Text in English
50 years of painting
Comune di Corte Franca
There are several reasons for thanking and honouring il Maestro.
The beautiful painting on the wall of my office has a powerful emotional effect on me. It is a perfect synthesis of artistic beauty, landscape and industry.
The humanity of the man: his face and heart open to the world, free but at the same time tied to the new land which is part of him: Franciacorta.
His example as an artist: young people and adults in his school, carefully following his indications. All attempting to emulate his enviable security of intention, artistic taste, perspective, the magical combination of colours.
Finally, gratitude for his discretion and generosity: Corte Franca in unison applaud and thank him.
Mayor of Corte Franca
1. Birth and Childhood (1939-1956)
John Picking was born in the small village of Shevington on 11th October 1939 a month after the outbreak of the Second World War. Shevington is five miles from Wigan , a large town in South Lancashire, North-West England, known to the Romans as Coccium . This area became the site of some of the first factories and coalmines mentioned in the history of the Industrial Revolution , and when one of the earliest steam passenger railways was built between Liverpool and Manchester , Wigan station became a strategic half-way point on the line, especially when another station was built nearby to service the L.M.S. route between London and Scotland, forming a North-South, East-West intersection. Wigan is also important in the history of canals. Coal was transported from local mines , along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal to the cotton mills , some of which, like the Trencherfield Mill had a loading bay directly on the canal. This mill, near the town centre, is across the water from the now famous Wigan Pier and forms part of the complex which has become a unique, living museum of industrial archaeology. All these remnants of factories, abandoned coalmines and the landscape surrounding the canal later became sources of inspiration on frequent drawing trips when Picking was a student at Wigan School of Art .
Shevington was decidedly rural in that period. The house in Shevington Lane where John was born was surrounded by fields, woods and a farm. There were two pairs of semi-detached houses alongside the road flanked by fields. Across the road was ‘Paradise Farm’, a large agricultural establishment in which the owners allowed the local children to play without limits.
John’s father Jack Picking was a joiner and when he joined the army he worked to set up a camp for German prisoners. On its completion he was put in charge of a workshop equipped with various tools and materials to encourage prisoners in various pastimes. When he came home on short periods of leave, he would take home the odd pencil, brush and small War Department exercise-books of unruled paper with a khaki cover that John used to do his first infantile drawings. He was an only son and played alone in a big house, becoming used to creating games for one.
As Jack got to know the prisoners , and learned a bit of German , a friendship built up between them. He would talk to them about his small son, and as a result, on each leave home, John received a hand-made wooden toy from them. They were exceptionally beautiful objects, carved by dextrous hands with many hours to spare. There was an articulated crocodile which crawled realistically when pulled along with a string. It was painted in splendid shades of green. One of the biggest toys was a round- about which had a ring of cars on the base and planes suspended on wires from the roof. The faster he turned the handle, the higher the planes splayed out into the sky. Inside there was an ingenious gear mechanism, all in wood. Some toys were personalised, like the box of building blocks whose contents were a series of blocks, arches and pillars finished with a hot wire technique. The lid was painted in highly decorative lettering, like a medieval manuscript, with the inscription: John the Builder . But the most beautiful toy of all was another roundabout which merited being called a piece of sculpture. It was a Nativity , with carved figures set between decorative pillars. Other pillars on the fixed square base supported candles, one in each corner. When lit, the heated air rising from these candles turned a horizontal propeller made from a tin can and set ingeniously in the roof. The figures and base suspended from this hot air motor, turned mysteriously before his wide-open eyes, his nose taking in the smoke and smell of burning wax.
His dad told him of a prisoner who decorated a wall in the camp canteen. “If you went close up to it, it was all rough brushstrokes and you couldn’t make out anything at all. But from a distance it was a marvellous landscape!’
John’s father was still a soldier when one day he brought him a small but long parcel. It was a kaleidoscope . Three long pieces of glass were covered with blue paper and glued together to form a triangular box with a triangle of glass at the viewing end and another covered triangle at the bottom with a window of clear glass near to it. Here the light entered to illuminate a series of tiny shapes of silvered card and other metallic colours. Each time the box was shaken, the pieces would fall in a new unrepeatable formation. There were diamonds, squares, rectangles and long thin strips which curled and dropped to form curving lines embellished with jewels. This motif spread out in octagonal reflections richer than any Persian carpet.. John took the kaleid oscope to pieces to discover its secrets. It seemed impossible that it could be so simple. He did not break the glass and managed to put the pieces together again with gummed tape.
Games with the kaleidoscope left him with a particular enthusiasm for all kinds of symmetry and repetition. From later experiments in the school physics lab to the repeated structures used to print textiles, his memories of the kaleidoscope remained forever with him.
He developed a strong attachment to his maternal grandparents and their nearby house with its enormous garden full of so many fascinating things for a child. Granddad Ashurst would amuse him with little marionettes which he made from wooden clothes pegs. There was a very large garden. Behind the bungalow was a half-moon shaped lawn surrounded by a trellised rose garden and pergola leading to a large vegetable garden. John was grandmother having tea on this lawn in the 1920’s.
