‘In the doing is the knowing’ : The Baron Gilvan, performative painter

“I don’t paint topographical landscapes. I won’t just paint Cuckmere Haven.”

Chris Gilvan-Cartwright is in his studio, showing me a sixfoot-tall abstracted-landscape diptych. The studio takes up half of a converted barn, in Firle, and the diptych takes up half the back wall.

He’s wearing a flowery shirt, a trilby, and shorts. It’s hot outside. There’s a lot of gesturing. His enthusiasm is infectious.

“It’s a painted space, which refers to a landscape. It might appear unpeopled, but there are people buried within it, And not just people.”

I’ll be with him half the afternoon: it takes a while for me to understand what his art is all about, and it’ll take some doing explaining it back to you.

Let’s start at the beginning. Gilvan-Cartwright spent the first six years of his life – from 1966 to 1972 – living in West Germany, where his (English) father was the lead tenor at the Mannheim National Theatre opera house. His home backed onto the Käfertal forest, whose wild, murky depths fired his imagination, as did the stories he was told: “German folklore is always in the shadows of my work.”

He spent a lot of time in the theatre, and got to see “how stage sets look spectacular to the audience, but when you peer behind them, you realise they are held together with gaffer tape, and nails… the curtain had been lifted on the Wizard of Oz.”

“My paintings tend to have a stage in them,” he says, gesturing to help my eye follow several colourful swishes at the foot of the diptych. “I draw a line on which the action takes place, on which my world can emerge.” Similarly, he points out, there is a horizon line, towards the top of the work, which creates the illusion of perspective. “Artists are inventors, inventing illusions,” he says. “As an artist you are simultaneously watching the performance, and dabbling behind the scenes.”

His parents split up, and he moved to England: as a full boarder at St Peter’s School, Seaford, during term-time, in Weston super-Mare for the holidays. And then on to Wycliffe College, in Gloucestershire, where he took up art, largely drawing intricate galleons, particularly sunken galleons. “I called them silver ghost galleons,” he says. “I loved their faded grandeur, their fallen-in magnificence… they are still sunk beneath the surface of my work, alongside a lot of other things.”

He got into Central Saint Martins after school, and, after graduating with a First, won a bursary to study painting in Cracow (between 1990 and 1992) under Jerzy Nowosielski, a celebrated painter/philosopher influenced by Russian iconography. There was a wildness about post-Wall-fall Poland; he went off the rails (“too many parties; too much vodka”) and suffered a breakdown. This was “a grounding experience”: “I fell, and I fell apart, and I put myself back together again. That’s why the theme of ‘The Fall’ is so prevalent in my work.”

He moved to London, where, after a period of recuperation, he took up stage performing, in tandem with his art: as the lead singer in a band; as an actor; as a clown. And he assumed a stage name. In real life, and as a painter, he was Chris Gilvan-Cartwright; as a live performer he became ‘The Baron Gilvan’. It was, he says, “a mask to hide behind… The Baron persona had floated to Blighty, clinging to the wreckage.”

A work by artist The Baron Gilvan.
Passage to Golgotha, 2019, Oil on board, 25.5×30.5cm

Clowns have become central to his work. He points out a crooked line running diagonally down one of the two canvases, which I have taken for an abstracted representation of a chalk path, leading the eye down a Down. “On the one hand, it is a path,” he explains. “On another level, it is the leg and foot of a clown, taking a fall.” He describes this motif as “a buffoonish memento mori”. “Just when you think things are OK,” he says, “the carpet goes from under your feet.”

Gilvan-Cartwright has created a troupe of “bouffant clowns” to metaphorically tread the boards of his theatrical landscapes. He also paints much smaller, highly colourful, expressionist-style portraits of these characters, who include Cristina the Astonishing, the patron saint of mental illness and homelessness; a character called ‘the Golden Gardener’; another called ‘the Cricketer’, and ‘the Bevin Boys’, based on the young men conscripted to work down the mines during WW2 (I bought a couple of these mischievous young fellows a couple of years ago, and they hang on my living room wall, grinning at me all day). This gang of characters do not physically appear in the larger landscape works, “but they are all there, submerged within the paintings. The Bevin Boys are always toiling away, subversively, under the ground.”

