Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Russell Quay, skiffle painter

[Excuse the oversized images in this post. WordPress have thoughtfully binned the old ‘classic’ editor, which worked perfectly, and have substituted a new, improved editor that resists all rational engagement with it. Maybe some day I’ll get the hang of it …]

Billy Bragg’s 2017 history of skiffle, Roots, Radicals and Rockers, covers a huge swathe of cultural history, not just duffel coats and washboards. I recommend it to anyone with a taste for the strangely remote yet familiar 1950’s.

In Bragg’s coverage of skifflers Hylda Sims and the City Ramblers we’re introduced to Hylda’s husband and musical collaborator Russell Quay (also Quaye) as a ‘modernist painter’ working in an ‘expressionistic style’. It’s a new name in art to me. Born in 1920, Quay had been a busker, a self-taught commercial artist, an anti-fascist and an RAF rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber before graduating post-war from Beckenham art school to live the Bohemian life in London. Red-bearded and aquiline, he was often photographed playing his cuatro (a four string guitar) and kazoo, clad at times in a cardie of the chunky, patterned variety that could only have been thought hip in the ‘fifties.

Russell Quaye with hand decorated cuatro – excuse the Shutterstock watermarks …

Quay’s online biographies tend to focus on the musical side of his career, while his art seems almost invisible. There are mentions of his portraits, from life, of Big Bill Broonzy and Pearl Bailey, but no sight of them. From the little I’ve seen, he turns out to have been a bit of a primitivist, borrowing from folk and outsider art and filtering this through the scratchy linear style typical of mid century graphics.Like skiffle – and the trad and folk revivals associated with it – his art seems an attempt to reconstruct a perceived authenticity.

Online, a search turns up The Revivalist Hall, described as pencil and watercolour, auctioned in 2008 alongside a little print titled The Hypochondriac; both were flogged off by Durham County Council Schools and Museum Service. In the print, a head and shoulders character examines himself with a stethoscope. In the painting, a huge red balloon extends from the preacher’s mouth, containing the Lamb of God (given as a ‘goat’ as in the auction description) with a visible Sacred Heart, the Cross, the Serpent and the flames of Hellfire. This has personal significance. According to Pete Frame’s The Restless Generation (2007), Quay had been raised in a fierce Baptist church where tongues were spoken. In Frame’s account of Hylda Sims’ recollections, Russell’s mother had been in love with the presiding minister, but killed herself on discovering that he had been carrying on with other women in the congregation.  

In 2019 a ‘mixed media’ item (possibly a cut out print applied to a yellow background) went under the hammer for a mere £20. It is signed, dated 1950 and titled as ‘Bessie Smith, Blues Singer’. Just as well, as Bessie’s likeness is not obvious in this generalised earth mother image, done in a sort of primitivised X-ray style. Today, should we be uncomfortable with this view of a black woman? I don’t think so. It’s clearly intended as honest but celebratory, and avoids the condescension that affects some images of black people by white British artists.

Beyond these, we can glimpse Quay’s hand in graphics and lettering that turn up on City Ramblers ephemera, record sleeves and instruments, including the four little musicians on a 1956 flier (illustrated in Bragg) for their Studio Skiffle nights. Russell Quay(e) died in 1984. Is any more of his artwork hidden anywhere online or tucked away in public collections?

The City Ramblers were heavily left leaning. A little oddly, they turn up in a Soviet film of 1957, in scenes of a Youth Festival in Moscow. Billy Bragg lays out the background to the making of the film, while the clip appears – of course – on YouTube. Click lower left to watch …

In uniform check shirts, the Ramblers perform Jelly Roll Morton’s Doctor Jazz. Russell and Hylda keep it swinging along nicely, and Pete Maynard is a whizz on the broom handle bass, though the into-the-camera blue-blowing solo is a cringe too far for me. Anyway, the audience seem to have enjoyed it, judging by the cutaway shots of them in various approved ethnic costumes.

 I suppose that, at one time, this clip would have made perfect sense …


Easter under a cloud

It might be me, but this Easter hasn’t felt much like Easter. We seem to be stuck in a crucifixion loop, and our sure and certain hope of the resurrection no longer feels so neat and tidy.

