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)

Mercurial optimism in Wolverhampton

Wolverhampton, excuse me for saying so, seems like a city of lost souls these days, and to mark this, much of Wolverhampton Gallery is under builders’ sheets at the moment. Of what was on show today, I couldn’t manage long in David Ward’s desperately quietist (yawn) exhibition “In a Landscape”, but I did enjoy the room of Big Ceramics, though it served to remind me that the Wolverhampton school where I worked till a couple of years ago celebrated my departure by ripping out our ceramics kilns and the whole clay area in order to create a reception desk. Ceramics being too low a material, too grubby on the fingers, to be “innovative” enough for the Design Technology suits anxious to keep Art within limits they could handle.

mercury
Wolverhampton has a lost history of voluminous sculpting, as exemplified by Robert J Emerson’s Mercury frieze on the Express & Star building, which hailed me in passing, camera in hand, on my way back to the bus station. This cracking piece of Blakean muscular deco was done in 1934 for the opening of the newspaper’s new premises. Emerson was close to the editor, and had even had a studio on the site. According to one source, a local doctor’s son was the model (blimey, steady on ladies), and the piece is not carved but actually cast in reconstituted “Vinculum” stone. Now there’s an innovative technology for you.

The beckoning forefinger risks misinterpretation these days, and I feel that Emerson might have compensated for the foreshortened view from street level by stretching the legs, but otherwise it all works pretty well. He managed to avoid Epstein-type controversy by inserting a teeny fig leaf, and as far as I know, no fundamentalist Christians have yet objected to his inclusion of a pentagram.

Though the Express & Star, I have to say, is now well beyond its years of greatness and a poor excuse for a newspaper.

While sat in the Gallery café I spent a while making notes towards a review of Mary and Bryan Talbot’s new graphic novel on Louise Michel, The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia. The problem terms here, of course, are “vision” and “utopia”. If we wished to disable radicalism one sure means would be to invest it in a utopian vision, and to confine that vision in the cultural game reserve of comic books. Is Emerson’s god of communications a utopian image? For sure, it’s brazenly optimistic, and as historical utopias of both left and right are reduced to a residue of steampunk gameplay, such public optimism looks rather out of kilter in today’s Wolverhampton.

The darker side of Sonny

Theodore Garman at work

Theodore Garman at work

The New Art Gallery at Walsall is currently showing off its new Auerbach – a version of To the Studios from 1983, once owned by Lucien Freud, and now at Walsall via the Accepted in Lieu tax scheme. And here it is. In my humble opinion it’s not quite his best – a bit muddy and muddled in the middle – but still worth showing off, of course.

What Walsall rarely shows off are two fine Auerbach-ish works they already have by a less known painter on whom they hold a virtual monopoly – Jacob Epstein’s son Theodore Garman. Find him on the Art UK site and 23 paintings come up, all but one at Walsall.

'The Blue Girl' 1948

‘The Blue Girl’ 1948

Theo Garman, born in 1924, was Epstein’s son by his partner Kathleen Garman, though Epstein never publicly acknowledged the relationship. Due to his cheerful childhood disposition he was known as “Sonny”, but in his adult years he suffered grievously from depression, and was given a disputed diagnosis of schizophrenia. Later, as his instability deepened, he required considerable care from his mother Kathleen. As a painter he moved in an artistic environment, but was essentially a self-taught loner, admiring Matisse and Matthew Smith but dismissive of “the Sutherland-Piper-Moore claptrap”.

Exhibitions at the Redfern in 1950 and 1952 were applauded, Matthew Smith expressing “wonder, admiration, and even astonishment”; Wyndham Lewis, always an acute critic in The Listener, was more wisely measured, finding himself “overwhelmed by a rancid vegetation, tropically gigantic,” but judging nevertheless that Garman’s painterly vitality “assures this artist of a high place among his contemporaries.”

GrayThere’s no denying that the so-so landscapes and still lives of Garman’s earlier years had toughened up admirably by the late ‘forties, and his Matissean looseness had become more of a freedom than a weakness. Jennifer Gray, whose M Phil thesis on Garman sits unpublished in Walsall’s archives, but who authored the 2004 booklet on him, speculates that “his illness, far from inhibiting his creativity, may have enhanced it, allowing him to be liberated and able to explore new ideas and techniques.” Maybe so, though one wishes to avoid slipping into the suffering genius narrative here.

