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 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.

Bulletins from Nowhere

Predictive spelling on your phone is just low level annoyance, but predictive writing, as Stephen Hawking recently warned the world, will soon drag us all to Cybergeddon. Or will it? Will the technology really take over our thinking, or is Hawking in science fiction mode?

Hawking: the end of the human race?

Hawking: the end of the human race?

I often use my Amazon Kindle Fire to email. As on many devices, its keyboard flashes up the word it thinks I’m typing, along with a few more or less likely alternatives; it then offers the next word in the sequence, again with options – some sensible, others baffling. Generally I ignore the lot, but today I thought I’d try tapping with the flow, to see what the Kindle might have to say for itself. Below are the five short messages that it wrote.

The rules of my experiment are simple: generate a message subject, or the first word in a sentence, by randomly tapping the keyboard and selecting a ‘corrected’ suggestion. Choose subsequent words by their suitability for the syntactical flow, and not for their meaning or prominence. (Not always possible, so syntax is often erratic.) Insert a full stop / exclamation / colon when the grammatical structure touches ground. End the message when things seem to short circuit.

fireThis makes for a rather disquieting form of automatism. My own recent phrasings flow back to taunt me, but mangled up with elements of some sort of alien Kindle in-house uber-content. As a result, names may be familiar: ‘Delancey’ is the evil property empire involved in the Wolverhampton sculpture campaign that occupied too much of my time last year, while ‘Jack November’ is the stage name of German chanteuse Daniela Moos, whose work I much like. Or worryingly not so: ‘Chris Dodd’ and ‘Chuck Schumer’ turn out to be US democratic politicians of whom I’d never heard but whom Amazon obviously thinks I need to reference. But who the hell are ‘Guv’, ‘Tzu’ or ‘Dr Congo’? ‘Guv’ crops up with significant frequency in these messages; I imagine him as primal, slightly threatening, something close to Eliot’s Sweeney character.

Compared with the more exuberant artificially generated texts left on my site by spammers – see an earlier post – these little bulletins are narrow and oddly depressing. The writer appears to be some sort of unsuccessful small time agent. His style is almost telegraphic. He is nervous and his content often repetitive, as if to compensate for having too little to report. He has obviously been sending these bulletins for some years and is now reduced to going through the motions for the sake of his meagre allowance. Most of what he has to say is about who’s not talking to whom about what.

Though occasionally there are incongruous or alarming flashes: ‘Civil war is a real concern.’ Really? A very British Civil War though, judging by his mention of the Church of York volunteer infantry division.

The tone of the messages is curious, but not quite what I expected. I can’t see too much here to worry Hawking, though ‘Children are all the same’ is an interesting assertion, and you have to admit that ‘Fight against terrorism and red hat enterprise’ is one stirring slogan … Hectic fix!

 

Fig leaf and Delancey

No one else has been corrected. Guv and Delancey phoned round the press releases that the sculpture will not be returned. OK with the culture’s move to Wolverhampton archive for now, if you can shed some light on this when I get back. Guv and Delancey sent it, the anarchist and a guy who worked with the illustrations. Guv to me: but I’ve never noticed that vinyl exists. I’ve just moved house temporarily to Ironbridge and red has faded away.

Tzu and Delancey don’t seem to be meaningless. Chris Dodd and Delancey phoned the same thing today anyway. Text file to me. Yet another example of the past few weeks since I enquired and Delancey sent it to me. Dieter and Delancey don’t talk about this.

Guv and red hat enterprise and a few days can’t access the folder.

 

City

It’d be meaningless and a bit like facing death. Text of the letter shows that the legalities and Delancey sent it to me. Rich and Delancey phoned to the line between a few weeks ago and I have been confused by the same thing today. Guv and Delancey don’t talk about this.

City officials said that the same thing as a few days ago when the sculpture will be returned. Dr Congo and Delancey phoned to the technology and a guy who worked with the culture’s move will not be able to reply till Saturday.

Fight against terrorism and red hat enterprise!