I’ve been plodding through the 14th century mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing. The anonymous author advises us to climb above our usual way of thinking of the kindness and worthiness of God:

’… thou shalt step above it stalwartly, but listily, with a devout and pleasing stirring of love, and try to pierce that darkness above thee. And smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love.’

But this is no longer just the spiritual aspiration of the individual contemplative, as it was for the writer of The Cloud. It has become our shared position in these plague years. That central great Benevolence to which we all looked, whatever we called it – is it really so benevolent now? We find ourselves faced by a thick cloud of unknowing, onto which the soul can only heave itself in its ignorance. We must step stalwartly above our assumptions about goodness, and go where there is nothing.

And when the cloud lifts, things may look very different.

If you can’t have a happy Easter, I hope you have a blessed one. And if you pray in any way, shape or form, please pray for the people of Myanmar.

Mississippi to Cambridge – Marie Battle Singer

A bit late in the day (my fault) but someone out there may still be interested. This site, during my more industrious phases, has made much mention of bad boy ‘fifties poet and marine biologist James Burns Singer, with passing mention of his wife, the remarkable Marie Battle Singer – ‘Britain’s first black psychoanalyst’.

On Wednesday 10th, from 6 to 7 pm, Profs Jane Rhodes and Lynn Hudson, authors of a biography in progress of Marie Singer, will be talking about her in an online webinar hosted by Wolfson College. ‘Despite her significant achievements, the lingering trauma of racial hatred and discrimination shaped every aspect of her personal and professional life …’

This should be of real interest, and I shall definitely be there. The talk requires booking, which can be done here. (Use the link at the end where it says ‘Website’ in bold.)

My thanks to Christine Tipple for alerting me to this event.

To read on this blog about Burns Singer (James Hyman Singer, Jimmy Singer), head for the two page tabs up above reading ‘The Transparent Prisoner’, and/or access various posts about him via the ‘Burns Singer’ tag from the cloud of tags on the right. The most recent of these concerns a hunt for the Burns Singer plaque and memorial birdbath placed by Marie Battle Singer in Jimmy’s memory in the churchyard of Little St Mary’s, Cambridge.

The next most recent includes a recollection by Cedra Osborne of Singer coming close to punching out painter Robert MacBryde for insensitively playing ‘Swanee River’ on the piano in Marie’s presence. Lingering trauma, indeed. Why, it could almost be happening today …


Death, grief and Bacon

A small thumbs up for Max Porter’s The Death of Francis Bacon (Faber, £6.99), in which the painter’s last days in 1992, attended by nuns in a Madrid hospital, are imagined as a series of confused reveries and recollections. It’s been saluted by many, but it’s also singled out for a good roughingup in the latest Private Eye.  

The Eye’s literary kickings are reserved for the feeble and the ‘difficult’, so Porter qualifies for the latter. The nameless reviewer laments the book’s shortness as a ‘novella’ but seems to have missed that it’s better understood as a long prose poem (74 small pages), which to some extent justifies the perceived difficulties of its collaged ‘modern manner. The Eye’s reviewer gets particularly exercised by this modernist register, damning it as ‘old-fashioned’. (A tired jibe – old fashioned, even.)

S/he particularly dislikes a robustly drunken, orgiastic section where speech slides about

Take a seat wh
                          y don’t you?rattdpissed as a afrt
       nstand upBackto me. Great long
gdrooping fagash, fooping drag ashnever
know what hethinking. Whatsehithiking.

which I like because I think it works splendidly. The Eye disagrees, putting the boot for good measure into poor old B S Johnson, who is too dead to defend himself:

I mean, B.S. Johnson was doing this kind of thing nearly half a century ago – see House Mother Normal (1971) … and it wasn’t particularly convincing back then.

Even if both these statements were true, it would hardly disqualify Porter from having another go today. In any case – reaching for my House Mother Normalthey’re not. Johnson, a brave writer, cuts up and disintegrates the written thoughts of elderly nursing home residents to suggest, pretty effectively I think, the thinning and decaying of their consciousness. So two fingers to Private Eye.