The two late paintings that best exemplify this late development are The Old Forge Chelsea I and II, produced in 1953, shortly before Garman’s tragic and early death. In these his deepening impasto is matched with tangled, angular, linear shapes and rich, dark, dense colours, reminiscent of Auerbach and Leon Kossoff and of their teacher David Bomberg. Auerbach and Kossoff were still students in 1953, and I’m not aware of any direct connections here, but it certainly looks as if Garman had had second thoughts about some aspects of modernist style.

The Old Forge, Chelsea I

The Old Forge, Chelsea I

These two paintings are in the care of Walsall but are part of the Beth Lipkin collection, rather than the Garman Ryan, and are infrequently shown. A pity. (Click on images to enlarge.)

The Old Forge, Chelsea II

The Old Forge, Chelsea II

In January 1954 Garman, in something of a disturbed state, borrowed a small statue for a still life from Chelsea School of Art and was promptly accused of stealing it. The police were called. Stephen Gardiner’s 1992 biography of Epstein gives a bare but careful account of what happened next: Kathleen, to prevent his arrest, arranged for his hospital admission, but when the ambulance arrived Theodore, thinking himself kidnapped, was overwhelmed by panic and died of a heart attack while struggling with the male nurses after injections of sedative. He was 29 years old. Despite an anonymous letter to the police complaining of “the barbarous manner in which he was virtually hounded to death” the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of death from natural causes. Later the same year Theo’s sister Esther committed suicide.

In an appendix to her rather gushy 2004 boho-romp The Rare and the Beautiful. The Lives of the Garmans, Cressida Connolly rakes over the circumstances and their associated rumours, but in the process discovers precious little.

It’s too easy to suggest that the dark angularity of these paintings is somehow expressive of Garman’s suffering or reflects the appalling tragedy that overtook the family. But the two works do seem to indicate a deepened and more complex sensibility, and may suggest something of what Garman might have gone on to achieve and sustain if he had lived. Today he is largely forgotten, his “high place among his contemporaries” sadly unassured.

The scandalous portrait of footman Smith

My recent visit to the pompous cold and gloom of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk was relieved only by (a) a chat with an elderly gentleman guide who recalled being introduced by Richard Burton to Francis Bacon at the Colony Room during a student drinking binge, and (b) the acquisition for a song at the National Trust second hand bookshop of Michael Holroyd’s 1975 biography of Augustus John.

It’s become the norm to compare the boho-machismo of Augustus unfavourably with the demure painterliness of his long eclipsed sister Gwen. And certainly his work is problematic, veering uncomfortably between genius and the risible. Many of the commissioned portraits come in, rightly, for their share of stick, but one of the earliest, to my mind, is a clear piece of evidence (among many others) for John’s greatness: it is his 1909 civic monster, Portrait of His Honour H C Dowdall KC as Lord Mayor of Liverpool. Though in his biography Holroyd too often employs literary twiddles to disguise a lack of hard fact, he does a good job of chronicling the troubled history of this painting.

Lord Mayor
The commission by Liverpool city council brought the relatively unknown John a hundred guineas. The subject and recipient of the portrait, the retiring Lord Mayor, Harold Chaloner Dowdall, was a friend of John’s (despite being a Conservative), and made the choice of artist himself. John insisted on the largest available canvas, and started with the two vertical edges of the triangular composition, the wand and sword. For a fortnight John worked “like a steam engine,” and in a moment of inspiration inserted the Mayor’s footman, a Mr Smith, to whom the massive sword was now allotted. (Smith’s surname alone is ever used in the account, oddly.)

As completion became increasingly problematic John found himself anxious to escape the claustrophobic ambience of officialdom: “I had but one desire: to submerge myself in crude unceremonious life.” But his nocturnal excursions to this end were deterred by Dowdall, who had been advised by the police that such outings might “prejudice in some way the dignity of his Office.” After a spell of recuperation among Welsh gypsies, John returned abruptly to finish the portrait in a single day.

The result, a masterpiece of satirical painting, caused predictable outrage when unveiled at the Walker Art Gallery, the critic of the Liverpool Daily Post suggesting that footman Smith had grounds for legal action. The Liverpool Courier found it to be a “topical allegory” with “symbolic value,” the figure of Smith personifying the abasement of the Labour movement before the Liberal government. A false rumour arose that Dowdall had hired a gang of burglars to get rid of it, only to find that they had ineptly stolen the frame and left the painting. The Walker was packed with locals keen to gawp at “the Smith portrait”.

In fact, Dowdall consistently defended the work, though he barely had house room for the seven foot canvas. In 1918 he sold it to a private collector, E P Warren (no relation of mine, as far as I know), for £1,450 and bought a house and three acres of land in Oxfordshire with the proceeds. In 1938 Warren sold it to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, where it remains, one of twenty Johns owned there. The new price was £2,400.

