Sunday 27 February 2022

Speaking English

The outbreak of hot war in Europe will be causing many assumptions to be reviewed in the "corridors of power" of the West, I'm sure [1], and many lessons will also be being learned, and steps taken, all "at pace", and whatever other clich̩s might be wheeled out for the occasion. But that "we" have become complacent is beyond dispute. That the hottest issue of the day until now, measured by heat generated rather than light cast, has not been poverty or even climate change but the debate Рhardly the word Рaround the right of a tiny minority to choose a gender different from their biological sex and to insist on their chosen pronoun is surely indicative of some muddling of priorities, to put it mildly.

Listening to the radio, I am always aware of one particular variety of complacency. Notoriously, very few people in the English-speaking world bother (or are indeed offered the opportunity) to learn a foreign language; at least, to any degree of proficiency. The attitude has long been, why bother? God speaks English, and so should everyone else. And so they do, and with truly remarkable fluency. Yet hardly anyone seems to marvel at this fact, presumably for the same reason: being unable to speak any other language, and never having been required to learn one, many of us presume that being able to hold your own with some impatient journalist or to describe in vivid detail the terrible experience you have just been through is what "speaking English" means. We do it all the time, after all.

Now, by contemporary Anglosphere standards, I am unusually multilingual. I speak decent German, adequate French, poor Spanish and Russian, and should the Romans ever rock up on these shores again, I'll be well placed to monitor their communications [2]. But I listen to ordinary folk interviewed on the streets of the world, whether protesting, fleeing conflict, or opining on the topic du jour, and I despair. I could never match that level of fluency, that effortless width and depth of vocabulary, that command of idiomatic speech in any language other than my native tongue. It is shaming. How do they learn to speak such incredibly good English?

Once upon a time, of course, the need to run a worldwide empire meant that linguists were in demand in Britain, and ought to be today in the USA. Strictly monolingual people today read that so-and-so taught himself Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, or Pashto without blinking: well, of course he did. You would, wouldn't you? But this is to minimise the achievement: these are not easy languages to learn, and utterly different from European models. Even if you have to learn such languages, it's a tall order. Obviously, "immersion" in a culture is a far superior way to learn it than cracking open a grammar book and reciting irregular verbs. But immersion does not mean patrolling it armed to the teeth and kicking down doors. One of my father's favourite jokes, brought home from his six wartime years in various parts of the world, was this: Well, how hard can Hindi / Arabic / Burmese be? Even the kids over there can speak it! Well, it seems that now even the kids over there can speak our language, too.

This presumption of English as a lingua franca is both a measure of our complacency and a crucial vulnerability in a dangerous world where the bad guys can exploit the massively unfair advantage of speaking languages other than English. So where are genuinely fluent speakers of, say, Russian or the various dialects of Arabic and Chinese to be found? Probably not so many in the corridors of power, the ranks of the military and security services, the police, or the press, but almost certainly plenty in the plush offices of multinational companies. And they are most likely immigrant native speakers with perfect English as their second, third, or fourth language. Kids from over there, essentially.

In the days of National Service, the British Army used to select out potential linguists and put them through a famously effective Russian course. I was taught my (minimal) Russian by one such man, who became a history teacher at my secondary school. But, now that languages are not compulsorily taught in our state schools, and the armed forces are not supplied with a steady stream of the best and brightest, I imagine our troops on the ground have reverted to the tried and tested method of speaking English only LOUDER. Apparently the Army is belatedly aware of this as a problem (see this report from Cambridge University) but – like, say, racism – this is a systematic deficiency in the wider culture that good intentions and position papers cannot fix.

Meanwhile, I continue to listen with sympathy, admiration, and no little shame to ordinary Ukrainian citizens and young children driven from their homes by military aggression, describing in fluent, idiomatic English what they saw, what they experienced, and what they fear will happen next. It doesn't seem a stretch, does it, to conclude that there is a direct connection between their fate and our various sorts of complacency? Or that their investment in "western" values, embodied in their fluency in our linguistic dollar, has proved fairly worthless? As for us, never mind speaking Ukrainian, most of us couldn't point to the place on a map before last week.

1. But why do these people hang out in the corridors, I wonder? Are they short of proper rooms for meetings? Or does it help them feel like they don't really have an office job?

