Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

The tidiness of W S Graham’s untidy dreadful table

untidy dreadful tableAmong the sacred objects given to and preserved at the Scottish Poetry Library is the “Untidy Dreadful Table” written of by W S Graham in his extraordinary poem of that title. (Not that I’ve been to the library, but you can see the table on their site.)

The top has certainly suffered some wear, and photos show it to be strikingly patterned with long striations (from cutting food??) and shorter burns, apparently from cigarettes. The burns are surprisingly long, as if a cigarette lay fizzing away while Graham typed or wrote, and I’m struck by their even spread and variety of angle, and by the circumstance that few of them seem to overlay each other, as if Graham selected a new gap each time. Less a palimpsest than a construction.

The accumulated result has the appearance of calligraphy or of a piece of abstract art, of tachisme. Which is not surprising, given Graham’s own visual “installations”, the expressive qualities of his written worksheets, his strong friendships with painters – John Minton, the Two Roberts, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Bryan Wynter: some of Wynter’s painterly mark-making provides, if not a similarity, at least a point of comparison.

If the burns suggest unknown letter forms, if the table is “covered with words”, what is it saying?

untidy dreadful table 2
With apologies to their original photographers, I’ve cropped and heightened some online images of the table, to bring all this out. Here’s the poem, too.

untidy dreadful table 3Untidy Dreadful Table

Lying with no love on the paper
Between the typing hammers I spied
Myself with looking eyes looking
Down to cover me with words.

I won’t have it. I know the night
Is late here sitting at my table,
But I am not a boy running
The hide and seeking streets.

untidy dreadful table 4I am getting on. My table now
Shuffles its papers out of reach
With last year’s letters going yellow
From looking out of the window.

I sit here late and I hammer myself
On to the other side of the paper.
There I jump through all surprises.
The reader and I are making faces.

untidy dreadful table 5I am not complaining. Some of the faces
I see are interesting indeed.
Take your own, for example, a fine
Grimace of vessels over the bone.

Of course I see you backwards covered
With words backwards from the other side.
I must tackle my dreadful table
And go on the hide and seeking hill.

A couple of Vorticist angles

Following my previous post and new page on Cuthbert Hamilton, a couple more scraps relating to the Great English Vortex …

Helen Saunders, ‘Study for The Island of Laputa’ © Estate of Helen Saunders

In 1969 the d’Offay Couper Gallery put on Abstract Art in England 1913-1915, which claimed to be the first attempt since 1915 to display a comprehensive collection of Vorticist work. I’ve just acquired a copy of the catalogue, which reveals that the show was surprisingly rich, if a bit Bomberg-heavy. It also allows me to make a couple of small amendments to my “galleries” for Helen Saunders and Lawrence Atkinson (tabs above) by adding images of Saunders’s study for The Island of Laputa, and of the original version of Atkinson’s very beautiful Vital.

Lawrence Atkinson, ‘Vital’

In 1969 Dorothy Shakespear and Kate Lechmere (among others associated with the movement) were still alive. Blimey. But then, 1969 was only four years after the mid point between 1915 and now. And, as it says in BLAST 1, the Future is distant, like the Past, and therefore sentimental.

Meanwhile, it’s been two years since we looked in on the prolific craftsmanship of eBay seller Raymond of Mortlake, aka “mortlakeunion2009”, who is still feverishly banging out pastiches of Vorticist works, as well tackling the cubisms of Leger, Marcoussis, Popova, Gleizes and a dozen more, and who shows no signs of fatigue. (See previous posts here and here.) In his six years on eBay, Raymond has racked up nearly 1500 sales of paintings and drawings, often in batches to repeat buyers Europe-wide. Feedback shows that 99% are happy with what they know full well to be fakes, though in a few cases the penny seems to have dropped after the event:

“Too new for Saunders, but a nice composition in her style”

“art works are fake, reported to ebay”

“The watercolour was sticked on a carton with a sticked frame. Good for trash”

“faux authentique. Attention !”

