The Court of Redonda
First shown at the Venice Biennale in 2017, Stephen Chambers’ The Court of Redonda depicts a cast of 101 imaginary courtiers inspired by a literary legend that developed around the tiny uninhabited Caribbean island of Redonda.
This legend took shape as a fantasy in the mind of Matthew Dowdy Sheill, a merchant trader who claimed the island in 1865 and gave himself the title of King. The title passed down to his son, who decided that it should be given to poets and novelists as a form of literary honour. The celebrated novelist Javier Marías was a recent sovereign and his appointment of courtiers, including film director Pedro Almodóvar and novelists AS Byatt and Ian McEwan, inspired Chambers to create his own imaginary court of Redondans: not just poets, philosophers, artists and writers, but also patients, pharmacists, harlots and “bums”.
Chambers explains: ‘It’s a construct, it’s an idea that I was intrigued with. I wrote to Javier Marías, and in that correspondence, I suggested that I would paint portraits of the court. The paintings are not portraits from life, and they’re not depictions of real people, they are invented. I wanted to present a wide range of motley ne’er-do-wells and in a way, celebrate their ordinariness. There is that line that I kick around my head which goes ‘the ordinary is more extraordinary than the extraordinary’’.
The Court of Redonda is joined in this exhibition by other series of works by Chambers exploring histories, both real and imagined.
Casanova follows the life and loves of the eponymous figure, filling the gaps between his young adulthood and his renown, whereas Trouble Meets Trouble depicts twenty characters who, through living in differing eras or locations, residing in the pages of books or existing in mythology, could never in fact meet.
Chambers explains: “I tend to work in chapters and I create paintings by taking an idea and then resolving it. The characters in these works are real people, whose personalities and thoughts interest me. I like the paintings to be beautiful, …but not necessarily the people to be beautiful. As an artist I am interested in the process of painting (creating works) but suspicious of virtuosity.”
Lastly, the most recent series, I Bite & Sting, made during the pandemic, is Chambers’ personal riposte to the toil and the strains of our current times and is described by the artist as ‘an affirmative, jocular growl at those things which block our path.’
Cover image: Stephen Chambers, Count Music, oil on panel, 2016-17 © Stephen Chambers, courtesy of Vigo Gallery. Top left: Stephen Chambers, Doña Margarita de Teotitlán, oil on panel, 2016-17 © Stephen Chambers, courtesy of Vigo Gallery. Top centre: Stephen Chambers, Bruno de Ultramer, oil on panel, 2016-17 © Stephen Chambers, courtesy of Vigo Gallery. Top right: Stephen Chambers, The Rural Ambassador, oil on panel, 2016-17 © Stephen Chambers, courtesy of Vigo Gallery.
Stephen Chambers RA is one of the UK’s most revered artists, having exhibited widely around the globe, with more than 40 solo presentations including the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2012 and at the Pera Museum, Istanbul in 2014. Chambers’ contemporary dance collaborations at The Royal Ballet, London with Ashley Page and Orlando Gough include Sleeping with Audrey (1996), Room of Cooks (1997,1999), and This House will Burn (2001).
Chambers’ work is held in many international collections including Arts Council England, Deutsche Bank, London, Downing College, Cambridge (at which he was the Kettle’s Yard/Downing College Fellow and later elected an Honorary Fellow), UK Government Art Collection, London, Metropolitan Museum, New York and The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.