BEACH Hayling Island, Hampshire
When I was a child, my mother and I used to walk down to Southsea Beach almost every summer morning. Behind us was Eastney Barracks, where my father was based. And in front was Hayling Island—and its lovely white-sand beach, backed by dunes. Going there was always a sort of dream of mine. You had to get an open-top bus (the essence of adventure) down to a little ferry, which crossed a dangerous tidal race. Every year people drowned swimming there. So the beach had this very strong atmosphere: it was this place of romance, but the journey there was treacherous. It was a weird combination.
I recently had an exhibition in Rome with the artist Enzo Cucchi. It reminded me of how Rome has meant a lot to my work as a painter. It’s one of the few cities that are both a place and a symbol. So on the one hand, it is a monument to Western art; you can’t be there without appreciating that this is where Raphael lived, or where St Paul was imprisoned. (Interestingly, “Roma” is a palindrome of “amor”, so even the city’s name has this monumental quality.) But at the same time, my friend Cucchi can leave his studio, go next door to the old Italian restaurant and be fondly greeted as “maestro”. So Rome is like a village, but it’s also a great world symbol.
BUILDING My south London home
In the 1980s, my wife and I left east London (where we lived next to a brothel) and went south of the river. We found this villa in Camberwell—where, we were told, Ruskin’s secretary had lived—and we’ve been there ever since. It feels like the sort of house a child might draw. The roses in the front were planted by us; two of my children were born there. It proves it’s possible to be in the centre of London and still live in a house with a garden filled with fruit trees and flowers. I can’t imagine this in Paris, Berlin or Tokyo.
JOURNEY From Beijing to Yining
In 2010, my son Edmund went on his gap year to Yining, in the province of Xinjiang. My wife and I were worried; Edmund was one of only two Europeans in the city and there’d been tremendous unrest in the region. After eight months, we decided to check up on him. We flew to Beijing and got on a train. Our journey inland was really exciting: from our cabin we saw tiny villages, where every little patch had been cultivated, and passed vast deserts where huge dust storms turned the sky black. Eventually we got to Xinjiang. By that time, Edmund could speak rudimentary Mandarin. With him, we ended up travelling to Yining by an overnight coach. It was this mad bus full of chickens, geese and dogs.
HOTEL Benesse, Japan
On the Japanese island of Naoshima there is a sort of art museum-hotel called the Benesse. It is the most exquisite place; there is a spiritual quality to it. Designed by Tadao Ando, a boxer turned architect, the hotel is simple, clear, absolutely modern. Each room has a different sense of space and light. It’s like being in an art installation: everything has been considered—the doors, the floor, the wood. And Benesse is full of works by artists like Hiroshi Sugimoto, Richard Long, Jasper Johns, Hockney.
WORK OF ART Pierrot (formerly known as Gilles), by Jean-Antoine Watteau
Stylistically, my work is very different from Watteau’s, but “Gilles” somehow represents what I feel about painting. It is curious, enigmatic: the man portrayed is an actor so you don’t know whether you’re looking at him or the character he’s playing. The painting’s status is odd—it may have been commissioned to advertise the players’ company—but I think the status of all paintings is odd. What do they do? Watteau’s work, full of fantasy and imagination, acknowledges the artificial character of painting: it’s not a document, it’s not necessarily about truth. The point of painting is pleasure and mystery. It satisfies metaphysical questions about life
VIEW Portsmouth Harbour
When I was ten, there was an art competition at school. We were taken to the top of Portsdown Hill in Portsmouth, and we each did a painting of the view. It was an extraordinary scene: you could see Portsmouth’s little terraced houses, Portchester Castle, the boats in the harbour, the islands in the distance. My painting won the competition, and went on tour—rumour had it, to Japan. Anyway, I’ve never seen it again. In a way, though, that painting, and that view, set me on my path.
Christopher Le Brun was talking to Charlie McCann