As John was a catholic he was sent up the hill to Saint Marie’sschool in the nearby village of Standish. Saint Maries church was near the school. From the back garden of the Shevington house, the church could be seen in the distance against the sky and separated by a couple of hundred yards from the imposing white Standish water tower which figured in one of the earliest oil paintings.
On Sundays the single bell would toll its call to the faithful and if the wind was in the right direction it could be heard quite clearly. The left aisle of the church had a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the girls sat in those benches. The boys were on the other side of the church in front of the chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph . John felt particularly at home with the stained glass window behind the statue of the saint. It showed Saint Joseph and the boy Jesus in the woodwork shop . He took for granted the fact that in the scene, the tools used in Palestine two thousand years ago should be exactly like those his dad used and that Saint Joseph should be pretty good at making long shavings, even if they were quite a bit shorter than those John’s dad made with his best trying plane, when it was sharp.
The children were given a small Mass book with illustrations showing the priest performing the various ceremonies during the service. He was very impressed by the book even if the illustrations were in only two colours, red and black. He loved the steps on the altar and the tabernacle. He was very interested in the changes of colour that were made in the priest’s vestments and the tabernacle curtain according to the period in the liturgical year. During the six weeks of Lent , not only the vestments and tabernacle were purple. All the statues and crosses were covered in purple cloths and there were no flowers. The change of colour and mood was particularly forceful on Easter Sunday morning after so long with sad purple. Years later this interest in altars re-awakened on his arrival in Sicily and in the last few years he has done scores of paintings which include various kinds of altars. Some are rather sacrilegious, others are mixed with images from oriental temples.
At the age of eleven John was sent to a catholic grammar school at St. Helens, a large school of more than 500 pupils run very strictly by De la Salle brothers. He was not happy there. His class did not do art but he persuaded the art teacher to let him go to the art room on the afternoon dedicated to rugby or cricket. It was this teacher, Mr. Roberts or ‘Bert’ as the boys called him who first
introduced John to oil painting.
At 14 years old he made friends with an older boy Denis Pilkington who worked in a poster studio. At weekends he took John with him and they set up easels to paint the local landscapes around the river Douglas. It was in this period that John decided he would go to art school.
He was an enthusiastic boy scout and began to draw whilst on camping trips. In the summer of 1956, before starting at art school in the autumn, he went with a scoutmaster to camp near Edinburgh. He did drawings in the city centre including subjects like the Walter Scott monument. Little did he know how important the city of Edinburgh would be become for him a few years later.
2. Wigan School of Art (1956-60)
The first two years of studies at Wigan School of Art included experience in many branches of art, painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, textile printing, etching, lithography, etc. Picking tried everything and not content with the lessons during the day, he joined evening classes working alongside mature and part-time students. The first months, he had great difficulties with his drawings. He was envious of what seemed a natural talent amongst several of the other students. But he worked hard, from morning to night and at weekends.
At the end of the two years he obtained the Intermediate Art Certificate and was awarded the prize for the best student. In the third and fourth years, he chose to specialize in painting and lithography. He spent long hours working from the figure but his enthusiasm was more evident in his work with the local landscape. His composition teacher, John Bailey, was a particular influence on him. Bailey had been a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. He was an expert draughtsman and a technically well-prepared painter. Wilfred Andrews offered a rigid course of anatomy and perspective and Margaret Penrice taught life-drawing. Other useful teachers were Leonard Penrice who taught lithography and Brian Bottomley who was an enthusiastic follower of Paul Klee and new ideas in basic design.
John tried every style of painting from impressionism to abstract expressionism. The School of Art frequently organised trips to London and he had the opportunity of seeing the works of the great masters in the original. He also made frequent trips to Manchester and Liverpool where he saw many works of the nineteenth century, especially of the Pre-Raphaelites. He was very impressed by the technical prowess of Lord Leighton’s great canvas The Captive Andromache. Many years later he did variations on this painting.
Various painters and other speakers were invited to talk to the students and John was particularly impressed by the painter Bob Crossley. He had decided to move to St. Ives in Cornwall and he explained his plan to work in a shop during the summer and paint full-time in the winter.
In the summer of 1958, John set off together with a fellow student Stan Kearney to spend six weeks painting in Cornwall. They used the studio of a fellow student, Barry White, as base camp and store and went to camp in a tent in Zennor. It was in this period that John became particularly interested in rock formations and geology. He drew the rocks of the Zennor Cliffs and later went to camp and draw in Yorkshire near Gordale Scar, a rocky formation, like a cathedral, made famous by the famous painting by James Ward in the Tate Gallery, London.
In the winter months he did a course in petrology in the Geology department of the Technical College. There was a geology museum used by the mining students and a very enthusiastic geologist, Williamson who later went on to write several books on the subject.