No. The problem here isn’t the form, which is fine and dandy, but the privileged nature of the content. If you don’t already know of George Dyer, John Deakin, Muriel Belcher and others who surface in Porter’s conjurations of Bacon’s dying ramblings – and why should you? – you’re at a disadvantage. There’s no explanatory intro, no contextual guidance, no wodge of Wasteland-type notes, which is an issue even down at the fine detail. For example:

I did it because it was easy, your profile, cut out, ready …

This put-down of Bacon’s suicided lover Dyer references a snipped-out portrait photo of his distinctive profile that Bacon used as a template for Dyer’s image on canvas. The cut-up photo survived among the famous studio detritus, but if you’ve not come across it, this profound and touching little passage will mean next to nothing.

Sympathetic reviewers have admitted this weakness‘brilliant notes towards a very private communion with the painter, which sometimes forgets there might also be a reader listening in’ (Tim Adams, The Guardian); ‘needs to be self-reliant, not crying out for its own exhibition notes’ (Johanna Thomas-Corr, New Statesman). Even the rather tacky verdict of ‘tricky, wicked and wonderfully weird’ (Laura Freeman, Spectator) reads as an admission of bafflement. There’s a bigger debate to be had here, of course.

One last bone to pick – are these the reveries of a man who thinks that he may soon die? He has, after all, put himself, body and soul, under the care of nuns. His diminishing into the moment of death is acknowledged – ‘pure throb colour on the heart inside’ – but the possibilities of death as a passage, or of some sort of repentance (I use the word carefully) seem closed to Porter. In fact much from these sequences could be detached from the context of Bacon’s dying to make a set of floating contemplations on a selection of his paintings. (Did they start life that way?) There is much that is dark in this book, but grief and metaphysics are carefully avoided.

Oh, and did the sisters really pun his nickname as ‘Piggy’? Surely not. It’s kind of clever, but it irritates. Even so, beyond these reservations The Death of Francis Bacon is a very able and recommendable piece of writing.

I read that  Porter is a winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize. (Though I can’t buy Stuart Kelly’s comparison of Porter to Thomas in his Scotsman review of this book. Porter’s style here evokes modernisms that both pre and post-date the neo-romantics of the ‘forties.) Putting down Porter I happened to pick up J M Brinnin’s 1956 best seller Dylan Thomas in America, which might almost be titled The Death of Dylan Thomas. It’s a long, exhausting read, chronicling every face, every pint and every drunken row, culminating in Thomas’ awful collapse and death and in Caitlin Thomas’ epic despair and immediate hospitalisation.

As it happens, Dylan Thomas, like Francis Bacon, died in a hospital attended by nuns. Caitlin, in her reactive rage, demolished a nearby crucifix and a statue of the Virgin, as well as taking chunks out of a few doctors, nurses and nuns on her way to the exit. There’s proper grief for you.


Bow down mister!

Here’s an Aubrey Beardsley for Christmas. I sometimes imagine that Beardsley’s at his best only at his most cheekily perverse, but it’s not necessarily so.

And he certainly knew how to use his white spaces.

It’s not right to kneel before princes, politicians, celebrities or billionaires. Nor before symbols of ‘sovereignty’. But faced with the mysteries of birth and childhood, how else should we respond?

As the song goes, bow down mister – and mizz.

Happy Christmas!

Eileen Agar’s fish tank

My ongoing catch-up reading has caught up with a couple of Oxfam bargains. The first is Michel Remy’s very useful 2017 monograph Eileen Agar. Dreaming Oneself Awake. (Useful for the biography and for the sheer wealth of colour images of Agar’s works, perhaps more than for the attempts to interpret them.)

Eileen Agar in 1935. Solarised photo by Helen Muspratt

British surrealist Agar turns out to have been a rather posh person, with a handy private income. Though she was mightily talented, some of her work – her collage in particular – seems light and uneven to me, and one wonders if it might have shown tighter quality if she’d had to graft for a living, rather than partying round the Med with the Surrealist artistocracy. (I’ve always considered The Apes of God, Wyndham’s Lewis’s merciless 1930 satire on the painting classes as privileged dilettantes, to be a little harsh, but sometimes you do wonder.)

