A Creative Connection Across the Generations

28th June 2019

Although Chelsea Pensioners Rick Graham and Ernie Boyden are separated by a generation, they bond over the hobby they share. Both are keen painters and enjoy working together in the Royal Hospital’s art room.

The walls of the Royal Hospital’s art room are covered with paintings. The large and detailed narrative paintings themed around World War I (featured in Home Front 7) are by Rick Graham, a talented artist in his early 70s. The engaging impressionistic landscapes and portraits of subjects as diverse as Serena Williams and Boris Johnson are by 95-year-old Ernie Boyden. Other artworks by fellow Pensioners portray themes ranging from the military to the pastoral. At the back of the room is a framing centre and a mitre cutter. On an easel, is Rick’s current work-in-progress, an oil-painting of a green corner of Windsor Castle’s garden. Ernie and Rick are contemplating it and discussing how it can be progressed and strengthened when Home Front came to talk to them.

A painting partnership
Rick got to know Ernie when his father was a Chelsea Pensioner: “I first met him when I was visiting my dad. They were best mates. Even then, Ernie told people I was an accomplished artist.” 

After his father’s death, when Rick himself became a Pensioner, they continued their relationship. Ernie is very encouraging to Rick who says:

“He mentors me. I’ve learned to observe more from Ernie. We look at things and don’t see them. Our brain fills in what you don’t see. Now I pay attention to realism. I’m trying to get looser.”

Ernie says he benefits from the partnership too: “You see something in someone else’s painting and it gives you ideas. I saw Rick’s portrait techniques and tried them. He’s very good at photo realism and can now soften the effects. He’s very meticulous.” 

A talent for art 
Although Ernie was a creative child, he only started painting in later life: “I was always interested in art but didn’t have access to many materials. You could draw, but I wasn’t terribly good at drawing. The painting started when I retired. I took some group lessons. I’ve been painting here ever since I arrived.”

If Ernie hadn’t been called up at the age of 18 and sustained an injury to his median nerve that affected the use of his hand, he says he might have gone into a design career, instead of ending up in the civil service: “My father was a designer-cutter in the rag trade, in the days when you used shears, not machines, so I might have been a dress designer or something like that.”

Rick’s interest in art also began when he was young: “I’ve been drawing all my life. I was always good with my hands. When I was at school a teacher got me work in the hand properties department of a theatrical costumiers where his brother worked.”

When Rick went on to join the Army he continued to draw. He was asked to photograph members of his regiment – RSM Worcester & Sherwood Foresters – and went on to produce 57 drawings from his photos, which he presented to the Sergeant’s Mess.

He only started to paint in oils a few months before he came to the Royal Hospital and now spends long hours in the art room producing meticulous, panoramic, photorealistic paintings. He has also put up some studio lighting and invented a bespoke piece of equipment: “I’ve made a prototype – a vertical Mahl Bridge. It allows you to paint without touching the canvas and keeps your hand steady – which is good if you have tremors. You can be accurate.”

“Art benefits me without doubt”
Rick and Ernie both say they find painting has a positive impact on their wellbeing, Ernie said:

“It’s very therapeutic, You can absorb yourself mentally.”

“It benefits me without doubt” adds Rick, “It helps to satisfy my creative urges, gets the brain working and helps hand and eye coordination.”

Research suggests that creative activities can relieve stress, help communication and help to slow down cognitive decline. An arts workshop by Arts and Minds, a leading art and mental health charity, found that anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation substantially decreased in the participants, whilst wellbeing was boosted.

“I will find the Pensioners an art room”
The art room was the brainchild of a former governor’s wife, with a passion for art. “It’s called the Lady Mackenzie Art Room” Ernie explains, “She was interested in art and said ‘Pensioners have nowhere to paint. I will find them an art room’”. However, the original venue became unsafe and a satisfactory location was hard to find: “First we had to work underground, with no ventilation or natural light. Then we moved here.”

The new art room is far from ideal, however, as it’s hard for the less-mobile Pensioners to access and is badly ventilated. Ernie and Rick have plenty of ideas on their ideal studio: “We need natural light, space, good ventilation, drawing tables, a toilet and running water” says Rick.

Ernie adds that iPads and WiFi would facilitate a favourite method of working: “We take photos on the iPad or from the internet, save them on the iPad and then connect to a TV and project the image on the screen to make it larger. You can then focus on one little bit.”

The Pensioners also discuss how artists could encourage each other and think sharing a space with other disciplines would encourage more Pensioners to explore their creativity and learn from each other. “If art and pottery were together, we could move towards sculpture” Rick suggests.

While Rick has learned from Ernie’s long experience, Ernie says he has benefited too: “I have a lot to thank him for. He got me over here and back into painting. I try to get out as much as I can. It’s daunting to come over here though. I’d like somewhere nearer.”

Your gift to the Royal Hospital could help more Chelsea Pensioners to expand their horizons and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of creativity in our new, purpose-built, accessible Activities Centre.

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