How We Met: Matthew Radford & Peter Ackroyd

'We share many obsessions: London, the river, the tide of humankind'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Matthew Radford, 58

A visual artist who graduated from Camberwell School of Art in 1970, Radford (left) has shown at galleries worldwide, including the Hayward and Tate St Ives in the UK, the Drawing Center in New York and the Cat Street Gallery in Hong Kong. He lives in Blackheath, south London, with his partner

I first met Peter about 12 years ago at the London Art Fair in Islington. I had just done a series of paintings of crowds of people crossing back and forth over London Bridge and he stopped to look. He is very sharp-eyed and immediately noticed that the bridge in the picture was the older version of London Bridge rather than the existing one.

Meeting Peter was like meeting someone I already knew. I am a big fan of his and have read virtually everything he's ever written. In fact, I was reading his book Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem the day we met. We talked about it; it was slightly intimidating because he is very bright and you feel as though you are having a conversation he has been through quite a lot of times.

He ended up buying one of my paintings and not long after, invited me to his house to view it hanging in his sitting-room. We had tea together in the studio in the back of his garden where he does his writing and we just talked and talked.

He is very quiet and observant in his enthusiasms and incredibly modest, which makes him very charming as well.

We share many obsessions: London, the river, the tide of humankind. A lot of the themes he used in London: the Biography were themes I was using in my paintings. He has an almost non-linear view of the city – he can write about it 2,000 years ago and he can write about it in the present day. He is also obsessed with the way things grow up, fall down and get transformed by events, and my work is all about change and shifting tides too.

He came to see me recently at my studio in Deptford. He comprehends the meaning behind my paintings and is able to sum up what I am doing very quickly. My work has changed a lot – the themes are the same but the way I paint is totally different – and he totally understands the mechanics and meaning of that too.

He's written a piece about my work for my new show that sums up exactly what it is about. I think he understands what I'm trying to do almost better than I do.

Peter Ackroyd, 61

A biographer, novelist and critic, Ackroyd is renowned for writing about the history and culture of London. His works include 'London: the Biography', 'Hawskmoor', which won a Whitbread award, and a biography of Charles Dickens. He lives in central London

We first met in the 1990s at an art fair; I bought one of his pictures of London Bridge. I've always liked his work; when you enter a painting by Matthew, you are introduced to a world of arrested movement, stillness, silence and slow time. Yet this is an illusion; the more you observe the canvas, the more you understand the play of light and shadow underlying the ceaseless flux of the city.

Matthew has an authentic London sensibility and a sort of visionary London sense. He is pre-eminently an urban artist entranced by the life of the city all around him. He understands the variety of the city and he also comprehends its darkness. His work is concerned with the movement of crowds and with the great general drama of the human spirit. He has a sense of energy and splendour, of ritual and display, and he shares the sublime indifference of the city itself.

When you come up close to his canvases the brush strokes seem almost abstract, and it's only when you step backwards that the world becomes recognisable again. It gives a sense of strangeness and familiarity and of unsettling proximity. It resembles the effect of certain children's books where water smeared across the page elicits an image rising miraculously to the surface.

I was at his studio the other week, looking at his paintings. He is a very nice, quiet, unassuming person. He paints in white upon a primed canvas, which he places flat on the ground, then waits until the paint is almost dry before pouring pools of colour upon them. Then he scrapes the colour from the surface and as he does so, faces and figures come forward or disappear just as they do in any crowd. His is the painterly equivalent of the urban process. These are images of people coming in and out of focus without any fixed purpose or determined identity. In these images without a story, you cannot tell what will happen next.

His is a completely different form to mine, so it's impossible to compare. The unacknowledged presence is indeed that of London. The city is, as it were, the frame of the paintings. No other contemporary English painter has so well expressed the haunted quality of the streets and their people, at once desolate and enchanted.

Matthew Radford's new exhibition, Pressure Drop '11, is at Agnew's Gallery, London W1 (, from 8 to 29 June