2. A level of attainment once regarded as unremarkable, and all learned (apart from Spanish) by attending a perfectly ordinary English state grammar school in the 1960s.

Thursday 24 February 2022

Primavera Poisoner

Of course, sometimes colour is the whole point... It seems spring is already on its way. Hayfever alert!

Talking of which, out beyond our back garden is a yew tree in what used to be a cemetery. I was standing in the kitchen the other morning, just gazing out of the window, when a pigeon crash-landed onto one of its branches, in that inelegant way they have, with much flapping and flailing about. I was amazed to see a cloud of white dust billowing out, as if the branches were laden with talcum powder. I had never noticed this before but, clearly, it was pollen.

Looking up yew pollen on the Web, I was interested to learn that it has an Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALS) rating of 10/10. Crikey! As the tree lies to the west of us, and in Britain the prevailing wind is a westerly, I began to wonder whether I had located the source of the sore throats, red eyes, etc., that afflict us in spring. I also discovered that yews are toxic in every part. To quote Wikipedia:

The lethal dose for an adult is reported to be 50 g of yew needles. Patients who ingest a lethal dose frequently die due to cardiogenic shock, in spite of resuscitation efforts. There are currently no known antidotes for yew poisoning, but drugs such as atropine have been used to treat the symptoms. Taxine remains in the plant all year, with maximal concentrations appearing during the winter. Dried yew plant material retains its toxicity for several months and even increases its toxicity as the water is removed. Fallen leaves should therefore also be considered toxic. Poisoning usually occurs when leaves of yew trees are eaten, but in at least one case a victim inhaled sawdust from a yew tree.

Yikes! No wonder they plant them in graveyards: it saves an unnecessary journey. You have been warned.

And talking of warnings... The unwelcome but surely inevitable news this morning from Ukraine may mean the dangerous lady below is trying to escape from her box once again. FWIW, I have one piece of advice for you, especially if you have responsibility for the computer systems of an institution or important infrastructure: look to your cyber-security. Russia has been planning this for some time, and has no doubt seeded malware throughout the West's networks. We could be in for a tough time without a shot being fired, or a rocket launched.

Sunday 20 February 2022

Original in Colour

I've been doing a series of square digital images which I have come think of as "a theatre of dreams", not because I'm a Manchester United supporter (I'm not) but because they look like other-worldly tableaux set within the frame of a toy theatre. Generally, there's a central figure selected from my usual ensemble cast of statuary doing something slightly odd in what looks like a stage-set. They're also very colourful, almost garish (a tasteful kind of garish, it goes without saying).

However, it occurred to me that it would be a worthwhile experiment to see what they might look like as monochrome images. Which turned out to be more interesting than I had anticipated. I was not surprised by the way they were transformed into exercises in subtle tonality, but I was impressed by the way the mood of the things changed from slightly gaudy fairground scenarios to something much quieter, which also seemed to be more receptive to an interpretive gaze. Colour seems to resist participative viewing much more. It doesn't suit them all (there are about a dozen in the series so far) but I very much like those that it does.

As you might expect, the abstraction of colour also imposes a strong sense of unity, and has the effect of making the whole thing look drawn, rather than constructed. This has always been the strong point of black & white photography, of course: your attention is directed to tone, texture, and composition, without the distraction of any eye-grabbing colours that happen to fall within the frame. Originally this was a case of making a virtue of necessity, but – once the use of monochrome had become a choice, rather than the only game in town – it became a challenge to exploit to the full the expressive virtues inherent in the medium. As Orson Welles is said to have said, the enemy of art is the absence of limitations. Even so, hardly anybody chooses to make monochrome artwork, unless they enjoy working with a technology that demands it. Have you seen Sarah Gillespie's amazing mezzotint prints of moths, for example?

Back in the far-off days when colour printing was impossible or prohibitively expensive, many art books contained monochrome reproductions of paintings, often captioned "original in colour". A curious statement, really, but perhaps an indication of quite how few actual paintings people ever got to see. Ah, so it's actually a coloured painting! Thanks for letting me know... After all, for a very long time the only reproductions anyone saw or had framed in their house were more-or-less faithful engravings a fraction of the size of the real thing. Even as someone born as late as the 1950s I can still remember being shocked by the size and colourful impact of paintings when seen "live" that I thought I knew well from postcards, magazines, or those glossy black "World of Art" paperbacks from Thames & Hudson that filled a carousel in most bookshops.

