and literati, the exhibit will showcase two original, large-scale paintings done specially for this event.

Palliser is in town now, but he spoke to us a couple of weeks ago while still in Paris.

Tell us how you came to be a part-time Savannah resident.

Anthony Palliser: The story is that in 1977 I came here completely by mistake. Nash McIntosh’s second wife is the sister of a very great friend of mine from Oxford. I went to see them, they were going to Savannah, and I just followed, because I was going on to New York and I thought Savannah was a pretty name.

I’d met Diane while she was working with Nash. Fourteen years later I called her and as a sort of joke, she said, “I’m giving a party for Memorial Day.” So I went back. Part of it was an American trip, but I stopped again in Savannah.

Finally she came to live with me in September, 1991. And we’ve always come back to Savannah at least four months a year. So now Savannah is the place, second to Paris, where I’ve spent most of my life – I’ve realized to some amusement.

How difficult is the transition each year from Europe to Savannah and back again?

Anthony Palliser: There are a lot of similarities. Savannah actually reminds me in many ways of Ireland. Not physically, but there’s the love of eccentrics, a love of storytelling – and of drinking (laughs). I could tell these people were descended from Brits, Scots, and Irishmen. And also because it’s much more easygoing and laidback than New York and the big cities.

It has a strong advantage of its unique beauty. Not only downtown, historic Savannah, but where we live on Wilmington Island is absolutely glorious. So completely unique, the Lowcountry, those marshes and the mazes of the rivers.

I don’t think the Georgia coast gets enough recognition for the uniqueness of its landscape and ecosystem.

Anthony Palliser: Nor do I. It’s truly beautiful, and it’s genuinely inspired a whole section of my work. Because it’s so flat, you have a feeling of immensity, don’t you? When I go and sit on the dock, everything looks bigger than it does in Europe.

What’s the deal with Brits and hot places? Is the old line true: ‘Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun?’

Anthony Palliser: I’m not ashamed to tell you that the minute it gets hot in Savannah I rush back to Europe. The end of May is hot enough for me.

Your wife Diane has been called your muse, but obviously you were an established artist before you met her. What exactly has been her impact on your work?

Anthony Palliser: I’m actually very touched that in the catalogue she’s been referred to so politely, because she plays a huge part in my life. A friend of mine who’s a painter and lives in Canada, on seeing my big book with everything, she said, “You’re lucky, because you’ve painted your life.” I’m touched by that, because though it sounds commonplace, it’s not. Necessarily for me, I would paint the woman I love. And also, because she’s always there (laughs).

She’s actually a terrible model. She never poses. So I take lots of photographs and work from them. But she has inspired me. I think she’s very beautiful and has a great, dignified presence.

The show catalogue also says you have a total lack of formal training. That sounds very romantic, but is it true?

Anthony Palliser: That’s actually completely true. I’ve never had a painting lesson. I had a very extreme and eccentric art teacher in high school. He taught me to hate everyone after and including Michelangelo (laughs). He maintained it was all rubbish, and you should only look at Flemish primitives or something like that. Which is a great way to brainwash a young boy, because then of course you discover by yourself how great everyone is. You thought Rembrandt was tosh, but when you really open up your eyes and see it, you realize how spectacular it is.

In England there’s this weird thing that when you leave the equivalent of high school before you go to college, there’s nine months which are supposed to give the young person a chance to enjoy and do things. It’s a good idea, really.

My parents didn’t quite know what to do with me, so they sent me to the Fine Arts in Rome, which was a wonderful education in bohemia, and the wonders of women, and other things. But very little about painting. And I did a lot of very bad stuff. I sort of had to relearn. When I started teaching, there was a lot of art school jargon that I didn’t know. So you use a lot of onomatopoeia to explain things. You tell them that things have to “ping” and “zip.”

You seem to know more show business people than artists. Why is that?

Anthony Palliser: In Paris I know more people in the acting world than in the art world. In many ways I feel outside the art world – I am outside the art world. The art scene in Paris isn’t terribly lively. It’s more lively in England and big cities in America like New York and Los Angeles.

Isn’t the center of art and commerce moving to London across the board?

Anthony Palliser: Well, there’s a takeover by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst — two galleries are running the world at the moment. There’s no one center. There are centers of money, you’re quite right. And at the moment the center is New York/London.

It’s amazing, the empire of money, these tens of millions of dollars in the art world. At the recent Damien Hirst sale, he personally made 200 million pounds. If you think of what’s happening in the world this minute, that’s incredible. Wall Street’s collapsing, but the big art buyers took no notice.