 

Juju

Chubb was given a statement by Macbride. Finnegan and Delancey sent it to the verse in the Midlands Today report. Children are all the same. Xavier and Delancey phoned the same time. Dr John Edwards has faded away for the same thing. Jack November and Delancey sent it to me. Cheers!

 

Such a guy

If you can shed some light on this when I get back, hope to be meaningless. Use of the stick – to me that is beyond impressive. DVD availability for the image is interesting: on the image is a bunch of ten modern railway covers.

Chuck Schumer cut off the image of the past. Crude prices for the offer of a guy who is interesting to me. Obviously this is not sure. Civil war is a real concern. Both are all over again in the Midlands. UK’s largest sites are all over the place.

 

Oh!

Rustic to me, true to the technology of electronically capturing and red hat enterprise, the sculpture will not be returned from home. Scientists have been confused by Archer and Delancey. Tzu and Delancey don’t know why. Tzu to me: you may be meaningless. Guv to me: Church of York volunteer infantry division. You can shed some light on the same lot of people who worked with the culture’s move to Wolverhampton.

I fix the problem here. Audio files and folders in the Midlands News first time in the same time. Sufi to me: Guv and Delancey don’t know why we should have been confused by the same thing today.

Hectic fix! Third parties in the Midlands so won’t tell me.

Transport for London demolishes Paolozzi murals

The news has just come through from artlyst that Transport for London and architects Hawkins Brown have gone ahead with the demolition of several of the wonderful Paolozzi murals at the Tottenham Court Road tube re-build, despite massive opposition and the attempted intervention of the 20th Century Society. Beggars belief. When will these clowns realise that art in the public domain is a public asset and not their private toy?

TFL Demolishes £100,000 Eduardo Paolozzi Mosaic Arches At Tottenham Court Station - ArtLyst Article image

Read about it at artlyst here.

pressoffice@tfl.gov.uk

mail@hawkinsbrown.com

eBaying off the life work

A while back, in a post on Alan Wycliffe Wellings, I lamented affectionately all the eBayed leftovers from life drawing classes, most headed, ultimately, for that great gallery at the landfill. I’m not being snobby; I’ve been clearing out folders full of life drawings myself, and it’s nearly all gone in the bin. (A great sheaf of drawings featuring male models went long ago to a gay friend; I’m not sure exactly what purpose they may currently serve.)

Yes, I’ve haunted some life rooms in my time. It’s a valuable discipline; it’s important that we continue to construct images, by observation, out of marks, especially when fine art degree courses now seem to award the photographic image a monopoly of virtue, as if it were somehow more authentic. When the reverse is clearly the case.

But life work can be bloody aggravating. Most classes I attended were cluttered up by annoying geriatrics (and I speak as a pensioner myself) who signed up year after year, but whose work never improved in the least. And who hadn’t the least intention to improve it.

Some, frightened of the scale and verticality of the easel, disdained it, laying flat their A3 pads on unnecessarily massive donkeys plonked right in front of the model. God forbid they should ever have been obliged to wrestle with a side or back view, and heaven strike down any optimistic and tactless tutor who tried to confiscate their HB pencils and get them onto charcoal. Some routinely chattered all session through about where they would be going on holiday this year and what they’d had for tea, making concentration impossible for everyone else, but coming on all victimised if ever asked to pipe down. I stalked out of the last class I ever did, after asking the worst offender if he’d mind shutting the **** up, and that’s not like me. Well, not much, anyway.

The high point of this purgatory involved a donkey codger who huffily refused the most basic guidance on matters of proportion, and whose drawings, as a result, were always hilariously top heavy. Redrawing and re-erasing the model’s legs week after week, he finally solved his problem by sketching her into a pool of water from the mid-thighs down. This lateral thinking was much admired by his mates.

