Richard Warren

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

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.

Blast mask

A useful Pause-the-Shielding present from my son. (*Adverts alert* – Design your own mask at Contrado. Background neo-romantic woodcut wallpaper by Mark Hearld.)


It’s remarkable how, 106 years on, BLAST is still such a useful template, almost irrespective of its Vorticist context, from which it has floated free. Though it’s not as easy as you’d think to get the register and the typography quite accurate. And, human nature being what it is, the Blasts tend to flow a lot more readily than the Blesses. Anyway, here goes …..

And so on and so on. Ooh, aah, I feel so much better after that … The mask will definitely be worn.

Depiphanies

Yesterday I had a migraine, so this morning I’ve been sitting in our new small summerhouse with my wife’s sunglasses over my reading glasses, attempting to work through James Joyce’s Epiphanies. Outside the winds have been lashing the roses and the veg.

The summerhouse is essentially a wooden box, which arrives as a pack of panels that have to be screwed awkwardly together. Of course, no one element is actually quite square and true, and everything warps a little as it dries out, so there are no absolute right angles, and nothing fits quite as the instructions claim it should. But eventually, by virtue of an extended series of small compromises, it all sort of holds together, and even the doors manage to close. As a metaphor for each of our lives, it’s simply too too trite.

An epiphany: a manifestation or revelation. I still like the notion of ‘Depiphanies’ – significant moments that bring flashes of obscurity. I thought I knew the answer to all that, but now something small happens that makes me realise that I’m not so sure. Suddenly and entirely unsure, to be honest.

 

Speaking of things obscured, news arrives via the Wyndham Lewis Society of a remarkable piece of work at the Courtauld, where Wyndham Lewis’ Praxitella of 1921 – a rather scary portrait of an armoured Iris Barry, his lover at the time – has been found to be overpainted on the canvas originally occupied, the other way up, by Helen Saunder’s lost Vorticist masterpiece Atlantic City, previously known only as a black and white drawing in Blast. The full fascinating study, technical detail and all, is readable here. (For my site’s take on the fabulous Helen Saunders, use the tab with her name up above.) The question arises – why did Lewis, perhaps short of enough readies for a new canvas, feel able to paint over Saunders’ work, which he must have received as a gift? Did he simply regard it as without value? See his own work as privileged?

And it’s privilege that marks this current unlockdown, as it separates the vulnerable from the less vulnerable, North from South, old from young, non-white from white, and in the process privileges young white Southerners. (Exactly those who, socially undistanced, rammed the Soho bars last night.) Still, I had my time of privilege as a young white Southerner years ago. Now I find myself floating towards the other side of the equation. As the winds lash the roses and the veg.

We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come

I used to love exploring the Tate when I was a kid and the Tate was the Tate and not yet Tate Britain. In the stairwells down hung huge Stanley Spencer Resurrections, audacious, absorbing, overwhelming. This one, significantly from 1945, is apparently in Dundee, and shows the reunion of families – an image that speaks to our times also.

It’s the matter-of-factness that is so audacious. Spencer has the guts to take it absolutely literally. We will meet again, as somebody or other said recently. Even if we have to climb out of our graves to do it.

A sure and certain hope to you. Happy Easter!

The silence of the baa-lambs

You can’t make an image of a mother and a baby without it lurching off into a signification of The Mother and Child. Or at least, Ford Madox Brown couldn’t. So here, as a Christmas image, is his extraordinary Pretty Baa-Lambs of 1859.

It’s the colour of that sky that does it. Luxurious, calm, almost silent – but ominous. And those evening shadows, creeping sideways. The child staring at the future. The mortality of The Lamb. (Compare with Richard Dadd’s visionary Mother and Child of the following year – here.)

Though, considering ominous, maybe Baa-Lambs is not so unfit for the times through which we’re now obliged to live, having somehow surrendered our future to a bunch of shameless chiselers.