“Foot[sic] tooth and nail to avoid giving a refund for substandard workds[sic]. Avoid”

“bad imitation, fake and FALSE PAINTING on cardboard modern replica”

(To this last, Mortlake has responded in bristling self-defence: “PAINTED ON OLD PAPER AND ATTACHED TO MODERN CARDBOARD”.)

Among the many hundreds of positives, one buyer has commented, apparently without a trace of irony, “love this sellers detailed provenance”.

I imagine Raymond perhaps as an embittered shop steward of the Communication Workers’ Union or TGWU (both have offices in Mortlake), burning away the midnight hours cranking out his decorative fakes as an act of social revenge. Or perhaps not. But anyway, here are a few more of his old Vorts, and some newer ones, just for the record or just for fun … (Click for slide show.)

David Bomberg

William Roberts

Wyndham Lewis


Cuthbert Hamilton: a poor little gallery

Hamilton as remembered by William Roberts

Hamilton as remembered by William Roberts

This is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, delayed only by awareness of certain inadequacy where Cuthbert J Hamilton is concerned. Cuthbert who? You know, the invisible Vorticist, the one in a hat at the left of William Roberts’s Tour Eiffel group, the could-almost-be-anyone gent sitting (wearing spats?) in one of the Rebel Art Centre photos of 1914.

'Self Portrait' 1920

‘Self Portrait’ 1920

Our biographical knowledge of Hamilton is not much further on than forty years ago: within Wyndham Lewis’s network working on decorations for the Golden Calf, at the Omega Workshops and Rebel Art Centre, signing the BLAST manifesto. Special constable during the war, founded and produced ceramics at the Yeoman Pottery in Kensington, participant in the Group X show of 1920. Skip forty years to his death in Cookham in April 1959. One painting in the Tate, one pot at the V&A.

So on a new page (click here, or find the tab up top) are all the works by Hamilton I can find, put critically into some sort of chronological order. It’s not much, but some of it is excellent stuff …

Mr Gartsides and the Giles-like gnomes

I didn’t have much of an art education. My secondary school (a hopelessly narrow Direct Grant Grammar) had just the one part time art teacher, Mr Brown, who taught the first couple of year groups only, and spent most of his time carving memorial tablets or fabricating ambitiously elaborate box sets for school plays. But at least he (alone of all the staff) had a great beard.

I later had reason to be personally grateful for his support of my extra-curricular artistic leanings, but I was perplexed at first by his scrupulous, near total abstinence from any direction in lessons. “Boys,” he would suggest, “you’ll have seen the Lord Mayor’s Show on television the other day; do me a lively painting of the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Lots of colour.” Or he would chalk up some brief topic – “A Picnic on a Sunny Day” or “A Storm at Sea” – and after the briefest discussion of its possibilities would bugger off to the back of the art room and chip away at a piece of granite while we got on with it. Pupils were unavoidably distracted under this lax regime; a friend and I once experimented to see how far we could shoot the cap off a fat, unopened tube of white by “accidentally” dropping it on the floor and lowering a chair leg onto it. (It went a long way, and an impressive trail of rich white paint went with it.) But Mr Brown handled any mischief or spilt paint with experienced patience.

Marion Richardson

Marion Richardson

Was he a uniquely lazy teacher? I admit that I thought so. Only many years later, encountering the art education theories of Marion Richardson and her many followers, did I realise that this was the progressive orthodoxy of the times. The good Mr Brown would rather have chiselled off his own drawing hand than interfere with our intrinsic creativity by presuming to direct and advise, or even, within the limits of practicality, quell our chatter. His duty was to set the ambience, to provide sugar paper and paint, and to present a neutral stimulus; our childish and privileged urge to self expression would do the rest.

art and the childMarion Richardson pioneered her child-centred art teaching at Dudley Girls’ High School from 1912, winning the attention and approval of Roger Fry, no less, though her book Art and the Child was not published until 1948, posthumously. By then her spontaneist methods, in various degrees of exaggeration or dilution, had become mainstream, and were not challenged until the plodding sub-Bauhaus “basic design” approach came along in the ‘sixties.