Anyway, here’s pretty much what I’m left with. (Click to enlarge.) The girl pushing out her bum is Natalie from Aldridge, who was the best model ever. The upside down reclining person is a pleasant woman whose name now escapes me, but I did leave out her breast tattoo and nipple ring. (I’ve found that piercings are a distraction when you’re trying to even out your attention across all parts of the body. Male models with a Prince Albert should definitely be banned.) The big canvas with two figures involved a mirror, of course.

Rimg0018Actually, the two single figure images are currently up for grabs if anyone’s interested – go here and here. They start at merely a tenner on – you guessed it – eBay …

Brando and Eliot in shadows

My brush with Brando was gratifyingly bizarre. I was helping to run a college cinema club; shortly before one evening showing, there was a phone call: Marlon Brando was in the area filming (news to us), and would he be able to see our film? Was this a hoax? But no, a couple of minutes before kick off a young man appeared who claimed in a stateside accent to be Mister Brando’s fixer. Passing across a slab of notes he explained that the great actor and his party were outside. Only one thing: the lights should go down just before his entrance; Mister Brando preferred to go incognito.

"Mistah Washizu - he dead."

“Mistah Washizu – he dead.”

Brando (his profile dimly recognisable) and entourage filed in as arranged. They sat in the semi darkness of the front row, speaking little and in low voices, only among themselves. We were showing Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. At the end, after Washizu, Toshiro Mifune’s Macbeth character, had undergone his spectacular downfall, punctuated by more arrows than a single human frame might seem able to accommodate, the lights were kept down while they left the same way. Later the college porter told me that on his way out  Brando, at the head of the line, had paused before the massy mediaeval oak of the college gate, and had stroked it with his fingertips, in thoughtful veneration. To a man, his entourage had followed suit. The porter had been amused not so much by his original gesture as by their sycophantic mimicry.

The great oaken gate had presented itself to him, perhaps, as a signifier of Albion, of ancient wisdom, of a more authentic, pre-American world, a world maybe not too far from feudal Japan.

This was (I think) in 1969. Brando’s career was in a strange place at that time. What could he have been filming over here? I’ve no idea. (This was too late for Pontecorvo’s under-rated Burn!, I think, which in any case was filmed partly on the continent, and not in the UK.)

Brando in shadow

Brando in shadow

After seven years, Brando was back mumbling in the shadows, this time as the largely invisible Colonel Kurtz on the set of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Millions of words later, we are still not much clearer on quite why the filming went so famously pear shaped (as if we care), but in an interview Dennis Hopper has said that Brando’s refusal to be filmed with him came after he had ranted at Brando in a cinema in the Philippines where cast and crew had gone for a night out. Interestingly, from my viewpoint, they had chosen to see Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, featuring Toshiro Mifune.

As the rows rumbled on, Coppola and Brando abandoned the Apocalypse script and improvised Kurtz’s dialogue. Brando may or may not, as alleged, have prepared himself by reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, on which Apocalypse was based, but he seems to have found his way around T S Eliot. It’s well known that Eliot’s epigraph to The Waste Land, at least in draft, was the death of Heart of Darkness’s Mr Kurtz, prototype for Brando’s Colonel Kurtz:

“… He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – ‘The horror! The horror!’”

In early 1922, Eliot had returned to London from a spell under the shrink in Lausanne – “… an aboulie [aboulia, loss of motivation] and emotional derangement” was his self-diagnosis – clutching a wadge of pages for Ezra Pound to hack and snip into something resembling a coherent poem. “The horror” was the first bit into the bin: “I doubt if Conrad is weighty enough to stand the citation,” grumbled Pound. Eliot sniffed back that “It is much the most appropriate I can find, and somewhat elucidative.” “Do as you like about Conrad,” snarled Pound, but the passage was cut anyway.

Pound also axed 90% of the original “Death by Water” sequence, leaving few hints of Conrad in the finished Waste Land, though there is still a dripping echo in the sweating river and drifting barges on the turning tide in the “Song of the Thames-daughters” in the “Fire Sermon” section. Both The Waste Land and Apocalypse Now were a mess, a mass bubbled up in chaos and derangement, warping out of control, both requiring merciless chopping down into something the shape of poetry.

