How Robbie Williams found peace in painting: 'You are just in the moment'

A new collection of paintings by the music star and his creative partner Ed Godrich is currently on show in Dubai

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In Ed Godrich, music star Robbie Williams has found his creative doppelganger.

The duo met when Godrich, in his former guise as an interior designer, was enlisted to decorate Williams’s London home more than a decade ago. Once the project was completed, they remained close friends and, united by a shared love of art, music and all things 1980s, eventually joined creative forces.

Williams talks of their shared sensibilities and similar experiences as young men in their early twenties, but also about their mutual appreciation for “the overpowering nature of what music means to you and what images mean to you, and the indelible, beautiful stain they leave on your soul”.

The fruits of this partnership were unveiled in May, when Williams and Goodrich presented their first collection of artworks in London, in a solo exhibition organised by Sotheby’s. Their second body of work made its debut at Sotheby’s Dubai on November 30, in an exhibition titled Black and White Paintings II, which is on until December 16 and features 15 new works in the duo’s distinct style.

They are abstract, multilayered and monochromatic, dominated by white swirls that evolve into animal-like faces before tapering off into more ambiguous shapes and forms. Every time you look, there is something new to see.

“They are childlike paintings for naughty grown-ups,” Williams quips. “I think you can feel where we’ve been and you can feel what it’s meant to us and you can feel that there is a humour in the darkness. If you can relate to these paintings, you can relate to us.”

While the 14 works unveiled in London all had female names that were particularly common in the UK in the 1980s, this second collection has been granted with male monikers from the same era. There’s Alan, Brian, Clive, Mike, Simon, Steve, and even Trevor. Collectively, they are an expression of nostalgia — singularly spontaneous yet deeply rooted in a very specific time.

“The one thing you absolutely cannot deny is it is a super authentic process for them,” says Hugo Cobb, contemporary art specialist at Sotheby’s. “It’s a very real thing, something that is hugely personal and important to these artists.

“These are not carefully planned art works. The traditional way to make a painting would be to create a sketch or a study and build it up from there. This is coming from a completely different direction. They work listening to music; it is very fluid and very instinctive, and the canvases are built up like that.”

For Williams, it was Exit through the Gift Shop, a 2010 documentary directed by Banksy, that first planted the idea that perhaps art wasn’t the exclusive reserve of a gifted few. It was an alternative medium that offered an opportunity for him to flex new creative muscles. But even in this parallel realm — far from recording studios, record-breaking albums and world tours — music remains the driving force.

His own early interest in art was fuelled by the images he saw on album covers, from the graphics on electro albums and the image of a plane on the Beastie Boys’s Licensed to Ill, to Guns & Roses’ Appetite for Destruction and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. Rave culture, acid house and early hip-hop are among the many things that Williams and Godrich have bonded over, and music is integral to their creative process.

“Music is being listened to very very loudly when the work is happening,” Godrich says. “The paintings reflect the music we listen to — normally electronic dance music, which is why they have a lot of movement in them. I think if we listened to something quieter and slower, the paintings would be very different, so it’s a very important part of the process.”

It sounds like quite an intense set-up, but both agree there is something deeply meditative about the process. “You don’t struggle with intrusive thoughts,” Williams says. “You don’t struggle with your own lack of self-worth. You are just in the moment.

“So it is meditative. There are these primal beats that are being created by modern technology, but while that is happening around us, it facilitates something very human.”

Williams is apparently in charge of “the stop moment” — of deciding when the painting is done. Their mutual trust is implicit, they say. That they are in sync is obvious even as they talk. Williams is in a hotel room in Germany and Godrich is in his studio in the UK, but neither distance nor the technological barriers of Zoom stop them from finishing each others’ sentences or looking to each other for confirmation as they make a particular point.

More than two and a half decades since he embarked on his solo career, Williams has come to the realisation that there is value in being part of a team.

“It’s more fun being in Take That because it’s a shared experience,” he says with a wry grin.

“But there is also the ego that wants to take charge of every single option available to you, which is why I sit in my solo career. Nobody truly knows what it is to be a Robbie Williams. I don’t get to turn to anybody, apart from the mirror, and say this is [messed] up or this is exciting.

“But I get to share this. With this, we do get to look at each other when we think something we’ve created is exciting and to share that.

“It’s like when you write a song and you get excited because it’s something that the 14-year-old you would love. It’s the same with paintings. When you’ve done something or created something that you would buy, or put up in your own house, there is something very satisfying about that moment.”

The work shown so far “is just the first album”, Williams maintains. He’s hoping for many more, perhaps even a greatest hits compilation or two. “I see us building hotels and doing the interiors of those hotels. I’ve got big plans for this.

“My feeling for this is not monetary, although I will welcome anything we make from it. My feeling for this is: Where can we take it? How big can it be? It’s the satisfaction of doing something creative in the name of creativity. It’s unleashing the mind and seeing what is up there and what we, and I, are capable of.”

Williams says he has avoided reading any reviews of the works, but is clearly conscious that judgment of his artistic capabilities may be coloured by his not inconsiderable celebrity.

“I was scared about metaphorically having my head kicked in,” he says of the duo’s London debut. “That jump from music into the art world isn’t necessarily one that is encouraged by the people that view it.

“We had to be very careful about what the first glimpse of this partnership was. Because one bad stone could sink the ship. But the things that have been seen now are a small arm of what we are going to achieve,” he adds.

It has taken Williams and Godrich five years to reach this point, from their first attempt in the garage of Williams’s Los Angeles home, where, having acquired “more paint than you’ve ever seen before”, the pair began the laborious process of developing a style that felt authentic.

“We were stood there, in the garage, looking at the paints and looking at our backboards and going: ‘Okay, now what?” Williams recalls. “And then, through a series of happy mistakes and relentless beard scratching and puzzlement and confusion and self hatred, but mainly through the endeavour of not giving up, we have reached a process.

“It’s sort of like ‘Carry on Painting’.”

Black and White Paintings II is on at Sotheby's Dubai until December 16

Updated: November 30, 2022, 8:44 AM