In a chapter of Rotting Hill (1951), his entertaining chronicle of post-war drabsterity, the ageing writer and painter Wyndham Lewis encounters an apostle of Richardson (filtered via Herbert Read) in the unlikely shape of Walter Gartsides, pugnacious Geordie and ex-Indian army sergeant, now demobilised and retrained as a slum school art teacher:

“A thigh thrown over a desk, an arm akimbo, his utility shoe dangling, the children were addressed by Gartsides; and their fidgety little eyes popped out of their curly little heads. They were told that what was spontaneous was best. Spontaneous meaning what spurts up, free and uncontrolled,  not fed out by a nasty tap … They would get no direction from him, his role was that of a helpful looker-on. Ready to give a hand, that was all …

… The children – typical Giles-like gnomes from the neighbouring sooty alleys and crapulous crescents – were of course alarmed and excited. Then he appeared one morning with a number of tins of house-painters’ colours and a couple of dozen suitable brushes … He pointed dramatically to the walls of the classroom crying: ‘Here’s paints and brushes and there’s the old wall! Attaboy! Paint me some pitchers on it!’

His petrified class suddenly saw the light. With squeaks of rapture they went to work. Soon the walls, part of the ceiling, as well as the cupboards and doors and even some areas of the floor of the class-room were as rich with crude imagery as the walls of a public lavatory. Some of the children were smeared from head to foot with paint.”

When school inspectors view the outcome, Gartsides escapes dismissal by feigning imbecility.


A “fine, rough artlessness”: ‘Fenland Couple on the Costa Brava’ by Melville Hardiment

Did this apocalyptic outbreak of infantile spontaneity actually take place? One hopes so. But “Gartsides” is Lewis’s semi-fictionalised caricature of the real Melville Hardiment (1915-1996), painter, poet, teacher and editor. Hardiment was indeed an ex-regular sergeant but was from the Cambridgeshire Fens, not Durham, studied  at Camberwell under Victor Pasmore, and taught at Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, not in the slums of Bermondsey. He visited Lewis several times, finding the older man’s “faded flat” suggestive of  “decayed gentility”, and conversed much. For his part, Lewis approved of Hardiment’s no-nonsense attitude:

“I rather liked Mr Gartsides. I even secretly wished him luck …  That that day to this I have breathlessly followed his career. He has grown to be a somewhat different person: but he retains, to the full, his fine, rough artlessness.”

A somewhat different person indeed. Hardiment was already a Second World War poet. (Three remarkably brutal pieces are anthologised in the Oasis collection of 1983.) He went on, among many other things, to champion school magazines, co-editing (with Caroline Benn, wife of Tony) a failing periodical on the subject, Antiphon, but he is best remembered for being the man who introduced William Burroughs to LSD (or tried to). He is stated to have been “familiar with the London underworld” and to have had five wives and nine children. There will simply have to be a proper post devoted to Hardiment here shortly (or to as much as I can currently trace of him).

School art lessons pre-Gartsides, as seen by Giles

School art lessons pre-Gartsides, as seen by Giles

Likewise a post or two on the vexed history of school art in the 20th century, drawing from my dusty accumulation of vintage manuals of art teaching. The Giles cartoon reference by Lewis was spot on, by the way. In Giles’s world of school, even post-war art lessons were still reduced to silent Victorian copying exercises under the dreadful gaze of the cadaverous “Chalky”. Only rarely (in particular in woodwork) might real mayhem break free …

The Two Roberts on film, Arthur Berry on show

stillYes! At last! The 1959 Monitor Ken Russell short film, “Scottish Painters”, is available, complete and online – here, two thirds of the way down the BBC’s page marking the boys’ Edinburgh National Gallery retrospective, just finished. Sadly, you didn’t read it first here; in fact, the film’s been up since the start of February, and, to my shame, I hadn’t even noticed, so many thanks to Jack Doyle for the nudge.