John returned alone to Cornwall in the summer of 1959 and this was a very decisive experience. He met the painter Bryan Wynter. They became friends and Bryan invited him to his isolated studio on the top of the hill called Zennor Carn. Wynter’s paintings were much influenced by the New York school, especially Mark Tobey. They were very calligraphic images on large canvases but also very suggestive of mysterious forest in their rich use of intertwined brushstrokes. He stayed with a Canadian poet, Ian Hampson, in a cottage up in the moors. It was a very fruitful period leading to many drawings, paintings and gouaches.
John wanted to go to study at the Slade School in London after Wigan but his application was unsuccessful. Alec Woffenden, head of the Wigan School of Art suggested he try Edinburgh where there were opportunities for Post-Diploma Scholarships. He sent a folio and was accepted into the third year of their painting course. The Post-Diploma scholarships were reserved for their own students.
In the summer of 1960 John obtained the National Diploma in Painting. He was awarded the Governors’ medal for the best student of all departments in the Technical College. He also received the Prosser-White Travelling Scholarship to Paris. This was his first trip outside of Britain and gave him the chance to study in the Paris museums for a period of two weeks. A unique opportunity was presented by the great Poussin exhibition in the Louvre. Practically the whole of Poussin’s work was included and it left a lasting impression on Picking leading to a life-long interest in the work of the French neo-classicists especially Claude Lorrain.
3. Edinburgh College of Art (1960-63)
John arrived in Edinburgh by train at the beginning of October 1960, a few days before the beginning of term at the College of Art. With a student companion, Kieth Percival, also from Wigan School of Art, he spent long hours in the Princess Street Gardens, writing, drawing and waiting for the first edition of the Edinburgh Evening News with its advertisements for accommodation. After a spell in a boarding house, they eventually found a flat in Grove Street, where every morning at 4a.m. hundreds of horses were taken down the cobbled street to the dairy which supplied the city with its daily milk. John became fascinated by Edinburgh, especially its rooftops. It led him to make hundreds of city drawings, influenced to some extent by surrealist painters such as Tanguy. The forms melted into each other becoming biomorphic. He later exhibited these in a private house in Edinburgh. It was his first one-man show.
The painting course at the college was rather rigid and academic. The time-table included three whole days painting from the nude. The still-life painting teacher was especially conservative in his ideas and this led to friction. When John decided one day to paint the roofs of Edinburgh he could see from the life-painting studio window, he was summoned to see the head of Painting and the Principal. He had to justify himself by asking his parents to send further examples of his work done at Wigan School of Art.
But there were teachers who had a useful influence on John. James Cumming was a painter who influenced his work and gave him many ideas and pieces of advice. He suggested exercises to control colour and he himself was an excellent colourist. Robin Phillipson, head of the School of Painting was a painter whose work John had seen at Liverpool. Phillipson had won a prize in the John Moores Exhibition for his mysterious imagery using a stained glass (rose) window combined with more abstract expressionist brushstrokes. Allan Davie had been a student at the College but had already left when John arrived. The only thing John saw of his work was a painting by Davie in the college canteen.
New experiments and new themes appear in John’s work. He became fascinated by the mysteries of Celtic Art. He did drawings of Celtic brooches and other jewellery. In the museums he looked at Mayan Art. He particularly liked the sculptured temple reliefs. He did dozens of drawings where these objects appeared in landscapes as isolated monoliths.
On sketching trips John went to the coast near Edinburgh drawing the beaches and rocks in a brooding mood of melancholy. He used ink with pen and brush and experimented with bleaching techniques.
At Easter 1961 he won a small travelling scholarship usually awarded to the Edinburgh students to visit London. John proposed a different trip. He was particularly interested in the personal vision and transformation of landscape in the work of two English artists, Samuel Palmer (1805-81) who operated in Shoreham, Kent and Graham Sutherland (1903-80) who had painted small landscapes in Pembrokeshire in the 1930’s. John wrote to Sutherland explaining his project and asking him if he could indicate the places in Pembrokeshire where the subjects of his paintings could be found. Sutherland generously invited him to his studio in Kent and they spent a day together. Sutherland marked the places on a map and after visiting Shoreham to take photographs of Palmer’s subjects, Picking travelled to Wales to find them. He sent copies of the photographs to Sutherland and received a long reply of appreciation in which he said the photos had made him want to return there which he did.
This experience reinforced John’s passion for landscape. He found ideal subjects later the same year when he went to Perthshire to teach for a month in a school camp. The lochs with their reflections of forests, views from a hilltop with vistas of forests and lakes extending into the far distant were favourite subjects. He took children to draw in the woods, and the darkness in the thick forests suggested the mystery of his Nocturne series of paintings and drawings.