However, much of Agar’s work is both skilfully composed and unexpectedly tasteful, including this evocative untitled box of 1935 (below), tastefully stuffed with netting, coral, a seahorse and a (readymade?) eye of Horus. All it lacks is (discounting the recumbent seahorse) some fish. I think it may pre-date narrowly the surrealist boxes of Joseph Cornell (n.b. an impoverished artist who was obliged to survive by menial work). It suggests, as Remy notes, a miniature theatre, but it also seems to me to sit in the traditions of aquarium design and prehistoric submarine landscapes.

I’m out of my
zone here, but I seem to recall that home aquaria started with the Victorians. My late parents’ 1940’s Concise Household Encyclopedia has full instructions on how to knock one up from wood, slate and “cathedral glass”.

Interestingly, the version illustrated (above) is just water, fish and plants, with none of the complex drowned skeletons, submarines, wrecked pirate ships, steampunk spaceships etc that these days dominate display tanks in garden centres, sidelining the fish. I guess that ornamenting your tank with plastic clutter must have started in the ‘sixties. (In case you’re concerned that the fish here look a bit claustrophobic, a helpful note explains that they are rendered in scale with each other but not with the tank.)

To me, Agar’s box also hints at those visionary
prehistoric underwater dioramas that have long been a staple of children’s improving popular science books; my 1950’s Time Life The World We Live In had some great fold-out plates of prehistoric panoramas of improbable busy-ness, including one chock full of swimming trilobites and the like. Losing myself in these other-worldly painted landscapes was about as far as I ever got with science. Above is an early version of the same idea – an “Ideal view of marine life in the Carboniferous Period” from my edition of Louis Figuier’s The World Before the Deluge of 1866. (One of many such plates in the book, mostly populated by oddly drawn dinosaurs biting each other, at least until Adam and Eve turn up in a primevally pastoral frontispiece.)

 did wonder about the detached eye of Horus in Agar’s box, until I noticed the squid-like thing in this diorama photo, whose eye floats among the fronds and tentacles, alone and disconcerting, in much the same way. This Ordovician diorama is in the American Museum of Natural History, and the photo is on the back cover of Celeste Olalquiaga’s The Artificial Kingdom. A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience (1998), which gallops exhaustingly through as many aquaria, cabinets of curiosities, paperweights and grottoes as you can handle. The text is academically impenetrable in some places but illuminating in others. Ms Olalquiaga’s very interesting website is here. (I emailed her about something kitsch-related in 2012 but I never had a reply.)

My wife and I, house hunting, once looked around a suburban semi that had been imaginatively done out by its owner, who claimed to be a builder and decorator. The kitchen was in black and white, with a chess themed ceiling, but the most impressive feature was a tank of tropical fish in the hallway, its front glass set flush into the hall wall, so that the fish, plants and pirate ships were completely recessed. The hallway turned out to be adjacent to the garage, into which projected the full depth of the tank.

Geoffrey Hill fails the bookcase test

Like many, I dare say, I’ve been diverted lately by the home decor behind online talking heads of telly pundits and politicians. The pictures on their walls (or lack of) often say more than they do. Bookshelves likewise, particularly of those who turn some books to face the front, more show-offy than narrow spines.

As I’ve run out of bookshelf length to absorb my unruly piles of unread lockdown purchases, I thought I might try doubling up like this. Once decked out, my bulging poetry shelves looked pretty good (see pic) – but where then to start the catch-up reading? It’s hard to rate priority among so much. Better to hand over selection to some mechanical or metaphysical agency, like the I Ching or whatever.

As some of my thicker layers of front-facing volumes began to wobble on their narrow cliff edges, it occurred to me that I could start by eliminating anything that fell off of its own volition. For a moment or two, nothing happened. Basil Bunting, quite rightly, stayed firm. Anne Sexton stood her ground. Even the Peter Russells, which I’d hoped to give a miss, declined to take a dive. Then, with a gratifying slap, three slim and unstable Geoffrey Hills toppled into a box of old envelopes and parcel tape on the floor below. My mind was made up for me.