John Rothenstein’s 1945 study Augustus John has the painting as a black and white plate only. The Victoria’s own online colour image is oddly dark and flat, so I’ve tweaked it a bit to copy here. You have to admire the rhythms of the numerous diagonals, the lower right to upper left movement of Smith’s white stockinged legs signalling the parallel line of sight between his upturned eyes and the Lord Mayor, the object of his apparent veneration. Without Smith, the portrait would have been competently dull, and John’s gratuitously vast canvas would have been space needing to be filled; with him, the image is taut and dynamic. It remains, as the Liverpool Courier sensed, a devastating image of the oppressive class system that the painter loathed.

John’s autobiography Chiaroscuro was partly ghost-written, it seems, by none other than the ubiquitous John Davenport – see my previous post. (Though Davenport cannot be blamed for the dreadful title.) In it, John opts not to mention Dowdall, but he recalls meeting many others, from Kropotkin – “His bearded countenance radiated benignity, faith and courage” – to Aleister Crowley – “He held me by his glittering eye as any bore is apt to do” – to Charlie Chaplin – “While he was speaking on social conditions in a strain which seemed to me familiar and sympathetic, I was impelled to slap him on the back, saying, ‘Charlie, why, you’re nothing but a dear old anarchist!’ Recovering, he replied, ‘Yes, that’s about it.’”

And that – a dear old anarchist – was about it for Augustus too, bless him.

The canary that ate the cats

The best parody I can recall was one I heard in Battersea circa 1970, when a very small boy walked past me, singing to himself:

“Strangers in the night, exchanging panties …”

No further lines. That was all, and that was enough. With a wonderful economy of means – “panties” is very close in sound to “glances” – this opens up the very human realities behind the portentous lyrics of the song, as the strangers emerge from their fifteen minute fumble in the wrong underwear. Bert Kaempfert and Frank Sinatra get what they deserve, in six words.

On the other hand, anthologies of parodies seem to promise more than they deliver. Why are so many parodies written by the deservedly obscure and overly clever, seeking mistakenly to sink their targets by a piling on of baroque exaggerations? This seems true of many jabs at Eliot and Pound. (Henry Reed’s “Chard Whitlow” excepted. The Pound of the Cantos is maybe beyond parody, being, in his lurching obscurantism, already in a state of self-parody.)

canaryThe long unpublished (until 1977) comedy thriller The Death of the King’s Canary, by Dylan Thomas and John Davenport, involves the assassination of a Poet Laureate, and in the process takes a swipe at a good handful of British poets current in the late ‘forties, when it was written. (John Davenport is one of those highly interesting Fitzrovian characters who pop up around every corner, and my thanks go to Bill Bennett for pointing him out.)

Among the many prospective and parodied laureates surveyed by a bored prime minister at the novel’s opening are George Barker (“Albert Ponting, born Balham, 1910. Did Chemistry course at Polytechnic. Must read, but unsuitable”):

I, I, my own gauze phantom am,
My head frothing under my arm,
The buttocks of Venus for my huge davenport.
I orgillous turn, burn, churn,
As his rubbery bosom curds my perspiring arm –
The gust of my ghost, I mean …

W H Auden in ballad mode as a leftist Kipling (“Wyndham Nils Snowden. Very popular with the younger men. But a bit of a red.”):

Look, dead man, at this Empire, at this Eastscape of suffering,
Monocled glaucoma over India’s coral strand.
They can hear in twilight Ealing
The forts fall in Darjeeling
As the last White Hope is snuffed out in that dark-skinned No-Man’s-Land.

And of course T S Eliot (“John Lowell Atkins. Naturalized 1917. Very sound, but I don’t think quite right for the job.”):

Everything is the same. It only differs
in the subjective mind which is the same
being or not-being, born, unborn,
a wind among leaves deciduous or dead.
It does not matter where
it does not matter.
Windfall or wordfall or a linnet’s feather
in rank orchards where perpetual turns the worm.
It is not different …

After reading Atkins’s “West Abelard” the Prime Minister feels “queerly depressed” and reaches for the brandy. “That was a lugubrious poem; and the trouble was that it was true. Everything was the same. Dull, too. But it would never do to tell them so.” “West Abelard” is the more effective for being so worryingly close to the real thing.

