Since I was a kid I always enjoyed drawing and painting. I never had formal training but I have an imagination. I struggled with consistency though: I would make a few drawings then three months would go by. Later on, I would make a painting and another few months would pass before the next one. In 2001 I started sharing a house in south London and my chance to fix my weakness presented itself.
It was a big house with a large living room. There were five of us living there. The place was full of pieces of furniture. Ugly ones. How many coffee tables do you need in your living room? One? Two? We had seven; plus many other useless things lying around the house. One evening, a light bulb went off in my head: I could break down those furniture pieces and use the flat boards to paint on; then I could hang them on the walls, which I did. I had to drill in to some of the boards to secure them to the walls because they were quite thick and heavy. When my landlord, a nice Indian guy named Mr. Raul, came around to collect the monthly rent, he and I would sit down, have some tea, and chat about India for a while (I had always been fascinated by this crazy, exotic country). Then he would pick his check up, take a look around, and say, “You are keeping this nice, Francesco. Very nice. Thank you,” and leave. He never found out what was going on.
After I was done with Raul’s furniture I moved on to his walls, repainting them: blue for the bathroom, orange and yellow for the rooms, and white for the living room. I had done that job aboard a war cruiser in the south of Italy during my time in the military for a year and I must have taken a liking to it. After that I started buying canvases. I imagined it was the sensible thing a wannabe painter should do. I was finally going to be consistent. My plan was to take a random bus to explore London on Saturdays and then to go home and paint whatever I found inspirational on Sundays: Lewisham, Dulwich, Clapham, Herne Hill, Forest Hill, Brixton. A painting per week was my target. At the time I was much faster and my technique was considerably simpler. It got more and more complex over the years as I picked up many pictorial ideas along the way.
When I had collected quite a number of pieces I gathered my courage and walked into the gastro-pub opposite our house to ask if they could host a show of my work. They agreed and, to my surprise, the exhibition was quite successful: I nearly sold out. Plus, every time I visited the nice staff there would offer me food and drinks. “This is interesting. There is potential in this,” I thought to myself. From that moment on, for the next three years, I created a moving exhibition that must have touched a third of the pubs and restaurants in south London. I would make arrangements in advance and the paintings would travel from one venue to the other without even coming back home. I would simply keep on painting and replacing the sold pieces. If I had too many works at one given time, I would try to organize two shows at once.
Subsequently, I was invited to join an artist-run gallery based at a fantastic location on the river’s south bank. This was a great spot as many tourists and all sorts of people would pop by. In those days, since the gallery was fairly small, together with the more classic London cityscapes, I started portraying a dog, Chingado, in memory of my beloved Fox Terrier back in Italy, which I missed so much. They were small pieces, mainly square, about 40cm by 40cm in size. I had never seen foxes in my own country, but I came across so many in south London. An entire family of foxes—mom, dad, and six puppies—actually occupied the abandoned next-door house in Camberwell. They spent their late afternoons laying on the lawn and playing around. I started wondering if Chingado, by all means a city dog, would know what to do in that context. Would he know what his job was? I never found out, but painted scenes with Chingado strolling around Ruskin Park with playfully mocking foxes hidden behind the trees. I am proud to say that I sold more than 100 of those pieces and Chingado has gone everywhere: Paris, Rome, New York, Sidney, Tokyo, you name it. He has probably been to more places than I have.
Time went by. I moved from rough-and-ready Camberwell, with its foxes and its Rastafarians, to trendy Clerkenwell, with its designers and its architects. Life went on quietly until I approached my seventh year of stay in the city.
by Francesco Lietti