Eliot got his own back by prefixing his next poem, The Hollow Men, with an equivalent but more cryptic quote from Heart of Darkness – “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”

Coppola may have allowed the camera to pass knowingly over copies of Eliot’s other sources for The Waste Land – Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Frazer’s The Golden Bough – lying around rather posily in Colonel Kurtz’s shadowed den, but it’s The Hollow Men that Brando / Kurtz reads brooding in the shadows, in a sequence largely cut, Pound-wise, from the film as released [link below]. (It has sometimes been noted that this otherwise complete reading of the poem omits only the epigraph “Mistah Kurtz – he dead”, in order to avoid an unfortunate reality loop; as a fictional character about to die, Colonel Kurtz can hardly read about the death of another fictional character on whom he himself is based.)


It seems to me that in this reading Brando strokes the words with his fingertips, in thoughtful veneration. As Anglified American, Eliot has come to represent the man transplanted to the authentic waste land, a discoverer, like the Kurtzes and now like Brando himself, of a far older wisdom, of primal vision. We touch the ancient wood, we feel the immeasurable truth of it, and, with a cry like a whisper, we suspect the horror.

The famous first and last words of Kim Fowley

A respectful nod in his passing to Kim Fowley, animal god of the streets, six foot five inch polio victim, Anglophile “rock Svengali” and so on, who died last Thursday after a long and stubborn battle with cancer that saw him still defiantly promoting other people’s mediocrity from his death bed. Forget The Runaways; what’s not to appreciate about someone who started with Alan Freed in 1959 and kept on till the bitter end, who gave us Nut Rocker, the earliest versions of The Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner, his own stellar Invasion of the Polaroid People, and ten thousand other tunes running the spectrum from genius trash to frankly ignorable trash and everywhere in between?

I wonder where we stand now on his projected three volume autobiography. Part one, Lord of Garbage, appeared in 2012, but shows signs of being written in haste. Part two, Planet Pain, is long overdue, while the third instalment was reputedly scheduled to appear on the day of his death (“good marketing”). In Lord of Garbage Fowley recalls a short spell around 1960 as a teenage poet:

“I remember going to Venice [in Los Angeles] … Back then, it was Beat Poetry, Black Turtlenecks and Bongos. It was a whole lot of post-war angst. Kim Fowley would go there in sports clothes and hustle thirty-three year old women, and people would drink apple juice and smoke reefers and recite long-winded poems about nothing … So anyway, I went to the coffee house in Big Sur and there they were, the Venice guys … I got up there and did my Poetry Duel with whoever was around … and it was one of the Beatnik Hot Shit Gods banked against me, and he couldn’t beat me, so we celebrated that night by going to Jack London’s house …”

He doesn’t say who was the Hot Shit God beat poet; it would be interesting to know. Fowley admitted to being beaten in improvised “poetry duels” only by stand-up comedian Redd Foxx and by Buddy Guy, the blues guitarist. Today it would be called a freestyle rap battle. In a self-penned magazine piece circa 1967 (“Kim Fowley Rides the Flower-Love Movement”) he claimed to have had two books of poetry published: The Earth is Really Flat and The Oblong Tiger. If they existed, these must have been extremely small press and must be now fabulously rare, as they are invisible to Google.

IMG_0001To be honest, the autobiographical “poetry” that frequently punctuates Lord of Garbage is far poorer stuff than many of his song lyrics. If Fowley was a poet, he was a performance poet, and his sardonic-apocalyptic delivery is usually what lifts the words. He had a knack for employing or improvising a form of spoken verse as a musical lyric, often – at least in his own personal output – laid over found “scrap tracks”, abandoned backings recorded by anonymous musicians. All surprisingly post-modern.