You’re debuting two huge new pieces at the Jepson. How did that come about?

Anthony Palliser: When I was walking through the room there, it struck me how tall it was. It’s not often an artist is able to let himself do something that big, because people always ask, where will you keep it and who will buy it? I measured the doors and got the agreement of the director.

I decided to paint a diver and a swimmer, as a tribute to Savannah, in a way. The diver is jumping into the Wilmington River. The swimmer turns out to be Nash. I took a couple of snaps of Nash taking his daily swim and it gave me the idea for this thing.

They’re 14 feet high, seven wide. I managed to get a couple of my ex-students to help me. I rented a huge studio, and we had five days. I’d done all sorts of preparatory sketches, and then we all went to work. So it was like a chef with all his sous chefs (laughs). Without them I couldn’t possibly have done it, physically let alone artistically. It was a great adventure.

How many of your famous “Big Heads” will be at the show?

Anthony Palliser: I’ve painted about 16 in all, and that’s it, I’m finished. Ten will be at the show.

You once told me you had an epiphany of sorts about a painter needing to know when to put down the brush.

Anthony Palliser: It’s where mystery returns. What I used to do is go on until I couldn’t go any further, and a lot of that was technical. One day I realized the painting was much, much better long before I wrecked it by finishing it (laughs). In other words, finishing it, meaning making it realistically and technically finished.

I firmly believe that painting should never be descriptive, and should always be evocative — like poetry rather than prose. The visual manifestation of that came together with the Big Heads. The fact of using great sweeps of plasterlike paint, there was no need to finish it. That suddenly screamed at me, rather than suggest itself, with the Big Heads. I realized I was able to go beyond portraiture completely and just deal with paint and human beings.

I’m very insistent that the humanity come out. That’s why I insist that the subjects not wear any earrings or makeup or jewelry or whatever. And certainly not a coat and tie, or spectacles. It’s really the raw product.

Kristin Scott-Thomas got that without my even saying anything. Diane was horrified. She arrived on a bike with an old T-shirt, hair not brushed, and not a drop of makeup. That was exactly what I wanted.

The word “epiphany” is definitely appropriate. There’s a thin line between complacency and keen observation, and I don’t always get it right.

Your show at the Jepson, which features many portraits of famous actors and actresses, is basically concurrent with the Film Festival. Intentional?

Anthony Palliser: I urged them to consider it, not only to promote the show but the museum. People who turn up for the Film Festival need things to do, don’t they? You can’t just go to films all the time. Hopefully people will go to the Jepson Center, which they maybe would not have done if this show was not there. It might egg them on a bit.

You work mainly from photos of your subjects.

Anthony Palliser: Almost exclusively.

Many paintings done from photos are so hyper-realistic that I’d rather just see the photo. Your work is different.

Anthony Palliser: I went to see David Hockney in his studio in L.A. when he was working a lot on the idea of projected images. He was saying that when painting was pronounced in danger of dying in the 19th century, when photography was invented, there was a whole long period when people said, “We’ll no longer need painters to express portraits because we have photographs.” And the machine was talking over the human hand.

The huge irony now is that the human hand has reentered photography, in the sense that just about all photographs are Photoshopped. Reality is again tampered with. He said, ‘The human hand is back, and it didn’t take long.” Which I think is rather lovely.

That doesn’t fully explain your preference to work from photos.

Anthony Palliser: I think that some painters are interested in how we see things. But I am most interested in what I see. That means I’m not going to alter the reality I see. I will try and transcend it.

For me the photograph is really like a sketch. I very rarely work from photographs that I haven’t taken. When I’m doing a portrait, I really do take tons of photos. All the time I’m looking for something about them I recognize. The end of any portrait is memory. No photo can help you at the end.

Think of the difference between your favorite photograph of yourself and your photo in your passport. They’re both lies. The one you like is only partly you, and your passport photo is really nothing like you, it just describes your features for the Customs officer.

I also get a real kick when if I suddenly see something, I can rush off and get my camera. I’m sure Titian would have used a camera all the time if he’d had one. In fact, most of the great artists used a form of lens or another. They projected through a camera obscura, which was just a predecessor of film photography.

The purist says you should never use a photo. Well, let them go on painting that safe sort of 19th century stuff. That drives me crazy. You should use everything you want to use. What’s essential is the result. cs


When and Where: Oct. 16-Jan. 28 at the Jepson Center for the Arts.October 22, at 6 p.m. Palliser speaks at the Telfair Academy Guild Lecture Series, with a members' Opening Reception to follow. Info: