Ophelia Redpath is the most brilliant artist of her type currently working in Britain. The only question is about what type that is. I know that it is particularly English, but there is an inherent difficulty of classification that may already have made her career more difficult for her than it might otherwise have been. To my eye, the special field of art that she represents falls into a radiant pocket of the spectrum that runs from illustration to painting, with all the observation and characterisation that happens in the best of illustration combined with all the purity and self-sufficiency of the unique painted work of art. If you were to give this movement in art a history, it would probably begin with the miniatures of Hilliard, and would flower with especial incandescence in modern times when you got to the work of Rex Whistler, so tragically killed in Normandy in 1944. Whistler’s mural “The Expedition in Search of Rare Meats”, which decorates the cafeteria of the old Tate gallery now labouring under the title of Tate Britain, looks, in fact, to be the natural ancestor of Ophelia Redpath’s own cavalcade of illuminated fable, although you might also have to bring in the set designs of Osbert Lancaster and Oliver Messel. (Really we shouldn’t leave out Bakst and Benois either: not very English, perhaps, but still with that luxurious play of saturated pastel charm.) I suppose the quickest single word for her mind-melting lyrical quality would be “enchantment”, but we would have to purge the word of any connotations of the twee.
Beneath her ravishing flourishes and festivals of colour there is a vibrant tensile strength, based on clinically analytical powers of notation. (One of the reasons you can practically hear her jazz musicians, for example, is that she gets the musculature and the facial distortions exactly right.) I could go on for a long time about her work, but sufficient to say now that I am proud to have six of her pictures here, and eventually, I hope, other works from various times in her career dotted elsewhere around the site, so that they will link into a birdcage walk through the outer regions of this strange space station we are building here in the middle of nowhere. Based in Cambridge, where her father, Theodore Redpath, was the don who taught me most about Greek tragedy, Ophelia Redpath attended the Art Foundation Course there and has exhibited in that city as well as in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and, abroad, in Paris and New York. Much of her work is currently shown with the Wren Gallery, Burford. She travels extensively in Britain and Europe, always taking notes of expression and character from her fellow human beings, whom she was born to portray in all their magnificent and tumultuous individuality. Perhaps in that very point lies the quality that makes her something more than an illustrator (although we should never forget that a good illustrator is in itself a very rare thing to be): she portrays, not types, but particular people, so many of them that they look like a crowd. But they are a crowd only until we look closely, which, like no-one else in her generation, she can make us do.