I am the goat-man, Gorgo the dog boy, talking about everything he saw when he was stoned in high school, shooting up in the boys’ room at Dog High School, Dorkville, U S Ay-ay-ay-ay-ay …
Behind yellow mountains, there’s thorns among the roses, women in hiding –
Wait, it’s women in hiding! Airheads are going riding. Someone tell me when they start to scream.
It’s no simple expedition, it’s a special red condition – it’s invasion.
It’s the invasion of the Polaroid Peepeepeepeepeepeepeople …

At any rate, he was a talker. But did the infant Kim Fowley really talk at ten months? And were his first words really: “I have a question. Why are you bigger than me?” – an intro that, according to Lord of Garbage, so shocked his mother that she promptly put him into care? Perhaps not, but it’s a good anecdote.

Fowley may not have been entirely the obnoxious, exploitative scumbag he would have had us believe. Among the many YouTube snippets, this is one of my favourites. From his hospital wheelchair a year ago, KF improvises a sentimental little song with a couple of teenagers he has just met. No great song, but it’s very sweet.

“I’m cancer. You’re eternal. You’re immortal. And you’re a friend. Thank you.”

Not quite his last words. But they’ll do.

 

The little Lord Jesus asleep on the cross

William Blake, 'The Christ Child Asleep on the Cross'

William Blake, ‘The Christ Child Asleep on the Cross’

An image to ponder. Perhaps only Blake could get away with “crucifying” Baby Jesus; the astral-plane idealism serves to moderate the shock. (Millais’s realism in Christ in the House of his Parents allows only for some dainty stigmata as a comparable foreshadowing.)

I look at my new grandson and try to foresee the whole life, pain and all, in his baby’s face.

Have a good Christmas!

The inescapable re-entrant: Drummond Allison’s Cynthia sequence

da smallA post in January bigged up the excellent and unaccountably underrated poetry of Drummond Allison, killed in action in late 1943 at the age of 22. Now we have sight at last of Allison’s mysterious inamorata and muse Cynthia Clarke, thanks to a wonderful wartime photo (below), kindly sent by Cynthia’s daughter Charlotte Mackie.

John Heath-Stubbs recalled that Allison was “very interested in girls”. A good many of his poems are addressed to them, named or not. But his poems to Cynthia run from his time at Oxford, through his spell in London (where he rubbed shoulders with Nina Hamnett, Tambimuttu and Dylan Thomas) to his time at Sandhurst. There are seven identified Cynthia poems in all; Allison was certainly smitten!

At the time, I failed to spot “Yorktown Gate Guard (to Cynthia)”, and missed Michael Sharp’s end note in the 1978 Poems, which reveals that this was part of a sequence called “Five poems for Cynthia Clarke”; the others were “Rejection Song”, “December 1941”, “May 1942” and “October 1942”. (Thank you to Stephen Benson, editor of the Collected, for the nudge.) Three of these I have quoted elsewhere, but it seems simplest here to set out below the full sequence of five plus two in what appears to be their chronological order, from November 1941 to October 1942. Anyway, you can’t have too much Allison.

The sequence speaks for itself, and it would be intrusive to comment much here. The end of “Yorktown” is interesting: did young girls habitually hitch-hike solo in 1942? As often with Allison, there are mildly knotty moments due to inversions and coinings – “perspection”; “by slope or slipe”; “aestability” (a summery quality). But “May 1942” is a little masterpiece, from the metaphysical conceit of the first stanza to “the gardener with a gorgeous trowel” and the uncontrollable yo-yo of the second. These seven poems are hymns to, and chronicles of, love – the inescapable re-entrant.

Cynthis Clarke, as Drummond Allison knew her. Copyright Charlotte Mackie.

Cynthia Clarke, as Drummond Allison knew her. Copyright Charlotte Mackie.


Walton Street Sonnet (for Cynthia Clarke)

Dimmed headlights, chinks in curtains, lowered torches
Like notes on Walton Street’s obscurity;
The tower that talks at us, the stone-stepped porches,
Wet curbs and scuffled gratings, energy
Of chimney-outlines now hold new solutions
For every problem this November sets.