Picking them up, I found that The Orchards of Syon (2002) had decided to fall open at XXVIII, where “the greatest living poet in the English language” (according to the back cover) starts off rather promisingly:

Wintry swamp-thickets, brush-heaps of burnt light,
The sky cast-iron, livid with unshed snow.
I cannot say what it is that best
survives these desolations. Something does,
unlovely; indomitable as the mink.

Excellent, love it, so far so good. But then, perhaps jolted off course by the intrusion of the mink, Hill interrupts his own progress with a mystifying memo to self:

Raise this with the sometime Overseer
for his stiff Compliments Book. Nothing left
to take leave of, if by any chance  
you happened to be dying before colour
variety leapt to the blank screen. That
helps me to place my thoughts …

The late Sir Geoffrey. With Intimidating bookcase.

It doesn’t help me to place mine. As so often when toiling up Geoffrey Hill, the overwhelming sentiment, as my friend and correspondent Bill Bennett said, is “What the hell is he on about?” I don’t know, but within a few lines he’s onto italicised words in unrecognisable languages, and referencing Hardy titles. You need a big bookcase just to look it all up. This is footnote or crossword stuff, and reveals little but the over-specialised character of Hill’s own bookshelves. A lofty mind of the first order seeks to demonstrate its ironic control of an inner core of sense feeling, but can’t resist showing off, and ends up, lazily, talking only to itself. My bookcase test is vindicated.

To get away, let’s go right back to “Genesis”, from For the Unfallen, Hill’s first collection of 1959:

Against the burly air I strode
Crying the miracles of God.

And first I brought the sea to bear
Upon the dead weight of the land;
And the waves flourished at my prayer,
The rivers spawned their sand.

And where the streams were salt and full
The tough pig-headed salmon strove,
Ramming the ebb, in the tide’s pull,
To reach the steady hills above.

And likewise for another four sections. A pity Hill’s work declined from here. I’ve been told that this is about Christopher Smart and his wrestlings with, and celebrations of, the exuberant barbarity of Creation. At any rate, I think it’s perhaps the most beautiful and treasurable poem by anyone that I’ve yet read, particularly the first two lines.

In their earlier outings – in Hill’s Fantasy Press booklet of 1952 and in G S Fraser’s Poetry Now anthology of 1956 – these two lines were actually three:

Against the burly air I strode,
Where the tight ocean heaves its load,
Crying the miracles of God.

The original second line is very fine, but I can see why the tight ocean was sacrificed. In the reduced couplet, Kit Smart strides alone, huge and stark against an empty sky. With not so much as a hint of a bookcase in sight.

Nostalgia for no known face: the poems of Cameron Cathie

In among my stacks of unread or under-read books (theyve peaked exponentially under lockdowns) is a slimbeige volume of verseNostalgia for No Known Place by Cameron Cathie, published in 1938 by Roger Ingram. (I know nothing about this publisher except that by the ‘forties their output had shifted to reprints of classics.This modest collection of some two dozen poems comes in a numbered edition of 250, the front jacket flap bearing a tepid endorsement by no less than Richard Church – ‘I have found much in your work to interest me … Good fortune to your first book’ – which doesn’t bode well. However, an inside note reveals that some of the poems had previously been published in Comment, the busy little mag edited from 1935 to 1937 by Sheila MacLeod and Victor Neuberg, whose contributors (according to Miller and Price’s invaluable British Poetry Magazines 1914-2000) included Dylan Thomas, Ruthven Todd, G S Fraser etc, which is more like it.

So who was Cameron Cathie? I can’t say I’ve found that much. Born in Finchley in 1910 to parents who were both musicians, he changed his name by deed poll in 1942 to Dermot Cathie, but seems to have been known in full as Dermot (or Diarmid) Cameron Cathie. Early in the war he served in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, so I’m assuming that he was a pacifist and conscientious objector. His life’s work was in acting. He first trod the boards in 1932, became a stalwart of the BBC rep company, and produced a stage version of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 1942.

The regretful homesickness of the title of Cathie’s little book is at one remove, the ‘no known place’ being an Ireland that London-born Cathie cannot truly reclaim. In the title poem an Irish voice imagines that lost landscape while mooching round Kensington Gardens and indulging in angsty theatrical metaphors for time, love etc.

