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Mark's marvels in miniature
ARTIST Mark Morris is working on a painting of a sultry woman provocatively perched on a stool in a dimly-lit bar, wearing a slinky, low-cut black dress while coquettishly smoking a cigarette.
“You have to be careful not to strain your eyes,” he says, with some understatement, before adding “Sometimes I have to use a magnifying glass.”
He is not referring to the vampish object of this exquisite work but to the fact that he is painting in miniature.
Or, to be more precise, on the lid of an enamel box measuring 80mm by 60mm – approximately three inches by two-and-a-third.
Mark, 38, of West Swindon is an artist enameller whose finely detailed work has been owned and admired by the likes of Princess Diana and Sir Elton John.
Now he is striking out as a freelance craftsman whose work remains true to the time-honoured Georgian art of enamelling on to copper.
Each of his finely wrought boxes is crafted from basic materials: Copper, brass, enamel and metal oxide paints to create a unique piece of artwork.
Several have for the past few weeks been on display at a prestigious London exhibition staged by the Royal Society Of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Engravers.
The society – whose patron is the Prince of Wales and which exclusively represents artists who work in miniature – invited craftsmen to submit a maximum of five works.
All of Mark’s were accepted.
He is hoping the accolade will kick-start his bid to make it in the competitive world of miniature art following a dramatic career change.
Previously, he worked for ten years in various capacities for Swindon-based energy supplier npower and the organisation it swallowed-up, Innogy.
But he decided to return to a specialist form of craftsmanship that – to his surprise – he initially discovered he had an unerring knack for in his late teens.
Mark grew up in the Peak District and was living in Skelmersdale, Lancashire when, aged 18, he saw an advertisement which said: “Wanted – an artist who can paint in miniature.”
He says: “I was good at art at school. I did an art GSCE but never went on to A-level.
“I thought I’d give it a go. I had no idea whether I could actually paint in miniature.”
He was asked to paint a grand country house on to an oval enamelled copper box, about two inches by two and three-quarters. The process involved attentively applying several layers of fine paint – each after firing the box in a kiln, a process that enables the paint to sink into the enamel.
The result – to put it mildly – was stunning, and he swiftly landed a job with London-based Halcyon Days Enamels, one of the world’s leading producers of hand-decorated enamel boxes and jewellery.
Mark only intended to stay during a gap year before going to university but ended up working there for five years.
He producedabout 100 pieces – including an enamel box for Princess Diana that involved painting Winnie the Pooh on to the lid.
Says Mark: “I can’t remember whether she commissioned it personally or whether it was a gift for her.”
He was asked to write a message to Di on the inside of the lid – but sadly the wording escapes him. “I’m sorry… it was a long time ago,” he says.
A present commissioned for Elton John involved squeezing an aerial view of a sprawling mansion on to a tiny box lid from a photograph he had been supplied with.
“Guess what colour the mansion was,” asks Mark.
“Pink,” is my knee-jerk reaction. Right first time.
“It was a very big house – big and surrounded by trees. And it was pink – unbelievable,” he recalls.
Another box was painstakingly produced for golfer Nick Faldo on the occasion of his third US masters win and a further one for Queen Noor of Jordan. At the time – in the mid ’90s – such hand-crafted trinkets sold for about £800.
Somewhat reluctantly, he eventually quit to fulfill his ambition of going to university.
After acquiring a degree in physics from Birmingham and a masters degree in financial maths at Oxford he plunged into the corporate world of energy supply and trading.
But it was always on his mind to return to the craft in which he had previously excelled, and three years ago he set up his own business.
The aim was simple: To buy plain enamel copper boxes and paint miniature works of art on to them.
But he was miffed to discover you cannot buy plain enamel copper boxes, which are made exclusively for specialist firms like his earlier employer.
So for two years he meticulously learnt how to fashion such boxes starting from scratch – with a sheet of copper.
The workroom is a wooden shed at the rear of his terraced Freshbrook home which is equipped with everything he needs to create these miniature marvels: Anvil, kiln, computer, spray-gun, a press to make the lids, a milling machine to connect the base of the box and the lid – and, of course, some tiny paintbrushes.
“They’re sized zero,” he says. “The smallest you can buy.”
It takes him about two weeks to handcraft and paint a single box which he will sell for between £1,275 and £1,600.
“The idea is to get commissions,” says Mark who has a three year-old son Oliver and whose 33 year-old wife Chier is a music therapist and piano teacher. The painting on the boxes can be of any subject the client chooses – a house, yacht, car, a family pet or even a portrait.”
He has made a dozen or so enamel boxes so far from his home studio – five of which have been on display at The Mall Galleries, SW1 which champions “new contemporary figurative art by living artists.”
They include a box showing a 1934 Chrysler car which he photographed outside The Royal Oak, in Bishopstone.
The others depict the Space Shuttle in launch mode, jazz supremo Louis Armstrong, a Portuguese villa and a friend’s baby.
“Having all the works I submitted accepted for the exhibition was really pleasing,” says Mark.
“There is huge competition. It would be great if the exhibition helped get things going.”
- Mark’s website is www.mdmorris.co.uk. Email mark@md morris.co.uk Tel: 07914404853.
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