In the mid-nineties Gilvan-Cartwright met the performance artist Isobel Smith, who he married, and with whom he moved to Brighton in 1997, and has had two kids. He had some early success as an artist, designing the logo for the BBC Proms (his work was “all over Royal Festival Hall for a couple of years”) and winning a travel bursary to India and

Nepal, on the back of which he enjoyed a string of solo shows in London, particularly at the East West Gallery, then in Notting Hill. He also did a Fine Art MA at Brighton University, between 2000 and 2002, before moving to Glynde, a couple of miles from his studio, “in either 2007 or 2009, I can’t remember which”. “What happened to 2008?”, I ask. “No, the last number definitely had a head, and a tail.”

He feels his career was “freshened up” by undertaking the studio arts programme at Turps Art School between 2017 and 2019, and it certainly appears that his star is in the ascendency. In 2018 he was presented the Wytham Hall Painting Prize by Brian Eno. He became Glyndebourne’s firstever Artist in Residence in 2019, and in 2020 was selected for the Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the South London Gallery. In a bold move, he has recently adopted his stage name, as his artist’s name. “Some time ago, I started thinking ‘what sort of paintings would the Baron make?’ I invited him into the studio, as a facet of myself. It helped to bring together the performance and the painting, under one umbrella. It made sense to adopt his name.”

The Baron Gilvan shows me round the studio, to help describe the various stages he goes through before completing a landscape. “I call them ‘tiers’”, he says, “and there are four tiers to my work. The first is research, the second is experimentation, the third is editing and analysis, and the fourth… the fourth is making the work.” It is important, he tells me, that each ‘tier’ is given an equal share of his time. Twentyfive percent, no more, no less. He needs to be disciplined to keep the balance right, to get everything done properly.

He pulls out a sheet from a neat pile of paint-splattered collages, to help explain the second, experimental ‘tier’ of his work. “I stick together images of figures from earlyRenaissance Flemish paintings, by Joachim Patinar, or Bosch, or Breughel,” he says. “They might be hermits, like St Jerome, or Christ at the Lamentation. And then I paint over them, and around them, to see which shapes, and motifs emerge.” He paints adaptations of these motifs onto 10×10-inch wooden boards, which he then joins together, in groups of four, to work out the best combinations of the “forms and levels” that have emerged, to pull out and use in his larger works.

There’s an interesting tension here: the inspiration for his subject matter may be drawn from the work of 16th-century Flanders, but he has adopted a style which is much more modern. “I was drawn to the luminosity and romanticism in the Flemish painters’ work,” he says; “but that visceral quality connects right through to other big influences, such as the expressionists, and post-expressionists – groups like Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke – and more recent artists such as the Neue Wilde neo-expressionists. The American painter Philip Guston has been a big influence. And, when it comes to landscapes, Gillian Ayres, and Jonathan Meese.”

A work by artist The Baron Gilvan.
Chalk Path Allegory no.20, 2022, oil on board, 12x24cm

Inspiration also comes from a less tangible source. “There’s a divine quality to it. I’m not a churchgoer, but I have an unshakable faith in a power that shines the light and darkness through my work. The miracle of ideas and feelings and moods being transferred, via paint, onto another surface. There’s a lot more to it, than just replicating motifs. I’m not satisfied with a painting until it glows.”

This spiritual inspiration blends with something much more corporeal. “Painting is a visceral act, as well,” he says. “There’s enormous physicality required to put the paint onto the canvas. I often use my hands instead of a brush, smearing on the pigments with gestural strokes. There’s a lot of movement. This is the most autobiographical element to the process. It’s the act of making the work that enables you to understand it. In the doing is the knowing.”

“In fact…” he says, just before I return to the real world, away from the saintly hermits, and the clowns, and the smell of oil paint, and the double-sized brushes, and the piles of sixfoot canvases so neatly stacked around the studio, and the Bevin Boys, digging tunnels under my feet. “In fact, I see my painting as a performative art. Sometimes I don’t think of it as painting at all, I think of it as visual opera.”

Words by Alex Leith