But at some point a reckoning will arrive. Meanwhile, a bit of Peace on Earth to you today – Happy Christmas.

Red white and blue retirement

This glossy invitation to experience Exceptional Retirement Living tipped onto my doormat the other day. Though my wife and I may be the right age for luxury retirement, we’ve neither the cash nor the inclination, and certainly not, I must say, if this eye-pummelling décor is a glimpse of what we might expect.


Since this is apparently not the Boutique Hotel from Hell, it must be the “Library” at St George’s Place. (It’s clearly not the on-site Health Club or Restaurant also advertised. Nor the living accommodation, which, thank goodness, looks extremely bland.) If I were shut in this room, I might last fifteen minutes before attempting to gnaw my way out through the locked door. It’s like a bad dream of an afterlife that’s gone wrong – the cheap baronial chandelier, the Catherine Cooksons and Geoffrey Boycott’s memoirs stacked beneath the job lot Chinese vases, the crassly doubled-up sub-Bauhaus mirrors, the pseudo-Sonia Delaunay curtains and cushions, the overpowering square yardage of bright red (including the radiators), the indescribable chairs and – the real Piece of Resistance – some oversized Hanoverian in full tartan striding out from the faux chimney breast.

Or some hopelessly impoverished parody of The Posh Life, conjured up by a drunken magician on a bad day, or reconstructed from a garbled, twenty-third-hand source and thrown together by Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time. This is genuine Outsider Post-Modernism, so unknowingly AWFUL that it could hardly have been done better. And I can’t see that it can represent any actual environment that anybody has ever known, expected to know or would want to know.

Oh yes, and why “St George’s”? What’s with the nationalist vibe? The retirement rabbit hutches apartments down the road from us are slapped up by a firm of Tory donors called Churchill, who fly the Union Jack outside. What next? Thatcher Mansions? Rees-Mogg Mews? Farage Towers?

Maybe that’s it. Post-Brexit, this will be your expected aspiration, what you will think you remember with longing, or what someone else more “cultured” than you will be remembering for you. This room’s been designed as a *meme* of Britishness. Though if the Scots cut free, the dude in the gold frame will need a hasty makeover.

“‘Draw!’ he yelled”: Francis Bacon, babysitter from Hell

A few posts back, I took a brief glance at the early London career of the remarkable Guyana-born painter Denis Williams. In January 1955 the artist Keith Vaughan, a friend of Williams, had a visit from him which made a considerable impression. He wrote in his journal:

Denis Williams, ‘Plantation No 3’ 1950

Interesting account this morning from Dennis[sic] Williams of the time he lived and worked in a small room adjoining Francis Bacon’s studio; idolizing Francis at the time, longing to be of service to him and ending by becoming so wholly enslaved to his personality that he was incapable of any independent action.

‘There was nothing I could do. He would lie in bed in the morning, purple in the face, looking ill – terrible – unable to move until he had taken enough pills, but talking all the time about the paintings he had dreamed of. If I offered him a cup of tea he wouldn’t drink it. He just didn’t see
me. I could have been anyone else and he
wouldn’t have noticed …’

(“Enslaved” is a bit of a loaded term; did Vaughan register that?) Williams went on to tell how, as a simple act of thoughtfulness, he had once hung up a suit of Bacon’s, fresh from the cleaners, that Bacon had dumped carelessly on a paint spattered table in the studio. Bacon had returned, had promptly taken down the suit and, without a word, had laid it back in the paint.

‘I felt absolutely shattered as though my personality had been wiped out.’

It was moving to see how affected D. was by the recollection of this incident. I felt how easily I could occupy the same role … ‘He sees people as mountains of flesh,’ Dennis said. ‘He is obsessed by this extraordinary capacity for flesh to breathe, walk, talk.’

