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Into the light: Rupert Alexander on his portrait of Rob Fahey

Into the light: Rupert Alexander on his portrait of Rob Fahey

Rather than paint the head and shoulders of Rob Fahey you produced a full-length portrait. Its setting on the real tennis court at Lord 's makes your piece particularly significant, as it is the only oil work in the MCC Collections that shows the court in its current location.

When I walked on court at Lord's, I immediately knew it was the most fabulous space to set the portrait because it has this cathedral-like atmosphere even in terms of the acoustics, the space is so sonorous, especially when the ball is being struck around or when players are talking. Then there is this wonderful vaulted ceiling and skylight. The whole place is dramatic and lends itself beautifully to painting.

I started researching real tennis and visiting various courts up and down the country, but none of them lent themselves to being painted as well as the Lord's court. Although some are very antiquated with arabesque ceiling and arches, Lord's has this wonderful mix of the old and new. The court has a marble finish, but the white beams across the ceiling give a touch of the warehouse about it- so you've got this very old worldly grey court and then this very contemporary looking structure. If I had found a court that worked better for the painting I would have been tempted to go there, but as it happened the court at Lord's turned out to be the most suitable.

Prior to painting Rob Fahey, you drew head-and-shoulder portraits of John Woodcock, Roger Knight and Keith Bradshaw. How do the ideas you explore in drawing translate into paint?

These drawings are built up from layers of dense charcoal. They are very heavy chiaroscuro drawings with ominous backgrounds. In both painting and drawing I work by a method known as sight-size, which means that a subject is painted on the canvas at exactly the same scale as they appear to the artist. If they sit closer to the artist they appear bigger and further away from the artist smaller.

You have spoken before about the numerous head studies you produce on a daily basis and it seems to me you are more interested in structure rather than personality. Did you attempt to convey any element of Rob Fahey's personality in his portrait?

The main thing I wanted to capture was the sense of his dominance in the sport. He said that in the nineteenth century there was another player who did "rather well", but I have a feeling that he was just being modest. He has dominated real tennis for the past twenty years in a way that no other sportsman has dominated their particular sport. I wanted to give a sense of the court being his arena, his theatre if you like. He completely owns that space: that is why I brought him into the immediate foreground and gave him this steep upward perspective. This position  allowed him to be backlit by the skylight.

I went to see him play at the British Open, which of course he won- he wins absolutely everything. What impressed me was the way he strode around the court, not with any arrogance, but with a complete sense of belonging as though his opponent was there as a guest in his house. Capturing his champion status was probably more of a goal for me than revealing a more intimate side of his character. The portrait is as much about my personality as it is about Rob Fahey. My relationship is with the paint and Rob's is with the setting.

The light in the picture seems to bounce around the marble court, creating a sense of drama and movement. It reminds me of works by Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio, who used shafts of natural light to divinise everyday people. Were you inspired by the Old Masters?

Absolutely. I first wanted to become an artist when I was taken to Venice as a child and saw Titian's Assumption of the Virgin [1516-18] . I could not believe that the hand of man had created this thing - obviously I was too young to appreciate it from an aesthetic point of view, but it was like seeing Star Wars and being blown away by it. I was always taken aback by theatrical lighting as employed by artists such as Caravaggio. His structuring of painting around light and dark instead of around line - as previously seen in Renaissance art - fascinated me and has been hugely influential on my practice.

With light there are two main things: source and tonal structure. I got very lucky with the court at Lord's because it has a skylight similar to the one I have in my studio. I only paint under natural light so it was brilliant to be able to combine the light on court with the light in my studio.

The shiny surface on court reflects the light, as do Rob's whites. This was one of the difficulties of the painting. The whole painting is fairly monochrome - that is to say, it is based around tone rather than colour. The only chromatic elements are the face and legs. I had to harmonise the skin tone with the greens, blues and offwhites of the court, which was quite a challenge I can tell you! The whole painting has a green harmony, so if you isolated the skin in would actually look quite green. It was necessary to do this to avoid him looking like a light bulb!

This article originally appeared in the MCC Magazine.

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