It's hard to recapture, now, the sort of imaginative effort required – often, I expect, completely off the mark – to mentally colourise a grisaille version of a painting by an "old master" like Titian, never mind a Van Gogh or a Picasso. Similarly, it is almost impossible to think of classical sculpture and architecture as the highly-coloured affairs the archaeological evidence now shows them to have been. Their subtle monochrome modelling has for so long seemed their primary virtue that the thought of the Parthenon frieze as a kind of brash advertising hoarding still seems heretical.

But monochrome definitely has its own quiet virtues and, like the brainwork done to conjure up the characters and scenes set out in cold print in a novel (such a different activity to the spoon-fed visual dictation of a movie), you have to wonder whether some useful, pleasurable, and in some ways superior imaginative benefit might be derived from regularly flexing that particular set of mental muscles.

Quite possibly; but there is still no way I am going to retrieve our ancient black & white portable TV from the shed. Not least because "portable" is such a relative concept: it's an instructive thought, that that "compact" contraption's bulky and incredibly heavy CRT back-end – deeper than the front is wide – powers a screen not much different in size to my iPad, a device on which a monochrome image is a thing of subtly-toned delight, quite unlike the low-resolution, interference-spattered TV image that seemed perfectly acceptable just thirty years ago. Unlike engraving or mezzotint, some old reproductive technologies are unlikely ever to see a revival on aesthetic grounds.

Diana: Selfie with Actaeon

Wednesday 16 February 2022

Ghostly Geisha

I was walking back home early on a frosty morning last week after dropping off our car for its MOT, when I saw that a notice board had been vandalised, torn from its mounting near some park railings, and left lying flat by the roadside. My eye was immediately caught by this ghostly geisha appearing out of the shreds of paper and frozen condensation.

Whether she is the remnant of some actual depiction of a woman, or the result of our old friend pareidolia I'm not sure. A curious mix of both, I suspect. But, either way, I have not manipulated this photograph at all. Which is not to say that I won't be doing so in future, of course...

Sunday 13 February 2022

2022 Calendar

Anybody need or want a calendar?

It has been my custom for some years now, in the run up to Christmas and New Year, to select twelve roughly themed images from whatever photographic or digital imaging projects I've been up to in the previous year, and get them made into a small number of calendars, for distribution to friends and family. In a productive year (and 2021, surprisingly, was a productive year) I tend to make two draft versions using different sets of images, and either settle on one, or get a batch made up of half of each.

This year the post was so disrupted by COVID – at least one calendar I posted in Southampton in early December didn't arrive in London until mid-January! – that it started to seem like stuff was going missing, so I ordered some extra ones when Vistaprint started offering their usual hefty last-minute discounts. The original batch were the usual two A4 sized pages joined together with a wire spiral, but for these extra ones I decided to try out a single A3 sheet layout (42cm x 29.7cm), which is the same price, looks rather nicer and is simpler to hang, but is obviously much less convenient to post.

One of these A3 calendars remains, still packaged in a substantial box, which I'm happy to let someone have for, say, £10 plus postage to anywhere in the world. Contact me via email (see "View My Complete Profile" at top right) if you're interested. The image selection is a set of my landscape photographs, linked by nothing except their horizontal orientation, and the fact that I like them.

Thursday 10 February 2022

Twoscore Years and Ten

On my birthday in February 1972 I turned 18 years old, and – the age of majority in England having been revised down from 21 in 1969 – thus became an adult. As far as I can recall that distant event, half a century ago, I'm pretty sure I didn't feel like an adult. I was still living at home, sharing a fourth-floor, two-bedroom council flat with my parents, and chafing at the restrictions this brought with it. I was also still at school, in what was then referred to as the "upper sixth", studying for the A-level exams that would get me into university – and out of that flat – but only if I secured the necessary grades: university then being a privilege reserved for the top 15% or so of the ability range. "Ability", at any rate, as measured by the capacity to pass exams.

