My Favourite Painting: Nigel Havers

'It is large and the rather melancholic tone is very moving. At first glance, I thought the fisherman was dead, but Jamie told me he was just sleeping–taking a break on that gently rocking, dark blue sea.’

Nigel Havers chooses Adrift by Andrew Wyeth:

‘I was first introduced to Andrew Wyeth’s paintings by my wife, who knew him and his son Jamie, also a wonderful artist. Sadly, Andrew died just before I managed to meet him, but Jamie has become a great friend.’

‘It was he who introduced me to this painting and it made a profound impression. It is large and the rather melancholic tone is very moving. At first glance, I thought the fisherman was dead, but Jamie told me he was just sleeping–taking a break on that gently rocking, dark blue sea.’

‘Is the boat drifting towards those rocks hidden beneath the surface? Is a storm about to break or is the boat actually safely tied up out of sight? All Andrew’s paintings have these unanswered questions, which appeals to my sense of drama, but first and foremost, I am drawn to the wonderful effect of dancing light, for me always the most beguiling of artistic skills.’

Nigel Havers is an actor.

John McEwen on Adrift by Andrew Wyeth:

Andrew Wyeth was the youngest of the five child-ren of the American artist N. C. Wyeth, also a famous illustrator. Summers were spent on the Maine coast, the rest of the year in rural Pennsylvania, a practice followed by his son.

His father’s sociability and celebrity meant guests included the likes of Scott Fitzgerald and the Hollywood star Mary Pickford. Similar achievement was expected of the children, especially of Andrew, a sickly child who was educated at home by his father: ‘Pa kept me almost in a jail.’

Only the best was good enough. His father despised illustration compared with painting: illustration had to adapt to the practical demands of engravers and printers; instead of ‘inner feeling, you express the outward thought’.

True to his father’s instruction, Andrew was a dogged independent, an upholder of craft and a disdainer of fashion. Accordingly, he was marmite to critics. The American art historian Robert Rosenblum, asked to nominate the most underrated and over-rated 20th-century artists, named only Wyeth – twice.

It was typical that Wyeth’s favourite technique was egg tempera, as used in Renaissance frescoes and here. ‘It’s a dry pigment mixed with distilled water and yoke of egg… Tempera is something with which I build—like building in great layers the way the earth itself was built. Tempera is not the medium of swiftness.’

Adrift is the opposite of Wyeth’s American contemporaries’ enthusiasm for abstract Action painting and its self-absorbed legacy. It is a tempera tour de force.

In 1978, he painted an old man lying apparently asleep in a melting Pennsylvanian snowdrift. Here, he sets an old man adrift on the ocean. Has the mind been set free, or the spirit? Or both?