Intrepid bon vivant journalist Matthew Bell visits Charles Cecil, the American painter and art historian, at his Florence atelier.
If you have ever visited London’s National Portrait Gallery, you will have gazed upon the work of some of the world’s greatest painters. Thomas Gainsborough, John Singer Sargent, Sir Henry Raeburn – all are represented here. You may also have noticed some more contemporary works, like the double portrait of Princes William and Harry by Nicky Phillips, or even her painting of Paddy Renouf, Boisdale Life’s own Editor-at-large. And you may have spotted a link between old and new, a consistency in style and technique.
You would be right. That link is Charles Cecil, a cult figure in the art world, whose teaching of traditional methods has produced some of the finest artists of modern times. And yet, there is nothing modern about his technique. It looks defiantly towards the past, to the studios of Van Dyck, Reynolds and Velazquez. At a time in the art world when novelty is often prized over beauty, it is reassuring to step into his studio in Florence, in a converted monastery on Borgo San Frediano, and witness young apprentices diligently learning the craft of life-drawing.
Charles Cecil is an American raised in Boston. He moved to Florence as a young man, and has never left. You will see him, if you spend any length of time there, darting around the city on his bicycle or lunching at one of his regular haunts. Every Thursday, he gives a lecture on a different subject, delivered with panache and much chaotic to-ing and fro-ing of slides. He is the far side of 70, but his demeanour is that of a young man: puppyish, energetic and endlessly enthused. A raffish sweep of hair gives him the aura of a Hollywood idol. No wonder so many of the porcelain-skinned English roses who study here fall slightly in love with him.
But they fall not just for the man, but for the opportunity his school provides: to study in the tradition of all the great artists, from Da Vinci to Titian to Reynolds. That, and the chance to live and work in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is no coincidence Cecil is based in Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance. This is the city where Giotto experimented with perspective and where Michelangelo trained in the workshops of Ghirlandaio. It is also the city where Sargent was born (to American parents) and later returned to study.
The links between Cecil and Sargent are remarkable. Charles studied in Boston in the 1970s under R.H.Ives Gammell, who in turn, 45 years before, had known Sargent. “Gammell was born in 1893!” exclaims Charles as we sit down to lunch. “He was old when he taught me, but that direct link to Sargent is there.” The method that Sargent practised, and which Cecil teaches today, is called sight-size. It requires the artist to periodically stand back from the easel as he or she is working, so that the drawing or painting appears the same size as the subject when viewed together from a distance.
When Charles opened his studio in 1982, nobody else was practising the sight-size technique. Today, there are several schools across Florence offering similar courses. Chief among them is the Florence Academy, founded in 1991 by Daniel Graves, Charles’s former business partner. Also an American, Graves at the same time as Cecil started out in Florence, running what was then the Cecil-Graves studios. But after seven years, they parted company, and went their separate ways. To say they are rivals might be to push the point, but there is certainly something of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines in the way their two schools have staked out opposite ends of the city.
The Florence Academy is the larger of the two, and lies some way out of town. The Charles Cecil Studios are in two sites in the centre and much smaller, taking only two dozen pupils per year. The idea is to simulate the master-pupil relationships of artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci, who studied as a pupil of Verrocchio alongside Sandro Botticelli. “We’re a private atelier, not a school, and as such we are not bound by a curriculum,” he explains. “It creates a very particular and intense environment.”
Part of the charm of his school is the building itself, which he shares with the show-room and studios of Romanelli, a family firm of cast-makers.
From the street you would hardly know it was there, but step inside and you enter a world of soaring dark studios, illuminated in that flat north-facing light so beloved of artists. Curiously enough, Charles’s great-grandfather visited the studio during a visit to Florence in 1908, as he recorded in his diary: “Took a trip up to San Miniato, for fine view of city. Then visited Romanelli’s sculpture studio and introduced to Romanelli, the great sculptor of Florence… He is fifty-two years old, very affable and simple in his habits and manners, and has a great liking for Americans, whom he is always glad to meet.”
It is hard not to fall for Cecil’s charms: try to buy him lunch and he steadfastly refuses. He is greeted like a family member at Cambio, his local restaurant. He was married for 18 years, but is presently single, or at least, ostensibly so. He maintains his youthful aura by spending time among young people.
To be a student of Charles Cecil is not cheap: fees are 3600 euros per term. But unlike many British art schools, where students are left to their own devices for much of the time, tuition at Charles Cecil is daily, running from 9am to 4 pm every day, with a one-hour break for lunch. It means that a lot can be achieved in a week. The academic year runs like a university, from October to June, and students are encouraged to dedicate three or four years to their apprenticeships, though it is possible to visit for just a term. Being a small privately-run enterprise means that no money is wasted on unnecessary administration. It also means that if students ever fall on hard times, Cecil can find ways to keep them on, such as employing them as studio assistants. He is like a master craftsman, with his school of devoted apprentices. And he is old-fashioned in other ways: he enjoys a drink at lunch-time, he eschews technology, his mobile phone is an ancient relic and you won’t find him on Instagram. He would be just at home in a novel by Henry James or E. M. Forster – the cultured American abroad.
Artists who have passed through Charles Cecil in recent years include Nicky Phillips, Bella Watling, Vanessa Garwood, Freya Wood and Hugo Wilson. Their works regularly sell for thousands, and even if their styles have diversified away from classical realism, all were attracted by the idea of being taught the rudiments of ‘proper’ drawing. As Wilson told the Daily Telegraph when he was nominated for the prestigious BP Portrait Awards: “I went to the Cecil Studios because very few English art schools could teach me how to draw and paint. Most of them are still teaching conceptual art.”
This is the point that Cecil makes time and again, of the need for all artists to be grounded in rigorous technical training, whatever they go on to do. But he is not without his critics. There are those who deride the Charles Cecil approach – and end-product – as too rigid and uniform, extinguishing the creative spark of the artist as an individual. Others say it is a finishing school for girls who want to float around Florence. What is undeniable is that everyone who attends a Charles Cecil course comes out being able to draw. Some students have barely picked up a pencil before enrolling, and emerge producing work of startling technical ability.
Cecil does not demur from defending his backwards-looking stance.
“A sight-size portrait is not static or photographic,” he says. “It is characterized by a freedom of brushwork that comes into focus when observed from afar. Rather than restrict artistry, it liberates individual expression.” When Sargent died, in 1925, he was considered out of date, an anachronistic relic of another age. Impressionism then Fauvism then Cubism had captured the zeitgeist, while Sargent, much derided, soldiered on like an old Victorian, producing watercolours, portraits and landscapes. It was thanks to Gammell, after the war, that the life-size technique was revived, and thanks to Cecil now that it continues.
Cecil has been banging his drum for 35 years, and the fact that there are more schools teaching the method than when he started says something about the appetite for returning to old-fashioned methods. Talking to Cecil, it is touching to see how strongly he feels his calling in life is to pass on the sight-size technique. “I would like to think that some of my students might carry on my work, and teach future generations of artists how to draw,” he says.
Emerging from his studio into the daylight, one can’t help marvel at how Cecil has ridden against the tide, carefully restoring the rule books that art teachers have for years been tearing up. His dedication has paid off, as the success of his school and pupils attests. Should you find yourself wandering around the National Portrait Gallery in years to come, or even centuries from now, I have no doubt you will find yourself gazing upon the work of a pupil of the great Charles Cecil.