The almost mythic theme of Bacon the charismatic and controlling monster sits easily enough with Bacon the painter of monsters. An extreme take on this is voiced by, of all people, the painter Cecil Collins, in an interview of 1979 with Brian Keeble, in Keeble’s Cecil Collins. The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings (Golgonooza, 1994):

[Bacon] paints Hell, and Hell is a most popular subject today because so many people are in it. Hell is very stimulating and very easy to understand … Bacon paints a condition of mankind which you find all over the cinemas, on the advertisement hoardings, in the police-court news, and in newspapers … It’s profoundly uninteresting because it’s beside the point. But I respect him, in the sense that he paints it uncompromisingly. He is damnation, and damnation is very important. In a way he’s my brother. I’m not interested in what he says and yet I see, very clearly, that it has to be said. It’s inevitable, and it’s exactly the opposite to what I am concerned with.

He’s an inversion of the light.

And Keeble, eager to out-Collins Collins, glosses his relation to Bacon thus:

… from Collins’s point of view … Bacon’s images express the subhuman. To concede that they express the truth of human nature would be to invite the belief that there are spiritual values that can be nourished by something other than the divine. This would amount to thinking that there could be some sort of reparation (why else should such images be made?), through appealing to the concatenation of passions and appetites that comprise and motivate the empirical levels of our humanity.

It’s easy enough to write this off. Collins’ best images are seductive, powerful and arresting, but in too many of them the urge to purify creates a slenderness and slightness that approaches mid-century decorative. Even as a post-Christian New Ager, he was still stuck spiritually in a three-decker universe, with one escalator pointing Up and the other (not to be taken) going Down.

But here’s the But … In a series of notes and aphorisms written between 1939 and 1955 (“Hymn of Life”), Collins takes, unexpectedly, a far more positive view of Hell:

The meaning of life is to come to fruition, to bear the fruit of life, which is happiness. But this fruition can only be obtained through growth, and growth is suffering – Hell. Hell is a state of growth, and growth is a process of purification.

 

And in the 1979 interview with Keeble he even applies that insight to his own work, in relation to a period in the late ‘fifties when it turned, in Keeble’s words, “blacker, more harsh … strident … more violent in mood”. Collins explains this as a necessary expansion of direct, gestural energy, an enlargement before an inevitable condensation and a new formalising. Hell, then, is a necessary phase in the process. Despite Collins’ claims to see “no context for redemption” in Bacon’s work, the reverse turns out to be the case. “In a way he’s my brother”. A necessary monster, then.

Denis Williams may have felt desperately uncomfortable under Bacon’s influence, but it didn’t prevent him, if only as an occasional last resort, from parking the nipper with him. In Evelyn Williams’ excellent The Art of Denis Williams (Peepal Tree Press, 2012), his daughter Janice recalls the novel experience of being babysat by Francis:

Denis Williams, from the ‘Human World’ series, 1950

‘Denis shared a studio with Francis Bacon. From my earliest memories it appeared to be in a derelict building, bombed during the war, a wrecked shop front on the ground floor served as an entrance. Upstairs Denis had a room on one side of the landing, Francis on the other. Art materials and canvases were interchanged across the hall. A ray of light from a small window breached the dilapidated interior of Denis’ work space whilst Francis had metamorphosed his into a cavernous enclosure, blacked out and ominous. I can feel it now, being overwhelmed with the smell of turpentine and a dark foreboding. Denis was appreciative of canvases discarded by Francis, and would reverse them thus creating a clean serviceable area on which to paint. Francis didn’t have much patience with disappointing or unsatisfactory work. It would be quickly scrapped, a luxury most struggling artists could ill afford.

