‘I don’t know north London at all,’ Craigie Aitchison explains, ‘I’ve only ever been there twice. I don’t feel right up there.’ In fact, Hampstead, Islington and Kentish Town are only a shortish journey away by tube from his quarters in Kennington. But Aitchison is a person with a strong, though highly individual, sense of location. He has been living in the same Victorian town house for 35 years now, so it has become part of his own world.
Stepping through the doorway of his home is like entering one of his paintings. It is decorated in the precise colours that zing out so often from his pictures – a certain pink, bluey, but also with a bit of yellow in it, and a complementary green-blue. Following him around constantly are three Bedlington terriers – because of their distinctive look, one is tempted to describe them as a flock. ‘They look like sheep if they are clipped right,’ Aitchison muses. The dogs have been part of his life, and art, for almost three decades (Fig. 1). ‘I’ve had this breed for 28 years and more. I saw a picture of them in a book at a dog show and went to see what they were like. Then I got the first one and got involved with Bedlingtons for all this time. Now I’ve got three because you keep the puppy when you shouldn’t. I suppose they turn up in my work because they are here.’
It isn’t, he says, strictly necessary for them to pose these days. ‘It’s good to have the dog around, but now I can paint one without seeing it. When I first started doing them I was more strict about having the dog there.’ On the other hand, it must be a rare occasion when at least one Bedlington isn’t present. We are pursued as we talk and explore the Aitchison domain.
He is intrigued by the psychological mechanism whereby just about any space can rapidly become your own special territory. ‘I’ve done pictures in loads of different places; in hotel rooms, for example. I like those – all your meals are there, you don’t have to do any shopping, so it’s really spoiling. And, in some magic way, they quickly become your place. I’ve often wondered whether it would be like that if I got into prison – whether you would just accept the awful cell you’ve been dumped in. If a hotel room can become your castle, a house becomes more and more that.’