A large component of my study was "literature"; that is (or was then), the close reading of a small selection of set books from the canon of written work deemed worthy of study from Chaucer onwards, but settling most comfortably on the broad shoulders of Shakespeare and the established pre-20th century "greats" like Milton and Donne, the Romantics, and the nineteenth-century poets and novelists. Following the post-war opening up of higher education to the state-educated and the establishment of new universities to accommodate us, a whole new academic publishing industry had sprung up to support the progress of potential literary scholars up the exam escalator from O-level to PhD, ranging from pocket-sized study notes and collections of critical essays to full-length studies, some aimed at the apprentice, some at the journeyman, but all based on the assumption that the goal was mastery. Mastery of what, precisely, was a question that had yet to be asked with any seriousness: the value of literary study was taken to be self-evident. It was simply one of the mainstream routes that led to a credentialed middle-class life. It was also a darned sight easier than anything requiring mathematics.

I think it would be hard not to be aware that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of some significant "modernist" literary landmarks, not least Ulysses and The Waste Land. The sort of difficult, rebarbative stuff that lends prestige to literary study, and can even make it seem necessary. I must admit, though, that I was rather taken aback this week when (doing the lightning mental arithmetic for which I am (not) renowned) I realised that 1972 sits a neatly symmetrical 50 years after those literary landmarks – works which I was coming to for the first time precisely then – and 50 years before the current day. In other words, 1972 is as antique now, as 1922 was then. As Shakespeare may well have said, and James Joyce certainly did: Fuck!

Now, I may have been getting seriously acquainted with Hamlet and Paradise Lost in 1972, but that is far from the whole story. Very fucking far, to quote Pulp Fiction. It has been incontrovertibly established by reliable authorities that 1971 was a (if not the) peak year for rock and singer-songwriter album releases, and it is a self-evident truth that these albums were still being bought, borrowed, listened to, danced to, analysed, and learned – studied, really – in 1972. Not to say carried around under one arm by some like a foot-square letter of introduction. Why, 1972 itself was to see releases of the magnitude of Ziggy Stardust and two of my personal milestones, one marking the start of a dark but formative adult journey, Joni Mitchell's For the Roses, and one marking the terminus of certain teenage enthusiasms, Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick. I think it would be an uncontroversial observation to anyone of a similar age to me that the words and sounds coming out of my record player – a classic mono Dansette – meant, and still mean as much to me as any officially-sanctioned "literature" on my reading list. More, in some cases: I can still recite the lyrics of albums I have not actually listened to for decades.

According to Ezra Pound, literature is "news that stays news". But is, say, Eliot's The Waste Land (in the final published version of which Pound played a significant part) still news? Perhaps not, or less so, after thousands of wannabe littérateurs have been crawling all over it for a century. It was certainly news to me in 1972, however. So how about Joni Mitchell's Blue? Or the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, say? Or even Led Zeppelin IV? All of which were sensational news to me at the time. Still news? Well, Blue seems to have established itself as a stone-cold classic, fifty years – fifty years! – on, but Sticky Fingers... Um. The thoughtful young are queasy about the sexual politics, "blackface" posturing, and narcotised ambience of what has always been considered some of the Stones' greatest music; all of which negatives, if we're to be honest, constituted a large part of the album's attraction back then. It seemed a more "adult" attitude to strike than the shrill optimism of most pop. Nonetheless, once you've figured them out, in 2022 it's hard to forgive the lyrics of a song like "Brown Sugar". But music is not literature, and cannot be judged on lyrics alone: it is surely impossible, on hearing those staccato opening chords, not to want to jump up and thrash about to it. Ditto the urgent pounding drums and crashing cymbals of the intro to Led Zep's "Rock and Roll". Been a long time, been a long time... Go, grandad, go!

The curious thing, seen in the sort of perspective fifty-year leaps can give, is that groups like the Rolling Stones were, at the time, generally thought of as vaguely on the "right" side of history, as far as race relations (as the phrase then was) were concerned, especially when compared with the actual blackface of the likes of Al Jolson in 1922 [1]. Jagger and Richards, after all, genuinely admired Black artists, and the whole point of the "British Invasion" of the United States in the 1960s was that it disrupted the strict musical apartheid of the American charts. Nowadays, of course, this would be seen as a White Saviour intervention, and egregious "appropriation"; but back then, it opened up lines of communication that had previously been kept firmly shut. Time does have a way, to quote Pete Townsend, of making the simple things you see all complicated, doesn't it?

