Richard Nott paintings join St Michael's Church for Artists' Open Houses in Brighton

By Ben Miller | 07 May 2013

Exhibition preview: Richard Nott, St Michael's Church, Brighton, May 4-26 2013

Photo of a multicoloured dress
Richard Nott, Hour Glass Dress© Richard Nott
On his first visit to St Michael’s, the Victorian church towering amid a slope of houses above central Brighton, artist Michael Nott was propositioned with a surprising set of sartorial catalysts.

“When I came in, they said, ‘would you like to have a look at all these 150-year-old vestments we’ve got?’”, recalls the fashion designer turned dress painter.

“They were amazing. It was like a giant chest – you just pulled the drawer out and there they were.

“They weren’t much use to me flat, so I photographed them all.”

His take on a holy robe is one of the highlights of a flank of extraordinary paintings which will line one side of the church's magnificent interior for the next month.

Nott portrays 1940s dresses, then underpins them with kimono patterns and magnolia flowers.

A 1960s lace work by Christian Dior floats over a 20th century Japanese screen. And a 1950s Balenciaga number, shaped in an extreme hourglass which Nott admits to exaggerating “a bit”, is shadowed by another kimono.

“Normally they’d be on plain backgrounds so you’d see a sculptural kind of image,” he explains.

“But I’ve been putting them onto these patterns of other garments. I wanted to make them without figures in them so that there’s no hint of celebrity or anything like that – there’s just the garment, the shape and the presence that it gives to me.

“I’m not so interested in still lifes or portraits. It’s more about the atmosphere of the garment.”

This is the first time St Michael’s – regarded as one of Britain’s finest 19th century churches, full of William Morris designs and stained glass windows through which sunlight illuminates the pews – has taken part in Artists’ Open Houses, the festival in which artists display their work in their homes and other venues each weekend throughout May.

“The only problem with painting garments – especially historic ones – is that you can’t go near them with any painting or drawing materials,” he says.

“They just won’t allow you. So I have to work a lot with photos.

“But I do take lots of photos all the way around the garments, so I’m not just copying a picture.”

Nott originally worked in Rome’s revered Valentino fashion house before directing the fashion label, Workers for Freedom, during the 1980s and 1990s.

He wanted to pursue painting after selling the company in 2000, and says a teacher “eased me into doing it full-time”.

“I started painting clothing, which no-one else seems to do. I have a big knowledge of clothes because I’ve looked at them all my life.”

Some of the exhibits here are a result of him meeting Linda Parry, the former textiles curator at the V&A who, in an agreement to make any fashion fan green with envy, "let me rifle through all their wardrobes and cellars, which was really good."

Other inspirations come from the Metropolitan Museum in New York and, in a spectacular display of kaftans worn by 16th century Sultans, Turkey.

“They were all taken off, wrapped up and looked after. They’re in perfect nick.

“When you imagine the full court scene with all of them together in these amazing patterns and colours, it must have been incredible.”

Style watchers will note a 1920s dress (“they lost the bust – it looks like armour or a vase”), an African kuba cloth from the Congo and another Balenciaga design made from “really bizarre” ostrich feathers.

“Imagine when somebody walked into the room with that wobbling around,” says Nott.

“I love the dresses. I love working with them. And what’s nice is that there are always more.”

More pictures:

A photo of a man creating a painting of a brown and white dress
The artist's studio base is near the church© Richard Nott
A photo of a billowing olive green dress with white circles on it
Kaftan with Spots. Oil on unstretched canvas with metal bars. Inspired by a 16th century Turkish kaftan© Richard Nott
A photo of a painting of a black and white flowery dress
Dress with Black Flowers© Richard Nott
A photo of an ancient holy garment in green, blue, black and white
Green Vestment. Oil on canvas. Inspired by a vestment in the collection at St Michael's Brighton© Richard Nott
A photo of a multicoloured dress
Dress with Mirrors© Richard Nott
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