At the College John met Ian Mcleod an evening student who worked as a welder in Burntisland Shipyard. This led to a summer job for John as a plumber’s mate working in a ship’s engine room. Together with his friend they discovered a large abandoned house set in grounds above Burntisland. With permission from the owners they painted large murals, just for the fun of it. It was a chance to work on a large scale. With the money earned from this job, John made a trip to Holland and Belgium. He visited the houses of Rubens and Rembrandt. He saw the Van Goghs at Amsterdam and the fantastic collection of Flemish primitives in the Boymans Museum, Rotterdam. He visited the museums of Delft, Antwerp and Brussels. In a park in Brussels he saw a large exhibition of outdoor sculpture. The trip was full of contrasts and gave food for thought. It was on this occasion that Picking became particularly interested in the paintings of Brueghel and Bosch.
In the Autumn of 1961 Ian introduced him to a young poet, Allan Smith and John began to discover another aspect of Edinburgh life. One Sunday afternoon Allan took him to meet Ian Hamilton Finlay. In that period Ian was very much influenced by Japanese Haiku poetry but in his hands it became very Scottish. He began to write the poems which later became called Glasgow Beasts. As he pulled them off the typewriter, Ian passed them to John, who transformed them into simple stencil images cut into sheets of paper using a razor blade. These were later published as a small book. It was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration leading to works such as Concertina and the Lollipop Number of the poetry magazine Poor Old Tired Horse.
In 1962 Picking obtained his diploma in painting and was awarded a post-graduate scholarship for a year with his own studio in the college. Now he was free from all restrictions and could spend the time doing exactly as he wished. At Easter in 1963 he was given another traveller and chose to go to Spain for three weeks. His interest in the paintings of Heironymus Bosch had made him decide to visit the Prado in Madrid. After a week in Madrid he moved to the island of Ibiza. He had heard there was a small community of International artists and writers living and working there. The island was still a quiet place with a small population of fishermen and peasants. John did many gouaches, watercolours and drawings of the landscape and people. He felt particularly in harmony with them and it made him decide to return some day.
On his way back to Britain he stayed in Barcelona where he met an American dealer in oriental art, Milan Rupert. By coincidence Milan had a villa on Ibiza. He offered to find a studio for John should he return there.
Back in the studio at Edinburgh the paintings became lighter and more colourful. The results were exhibited at the end of the year and led to a further prize. This time a year-long travelling scholarship.
4. The Spanish Period (1963-64)
The Travelling Scholarship awarded by Edinburgh College of Art gave John the opportunity to return to Spain earlier than he thought. John said goodbye to his parents in Shevington and set out for Ibiza. With 14 items of luggage and studio equipment there were some difficulties. He travelled by train and boat and arrived in Ibiza early in October 1963. Milan Rupert was waiting on the quayside and took him to the small flat on the roof of his own villa. It had a large window looking towards the sea. The light was ideal and having set up studio, John set to work with enthusiasm. He worked alone all day going to the town only when it was necessary. He attended Spanish lessons and bought a bicycle to ride round the island making drawings. The first paintings were inspired by strolls along the beach where he found flotsam and jetsam. It was like the beginning or a new life and in fact he called the first painting Genesis. Other objects in the landscape were the machines worked by asses or by hand to draw water using chains of pots and the many windmills dotted around the landscape also used to lift water.
As the months went by he met some of the British, American and German residents. An American Jim Maps commissioned him to do the illustrations for a guidebook to Menorca. He gave watercolour painting lessons to a retired Englishman supplementing his small scholarship with these extra earnings.
In the Spring of 1964 John decided to move. Ibiza had inspired many things but he wanted to see more of Spain. He caught the boat to Alicante and travelled by car with an English friend who left him near Calpe. Exploring the countryside he met a Spanish boy working in a field. John asked him if he knew of anyone willing to rent a room. Paco took him to his parent’s house and they offered him their best bedroom.
The life in this isolated peasant house was very simple. There was no electricity, gas or running water. The water came from a very deep well. A very long rope was needed to reach the water level. Cooking was done on a wood fire. The farm had a variety of animals and the cultivation was varied. The main crop which was almonds which were offered for sale. The rest was for family use. Apart from one storm the weather was dry and hot. John painted in the shade under a large veranda were the family cooked and ate. He got into the habit of rising very early, lunching at 11am and taking a siesta in the heat of the day. The surrounding landscape was mountainous and the terraced hillsides were planted with olives, vines, almonds and citrous fruits. John’s work reflected the difference from the Ibizan landscape. Here the terrace structures began to substitute the beach landscapes. But in all these Spanish painting there was something of a surrealistic influence, something of Bosch.
In June 1964 John returned to Edinburgh. He mounted a show of his works in the College of Art, a promise made on acceptance of the traveller. The largest oil was 36” x 24”. The oils brought back from Spain were all rolled and the small group of stretchers had been used over and over again. On its closure he exhibited the Spanish paintings at the English-Speaking Union Gallery. It was a large gallery and it was the first he had given on such a large scale.. The critic Goodsir Smith of The Scotsman could hardly recognise Spain, even though he talked of the devastation of the Civil War. He felt the works were too full of machines, product of the Lancashire Industrial Revolution, and that Picking could have stayed at home in Britain to do them. The show led to a few sales which together with a generally favourable press were sufficient encouragement.