Short is the date, alas, of modern rhymes,
And 'tis but just to let 'em live betimes.
No longer now that golden age appears,
When patriarch wits surviv'd a thousand years:
Now length of Fame (our second life) is lost,
And bare threescore is all ev'n that can boast;
Our sons their fathers' failing language see,
And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be.
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711)

Substitute "Jolson" for "Chaucer", and "Jagger" for "Dryden", and that still just about hits the spot, I'd say. Some truths last rather longer than twoscore years and ten. 

So, fifty years later, did I ever manage to feel like an adult, or has my generation's seemingly permanent attachment to its late-teen affiliations and amusements kept us, to misquote Dylan, forever infantilised? Well, to an extent, yes, but what counts as "adult" is as mutable as tastes in music. For my father, singers like Sinatra or Tony Bennett were the exemplars of grown-up music; sophistication, suits and ties, and studied cool. For my part, I struggle to think of anyone who can play that role for me, other than old friends like Joni, Leonard, or Jackson, perhaps because "my" music doesn't sit comfortably in the grown-up part of my brain – Go, grandad, go! – but also because advancing age has brought partial deafness and tinnitus, and I just don't listen to that much music any more. For me, maturity has come to reside on the page, and primarily in poetry: perhaps those literary studies have had some lasting effect, after all. I cannot read, say, Ted Hughes, Alice Oswald, or (as I happen to be doing today) Ian Duhig without feeling a sense of elevation, a coming home into a place where I have always belonged, and somewhere I do not visit as often as I should.

If my generation has been doing "adult" differently from our parents and grandparents, this may only have been because we could. In Britain, at any rate, most of us have had it relatively easy. Just looking at my own family history, for me there has been no lifetime of long hours of hard, dirty, physical labour, only to die, exhausted, poisoned, or broken, before the age of 60. No experience of serial infant mortality, or fear of death in childbirth. No opprobrium for having children outside of marriage. No cowering in muddy trenches, or hoping against hope for rescue from some last-chance beach, all the time waiting to be blown to pieces. Not even much by way of systematic lack of opportunity: any failures, shortcomings, or fuck-ups have been entirely my own doing. The luckiest of us are coming into old age substantially ahead of where we started out: mortgages paid, children raised, and a decent pension paid into the bank every month. There have been trials, setbacks, regrets, and occasions for grief along the way, but it seems that I became a fully-functioning adult without really noticing, and without paying the traditional price of putting away childish things, at least not in full.

Doubtless, many of our children or grandchildren will look back in another fifty years with disapproval, even horror, at some of the things we did, said, and thought. Hey, go easy, we tried our best! Breaking new ground is never without its complications. Just you wait and see... But, note to self: do remember to destroy those youthful diaries. No sense in lending weight to the case for the prosecution.

We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow;
Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so.
Alexander Pope, ibid.

1. Or indeed the long-running, prime-time British TV show "The Black & White Minstrel Show". Autres temps... (And, no, if you followed the link, I am not related to George Chisholm... A question that irritated our family for decades.)

Friday 4 February 2022

How Much?

One of the challenges facing the typical amateur or early-career artist who has managed to get a picture into a group or open exhibition is working out how much to sell it for, the so-called "catalogue price". Setting aside how much it has cost you in time, effort, and materials to produce the thing (as they say, nobody cares how hard you worked) you will already have paid an entry fee to have your work considered, spent money on framing and travel to deliver the artwork to the gallery (all in compliance with their often very fussy specifications) and, should you be lucky enough to make a sale, may even incur further costs for delivery to the buyer, if they can't simply pick it up from the gallery. Galleries are not shy about passing on costs.

The whole business of pricing is complicated by the fact that a gallery typically charges a commission of 30-50% on sales, and in the UK those that are registered for "Value Added Tax" will also add VAT, currently at 20%, to that commission; no doubt something similar happens in other countries [1]. So, working out a price-tag that will deliver the amount of money you need or want to earn from a sale involves taking account of all the overheads that are going to be or have already been subtracted from your asking price. I'm ignoring the question of whether you yourself are VAT registered, which is unlikely, unless you are selling more than the VAT threshold amount: £85,000 worth of work in a year (in which case I have no idea why you're reading this, other than to gloat...).