Here’s a direct link:

I have a definite but indistinct memory of watching this in 1959 – the MacBryde sequence, with the Satie soundtrack, in particular. I would have been ten years old. Half a century on, it’s extraordinary to see the Roberts breathing and moving, to hear MacBryde’s remarkably gentle and meditative voice, and to see a familiar canvas or two in mid-progress. The cart in the opening and closing sequences seems a bit of a Russell contrivance, but what the hell – this is an absolute gem.

(Much more here regarding The Roberts on the “Colquhoun & MacBryde” pages tabbed up above.)

berry bookOn a parallel theme, news arrives from Barewall Gallery in Burslem of a significant show of Arthur Berry and L S Lowry starting in late July at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley and running till next January. (Nothing up yet about this on the PM & AG’s own site.) This will be the first major showing of Arthur Berry since a retrospective of 1984. I know that Berry rated the paintings of the Matchstick Man, but personally I could happily lose the Lowry here; Berry was the far greater talent. Though if it takes the Lowry populist peg to hang this on, to remind Potteries folk of Berry’s remarkable legacy, so be it.

That legacy includes his writings, most valuably his plays. I recall with great pleasure Dr Fergo’s Last Passion at the Victoria Theatre in 1979. When the Doctor’s gormless assistant Klondyke launched into a tearful song about his lost tortoise – “Me toytoy’s gone an’ ‘e wunna cum wom …” – my wife and sister-in-law, Stokies both, became quite literally helpless with laughter, for a considerable period.

(Use the “Arthur Berry” tag – tag cloud on the right here – for more Berry-related posts.)

In the Temple of Lost Marbles

Nothing recent here, I know. Apologies. (Energy has been spent elsewhere, on my other blog, which readers of this one are unlikely to find of interest.) Image222But a recent shopping trip Up North brought an opportunity to gawp at the Trafford Centre, Greater Manchester’s jaw-dropping acid-classical Xanadu of kitsch. Mancunians perhaps have grown blasé about their local outbreak of Delirium Tremendous, but for the rest of us the obvious question is: was there ever a moment in the late ‘nineties, when this shopping centre was built, when an opium reverie blended from bits of De Chirico, Dali, Alma-Tadema, Piranesi and Robin Ironside was actually the expected flavour of the weekend retail experience? Because if there was, I must have missed it. So the next question has to be: what on earth were the Trafford’s architects and designers on?

Maybe this has something to say about our troubled perceptions of The Past in the run up to the Year 2000 – the Trafford as fin-de-millénaire panic gone large. It certainly involves a late, disturbingly decadent, and Image243hallucinatory version of neo-classicism, drawn less from Praxiteles than from Canova. Unaccountably meaningless and garbled murals jostle with palm trees, real marble Caesars, golden fountains, distant obelisks and massy Egyptian colonnades – more post-ancient than post-modern, in fact. Then, for good measure, just when you think you may be coming down, streets out of Old Beijing and New Orleans lure you into a vast, starlit, subterranean eatery done out like an ocean liner complete with swimming pool. Only the iceberg is absent.

Despite the unrelenting and unsettling oddness of it all, it seems unknowing, as if irony was not the intention and this was someone’s sincere idea of quality for the masses. The occasional statue would be unremarkable in a shopping mall, but here the sheer, overwhelming weight of pastiche and incongruity topples the whole installation off at a tangent in the direction of the astral plane. Can you tell that I’m impressed? I’m not sure that any photo can really contain the Trafford’s Full-on Bonkers Effect, but here’s a gallery of fifty snaps from my (rather pre-modern) phone. Click for the slide show and dip into the trip!

Flânerie and loss on the 43 bus: Jessie Dismorr and Rosemary Tonks

‘It is possible that we are being led by different ways into the same prohibited and doubtful neighbourhood.’