5. Norway (1964)
A few days after the opening of the English-Speaking Union Gallery exhibition, John left with his friend Robin Alexander on a new adventure. He had met Robin while teaching at Aberfoyle. But Robin was no ordinary primary school teacher. He had done many things in his life. Twenty years older than John, he was studying at Oslo University in 1940 when German soldiers captured teachers and students and forced them to do factory work in Germany. Robin escaped into the mountains and became one of the famous ‘heroes of Telemark’, working for the Norwegian resistance.
Alexander’s return to Telemark after more than 20 years was celebrated with great enthusiasm by the Norwegians and John found a hospitality which he had not expected. He was flung into the life of the valley of Vinje in a way that would have been impossible if he had been alone. They were offered the use of a cabin high in the mountains beside a small lake, where they caught trout and discovered the vastness of the Norwegian forests. John set to work on watercolours, drawings and a few oils. It was a very productive six weeks, in which John’s work returned to reflect some of the characteristics of the Perthshire paintings. He was particularly inspired by the houses and cast iron stoves. Old stoves were abandoned in the forest, overgrown with grass. He found a new stove on a sledge in the woods near a house. He was told that it would be dragged to its destination on the arrival of the first snow.
Other friends of Robin offered the hospitality in the city of Oslo. In a restaurant John saw a waitress who inspired a series of ‘Oslo Waitress’ paintings. The painted furniture, clocks and wooden panels of traditional house interiors can be seen in the background. There were also drawings inspired my Norwegian mythology. In the sky above dark mountains and fjords fly Odin’s birds.
6. Wigan and London (1964-68)
While in Spain John had applied to do the Art Teacher’s Diploma course listing three choices. He was offered an interview at the college of his first choice, Goldsmiths at London University. John wrote explaining that being in Spain he could not return for an interview. His application was passed on to his second choice, Bristol College of Art. They offered him a place without an interview but he decided to refuse this, preferring to try again for Goldsmiths the following year. Alec Woffenden offered him some part-time teaching at Wigan School of Art and so in September 1964 he set up a studio in Dicconson Street in the centre of town, within walking distance of the college.
The first paintings continued to be influenced by the imagery of Spain and Norway but he attempted to simplify the forms. They became more abstract although they often still had a landscape character about them. Each summer Picking returned to Spain and in the summer of 1965 he made long journeys by train all over the country passing from North to South twice before returning to Alicante and Ibiza. The new Spanish paintings were now more geometric. Whilst in a room in San Vicente de La Barquera, a fishing village on the north coast, he did several drawings and watercolours inspired by the fishermen and their boats, but he produced oils which derived from Velasquez’s Las Meninas.
He again obtained an interview for London University and this time he was offered a place which he accepted. He moved to London and found a small house in Southwark sharing it with a fellow student. Unfortunately on the second day of the course, John fell ill. The same day he was immediately operated on for appendicitis. He asked the nurses to inform the college and one of the tutors came to see him giving him the task of writing an essay. Besides this while in hospital he created a folio of over fifty drawings, variations on Las Meninas. When he resumed the course he was very impressed by Anton Ehrenzwieg, a Viennese psychologist who had written various books on the psychology of art. John became interested in Gestalt psychology and the interaction of colour. The work in London reached a peak of abstraction, much depending on colour harmonies, predetermined like the intervals between the notes of a chord in music.
He saw many exhibitions of kinetic art, conceptual art and op art. There was a huge Bonnard exhibition and the Institute of Contemporary Art put on many avant guarde shows. All this helped to define Picking’s position with regard to the contemporary scene.
He was offered a job with the University to do research into the use of television in education. He did this for the summer of 1966 but had to leave to take up a full-time teaching post he had previously accepted at Wigan School of Art.
Back in Wigan he set up studio and started a series of large paintings. One of these was an abstract geometric composition called Disc and Interior Lock which was selected by the Arts Council for a touring exhibition. This success left Picking with a feeling of discontent. He felt he was on the wrong path. He produced satires of the things he had seen in London. Flat abstracts and the wavy stripes of Bridget Riley’s op paintings became a screen with a gap leading back to landscape and he began to dream again about the Mediterranean.
In 1967 gave one-man shows in Edinburgh and Manchester, participating also in group shows in other cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow. But his mind was elsewhere. He thought of returning to Spain to create something more permanent but then he thought of Italy. He began to plan a trip to last a year in which he would explore Italy from tip to toe.
7. The First Journey through Italy (1969)
In 1968 John started planning his Italian trip. He applied for grants and travelling scholarships but this time he was unlucky. He would have to find a way of surviving without help. Moving about Spain by train and renting rooms had not been the most economical or practical way. He began to think of creating a mobile home and studio.
In April 1968 he found a small second-hand furniture van going cheap in Liverpool. He bought it and set to work with some help from his father and friends to convert it into the vehicle he needed. It occupied him for the whole of the summer of that year. He had resigned from Wigan School of Art with the idea of leaving for Italy in September but the work on the van had been costly and funds were low. He found work as a builder’s labourer. With overtime the pay was almost double and by Christmas he had sufficient funds to contemplate departure.