‘… a cavernous enclosure, blacked out and ominous … always in a black shirt, black trousers …’ Francis Bacon in 1950 by Sam Hunter

It’s like theatre in my head; the imagery and drama of such visits have remained with me forever. A highly charged tense atmosphere pervaded the studio emanating from both Francis and the decor. As a young child it was overpowering, seated on a rumple of bedding on the floor watching him paint on a large canvas hanging on the wall. He turned to check on me every now and then. “Don’t move and don’t talk to me,” he pronounced. Clutching my crayons and paper I was dumbstruck. “Draw!” he yelled. I gazed up at his face and black-attired body. He was always in a black shirt, black trousers and sandaled feet. At any given moment he could start shouting and swearing if things weren’t going well on the canvas. He was bold, intimidating and impatient; a big personality with big paintings. My memory tells me Francis had inherited family money from Anglo-Irish landed gentry connections. He didn’t visit our home more than a few times but I remember he was very fond of Catherine my mother. He gave her some beautiful cut glass dessert dishes, part of his inheritance which I now treasure, passed on to me in memory of the times Francis babysat me.’

She seems to have survived unscathed, with the cut glass to prove it. In fact, we might judge it a formative experience, a necessary phase in the process of growth. And who kindly provided the crayons and paper? My guess is Bacon.

(Incidentally, which of the various addresses at which Bacon worked in the early ‘fifties was this? In 1951 he sold his studio at Cromwell Place, and would not move into the famous Reece Mews studio – now reconstructed in Dublin – until 1961. Not that it matters …)

“I think Larkin was wrong …”: Bill on Phil

For five and a half years, until his too early death in May 2018, I exchanged continual emails with poet Bill Bennett, an old friend rediscovered. We began with the poetry of Veronica Forrest-Thomson and finished in mid-thread with Housman, but covered an awful lot of other ground along the way, not all of it poetic.

One persistently recurring theme was Bill’s need to take apart Philip Larkin, whose current popularity presented itself to him as a problem demanding to be solved. “Like worrying at an old dry bone,” he said. Or “a scab that needs picking”. Bill was constantly puzzled by the tolerance, even fondness, offered to Larkin and his work by many normally sensible and decent people. He felt keenly the duty to denounce and resist the false consciousness, the erosion of common humanity, that he saw in Larkin, and the life-denying forces surviving in his writings. And not just in the letters: “I always thought it was perfectly clear from the poetry what an unpleasant bastard he was in so many ways.”


I urged him to string together his thoughtlets into something more considered. He announced a start on “an expanded and semi-coherent piece on The Explosion”, but I’m not sure that it ever really took shape.

So here instead is my compilation of some of his thoughts on PL, snipped from our emails and roughly parcelled into clumsy sections, in a loose sequence. As it’s a bit of a collage, at times linking remarks originally months or years apart, it lacks some flow, and a good few of these points will no doubt have been chewed over extensively by the critical machine already – I wouldn’t pretend to know. But Bill makes some important observations and judgements, and he makes them with his habitual insight, wisdom and wit.

Towards the end, Larkin’s morbid obsession with individual mortality took on an added resonance when Bill was forced to confront his own health issues; the final snippet here (which made me laugh aloud) tells of an unnerving coincidence in a hospital waiting room.

To read on, click the first tab up top after “Home”, or just go here …

The path to life lies open

Our culture is happy to recognise the reality of the Crucifixion, less so that of the Resurrection. The dialectic seems broken.

But this is the one good day, the day that shows us, if only in a brief vision, what can and must be. All happy endings are folk memories of this ending.

So Happy Easter! And here’s a David Jones.

A (dis)comforting Nativity

Just seven posts till now in 2018. But 2019 will see a revival. Oh yes it will.

In the meantime, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a decent Nativity within the usual parameters of this blog. So here’s Stanley Spencer’s of 1912. His first large oil, which won a Slade prize in that year, or so my big book of Stanley tells me. Is it really one hundred and six years since this was painted? It’s somehow both comforting and discomforting at the same time, combining an oblique offence to our expectations with a cool, slo-mo ecstasy, where all is at rest, free and immortal, as Traherne put it. And how vulnerable and isolated the Christ child is, plonked out in the open, in the half light, half shade, messing with his bits of straw.

The best Christmas to you.