​​​Duncan Barker


So I began my "mosaics" in Sussex and painted the last of them – Bacchus – in my new studio north of Uzès in the Gard. We’d decided it was time for a change, and moved here partly because of its classical heritage – the Roman Pont du Gard is just over half an hour away, and the remains (mosaics included) of Nîmes, Orange and Arles are within easy reach. We were lucky to join the long queue of locals visiting a newly-discovered Roman mosaic in Uzès itself earlier this year.

 But when I painted this canvas, it was the time of the grape harvest, and we’d just bought a stone mask of a laughing Bacchus from a local flea-market, and hung the god of wine on the stone wall underneath our own overhanging vine. We’re on the edge of the Côtes-du-Rhône region here – there are vines and vineyards everywhere, and the local wine is very good.

 I had the god in the painting as a mask hanging from a vine which springs out of a silver bowl. The bowl – which is based on one we brought with us to France – is decorated with vine-patterns which, in the picture, I’ve made gold leaf on a silver background. This pattern is reflected again in the silvery-blue sky (?)  and the vine-leaves yellowing at harvest-time.

 It was a characteristic of the cult of Bacchus that the god of theatre was worshipped in the form of a theatrical mask. The mythology of the god is full of vines springing up miraculously in unlikely places – often, in art, from a brimming wine-cup.

 As I went on, I found the painting creating multiple levels of illusion – is the face in the centre a god, or a mask, or a representation of a god or a mask? Or is it a representation (in paint) of a representation (in mosaic) of a further representation (in the form of a mask) of a god who himself represents the vine represented by the representation (in paint) of a representation (in mosaic) of a vine springing from the representation (in paint) of a representation (in mosaic) of a vessel decorated with the representation of a vine? All of which is in no way inappropriate since Bacchus is the god of illusion – alongside ecstasy, drunkenness and, of course, madness! So the unexpected complexity of the painting perhaps counts as yet another manifestation of the god.

Duncan Barker, Bacchus (2015)


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In practice, I started usually with the eyes, or sometimes with a curve, building the picture out from there in lines of dots. In this way I produced paintings of human and divine figures and of animals, always letting one line suggest another until the picture was finished. So I learned a great deal about the dynamics of lines and to feel relaxed about composing as I went along. I also learned a lot about colour combination from this process – a sort of pointillism or pixilation, with sharply differentiated points of colour arranged on a grey background.


Duncan Barker, Bacchus (2015)
Duncan Barker, Bacchus (2015)

December, 2017: Bacchus (2015), acrylic on canvas, 50x100cm.

I painted Bacchus towards the end of 2015 – a couple of years after Annie and I arrived in the South of France from the South of England. In many ways it’s a link between the life we lived before and the life we live now.

Duncan Barker, Bacchus (2015)

As a student at school, I had always been the one who had to be encouraged to paint not more freely, like the rest of the class, but more tightly. My father had trained me in what is called a “painterly” style, but as my art increasingly took second place to my teaching, it had became more and more stiff and lifeless. There was never enough time to get into anything like a “flow”, and what time I did have, I spent overworking my paintings into oblivion.

 But with this mosaic technique, I found you couldn’t make corrections or that, at least, once the “tesserae” were marked in, they couldn’t be moved. You can’t scrape down an acrylic canvas as you can an oil, and the dots of paint left telltale bumps where they were painted out. All you could do was to change the colour by painting over the dots individually. I also intuited that fitting the dots into an existing drawing would be an awkward and constricting process, and that it was better to let the dots establish the picture on the canvas as it went along. This was in contrast to the method used in the ancient world, but I wasn’t out to reproduce Greek or Roman works, and felt this would be truer to the medium.

I’m pleased by the hypnotic effect on the viewer (or on me, at least) of looking closely at this painting. The face of Bacchus seems to break through the canvas and to set the vine and its grapes moving in turn. The mosaic form plays its part in this, but it’s an effect which I’ve also tried to reproduce in subsequent, non-mosaic paintings. There are techniques of optical illusion which aid in the process of animating a canvas and playing tricks with the picture-plain. I don’t pursue these techniques in a systematic way, but when they suggest themselves in a picture, I like to allow them to take their course. I like a painting to have a visual twist of some sort that lifts it from its flatness.

I painted Bacchus as I was beginning to produce some more traditional street-scenes of Uzes and of villages in Provence. If you look at this next stage of my work, you’ll see familiar colour-combinations in variations of primary reds, blues and yellows as well, I hope, as some of the dynamics of composition and illusion I learned painting this and similar canvases. The Uzès scenes have proved much more popular than the mosaics, but they’re not as different as they seem. I compose them as I go, starting with a mark and balancing the rest around it, constantly adjusting until the balance is right. The mosaic style freed me to think about colour and composition without having to worry too much about technique. With my recent work, I again allow the colour and composition to take the front seat, letting style and technique emerge as they will.

Classical art has remained a big influence on later painters, including Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse. The aim for balance and harmony in a painting is a very classical idea. In my case, it was creating in a classical technique which provided the final lessons in how to paint in a modern way – which brought my art, if you like, into the Twentieth Century. I’m not sure that painting, as an art-form – or representational painting, at least – has itself really got any further than that. As David Hockney has written, we still haven’t really come to terms with Picasso – and Picasso, the ecstatic creator, was the most Bacchic, perhaps, of all modern painters.

I studied Classics for many years and taught it for many more. But I was always a painter too, and as time went on it was more and more the art of the ancient world that drove my teaching – both for itself and as an introduction to the basics of art appreciation for pupils who began often with only a very little knowledge. At the same time, I was reading up on Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, and readjusting my mind from a classical to a modernist way of thinking. I was painting seriously by this time too, though I was struggling to find a convincing way to express myself visually.

An experiment with fausse-mosaïque in acrylic on canvas – a simple classical head – was successful (or unsuccessful) enough to warrant repetition, and there followed a series of experiments using the same technique. It proved an absorbing, if not addictive, escape from the stresses of full-time teaching, but also, for me, a serious re-education in the basics of colour and composition, increasingly influenced by the modernist painting I was studying. In addition – and perhaps surprisingly, since viewers tend to imagine this as a close and pernickety technique – it actually provided a route into freeing up my own painting style.

Painting of the Month

My pre-New-Year resolution for 2017/18 is to write more about my art. From now on I'll be posting a painting on this page at the beginning of each month - a painting which is important to me and which has played a part in my development as a painter - and I'll be writing a short piece to explain how it came to be, and some of what was going on in my head when I made it.