The famous (and infamous) deaths in Harland Miller’s art
A comedian, a cartoonist, a car designer and a politician all feature in the artist's unending, obituary series
The British painter Harland Miller might be best known for his paintings of paperback covers. However, there is another literary form that grabbed his attention a few years ago.
“When living in Paris in the 1990s, I’d try to improve my French by reading the newspapers,” Miller explains in his new book, Harland Miller: In Shadows I Boogie. “One story not yet settled into ‘obituary’ terms was that of Stephen Milligan – a British MP who’d allegedly lost control during some auto-erotic scenario and whose death remained undiscovered for some days.”
Pretty much any British person under the age of 40 will find it hard recall this tragic incident; however, in the UK, Milligan’s highly publicised death did much to undermine the Conservative party’s wholesome image.
Miller, reading about it the French capital back 1994, didn’t entirely grasp the details of the event, and this, in turn, helped his art.
“Even from the little – or perhaps because of the little – I understood reading the article in a foreign language, my mind wandered and I imagined milk bottles accruing daily on his front step,” he writes. “I don't know if they did, but as an image it grew – in contrast to all the sensationalism around the story – and soon attracted blue tits pecking through the foil tops to get to the cream.”
Miller’s realistic rendering of a bird reminded him of a Christmas card. “So I introduced the text/context, and sketched that in, just in the way it came to me. It was a…what?” the artist wonders in his new book. “Simply put, it was a ‘Painting for Stephen Milligan’ and as we’d never met, I added, ‘Not that he was a friend of mine’. I guess it became more contextualized by becoming the first of the series I referred to as the ‘Obituary’ paintings,” he writes.
This occasional series includes tributes to the British comedian, TV host Bob Monkhouse; the American car designer John DeLorean; Charles Addams, cartoonist and creator of the Addams Family; and W. H. Carothers, the American chemist credited with inventing nylon, who committed suicide at the age of 41.
Most of Miller’s subjects are both famous and infamous, with just a speck of notoriety clouding their better-known achievements, just as the drips and smudges in Miller’s oils blur the words and images.
And, Unlike Miller’s subjects, there’s no end in sight for this set of works. ““It’s obviously a never-ending series,” says the artist. “Well, no, I guess it will end when I do… but I won’t be painting that one…”
To see the ones he has managed to immortalise, as well as much more besides, order a copy of our new book, Harland Miller: In Shadows I Boogie, here.