There are faults, of course. His musings, sometimes a bit indisciplined, can veer off into the inconsequential, and the significances of what are clearly intended as significant moments are not necessarily felt by the reader. Cathie’s occasional habit of bathetically juxtaposing the archaic and the banal, like this –

O Love, Love, how cold thou canst be
at four a.m., on deck or in the saloon!

– is not as witty as he thinks, and can come across as showy, annoying. His style is sometimes sometimes sunk by appended lyrical platitudes such as:

But love / is in no need of gesture


Count not the daffodils / Till they bloom

Quite. Elsewhere, in contrast, it’s too jerky, with a few awkward elisions that could even be typo’s for all I can tell.

But despite the patchiness of the poems, I invested my humble fiver in his book because I like his voice, which is wry, cynical, with a slightly offbeat, young man’s weariness. To be fair, Cathie is at least a half decent poet, and at times it all works quite well, as here from ‘Rose and Crown’:

I read his fate
in a tankard
tanging and heady
with iridescent gas …

… penultimate as last orders
certain as time gentlemen please
there offered a moment
untouchable behind him behind

glass doors that swing no more
and he’s alone at three
in windshining autumnal
verisimilitude of streets.

Those were the days, when the pubs closed after lunch. Let’s finish with more than an excerpt, the full two stanzas of The Gentle Wind Doth Move Silently, Invisibly (title borrowed from William Blake’s ‘Love’s Secret):

My loins girded with nervous tension,
temples and hair with fillet of steel;
spirit plashing unconscious shallows;
I come between fragments of speech from afar.

Your eyes trace the slow bewildering trajectory
till I look on the words’ source, moving me, gleaming anew:
stares from your eyes, stares ecstasy back on me,
come between fragments of speech from afar.

I rather like this, despite the arbitrary punctuation. (Does ‘I come’ mean here what it seems to mean? Maybe. Sex is happily present among these poems.)

Classy special effect from ‘They Came from Beyond Space’

Post-war, Dermot Cathie moved via stage and radio to film, with a string of smallish roles. His chief Google fame is now the distinctly minor part of Peterson in They Came from Beyond Space, Freddie Francis’s laughable (read ‘cult’) Twickenham horror film of 1967. (So far down the cast list is Peterson that I can’t pick out Cathie in the online stills.) A brief cv, in Radio Who’s Who for 1947, concludes with this:Having neither hobby nor club, he says he anticipates an early death’. Happily, he did not die until 1993, aged 82. His cv, sadly, has no publicity mugshot with it.

Theres too much poor and mediocre poetry littering this world (I include my own attempts). But if Cameron/Dermot Cathie’s poems are clearly less than perfect, they’re a long way short of piffle. His endeavours in poetry and short story writing may have petered out by the start of the War, but it would be a shame if they were now to shuffle off into complete oblivion. Hence this post. I haven’t yet been able to put a face to him – ironic, for an actor – but I’d like to imagine that I can remember one.

Empathetic embodiment: the dance of Roger Pryor Dodge

I have stacks (literally) of neglected books to read. Prolonged isolation ought to facilitate some serious reading, but instead it only seems to encourage frivolous online twiddling. There’s enough seriousness outside in that there pandemic, without importing it, I suppose.

But one good thing that jumped out for me from my YouTube pickings is this – a mesmerising piece of jazz dance from 1937 by partners Roger Pryor Dodge and Mura Dehn. It’s worth a couple of minutes of your time, I promise. Dodge’s angularly Expressionist entrance is almost a Nosferatu moment.

Roger Pryor Dodge – ballet trained, photographer of Nijinsky, music writer, collaborator with Duke Ellington and the Marx Brothers, and much more – has a full Wikipedia entry, and a good page on his family’s website.  He’s said to have had all the Dodge-Dehn performances filmed, but this clip, online in a few places, is the only example I can spot. I post it for your enjoyment, but also in case someone who comes across it here can point me to any more footage of Dodge and Dehn accessible online. (If you can, please leave a link in a ‘comment’.)

Jazz dance by white Greenwich Village intellectuals might, I suppose, be nowadays damned as an insulting cultural appropriation, but Dodge does not imitate black dancers of the time, let alone parody them. His approach is sympathetic to their art and deeply understanding of it, but his Modernist costume and choreography are essentially original, things in themselves.

