I suppose every painter has had a brush (sic) with history: sailing ships, charming cottages, the hunt, old biplanes, steam engines - stuff like that. History ties us firmly to the present, marks our progress, sustains our confidence in being alive.
OK, but has anyone ever considered the history of the British chimney? Some of them from the Saxon and Norman times are still standing; boys used to be sent up chimneys to clean them, birds used to fall down them, and sometimes the soot would catch fire with a terrible roar. Even so, the sturdy British chimney is a thing of beauty, standing high above the roofline, commanding respect. It represents a cosy entail of crackling open fires, black-leaded grates, fireguards - and chimney sweeps, those noble dark-visaged men with brilliant smiles who left sooty finger marks on tea cups. The working chimney also meant proper celery from the back garden, heaped with soot and bleached creamy white. It was also a thing of comfort; a house with a smoking chimney was a welcoming place on a bleak winter's day.
So let us observe them carefully: from the slender stack carrying a single sentinel pot, to the cliff-like face of the big stack carrying a parade of pots. Note the cleverly corbelled brickwork in English or Flemish bond, the string course in blue brick, the concrete apron anchoring the pots firmly in place then pargeting neatly in a tight downward curve to the edge of the brickwork. Now look again: for chimneys are disappearing fast, to be replaced by wall-mounted balanced flues and rinky dinky plastic roof vents. Eventually and finally extinct like the Great Auk their absence will be realised with shock and horror. Too late the cry, "Where have all the chimneys gone?"
Gardeners will have swiped all the tastefully moulded clay pots for their trailing plants; more enterprising buyers will have cornered entire chimney stacks and sold them on as barbeque features; the occasional listed chimney will have a preservation order slapped on it. Gone will be the days when chimneys stood free.
I was reflecting on this dread eventuality when an ancient chimney hove into view. It had an odd skeletal look where pigeons had taken out the mortar between the bricks searching for fungi; the soot-blackened pot had stood empty of smoke for absolute yonks and remained adorned with lank chickweed and pigeon droppings. It told a story, this chimney: near Liverpool Street on a Chingford sideline, the derelict hovel beneath it was probably an engineers' shed time back. The door had long since vanished and there was no glass in the window frame. I pictured the maintenance gang in roaring winter sitting round their pipe stove fired with slack coal and and old sleepers sawn into firewood, anticipating a shovelful of best steam coal tossed from the footplate of the next local freight train. I pictured their chimney hot with smoke and sparks.
So I decided to paint it before it disappeared for ever. And why not, for Pete's sake! Brickwork renders well in watercolour, and pigeon droppings should be fun with the merest hint of Chinese White in the weedy greens. Lovely! A chimney contravenes no artistic rule. If an unmade bed with attendant accessories and its own chequered history can find a place in modern art, why not a sooty old chimney?