This "commission + VAT" element, in particular, is a tough sum to do for the typical "artist", who is often – let's get stereotypical – some semi-numerate dreamer who might think, naively, "Well, that's 30% for the gallery, plus 20% VAT from the buyer, so that leaves 70% for me, right?". Wrong, my paint-spattered friend... For a start, you will be paying the VAT on the gallery's commission, not the buyer. Getting this sum right is crucial if you need to know how much money you will actually make on a sale.

The first few times I did this myself I arrived at my catalogue prices by trial and error, trying out potential price tickets by choosing a likely-sounding figure, deducting my up-front costs, working out the "commission + VAT", and seeing what was left over, which was tedious. But then I realised that, let's say, a 30% commission plus 20% VAT represents 36% of the price, leaving a remainder of 64% (I know: duh!). Never mind the maths of that for now: we'll come to that later. So, if I wanted to make £100 from a sale, then that needed to be 64% of the asking price, with the result that, by a fairly simple calculation, the full catalogue price needed to be precisely £156.25. Call it £160. No, fuck it, call it £175. But even then that would still only earn me £112, and – now I came to think of it – I had paid £60 for the framing, and would be needing a £50 return rail fare to deliver it... Back to the calculator. Still confused? No worries: details of how to work this out for yourself are set out below.

It recently occurred to me, as a public service to the Innumerate Artist Community, that it would be useful to find a really simple formula that would help people to price their artwork. This being beyond my capacity, I thought I'd try the idea out on a number of my more numerate correspondents – some of whom are very numerate indeed – which I communicated in the form of a spoof exam question, as follows:

Turn over your papers NOW:

Time: As long as you like. Question 1 is mandatory; Question 2 is rhetorical.

Question 1:
If a gallery charges C% commission on picture sales plus V% VAT, derive a formula whereby an artist can determine a sale price S that will mean that they will receive amount X from the sale.
(Sample values: C=45%, V=20%, X=£100).

Question 2:
Why do galleries never provide such a formula?

Please do NOT show your working.
I thought this would be amusing, but it's easy to forget how, ah, serious the highly numerate can be, especially if you revive anxious memories of examination rooms buried long in the past. So the answers I got back were mixed. A couple were downright insulting, along the lines of, "Really? Can't you do percentages, then, fuckwit?" Well, yes I can, thank you very much, even without a calculator [2]. Most of them also initially missed the crucial point that the VAT is charged on the amount of the commission alone, and not the amount of the whole sale, and deducted from the sale price. Admittedly, this is not obvious to anyone who has never had dealings with a gallery – it does sound crazy, doesn't it? – but that, of course, is what makes the sum tricky, especially if you want to factor in variable commission rates for different galleries, not to mention future changes in the rate of VAT. So I sent out a follow-up note of clarification on behalf of the Board of Examiners.

Most of of the responses were excellent, but involved the sort of intimidating algebraic spell you might see chalked up on a blackboard, replete with symbols, brackets, and all the other mystifying maths-y stuff that terrifies the innumerate. Accurate, but not safe in the hands of the untrained operative. In the end, the best response was from old friend Andy a.k.a. Science Man, who packaged the whole thing up into a neat little spreadsheet, in effect an app that can calculate the sum in both directions. The formula for going from "payment to seller" to "sale price", for example, is pleasingly simple:

P = X /(1 - C/100 (1 + V/100))