But when, if fear has broken off relations,
Headlines diminish and they settle sites
For reconstruction; or if still refuses
Oxford in European death to pry;
Eyes of you singers some pale night peruses
Straggling from sherry parties up the High,
Through building-shadows down Cornmarket thrusting:
May book and recollection need no dusting.


Rejection Song (November 1941)

Now from closing car park and last bus stop start
Vehicles whose muffled passengers and drivers
Have worked out true bearings on their loved and lovers,
But explain no variation of my heart.

Now admitting it my error to have thought
You the right reply to each unsure red setter,
To the query in each clockface in each clutter
Of bewildered boulders, every doubtful fort;

Every question mark that forms on spark-scorched grass,
Puzzled stares of Greenline coach and double decker,
Unconvinced old slot machines, the startled knocker
And the flabbergasted spareroom looking-glass;

Now aware not only unity and shared
Hunts for reasons and for purposes, but looking
More than most, but kissing tired and watching waking,
Are like birds that tantalise their leader snared;

Yet before the unlit fire I know my need
Of your thighs your throat your abdomen their movements,
Yet beside the dry-voiced bookcase on pale pavements
I repeat the quite incredible my creed.


For Cynthia

Close any pamphlet whose insistence catches
Your heart without its sentries and evokes
Nothing but mercy looting all love’s riches,
Talking but never using. Nor attempt
Hills the despondent labourer forsakes
Immune from all our zeal. But by trite birches
And chairs your seemly customs keep, from truth exempt.

Crossed in our opulent ambition
Yet fierce from each rejection
Neither will dare complete attrition
Till liking leaves the eyes.
Hold back your heart from neat dissection
Inured to boldest lies,
Allow me no perspection.


December 1941

They pummel in the playground and lift pneumatic drills,
They slack on scaffoldings and cycle from motor works,
Their image lopes behind me, sticks in my books its bills,
with empty plate and mug outside the dining room lurks.

But in the fog elusive, skipping the vital pages,
Hurrying in to meals, I mention special need:
‘Love of the long down-trodden, advance with crucial ages
Must wait, for I am thwarted too, have greed like their greed.’

Given the shortened hours and the bathroom cleaned of coal,
Clinics and cooking-lessons, access to forests, when
Some can afford more beauty, others a change of soul;
Will sorrow be more joyful, ends be less final then?

Or given strength, my dear, to ascend your quieter mountain
Of mind, and luck to stumble under misleading snow
Upon your heart, and time to fritter round the fountain
Flung on complete lovers, where would there be to go?


May 1942

This was my dread, that I should find
A heart embedded in the mind,
A dream connected by the body.
Now I am liberated from
Yourself and anguish and can frame
A non-coercive constitution.

This was not love, but less and more,
Like an unreckonable score
Or some such maladjusted image:
The gardener with the gorgeous trowel,
The yo-yo that we can’t control,
The inescapable re-entrant.


Yorktown Gate Guard (to Cynthia)

Though in this monstrous moon’s daguerreotype
No shadow shows you sneak by slope or slipe
Or grope behind my back your way through grass,
I’ll never quit my post: you shall not pass.

Not yet the great gate shivers on its hinge
And on the road of pain not yet impinge
Your footfalls; but don’t fear, I’ll not be caught
Napping again who once was in report.

Your aestability surrounds me still;
June had your stealth to undermine my will,
July sent out your agents; but, my dear,
I watched each ditch and understood their leer.

Another August, far too shy to shout,
I flushed and stood aside and let you out;
But now, my bearskin doffed and buttons dull,
A point shall threaten your quiet skin and skull.

Henceforth your last year’s permit won’t avail
And I’ll suspect there’s gas in every gale:
The bombed old buildings of my heart still hide
A Certain Thing whose worth we can’t confide.

So you’d best gather up your floral gown
For good and cadge a lift to London Town
Whither with its impatience and its power
These lonely lorries lumber every hour.


October 1942

O would the leisurely rain that loves the asphalt
And handles the still-drilling squads
Could fall clean on affection and from reflection
Efface at least those winks as bad as nods.