But there is another side to Atkins; equally sharp are “the opening lines of a new light poem … another jingle for his latest dog-book,” discovered subsequently in the poet’s overcoat pocket:

Bubble and Bow-wow and Viscount Squeak,
The chow, the bullpup, and the peke,
Bound all day on a barkable lark,
Towsering round the peagreen park.

This very quick nod to Eliot’s Pekes and Pollicles, Pugs and Poms is affectionate in its clever way, but also more than enough to lay bare the soft underbelly of his modernism.

cats

‘Cats’: is it just me?

It’s just not done to dislike Old Possum, is it? No one is quite ready to be pointed at as a hater of small furry animals. I’ve owned cats (and a dog) in my day, and was fond enough of them as individuals, but I find myself very much revolted by the psychic weakness of our tyrannous English cat-and-dog culture, of which Lloyd Webber’s bizarre leg-warmer musical seems a horribly inevitable extension. Call me a snob, but the problem with Old Possum is that it’s exactly the kind of verse that J Alfred Prufrock would have approved of, between the toast and the tea.

The unmaking of ‘Rock Drill’: unmaking the myth

Image259An excellent little exhibition I should have posted about earlier has just finished – ‘Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War’ at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. A century on from the first display of Epstein’s mechanical monster, this juxtaposed the 1974 reconstruction of the full original with the surviving ‘Torso’ from the Tate, alongside related items and a bunch of context.

The show promoted a strong narrative, according to which Epstein unmade and reduced the original full figure sculpture, and chucked out the drill on which it had sat, in revulsion at the horrors of mechanised warfare. The truncated torso, mutilated and abject, then became an image of suffering, of wounded soldiery. Epstein’s own later comment about Rock Drill as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ is pulled in, as usual, to back this interpretation.

But hang on. What Epstein actually said with hindsight in 1940 in his Let There be Sculpture was this:

‘… a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into …’

Here Epstein says that the sculpture is of a Frankenstein’s monster, not that it is that monster. It’s an important distinction, for in saying this he in no way disavows the work. Far from it: Rock Drill, in all its mechanical inhumanity, is presented as a valid work of prophetic protest. As for the demounted version of 1916, Epstein simply adds:

‘I lost my interest in machinery and discarded the drill.’

Image267So where lie the origins of this tragic myth of transformation? As so often where the Vorticist complex is concerned, with Richard Cork. Back in 1974, in the Vorticism and its Allies exhibition catalogue, in the light of Epstein’s own comments Cork was wisely circumspect:

‘Perhaps he was unhappy with the status of a ready-made drill in a work of art … and perhaps, too, with the destructive overtones of a mechanistic sculpture now that everyone was growing aware of what machines meant in terms of real war.’

Perhaps, indeed. Fair enough. But 25 years on, by the time of his 1999 Jacob Epstein paperback for the Tate, Cork’s ‘perhaps’ had become inflated to ‘inevitable’:

‘The industrialised armaments unleashed during the First World War slaughtered soldiers and civilians in their millions, forcing innovative young artists to reconsider their attitudes. It was inevitable, then, that the war’s apocalyptic course would prompt Epstein to make radical changes to Rock Drill.’

Image264The following year, in the compilation Blast, Vorticism 1914-1918, edited by Paul Edwards, Cork expanded:

‘The Great War … claimed an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions like the rapid-fire machine gun. Once the devastating power of such weapons became widely understood, it was no longer possible to regard an object like the rock drill in a straightforwardly positive light … Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his sculpture.’

And from this last source the myth passes directly into Walsall Gallery’s own leaflets on the subject. Not just directly, but actually word for word:

Epstein’s Rock Drill, 2003: ‘By 1915 the First World War was claiming an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions such as the rapid-fire machine gun … He was no longer able to regard the “Rock Drill” and the power of machinery in such a positive light.’

Elin Morgan, Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War, 2015: ‘… as soon as the devastating power of such weapons was realised, it was no longer possible to see Rock Drill in a positive light. Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his oeuvre.’

IMGSo if Rock Drill was not deconstructed in a fit of pacifist shame, why did Epstein pull it to bits?

Well, he badly needed to make a living (a factor often overlooked by academics). And in this case the living was coming largely from American art collector John Quinn. In May 1914 Epstein described the sculpture in a letter to Quinn, admitting that he had ‘small chance of ever selling it,’ given that a nine foot stack of industrial machinery was hardly a living room piece. ‘My Rock Drill,’ he later admitted, ‘was my great adventure and I did not expect to sell it.’

