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Week of kingly pomp captured

15 May 2015

Pat Ashworth on the results of Leicester's Richard III residency by Michael Harrison

First in the series: Michael Harrison's Sanctuary for a King

First in the series: Michael Harrison's Sanctuary for a King

AS ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE during the week of services for the reburial of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral in March, Michael Harrison was able to absorb the atmosphere of an extraordinary public event.

His work had begun five months earlier, during the creation of the new Chapel of Christ the King, when he was able to embark on the sequence of 15 paintings now on exhibition at the city's Cank Street Gallery.

The body of work draws inspiration from Sanctuary, an earlier series of paintings that arose from Shine, a startlingly beautiful son et lumière event that formed part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012. Harrison's home church of Rothwell in Northamptonshire, famous for its bone crypt, was one of six ancient churches whose story was told in a pageant of white and coloured light against the backdrop of their spires or towers. The artist was particularly drawn to the streaming of light and colour on to the altar at Rothwell, magnificently reflected in those paintings.

He works in oils and his style is impressionistic, vibrant, influenced in particular by the Scottish Colourists.

The screen of the new chapel provided inspiration for the first painting, Approaching the Sanctuary, largely completed before the reburial events. Here the inverted crown of the woodwork invites association both with the crown of thorns and the royal crown lost among the thorns at Bosworth Field. In this painting, shadowy figures stand watching at a reverent distance from the tomb, in an orange light that warms.

These watching figures are at the heart of paintings that seek, above all, to convey the awe and wonder of the events and the timelessness that brings past, present, and future together - something not lost on a city that continues to be sanctuary for refugees from conflict. There's sometimes a space left between the watchers which seems to invite the viewer quietly to step in, join the onlookers, and actively engage with what's happening.

Two of the paintings feature the coffin and pall, which the people of Leicester queued in their thousands to view during the re-interment week. One is the receiving of the coffin by the clergy; the other shows in the movement and attitude of the figures the awestruck intensity that was such a phenomenon of the week's events.

Another two paintings. Homage of the Friars has hooded monks standing before the tomb - the men who first and hastily buried Richard brought into the timeline of the present and now standing in reflection before him.

Almost mischievously in one painting is a suggestion of the lone figure of Richard himself, a half-figure in the manner of Degas, standing in the corner and at a distance, as though he has just crept in when no one else was there.

The series culminates in the events of the Reveal service, where conflict was danced out with a clash of staves, and the motif of the rose window, glowing like a ball of fire from the two paintings. Other recent paintings by Harrison are also part of this exhibition.

"Sanctuary for a King" is at the Cank Street Gallery, 44-46 Cank Street, Leicester, and its opening has been extended until 30 May. Phone 0116 253 0313.


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