Jessie Dismorr, ‘Promenade’, 1915

Jessie Dismorr by Wyndham Lewis, 1922

Jessie Dismorr by Wyndham Lewis, 1922

The new Flashpoint online magazine has a useful piece by Francesca Brooks on Jessie Dismorr, Vorticist painter, poet and flâneuse, whose artworks and writings can be found extensively on my pages up above. Brooks focuses pretty much entirely on Dismorr’s two urbanist prose poems published in 1915 in Blast 2. Her tie-in of Dismorr with Guy Debord and the dérive is apt and necessary; we can easily overlook the romantic roots of situationist thought, and the dérive is derived from Baudelairean flânerie. Brooks’s bracketing of Dismorr with Virginia Woolf is viable, if a little elastic. A closer relation to Dismorr’s poetic urbanism might be Hope Mirrlees’s explosively modernist poem Paris of 1919;  Mirrlees was well acquainted with the Woolfs (whose Hogarth Press published Paris), so there’s the link to Virginia if you want it.

Rosemary Tonks, 1968

Rosemary Tonks, 1968

But perhaps we can also relate Dismorr to the later British Baudelairean and flâneuse Rosemary Tonks, whose work has been subjected to a rediscovery following her death in 2014. (Not too great a stretch; Tonks was published by the mid ‘fifties, and the distance between Dismorr and Tonks is less than that between Tonks and today.)

To illustrate the relation, here’s a juxtaposition of two journeys by Dismorr and Tonks, each on the upper deck of a London bus. First, from Dismorr’s venture aboard a number 43 with her annoying suitor ‘Roderigo’, in ‘June Night’ of 1915. (This was an inward journey. The 43 route ran from Muswell Hill to London Bridge.) Roderigo is later left on the bus, as Dismorr wanders London on foot, abandoning the romantic, protecting male and pioneering the occupation of metropolitan spaces by the lone emancipated woman.

‘No 43 bus, its advertisements all lit from within, floats towards us like a luminous balloon.  We cling to it and climb to the top. Towards the red glare of the illuminated city we race through interminable suburbs. These are the bare wings and corridors that give on to the stage. Swiftness at least is exquisite. But it makes me too emotional. Amazing, these gymnastic agitations of the heart! Your blindness, my friend Roderigo, is your most intelligent attribute.

Claude Flight, 'Descent from the Bus', 1927

Claude Flight, ‘Descent from the Bus’, 1927

The Park, to our left, glimmers through strips of iron. Its lawns of antique satin are brocaded with elaborate parterres, whose dyes are faded beyond recognition. Dark as onyx with rims of silver are the little pools that suck in the dew. The tea-kiosk of whitened stucco is as remote as a temple shuttered up against the night. My desires loiter about the silent spaces.

We stop for passengers at Regent’s Corner. Here crowds swarm under green electric globes. Now we stop every moment, the little red staircase is besieged. The bus is really too top-heavy. It must look like a great nodding bouquet, made up of absurd flowers and moths and birds with sharp beaks. I want to escape but Roderigo is lazy and will not stop warbling his infuriating lovesongs. Ribbons of silver fire start into the air, and twist themselves into enormous bows with fringes of tiny dropping stars. Everybody stands up and screams. These people are curious, but not very interesting; they lack reticence. Ah, but the woman in the purple pelisse is too beautiful! I refuse to look at her when she stares round.

It is hot for a night in June. “Che, che, la donna.” Roderigo, you have a magnificent tenor voice, but you bore me. Your crime is that I can no longer distinguish you from the rest of the world.’

And here is a bit of Tonks’s comparable solo London bus trip (route number not given) in ‘An Old-fashioned Traveller on the Trade Routes’, published in 1967:

‘I was sitting upstairs in a bus, cursing the waste of time, and pouring my life away on one of those insane journeys across London – while gradually the wavering motion of this precarious glass salon, that flung us about softly like trusses of wheat or Judo Lords, began its medicinal work inside the magnetic landscape of London.