He left England in January 1969. He drove through France very slowly. The van was heavily overloaded, the engine was too small. He had decided to start from the south and in a few days he arrived in Messina. He thought of spending a month in Sicily and then to move to Campania and later Toscana. According to his Baedekker guide book, the landscape along the north coast of Sicily was more varied because of the many small family farms similar to those he had known in Spain. Within a day he reached San Fratello and was advised to retrace his steps to visit Alcara Li Fusi in the Rosmarino Valley. On his way up the steep winding road he unexpectedly arrived at a small town not on his map. It was Militello Rosmarino. As it was growing dark, John decided to stay the night parked in the small piazza. But he had underestimated the hospitality and friendship of the inhabitants. Three young students insisted that he stayed the following day and that they should find a campsite for him.
The following morning the new friends took him to an olive orchard within easy walking distance of Militello. He set up the van and began to paint. There was a fall of snow but the sun appeared leaving only the mountain tops white. The kitchen window of the van faced a vineyard and a hillside full of spring colours. The almonds were already in blossom. John started to paint terraced landscapes, partly inspired by these colours and partly metaphysical.
He made friends with the local agricultural workers. They invited him for meals and brought him fruit and freshly baked bread. With another new friend Vincenzo Simonella he did a round trip of the island visiting all the main places of artistic and architectural interest. Now he realised just how great was the historical and cultural heritage of Sicily.
It was difficult to leave. Spring arrived, then early summer. He realised that he must continue his exploration of Italy. He left Militello in late June and drove northwards visiting archaeological sites and museums on the way.
He visited Paestum, Pompei, Naples, Rome, Assisi, Arezzo and arrived in Florence in late July. After so many museums, he searched round to find a quiet place to paint. He drove to Prato and parked near a farm on the hills near Montemurlo. The paintings were becoming more Italian with figures from Botticelli.
In September he moved to Sienna. For over a month he painted using techniques borrowed from Duccio and the Lorenzetti brothers. The abstract structures from London became geometric interiors in earth reds occupied by figures in white.
But the stay in Tuscany did not impress him as much as Sicily, and as the time arrived to return to Britain, he resolved to set up a permanent studio in Sicily when the opportunity arrived.
John left Italy and drove to Munich where he stayed with an American painter friend. It gave him an opportunity to see more paintings and confirm his resolve to return to Sicily.
8. London, Sicily and Manchester (1970-79)
On his return from Sicily in December 1969, John organised exhibitions in Manchester and Edinburgh and in January 1970 started to teach at High Wycombe School of Art, which was near enough to London to spend most of his free time in the city. One Sunday morning in May, a teaching colleague suggested they display their work along the railings of Hyde Park. All the space was occupied by the regulars, but they hung paintings around and inside the van. It attracted the attention of two Americans. One bought the largest painting produced in Sicily to take back to New York. The other American was a film producer with an apartment off Park Lane. He bought two oils and asked John to deliver them to his home when he had finished exhibiting. This was a memorable day. Barry Levison not only bought paintings but offered to sponsor John’s return to Sicily to paint full-time.
It was too late to give notice to leave his teaching post in the summer so he continued to work at High Wycombe till December. But during that summer John spent a month at Perugia University for Foreigners to study Italian and the rest of the summer at Militello.
In January 1971 he set off again with his van to drive to Sicily. This was a different situation. Now his ideas were clear. He rented a room in Militello to serve as studio but continued to live in the van. He discovered that there was the possibility of a plot of land to be purchased at a low price from the council. Accompanied by the mayor he chose an isolated spot high above the town which overlooked the sea and the Aeolian Islands and offered a breathtaking view of the Rosmarino Valley with its deep canyon and the rocky marble face of the Monte Draone. In March building work began and by the summer he had a room ready to use as base.
Many of the paintings had spaces suggesting interiors, but they contained strips of landscape and structures inspired by confessionals which contained figures and images ‘of sin’. The colours became stronger, oranges and reds contrasted with deep greens. These new paintings were exhibited at the Mercury Gallery in London in 1973. From this year onwards paintings were accepted by the Royal Academy in London for their Annual exhibition..
Returning to Britain for Christmas 1971, he was offered some part-time teaching at what had been the Painting School of Manchester College of Art and was now part of the Polytechnic. He did six weeks of part-time teaching there and began to plan his return to Sicily, but the Polytechnic offered him the post of Senior Lecturer. John felt reluctant to stay in England, but the London dealer advised him to accept. He was given a studio space within the college and developed an excellent relationship with the students. The Manchester Academy, an association of professional painters elected him as member and he began to exhibit in their annual exhibitions in the City Art Gallery. In this period he developed large canvases based on Sicilian Piazzas. One of these was exhibited in Manchester in the 1975 annual exhibition and was purchased by a Manchester Bank. While teaching he made friends with a painter and part-time teacher from London, Brendan Neiland. They developed a friendship which has lasted over the years. Brendan later became an RA and director of the Royal Academy Schools.