For I resemble ever the schoolgirl in the gallery
Who takes the shape from all she sees;
My heart and mind are colourblind and astigmatic,
The gods I own too hard to please.

Though derived from our friends’ (the fervent and impervious to comment,
Those who encircle Death with words
And love and the saints and dexterity and two historians),
My views move much too like the bison-herds.

Only the flesh must flash its faultless messages –
Yours is the only cause appealing
For which is justified, lust-for-you the only tradesman
With whom, oh darling darling, I am dealing.

The human dimension of sculpture

Probably the last blast here for Wolverhampton’s recently controversial Barbara Hepworth bronze, Rock Form (Porthcurno) – see previous post and many others. But I can’t resist posting this great pic taken just after its unveiling by the Mayor in the Mander Centre shopping precinct in 1968, as the crowd closes in to ponder. Click for full size, and study the faces and body language! Photo courtesy of Pippa Thorneycroft, née Mander, who was present at the ceremony. Thank you, Pippa.

"I do not think sculpture can come alive in architecture at all unless it is recognized as a value in its own right. Sculpture is not primarily an embellishment. It gives the human dimension, it gives that added perception which only sculpture can give. [...] Sculpture makes people act in a certain way; they move in a certain manner. Their gestures and their reaction to a sculpture are extremely expressive and this is the point - if the architect and the sculptor know how to seize upon it - where one might achieve a vital development in the architect's as well as in the sculptor's work in relation to human needs." (Barbara Hepworth)

“I do not think sculpture can come alive in architecture at all unless it is recognized as a value in its own right. Sculpture is not primarily an embellishment. It gives the human dimension, it gives that added perception which only sculpture can give. […] Sculpture makes people act in a certain way; they move in a certain manner. Their gestures and their reaction to a sculpture are extremely expressive and this is the point – if the architect and the sculptor know how to seize upon it – where one might achieve a vital development in the architect’s as well as in the sculptor’s work in relation to human needs.” (Barbara Hepworth) Copyright P Thorneycroft.

Articulating impermanence: the Wolverhampton Hepworth row of 1968

Now that the return to the Mander Centre of Wolverhampton’s cast of Barbara Hepworth’s Rock Form (Porthcurno) has been secured (see posts passim and Facebook here), time for a quick look at the earlier controversy about it – whether it should have been there in the first place – following its unveiling in March 1968, and some of the later echoes. Refreshingly, the terms of argument were not bankers and speculation, but the nature of sculpture and its relation to architecture. And very little of it came from the usual “five year old child” brigade, either.

E&S gossip
On 3 April 1968 the regular Express & Star “Gossip” column, headed “Knocking Holes in Hepworth Sculpture,” declared Rock Form officially controversial: “’Old fashioned’, ‘a throwback to the thirties’, ‘mass produced art’ and ‘ludicrous’ are some of the denunciations,” announced columnist “Vigilant”.

The attack was two pronged, if polarities can be prongs. Wolverhampton Civic Society objected that “a figurative work would have been more appropriate,” and that a local open sculpture competition should have been held. One dreads to think what that might have produced.

Mike Travers, bricoleur, in later life

Mike Travers, bricoleur, in later life

Sweeping in from the opposite extreme was spokesman for the avant garde Mike Travers, sculpture lecturer at the Art College, and anxious to position himself at the cutting edge, or even in front of it. He denounced the sculpture as “an object of contemplative reverence … with its artificially induced green patina, a ready-made antiquity, its self-conscious attention to surface texture as an end in itself … rhetorical and crude.”

Questioningly rhetorical himself, Travers asked: “Should the sculpture articulate the space and relate to the architecture?” Well yes, of course it should. But by “relate” he seems mainly to have meant “imitate”; the Hepworth looked “uncomfortable … in contrast with its surroundings of plate glass, steel, concrete and marble.” One wonders what alternative he had in mind, but, this being the ‘sixties, Anthony Caro can’t have been too far away; some plinth-less conglomeration of brightly painted girders might have avoided the “humanisation” that Travers detested. (Did Caro use Manders paints, one wonders?)