The bus, with its transparent decks of people, trembled. And was as uniquely ceremonious in propelling itself as an eminent jellyfish with an iron will, by expulsions, valves, hisses, steams, and emotional respirations. A militant, elementary, caparisoned Jellyfish, of the feminine sex, systematically eating and drinking the sea.

I began to feel battered as though I had been making love all night! My limbs distilled the same interesting wide-awake weariness.

We went forward at a swimmer’s pace, gazing through the walls that rocked the weather about like a cloudy drink from a chemist’s shop – with the depth and sting of the Baltic. The air-shocks, the sulphur dioxides, the gelatin ignitions!’

But another, quite different point of contact between Dismorr and Tonks is their abrupt and near absolute abandonment of writing. After some vicious comments in The Little Review of 1919 Dismorr‘s poetry underwent a 15 year hiatus and the following year she suffered a nervous breakdown. In the late ‘seventies, after a series of personal and health crises, Rosemary Tonks repudiated her writings entirely and began a largely solitary religious life, sparking literary chatter of a ‘vanishing’.

In Tonks’s poems the urge to ‘escape’ had already motivated her urban wanderings:

‘It is among the bins and dormitories of cities …
That one goes to gormandise upon Escape!’

But this lifestyle was marked by a deep and growing self-disgust –

‘… if you knew the exotic disgust that grips me
After another bestial night
As we come in, broken …’

– and a consequent crisis of the sense of self:

‘And afterwards you’ll live in no man’s land,
You’ll lose your identity, and never get yourself back, diablotin,
It may have happened already, and as you read this …
Ah, it has happened already.’

The urge to escape the existing self – whether through boredom, despair or disgust – can visit any of us. In this Age of Choice we believe that it is our right to be free of it, and are furnished with a variety of means to that end, ranged along the safety spectrum: a new hair style, moving house, body modification, transvestism, multiple personality disorder, dissociative fugue, suicide. While for the writer there is the option to write about something different in a different way, to become a different writer and so a different person. Or even to reject writing itself.

bedouinIn Tonks’s case a double standard seems to operate. With the best will in the world Neil Astley’s introduction to Bloodaxe’s new Tonks Collected, Bedouin of the London Evening, betrays some pejorative assumptions about Tonks’s post-writerly life – ‘self torturing’, ‘socially challenged’ and so on. OK then for Rimbaud, Tonks’s model as a poet, to abandon writing and disappear into an African sunset when gun running or whatever he got up is seen as modishly edgy. Not so acceptable somehow for the elderly Mrs Rosemary Lightband neé Tonks to be handing out translations of the Bible at Speaker’s Corner, or (most unforgiveable of all)  incinerating her priceless collection of Oriental artefacts, which she had come to regard as dangerous and undermining idols. But what do we really want here – a miserable writer or a happier human being?

As Astley reveals, Tonks’s single minded reliance on the love of God freed her from healers and mediums, from sleeping tablets, from depression and from fear. So what if she characterised her bouts of depression as Satan’s attempts to undermine her? Perfectly reasonable, for such they were and are, if the term ‘Satan’ is to have any useful meaning. And birdsong and great music were for her positive influences direct from God? Well, that’s undeniable.

Though if the gain was hers and the loss is entirely ours, it is, to be fair, a real loss. An apposite message about Tonks arrived recently from Robert Worby, of Radio 3’s Hear and Now:

‘Last night I had a powerful, resonant dream about her. I found myself in a disused library that seemed to be part of something like a church institution: a WI meeting place maybe. It was dilapidated with books and papers scattered about the floor. As I wandered around I found copies of Tonks’s books and what seemed to be handwritten manuscripts. I was flabbergasted; I couldn’t believe my luck. I collected them together with the intention of taking them away but an elderly lady politely announced that I wouldn’t be able to do that; all the materials had to stay in that room; they weren’t being thrown away.’

I can’t deny that I very much recognise this dream narrative of recovery. We are all antiquarians these days. In the disused and labyrinthine libraries of our longings lie scattered the many dusty manuscripts of our misplaced desires. But they don’t all bear our handwriting. It is the writer alone who owns the absolute liberty to jettison or burn her own pages, without fear of retrieval.

