When Ali Cockrean was commissioned to paint the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant live on TV, nothing could have prepared her for the result – her precious work washed away by rain. Here she tells us about the toughest and most rewarding challenge of her career.
As one of 20 artists selected by the BBC to paint the Thames Diamond Jubilee River Pageant live as it happened on Sunday, June 3, I was absolutely thrilled to be given the opportunity to record, in such a personal way, this unique and historic event.
We were given an exclusive vantage point from one of London’s most iconic bridges – the Millennium Bridge by St Paul’s Cathedral – which was closed to the public. It was probably one of the best seats in the house. From there we were charged with the task of capturing the pageant as part of BBC1’s live coverage of the event and TV presenter Anneka Rice was there to chart our progress.
My aim was to capture the sky, river, hard landscape and the crowds before the flotilla – made up of more than 1,000 boats – arrived. There was a lot going on around the artists taking part. Cameras, crew, security and a steady stream of appreciative people were watching us work and asking questions.
Anneka Rice had really done her homework. She had studied the work of all the artists present before the event. She was supportive, friendly and clearly passionate about painting, taking far more than just a passing interest in what we were doing. Despite the light drizzle falling continuously in the late morning and early afternoon the painting progressed well over the first three hours.
We all got used to the producer shouting ‘going live in two minutes.’ Sometimes it happened, sometimes it didn’t. That’s just the way it goes with live broadcasting. Things can change and adjustments are made with seconds to spare.
I succeeded in preparing my painting for the arrival of the boats, despite the light rain keeping the paint wet longer than I wanted. I simply adapted my technique with the palette knife to ensure I didn’t over blend the colours. I worked with a subtle palette to reflect the soft greys and pinks in the sky, the lightest greens and browns in the water. All was progressing well, I was happy with the direction the painting was going and the mood and atmosphere the piece was taking on.
Then the boats came into view. What an amazing, breath-taking sight. We all stopped work, spellbound, as more and more small boats appeared on the horizon. Colourful boats of every conceivable shape, flying flags, oars keeping time impeccably, stamina, human muscle and power, keeping the flotilla moving ahead in perfect formation.
This was the only point in the day when I felt any sense of rising panic. How was I possibly going to capture the enormity of all this? I don’t think I was alone in that thought. I started to paint in boats that captured my attention, working quickly to keep up with the ever growing number that now filled the expanse of river in front of us.
Then the royal barge came into view. The bells of St Paul’s began to chime and I laid down my paint brush. Suddenly the day wasn’t just about capturing an image or being on TV. It was about savouring a truly unique and historically significant moment in time. It was about simply being there. Like millions of people around the banks of the Thames I waved and cheered to demonstrate my appreciation and respect for the Queen. For her dedication to duty and the dignified way she has conducted herself through the highs and lows of life, with 60 years of unstinting service.
I hadn’t noticed how heavy the rain was now falling until I returned to my easel. There were rivulets of water creating their own tiny but destructive course through the paint. I saw the images blur and simply wash away. In an attempt to save what remained, I covered the work with plastic, but this merely made things worse.
But it wasn’t just my work that had lost its battle against the weather. Other artists – many of whom, like me, were desperately working to protect their canvasses too.
Amazingly, it didn’t dampen my spirits. I’m an experienced enough painter to know that I could recover my work in the warmth of my studio. As an expressionist artist, I prefer to work from memories, so I only paint the really important stuff. The rain couldn’t wash away the images now in my head.
‘Live in two minutes’ came the shout. I knew that with nothing much left to show, Anneka would be talking to the artist next to me who had cleverly clipped an umbrella to the side of her easel ahead of the downpour. As the interview concluded, I suddenly became aware of Anneka at my side. “So what’s happened here?” she said.
Live on BBC1, in front of 11.98 million viewers across the world, I revealed my ‘lost work’. Was I worried? No. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, every single wet and windy second of it. Was it a disaster? No. Not in the slightest. I have my memories and that’s all I need when I put paint to canvas to recreate my view of the Thames Diamond Jubilee River Pageant.
Even as I squelched my way home, soaked to the skin and clutching a bag carrying a painting that had held so much promise until the rain all but washed it away, I felt great and honoured to have been part of such a unique occasion.
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL…
Back in the warmth of my studio I recreated the painting over the following week, using the only photograph I had taken of the work before it was lost. I then went on to complete it by painting in the Royal Barge.
Much to my surprise, a growing number of people started to ask what had happened to the “lost painting”. Reference were made to it in The Times and on Radio 2’s breakfast programme and journalists rang for updates on my progress at restoring it. Less than a week after my appearance on the bridge, the BBC were back to film the finished work in my studio.
Over the three weeks of Bucks Open Studios, people came from near and far to see the painting “in the flesh”, many buying prints as a memento. It was lovely to see the obvious delight and genuine excitement when visitors caught sight of it across the room. Reminding me, if a reminder were necessary, how a work of art can captivate people. All of which leaves me feeling incredibly privileged to have been a part of the event and also to have been able to contribute, in some small way, to such a remarkable piece of history.
The painting is now available as a signed print –
A3 print framed £160 (£170 with diffused glass)
A4 print framed £120 (£130 with diffused glass)
All frames hand painted blue/grey to complement the print.
For more information please go to Alison’s website