Michael James Fennell

Elected to the Society 1993

Michael Fennell has a special interest in what might be called ‘the human condition’ through portraiture and figurative painting. And whilst the portrait artist is not always thought of as the most avant-garde through constraints of likeness, he still finds the necessary disciplines bound by portraiture engagingly challenging.

Through experimentation over 20 years, he has developed a pioneering smoke ‘painting’ technique for a lot of his portraits and figurative pieces; the resulting image could genuinely be referred to as a sfumati or fumage.  The unique smoke medium,  basically using only smoke from candles can create the most beautiful blacks, that are ‘luminous’ and have a depth to the extent that more common media like charcoal, looks flat and pale next to it. And it can also create a great range of subtle tones that can rival those of photography.

His unique work has led to commissioned portraits of the author William Boyd, the conductor Sir Roger Norrington, London Society jeweller Theo Fennell and General Keith Skempton of the British Army. Many of the above smoke paintings having been exhibited at The Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibitions and Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions.

Michael was commissioned by Theo Fennell to do four large portrait pieces for his 2007 ‘Show off’ Exhibition at the Royal Academy and subsequently has done much of the advertising work for the jewellery company. Many of the finished artworks being published in Vogue, Tatler, Vanity Fair and Harpers Bazaar and gracing all of the Jeweller’s outlets including Harrods and Selfridges and foreign locations in Dubai and Moscow.

He states:

‘I am still moving the process further in that I am working on some life sized nude studies.  I have also started to introduce an element of colour with the introduction of gold pigment which is floated onto the surface, this introduces a shimmering effect to add a further optical element. I have also been experimenting with a blow torch as part of the mark making process. I am also contemplating experimenting with metal pigments sprinkled onto the smoked surface that will change colour under heat to produce an iridescence known as ‘ thermochromism’, though I confess this is still germinal’.

In his oil paintings of the nude, he believes the naked figure becomes a vehicle for considering ideas of real versus ideal form, and physical versus pure love. These paintings look to evoke a broad range of emotional expression, for example, the beauty of the human form and natural fecundity, lustful physical sensuality, and delicate spiritual lyricism. These themes can deliberately hark back in an ironic way to classical nudes such as Botticelli’s, with their elevated attributes and meanings.

In Michael’s other paintings and works, the narrative may be less straightforward. The characters and associations depicted will evoke differing interpretations from viewer to viewer.  If the subject is a real person, it is important to the artist that they become to some extent a myth, a character in a fiction..  The figures are often in confined spaces of calm; they rest within, stilled in meditation.  These paintings aim for the concentration of poetry, of elegance and quiet tone.