But even this would have been too little, too late. The very “absurdity” of the Mander Centre itself made the whole project redundant, according to Travers: “As a piece of architecture it is already dated!”

Next day the argument spilled over onto BBC TV’s “Midlands Today”, where tempers, according to “Vigilant” the evening after, were “running high”. Defending his choice of the Hepworth was architect Stanley Sellers. Backing his man Travers was Ron Dutton, then head of the college’s sculpture department. Dutton declared the Hepworth “out of date, a monument on a plinth” that “did not activate the space around it.”

Depends what you mean by “activate”. Sellers insisted that “people [would] glance at it each time they walked past”. Earlier, he had written: “Look at the colours, textures and shapes, see how these change as you walk round it. See the effects of changing light and shade.” If “Vigilant” is to be believed, the result was a stalemate: “Both were so anxious to justify their pleas, for or against, that they interrupted each other in a way that could only exasperate viewers.”

Robin Plummer in 1980, by Kenny McKendry

Robin Plummer in 1980, by Kenny McKendry

Three days later, principal Robin Plummer rode half-heartedly to the rescue in the Express & Star’s letters page, attempting to limit damage by judiciously but nervously dissociating his College of Art from Travers and Dutton’s Hepworth-bashing. After saluting Dame Barbara as “eminent” and so forth, he damned the choice with faint praise: “Whether it is fully appropriate to that site is, I think, arguable, but nevertheless it is the right sort of gesture to have made.” All very “sort of”.

On April 19th another of Plummer’s lecturers, printmaker Michael North, chipped in briefly to back Travers. After that, it all went quiet. Following a random letter on May 1st declaring the Hepworth “ugly”, the Express & Star seems to have considered the subject closed.

Where are they all now? In the intervening years head of sculpture Ron Dutton moved on to become a renowned medallist. His designs are neatly done, but in the main conservatively figurative. As miniature, self-contained reliefs, they do not need to articulate any surrounding space at all. His website is here.

College principal Robin Plummer went on to head up the Faculty of Art and Design at Coventry in 1971, where he promptly took on the conceptualists by insisting that only “tangible, visual art objects” (as opposed to texts) could be entered for assessment. First casualty was Coventry’s art theory course, followed by its lecturers, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin and Terry Atkinson, all of Art & Language fame. (Their student followers also went on to contribute to Art & Language. I remember running into some at a NUS art education conference a couple of years later, where they were amusingly disruptive.)

In 1975 Plummer moved on to Brighton, where he taught till 1989. His paintings of the late ‘sixties rely on a simplistic, pop-ish, hard edged abstraction – vaguely jolly but bland, and now interesting mainly as period pieces. Appropriately non-committal, in fact.

The Wolverhampton Civic (now Civic and Historical) Society has thankfully progressed from its reactionary stance of 46 years ago, and under the chairmanship of Suhail Rana has given firm support to the recent campaign to save the Mander Hepworth from vanishing.

Angry young lecturer Mike Travers became assistant professor at the University of Alberta later in 1968. In 2005 with wife Maureen he was featured in this regional arts magazine – scroll to page 25. I believe he has recently died, but on a surviving web page here, Michael Travers describes himself as “a visual poet-philosopher with an environmental approach to art and design that incorporates being a bricoleur combined with the philosophy of Wabi-sabi – the Japanese Art of Impermanence.” Evidently, he stuck to his guns right to the end. Permanently, in fact. Good for him. I think Barbara Hepworth would have liked that.

Rock Form (Porthcurno) in Hepworth's 1964 sculpture records, with the Mander cast listed as no. 5. [Hepworth Estate, Bowness, Tate Britain Archive, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence.]

Rock Form (Porthcurno) in Hepworth’s 1964 sculpture records, with the Mander cast listed as no. 5. [Hepworth Estate, Bowness, Tate Britain Archive, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence.]

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