Artist Spotlight & Interview: Nick Cuthell

February 19, 2021

Nick Cuthell
Saturday 13th February 2021
Nick in his studio, photographed by Frederic Aranda
Ambra, Charcoal on Paper
Portrait commission by Nick 

We are delighted to show the works of Nick Cuthell at Brownsword Hepworth Gallery. Nick was born in New Zealand in 1979. Dividing his time between London and New Zealand, he explores contemporary concerns through traditional media. His work is held in collections in London, New York, Geneva and Wellington. Nick has a well developed portrait practice and is available for commissions, he has also worked on large mural projects for a range of clients and has spent time teaching painting to students of all levels.

Notable projects include a commission to paint cast members of The Hobbit; the Reserve Bank of New Zealand commissioned Cuthell to paint their departing Governor Dr Alan Bollard in 2012; the artist's portraits of the cast of Waiting for Godot were exhibited at London's Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2009, the paintings subsequently toured with the production and were exhibited at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in 2010. Cuthell's portrait Alexandra Chan was acknowledged with a Highly Commended Award in the 2012 Adam Portraiture Award at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery.

Cuthell's portrait of the writer Martin Sherman was reproduced for the cover of Tish Dace's Martin Sherman: Skipping over Quicksand published in 2012 by McFarland & Co.    

Director of the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Avenal McKinnon:  "While Nick Cuthell’s art is noted for its luscious brushwork and  sure colour harmonies, a sensitivity for composition combined with a fine  handling of light and shadow; he has that quality which defines a really good portrait artist – to be able to look into the heart of his subjects and paint that."

Cuthell's portrait of Her Majesty the Queen was unveiled in Wellington on April 10th 2014 by their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their visit to New Zealand,  the portrait is on permanent public display in the New Zealand Portrait Gallery.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge unveiling the portrait, April 2014.


February 2021

BH: Thank you Nick for taking the time to talk to us today for our Artist Spotlight. We have really enjoyed hearing the responses from various artists over the last few weeks. Let's kick off with the start of your career - what led you to becoming an artist? 

Nick: It's hard to pinpoint what exactly led me to becoming an artist, there was definitely a lot of luck a long the way and some key people who believed in my abilities even when I didn’t always believe in them myself.I always felt like drawing was my thing when I was a kid, and looking back at some of the drawings I still have from when I was young I realise now that there was an amount of talent there.But developing yourself as an artist is hard work and there is always so far to go.I'm grateful always for being able to do something which hopefully brings some joy into the world.
Nick Cuthell photographed in his studio by Frederic Aranda
BH: Were there any pivotal moments in your education or experience when you were growing up that inspired you to become an artist? Perhaps you had a tutor or friend or parent who encouraged you? Or perhaps discovering the life and work of another artist inspired you in some way?

Nick: I do remember vey clearly being lucky enough to see Sargent's portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw in The National Gallery of Scotland in when I was 21, having only ever seen and been absolutely in awe of reproductions of this painting to see it in the flesh was pretty life changing, it was at once so much more beautiful but also so much less 'perfect' than the reproductions, and it made me believe that, if I just kept at it, I might one day be able to paint something like that. What mysterious alchemy can happen pushing pigments around on canvas, when suddenly a world of living light and be created within the four corners of a picture really became clear to me standing in front of that picture.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw
Painting by John Singer Sargent, 1892
BH: What is your favourite Museum or Cultural Institution? Why? Do you have a favourite work of art or object there? 

Nick: A big part of my practice is and always has been drawing, to me going to a life class or to a museum to work from the antique is a way of exercising artistic muscles and losing myself in a really fundamental artistic activity without having to think too much about anything else. To that end I love so many galleries but have a particular soft spot for ones that are friendly places for sketchers. The Victoria & Albert Museum has a great sculpture gallery as well as the amazing cast courts, The British Museum has some of my favourite pieces to sketch, I am particularly drawn to the sculptures of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet. Both these galleries also have folding stools which are are a great help for sketching. The Tate Britain is another favourite for these same reasons, having some wonderful 19th Century Sculpture and it also has a many works by one of my all time favourite Artists John Singer Sargent including one of his most fantastic portraits of Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth. The Museo Sorolla in Madrid is one of my favourite place in the world, to see his work and in the house and studio he designed is wonderful.
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent
Sitting in the audience on the opening night of Macbeth on December 29, 1888, John Singer Sargent was entranced. He decided to paint Terry so as to evoke this magical effect. Terry, after some initial hesitation, agreed to pose for her portrait as Lady Macbeth. Sargent began doing preparatory sketches. He was initially undecided upon which moment in the play to focus. Then in a stroke of true genius, Sargent made one of the boldest decisions of his career. He imagined an original scene not in Shakespeare’s text. After King Duncan is murdered, Lady Macbeth takes hold of a diadem to crown herself queen. In this one, astonishingly powerful scene, Sargent evoked the emotional transformation of Lady Macbeth from a loving, if ambitious, wife to a power-maddened, then guilt-stricken, wretch.
BH:Imagine that Lockdown 3.0 doesn’t exist for a moment – if you could be in London for a day, what would your day look like? Where would you go? What would you see & do? Would you take the tube, or a black cab, or a Boris Bike, or walk? Is there a favourite café or restaurant that you like to visit when you come to London? Where are your favourite sights? Do you avoid the tourists and hawkers in Trafalgar Square or enjoy being amongst the throng of crowds in Covent Garden? 