However, spreadsheets are probably as alien to the aforementioned maths-shy dreamers as is calculus (or even long division, let's be honest) and, besides, it does no-one any harm to understand how to get from A to B without the aid of Sat Nav. All things considered
, my own method – wordy and condescending, perhaps, but which does deliver the truth of the matter in plain terms – seemed preferable. So, for the benefit of all you artists out there who struggle with numbers – you know who you are – let me run through my procedure step by step, in the hope this will save you from making disastrous miscalculations in future:
  1. Establish the gallery's commission percentage, whether VAT will be charged, and what the VAT rate is. Let's say 30%; yes; and 20%.
  2. Establish how much money you hope to make from a sale, not forgetting to cover your related costs like framing, travel, etc. Let's say £250.
  3. For the sake of ease of calculation, pretend the price tag is going to be £100. So, easy one: 30% of 100 is 30.
  4. Now the VAT. Get your calculator (yes you do, there's one on your phone) and enter 30, press the x button, enter 20, then press the % button, and then the = button. Answer: 6.
  5. Add 30 + 6. Answer: 36. That's the gallery's percentage. Yours is 100 minus 36, i.e. 64. So your percentage of the full catalogue price paid by the buyer is 64%.
  6. Now the complicated bit: divide your desired profit of 250 by 64 (calculator again – answer: 3.90625). Now multiply that by 100. Answer: 390.625. That's your price tag! Call it £390.60, or why not a nice round £395? 
As it turns out, this year the Royal Academy have actually anticipated my rhetorical Question 2 above, and have now offered the helpful hint that their "30% + 20% VAT" commission on Summer Show sales is really best imagined as the 36% of the catalogue price which you will never receive. Finally! Mind you, steps 5 and 6 above are still essential, nonetheless.

Now, one problem is that you might feel that the resulting amount is rather more than anyone is likely to pay for your work; you were just about happy with £250, but £395? It is quite a lot, really, isn't it? Another problem is that you might well be right about that. So the real question is: do you really want to make a profit on your sale, or are you happy merely to cover your costs and break even? Or, ultimately, can you afford to make a substantial loss, simply for the "exposure", and the chance to add a prestigious item to your CV?

But – and this is the Big But – you need to set against those questions the overwhelming reality that, sure, you got into the exhibition – congratulations! – but the chances are you won't be selling anything, anyway; most people don't. No, really: most people don't sell work from exhibitions, even competitively-priced and clearly outstanding works of genius like my own offerings (you can read about my Excellent Adventures in trying to sell art here). So the chances are that, far from making a profit or breaking even, you're going to have to pay for another return journey, just to go and collect your unsold work. You are now deep into deficit territory.

Consider this: how much time, money, and disappointment would you have saved yourself by offering your work at a giveaway price, perhaps thinking of it as a "loss leader", a low-cost gateway to better things? Or might the best thing be to just give the bloody thing away? But that is to assume that anyone would want it, even then: framed, free of charge, delivery included. Which, I'm afraid, is the real question we all need to be asking ourselves. Who really needs all this art? Is it surprising so much goes unsold? In the end, isn't it just a superior form of busywork? If you've ever visited a typical "open" exhibition, you may, like me, have come away with the impression that too much "art" is incompetent, feebly decorative or derivative, and rather too much like the experience of listening to someone's else's account of the "amazing" dream they had last night. I don't except myself from this observation, of course.

So, for a different perspective, let me point you at an amusing but thought-provoking book project from blogger Andrew Molitor, called Vigilante; subtitle: "not everything needs to be in a gallery". It's very good, inexpensive, and – now here's an outrageous thought – you might even want to consider accumulating some sales karma for yourself by actually buying a copy. You don't even have to hang it on your wall, and Andrew won't mind if you leave it lying around somewhere for someone else to enjoy when you've finished with it. In fact, he'd encourage that, I'm pretty sure. Not everything needs to be in a gallery.

Did I tell you about my dream last night?

1. How this works in practice varies. For example, the Royal Academy deducts 30% + VAT from the catalogue price, and then leaves the payment and collection of the remainder as a private transaction between the buyer and the artist. The pursuit of which consumed the entire summer of 2017 for me. The Royal West of England Academy deducts 35% + VAT, but collects the entire sum, and passes the remainder on to the artist.
2. I have spent a large part of my working life dealing with figures, so have of necessity become very competent with basic calculations and statistics. However, mathematics and I have had a troubled relationship, as you might expect. As members of a grammar school "A" stream class, we all took our Maths O-level exam a year early, primarily so that – for the benefit of the future scientists among us – we could spend a year grappling with O-level "Additional Maths" (essentially calculus and differentiation). This was poorly taught and entirely beyond my grasp, and it was the only exam I have ever failed in my entire life.