Artist James Mayhew joins LMP at Fairfield Halls to ‘paint by bar numbers’!

Artist James Mayhew on painting to music…

I have always loved the narrative potential of music, its ability to draw the listener in, and whisper in our ears… Once Upon a time. ‘Programmatic’ music, tone poems, musical pictures – these are all different ways of telling a story in sound. As a child, my parents had just a few old records, and it was often the illustrated sleeves that attracted me first; I knew nothing about classical music. But I soon discovered a world of imagination and story. Through music like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, or Rossini’s William Tell overture, I was swept away to faraway places, and mythical realms.

I never imagined painting to music would become such an important part of my job. Mostly, I am illustrating and writing books for children, a solitary task that has served me well for over 30 years. But through music, I have discovered the joys of collaboration, of sharing the stage with brilliant musicians, and experiencing the excitement of interacting with an audience.

It all began when I published a collection of Russian stories, Koshka’s Tales loosely inspired by the music of Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov etc Baba Yaga was in the book, so Mussorgsky’s Pictures were an influence too. I was invited by an orchestra to paint live to performances of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Stravinsky’s Firebird. I had to develop a whole new way of painting for the theatre: bolder, faster, and as silent as possible. By using gouache and inks, I created compositions quite unlike anything I’d ever done before, all projected onto a big screen. Since then I’ve collaborated with many other orchestras, ensembles, and even soloists. I’m constantly rethinking what I paint – however rehearsed I am, it always feels different on the day, with a different conductor or orchestra, a different venue. I am always hearing new things – nothing beats hearing this music live.

Through these concerts I have discovered all sorts of fascinating folk lore and myth, I’ve enjoyed music I’d never listened to before, and fallen in love with composers I’d thought I didn’t enjoy. But one work has remained central throughout: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that Mussorgsky’s mighty masterpiece would be the perfect match for what I do. I had always wanted to be an artist, so it’s always a joy to reinterpret, as art, this extraordinary composition, which so brilliantly celebrates art through music. Although I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve painted along to this score, I never tire of it. From the piano original, to the many different orchestrations, with Ravel’s great interpretation at the summit, this 30 minutes in a musical art gallery is always a wonderful escape. It is a challenge – oh, how I wish for a few more bars of The Market Place in Limogue – but this is dazzling, colourful music, and by the time we reach The Great Gate at Kiev, it just carries me, and my paintbrush, to the end.

Join James and the LMP at Fairfield Halls on Sunday February 13th when he’ll be painting along to LMP’s performance of Pictures at an Exhibition.