Anyway, as the excellent David Olusoga said yesterday (in the context of historical trauma, during an online Q&A organised by the University of Aston), even when we cannot embody, we can at least aim to empathise.  I find that a humane and reassuring thought.

‘Bubber’ Miley and Dodge

Out of the ordinary: the paintings of Mabel Layng

In an email from Staffordshire Archives and Heritage comes a little feature on the paintings of Mabel Frances Layng, a new name to me. Born in Macclesfield in 1881, she studied art under Frank Brangwyn at the London School of Art in Kensington around 1906-08. There’s a bit of the unfortunate influence of Brangwyn in her earlier stuff – technically deft but mannered and insincere, in shades of brown, with Italianate subjects such as ‘Strolling Players’ or ‘The Gypsy’. We can pass that over. (Click to enlarge images below.)


By the late teens and early twenties (the dating of all her work seems approximate) this seems to have shaken down, and the considerable virtuosity of her technique is applied with far more reward to daily, immediate concerns. There are some boy-girl pairings (‘The Holidaymakers’, ‘The Top of the Bus’ and the strangely beautiful ‘Mars and Venus’ of 1918) that hint at something autobiographical and clearly unfulfilled. (Mabel never married.) But her urban observations, mostly of women at their daily doings – at a tea room table, in shops, sewing alone, sitting on the bus – have extraordinary honesty and dignity. Figures and faces are largely unemotional, so there’s no attempt to wrap them in any literary or moral back-story; in this respect, though they haven’t the slightest whiff of the avant-garde, these images are truly modern. Beyond their sociological value (and I’m surprised they haven’t been thoroughly pillaged for the front covers of reprint novels of a certain vintage), there’s a touching intensity and truthfulness to them that is very rare.


As scenes of familiar daily life, they relate to an approach more usually associated with amateur artists of the time – the Ashington Group of ‘pitmen painters’ comes to mind – which in turn seems to have been an extension of the ‘mental picture’ of familiar situations promoted in the school art room by Marion Richardson and the teachers who followed her. Is there maybe an unspoken assumption in Layng’s work that a woman cannot really rise above amateurism, or is just a big child? Or that a woman’s proper subject matter must be limited to what is immediate to women? I’m not sure, but if so, the conspiracy backfires spectacularly, for out of the ordinary Layng makes something that is, well, rather out of the ordinary. 

Her images, at times almost existentialist statements, remark on the unremarkable. At their best, they recognise and celebrate human living and interaction without dramatising or falsifying it. They are sacramental because, in simply presenting (and presenting simply) the commonplace, they transfigure it. This is one of the things, from Schwitters’ Merz to Emin’s bed, that art does. Probably the most important thing it does. 


In her work of the late twenties or thereabouts, the distant influences of abstraction and ‘significant form’ have flattened and outlined the shapes, have self-consciously de-skilled the technique and de-sensitised the effect, while the situations chosen seem more formulaic, less intimate. To my mind, though attractive enough, these later paintings (see ‘Crossing the Street’ here) work less well. By 1930 it seems that Layng, having made her way, if not her fortune, as a professional painter, gave up her studio. Her last years were spent at Camberwell House, a private ‘asylum’ in South London, where, in 1937, she died in her mid-fifties. Did she paint there? The hospital’s surviving archives, now at the Wellcome Library, don’t cover that period.

After her death the family gave her unsold works to various provincial galleries, including a bunch to Stafford, where her father had once been Headmaster of the Edward VI School. Stafford Museum and Art Gallery closed in the 1990’s; its collection is now dispersed in dribs and drabs around other venues. The county’s Museum Service believes that Mabel Layng’s work should be better known. Maybe it would be if they had somewhere to hang their whole significant cache of it. 

Since just about every public gallery and museum outside London must now be wobbling on the cliff edge of closure, perhaps I shouldn’t carp. Though in these days when the commonplace interactions of Layng’s scenes have been rendered infectious and forbidden, we could do with a little reminder.

Her work can be seen online at Staffordshire Past Track and ArtUK.