Veritasse vincit omnia

In the latest Hereford Diocese magazine I came across a full page ad for “Veritasse,” a website offering Christian art, so I took a look. I know I’m a cultural snob, but I do find something deeply disturbing about their insistence on the “positive” and the “uplifting”, especially when that translates into 57 varieties of soft edged but luminescent clouds, doves, sheep, flowers, waterfalls etc., no matter how competently executed. On the other hand, they do invite submissions from Christian artists, and that’s me, sort of, and Veritasse does appear to be a big success. Or a bigge successe, even.

So I emailed over half a dozen graphics I’ve been working on recently (click to enlarge), with a pleasantly worded request for feedback:

A week on, and no response.

Yes, I know I’m being unnecessary, but there is a real issue here. How has the content of much of what passes for contemporary Christian art become so – well, infantilised? This isn’t Catholic kitsch, which is better understood as a form of folk art. (Nor is it analogous to say, modern praise music, often derided, but where the use of worthwhile popular forms has enabled much excellent popular Christian song writing, e.g. Stuart Townend.) I suppose the roots of this sort of imagery were in Victorian populist evangelical pietism, but it’s hard to figure just when “Christian art” got so utterly blanded out.

Aside of the icon revival, which seems in danger of short circuiting into its own form of kitsch, some sort of recapturing is demanded. But what form should it take?

An imperishable inheritance

in parenthesis

While we are still re-living WW1, something apposite for this Easter Day – David Jones’s 1937 frontispiece to his In Parenthesis.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The noble vision of John Currie

A trip to Stoke (up Hanley duck, specifically) has reminded me of the wealth of stuff at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, not least the jaw dropping collection of British ceramics and a chunk of the Staffordshire Hoard. And currently in pride of place in the art rooms is John Currie’s marvellous The Supper, dated to 1912-14.

the supper

Dollie Henry as 'The Witch'

Dollie Henry as ‘The Witch’

Potteries-born Currie, trained as a ceramics decorator, was a little older than his fellow “new primitive” Slade painters Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Adrian Allinson and Stanley Spencer. (“Primitive” in the Italianate sense, that is.) His volatile and disturbed relationship with model and mistress Dollie Henry collapsed into nightmare in October 1914 when he shot her dead and turned his gun on himself. Mark Gertler, his close friend and himself a later suicide, was deeply traumatised by this tragedy. No monograph on Currie has yet been done, but his story was covered in Sarah MacDougall’s 2002 biography of Gertler, passing into David Boyd Haycock’s popular A Crisis of Brilliance. Among Currie’s stately female portraits, which are on the whole very close in temperament to Gertler’s, is The Witch, an unmistakable image of flame haired Dollie; superficially, this carries mere sexist charm, but on more careful consideration the attraction-repulsion projected into the face is psychologically troubled.

'Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron.' Left to right: Currie, Gertler, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Allinson.

‘Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron.’ Left to right: Currie, Gertler, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Allinson.

Over two dozen Curries survive in public collections, mostly at the Potteries, which could furnish a room full, and should, but doesn’t. His work touches the trends of its day: a bit of Brittany, some soft cubism, post-Impressionist colourings, and so on. But the group angularities, diagonals and rhythms of The Supper are aligned with the human abstractions of Bomberg and Roberts, and suggest the way Currie might have travelled had he survived.

Self portrait, 1905

Self portrait, 1905

It is a noble vision of the coming Kingdom. There is a strong hint of the Last Supper in the group around the table at the back, not least the Jesus-ish features of the central figure to the top left of the head of the dark haired woman in the foreground; are she and her blonde companion meant for Mary and Martha? This is society as common-wealth, as table, as agape, but agape here comprehends eros; the embracing couple at lower right seem intended for Dollie and Currie. This is the way things could be, could have been, but were not and are not. We are invited to trust that it is the way they will be.


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