After two years in Manchester, John decided to leave teaching and return to paint full-time in Sicily. The studio was now complete The old van which had been his home for four years was exchanged for a Land Rover, the only vehicle capable of reaching the studio when the road became muddy in winter.
In 1974 he met the sculptor Tomaso Geraci in Cefalù who asked John to supervise a community of artists and ex-drug addicts while he spent two months in Holland. This led to a project for an International artist’s village to be created in Sicily. Geraci had the idea of meeting Willy Brandt in Bonn to ask for his sponsorship. Brandt agreed to meet them and John acted as interpreter. The meeting was very friendly, and John was very impressed by Brandt. Unfortunately permission was refused to use the statesman’s name and although promises were made to send a delegation nothing ever materialised.
In February 1975 he spent several days in the Val Bellice, the area of western Sicily devastated by the earthquake of 1967. Little had changed in abandoned towns such as Santa Ninfa and Menfi. A particularly evocative image was the church in Menfi of which only one nave remained standing. A series of arches and pillars divided a series of chapels with altars open to the sky. This image appeared and reappeared in many of Picking’s paintings.
In 1974 he met the sculptor Tomaso Geraci in Cefalù who asked John to supervise a community of artists and ex-drug addicts while he spent two months in Holland. This led to a project for an International artist’s village to be created in Sicily. Geraci had the idea of meeting Willy Brandt in Bonn to ask for his sponsorship. Brandt agreed to meet them and John acted as interpreter. The meeting was very friendly, and John was very impressed by Brandt. Unfortunately permission was refused to use the stateman’s name and although promises were made to send a delegation nothing ever materialised.
In February 1975 he spent several days in the Val Bellice, the area of western Sicily devastated by the earthquake of 1967. Little had changed in abandoned towns such as Santa Ninfa and Menfi. A particularly evocative image was the church in Menfi of which only one nave remained standing. A series of arches and pillars divided a series of chapels with altars open to the sky. This image appeared and reappeared in many of Picking’s paintings.
In the summer of the same year, on his way from Sicily to England, John stayed for a couple of days in Paris. This gave him the opportunity to see a large retrospective exhibition of the works of the surrealist Max Ernst at the Grand-Palais. Since the late fifties when John had seen one of the Ville series of paintings in the Manchester City Art Gallery, he had a particular interest in this artist’s work. He particularly liked the paintings using textural surfaces and African textile printing blocks. This led him to paint the canvas Ville Sicilienne, Homage to Max Ernst.
In 1976 he married Maria, a girl from Militello. They lived a simple life in the studio. In late 1977 they moved to England with their baby daughter Nadia. John found work teaching in a hospital for children in Manchester. The hospital school needed someone with experience in television and in fact John spent more time in a television studio than teaching on the wards. He continued to exhibit in Edinburgh, Manchester and London but by 1979 both John and Maria wanted to return to Sicily. He left the teaching job, the last full-time work in Britain.
9. Third Sicilian Period (1980-90)
John and his family returned to Militello. His work was becoming more figurative and more specific elements from village life were present. The festivals, the houses, altars, shrines, cheeses drying in the sun became frequent images. But the surreal, metaphysical structures continued to determine the composition.
In 1981, John had his first one-man exhibition in Italy at the Galleria Antares, Catania. This was the beginning of a gradual change of emphasis in location of exhibitions and sales. John was beginning the process of becoming an Anglo-Italian painter. In 1982 he gave an exhibition of watercolours in Catania and a the Roman dealer Franco Boni saw his work. John was offered a contract with La Nuova Barcaccia. Exhibitions followed in Palermo, Naples, Rome and other centres. Boni has continued to promote Picking’s work throughout Italy with great enthusiasm, writing introductions to catalogues and organising exhibitions.
In 1985, the second daughter Tamara was born. It was a fruitful period of work and happy family life. He painted many portraits for Catania collectors and made short visits to England where he continued to exhibit mainly in Manchester. He began to produce more watercolours. In Catania he did etchings and in London he printed a lithograph. But his main body of work remained paintings in oils.
From 1984 onwards Picking became more and more interested in oriental art, especially Indian art and temple architecture. Images from Sicily mix with temple structures partly Greek and partly Hindu.
In this period John started a very large work, three canvases joined together to form a painting eight metres long and two metres high which was hung in the Town Hall of Militello in 1990. It is a mixture of images from the landscapes four seasons, of the various ages of man, and the religious ceremonies which punctuate the life of the village. The writer Vincenzo Consolo presided over the opening ceremony and expressed appreciation for the English painter’s interpretation of Sicily. In John’s mind were thoughts of moving to new fields. He felt this work to be the culmination of his long stay in Sicily.