Nick: I would love to visit the V and A and do some sketching then pop along to Brownsword Hepworth to see what wonderful things they have in the gallery, followed by a walk through St James Park to see the Pelicans which always astound me and then possibly grab some dumplings in China Town before heading to The National Gallery to pay homage to Velázquez. Then catch a boat back along the river home to my studio to get in front of the easel. Evenings tend to be the most productive time for me in terms of painting, I've always felt that energy to create most when the rest of the working world seems to be winding down, fortunately as an artist it is possible to make your schedule work like this.
The Toilet of Venus ('The Rokeby Venus') Diego Velazquez
Nick visiting Bruce Nauman at Tate Modern, 2020
Visiting Picasso on Paper at The Royal Academy just before the first Lockdown in March 2020
BH: What is your favourite work of art in a public collection? Why? 

Nick: Despite their problematic histories I do love many of the objects in The British Museum, I have spent many hours sketching the statues of Sekhmet, something about the lion headed goddess, the imagination and skill of those sculptors speaking through the millennia exerts a powerful force.
BH: What are some of the biggest challenges facing an artist working today? 

Nick: I'm not sure but I think the life of an artist has probably always been a challenging one. It seems like everything gets more expensive for everyone, student debt and consumer debt keep mounting and affordable space to work becomes harder and harder to find. Personally 2020 has meant I haven't been able to make any portrait commissions which is a big part of my practice as an artist so that has been both financially and psychologically very tough. I have managed to continue doing some teaching online but it is very different to being in class, one of the things I have always encouraged folks in my class to do is to make copies of the pictures they love and admire, a practice that goes back centuries for artists. I have been doing a lot of this during lockdown and it's always good to remember that many of the works of art I so admire were made by artists living through Spanish Flu or a World War, plague or an inquisition, master copies are in so many ways, humbling and inspiring. But it is wonderful to see how art now is a much more inclusive place, so many of the most exciting work now is from voices which simply wouldn't have been allowed into the establishment art world of times not so long gone by.
Preliminary sketches for a portrait commision
Preliminary sketches for a portrait commission
Diana, Seb & Mellie the Dog
BH: Have you been involved in the #artistpledge on Instagram? If you have, how has it changed the way you work? Has it focused your work or led you in a different direction that you may not have otherwise have explored? 

Nick: I have not been involved int his but think it is a wonderful idea, I always love doing artistic swaps.
Frederic Aranda by Nick Cuthell, 2020
Georgina Beyer by Nick Cuthell
Portrait commission, 2019-2020
BH: Are you on Instagram? Do you enjoy using the platform? Has it changed the way you interact with an audience, and do you find yourself tempted to produce work especially for an Instagram audience? 

Nick: I am on instagram but post quite infrequently, I do think it can be good for people to connect but there is a lot of pressure to have lots of followers and to keep very active on it. One of the things I worry about with instagram is that certainly for a painter like me and I know for many artists, the work is a very physical thing which is best experienced in the flesh.
BH: What has been your favourite ‘series’ or artwork that you have made to date? Why? 

Nick: I do love painting the river outside my studio, nature always inspires, and having a work by Sir Antony Gormley right there is so amazing, in a way it combines landscape painting and life drawing and mastercopies. And it so challenging because the light and the water and the tides are in all in such constant motion.
Gormley, 2020 by Nick Cuthell
Bonnie Fox by Nick Cuthell
Nick & Sharon visiting Brownsword Hepworth Gallery, December 2020
BH: Have you been able to get to the studio during Lockdown, or have you commandeered a room in the house as your Lockdown studio? (Pictures welcome!) 

Nick: I am in the very fortunate position of having a wonderful live/work studio space which is a blessing during these times. I have also been helping my partner renovate a space in Deptford which will hopefully become a place for dance and jazz and drawing and all sorts of artistic endeavours, it has been a lot of work but the chance to take to walls with a sledgehammer has sometimes been welcome during these times! It hasn't always been easy to make art during these times, I think at the beginning of the lockdowns a lot of us thought we could use the time really wisely and productively and there was this immense burst of activity (much of it for some reason involving baking!) as we figured out how to make things would work and tried to keep up to date with government guidance. However, as things have worn on it has been tough to always keep faith in what you are doing, but as Renoir said “pain passes, beauty remains”.
Renovations for Nick & Sharon's new Artistic Space in Deptford