10. Corte Franca (1990-)
In August 1989, Boni was working as auctioneer at Fiuggi and exhibited Picking’s work at the La Barcaccia gallery. The same year he introduced Picking to Giorgio Corbelli of Telemarket. This led to a contract with the television company based in Brescia. For a year John travelled to Brescia to consign paintings. In September 1990 the family moved to a house at Clusane on Lake Iseo. He set up a second studio and began a series of large canvases many measuring more than 2 metres. It was a productive period. In 1992 he moved to nearby Corte Franca where he now has his house in Via Dante and his studio in Via Sant’Afra. Although Sicilian imagery continues to be present in many works from this period, Picking finds inspiration from various sources. He had a caravan overlooking lake Iseo. Early every morning he would go there to write and draw. The lake and its reflections became a new theme. He begins to write an autobiography which brings back memories of infancy. The toys he played with, especially the wooden red locomotive, the toy theatre and circus figures began to appear in the paintings. Later memories of board games, his printing machines and camping trips appeared in new contexts.
His old passion for geology was renewed and on many excursions into the mountains of Lombardy and Sicily he started to collect fossils, rocks and minerals. A friend from Monza gave him a large collection of minerals from various parts of the world. He became interested in petrology and purchased a polarising microscope. Memories of using the microscope. This led him to join the Postal Microscopic Society, an association of enthusiasts mainly British who exchanged microscopic slides and gave each other technical information and advice. John experimented with slicing rocks and various images and colours became material for paintings and drawings.
In 1997 he visited friends in Scotland who took him to see an old lead mine with a museum at Wanlockhead in Lanarkshire. The surrounding landscape was littered with interesting minerals and riverbeds suggesting further paintings.
He combined geology with childhood memories. Playing in the fields near home when he was a boy he had seen mining surveyors drilling. They placed the contents of the drilling tubes into boxes showing the various strata below the ground. On a visit to the Wigan Technical College he had seen an exhibition of models of coalmines. The various stratifications fascinated him. Now, over forty years later, these structures returned leading to many Strata of Memory. These strata were sometimes associated with the terraces of the Sicilian and Spanish landscape, sometimes with Hindu and Buddhist temples.
There are other structures derived from past memories; the staircase at the Shevington house, his father’s workbench, his grandfather’s garden with a half-moon lawn.
In 1998 he went to New York for the first time. It was an exciting experience. He spend whole days walking round museums and galleries. John was particularly impressed by the dioramas of the Natural History Museum. The ambiguity created between two and three dimensions fascinated him. He went up to the library to research into their origins. The best examples were built in the late 1920s and were the result of work by a team of painters, sculptors, naturalists, taxidermists and photographers. In this period Picking produced many painted reliefs.
In 2000 he had a further opportunity to return to New York. A dealer in Cuneo offered to sponsor a longer stay. It gave him the opportunity to set up studio in Manhattan for two months. He began to paint a series of labyrinths and towers, partly inspired by the city, partly by mythology. The towers became the Tower of Babel, symbol of the lack of communication between men, the labyrinths evoke the sad prison of the mythical Daedalus.
On his return to Italy, John has continued to divide his time between Sicily and Brescia. Ecology and the future of our planet becomes a dominant theme. The folly of man extends the global village till it covers the whole planet with walls. It falls into ruins and becomes the labyrinth of Pompei. Our cultural heritage is in danger, but there are oases in this desert. In 2002 Picking wins the first prize in an exhibition dedicated to Ecology in the province of Bergamo. The winning work is an oases containing cultural remains and green plants. It is surrounded by a desert containing broken segments of walls.
These are not pessimistic works, however. Man’s errors return to dust but Nature recovers her strength. Like the experience John had descending from the summit of Etna where he saw how the bare lava gradually became covered with vegetation, there are paintings where plants and flowers return. The nymphs of antiquity return. Caverns with springs and pools form their habitat and a new Arcady is born.
Since 1992 John lives with his family at Colombaro, a small township in the Comune of Corte Franca. He has set up a spacious studio in Via Sant’Afra. This move offered opportunities for new friendships and marks the beginning of a series of involvements with local cultural organisations.
In recent years he has diversified his activities, publishing scholastic texts, short stories and organising courses in painting and art as therapy for handicapped children and adult psychiatric patients. In 2002 he illustrated a collection of poems by the Sardinian poet Antonio Tronci entitled I Segni della Memoria. Short stories in English published by Trevisini of Milan include Globe Worlds, looking for Mandy and City Teenagers, texts prepared for use in Italian schools.
Since 2000 he has offered courses in Drawing, Painting and Artistic Expression at the studio in Via Sant’Afra with the patronage of the Comune of Corte Franca. The local council have shown appreciation for Picking’s contribution to the life of the community. Exhibitions of works by his pupils have stimulated many to try their hand at some artistic activity.
For his merit as artist and teacher he has represented the town of Corte Franca on the committee of the Arsenale Museum, Iseo since 2002.
On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his artistic activity John has donated fifteen oils and a hundred works on paper to form the nucleus of a future municipal art gallery. The town council wish to create this museum collection in which Picking would be proud to be included.