So in 1915, Epstein dismounted the plaster robot, discarded the drill, and reduced the figure to a torso small enough to be cast in metal. Why? Simply because it made it saleable. In 1916 Quinn was still keen to buy, and Epstein sent him photos of the reduced and cast Rock Drill, which he priced at £200. In the end, it was not among the pieces acquired by Quinn, who was also budgeting to buy works by Gaudier-Brzeska, but it came close.

IMG_0002The prosaic is always disappointing, and the urge to discover Big Meanings is a very human and forgivable urge. But in this case tragic myth making has coloured our understanding rather too readily. As for Epstein’s alleged decision that Rock Drill ‘should be excluded’ from his oeuvre, I can find no basis for it.

It’s a pity, by the way, that Epstein’s original intention to plug in a generator to the drill, to keep it running while on display, proved impracticable. That would really have brassed off the critics.

Welcome to Darlo

I’ve pretty much neglected this blog lately, and in particular have failed to report, as I fully intended, on the welcome show of the wonderful Gerald Wilde at the October Gallery, finishing tomorrow. Apologies.

To begin again, a word of praise instead for the extraordinary show of photos by Janet Mendelsohn, just opened at the Ikon in Birmingham, taken in Balsall Heath in the late and grim ‘sixties. Disturbing, affectionate but quite unsentimental, and oddly contemporary in some respects. And in black and white, as they have to be.

My childhood and youth were one long wait for both films in colour at the pictures, for colour snapshots, for colour tellies, for the Sunday colour supplement, and for the startling introduction of colour into men’s clothing circa 1967 as permitted by the passage of the psychedelic experience into mainstream design. Before these, in a real sense, we all saw the world in black and white because all our visual points of reference were all in black and white. But psychedelics are a flat, colouring book business, and after these our awareness of everyday tonality was hugely reduced.

About ten years ago I took a dozen shots on a walk around Darlaston, just down the road in the Black (and white) Country, but could never think what to do with them. After seeing the Mendelsohn photos, it dawned on me that mine too deserved to be in black and white, so – thanks to the greyscale option – here they are. (Click for slide show / enlargements.) They’re not the sharpest images, but I think the change suits them. The Darlaston they portray appears depopulated, showing only sad traces of human activity. But you have to admire (while condemning his homophobia) the chutzpah of the graffiti writer who couldn’t spell “bastard”.

Baby Jesus meets the Sphinx

Happy Christmas! And for a Christmas card, here is Glyn Warren Philpot’s startling Repose on the Flight into Egypt (1922), currently on the wall at Tate Britain. (Click to enlarge.) I don’t know much about Philpot. Google him and you get a bunch of deftly done portraits, many of young men. All a bit ‘nineties at first, but in his later years (he died in 1937) he went rather more Deco, though not always with entirely happy results.

Here the satyrs and fauns of a departing world recognise in the crumpled figures of the exhausted family the beginnings of the new age, and in the sleeping baby the power that will revolutionise the universe. There is a beautiful and generous sympathy in this. In the Christ child the Sphinx sees the definitive answer to her riddle – a human. God as a human. The toppled colossus from whose shoulder the Sphinx alights, and against which Joseph rests his back, is an Ozymandias among half buried lintels and columns, ruins of the old religions.

The only comparable image I can think of is Max Klinger’s Christ on Olympus, where the resurrected saviour is greeted by the entire astonished pagan pantheon. It’s a wonderful conceit, though Klinger’s grandiosity lets him down a bit in places.

The commentary on Repose on the Tate site maybe dwells too much on the phallic cactus at lower left, but does so in the context of Philpot’s attempt to reconcile his Christianity (he was a Roman convert) with his homosexuality. What an indictment on the churches that this is still an issue for many, ninety years on …

True and untrue grit: Arthur Berry vs L S Lowry

berry bookAnd so, at last, to Stoke-on-Trent and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley, to see Lowry and Berry: Observers of Human Life, which runs till next January. A telling shame, as I’ve said before, that the show needs L S Lowry as bait in order to remind Potteries people of Arthur Berry’s importance, but hey ho …

Though the divided room is sixty-forty in Berry’s favour, the Lowry wall space would have been better used in doing fuller justice to Berry. For if this pairing proves anything, it is that Berry’s work knocks Lowry’s into a bent matchstalk. (All images here are by Berry.)


The upsweeping pastel marks of Berry’s violent left hand – his useless right arm was injured in childhood  – build layers of densely vibrating texture. His images breathe living dust, while Lowry’s are limp constructions of washed-out cardboard rectangles, flat and dead, reliant on blocky outlines for their existence. Lowry’s facades give off a flatness of spirit; they don’t emote, and his buildings surely have no insides. Berry’s gothic, grubby terraces fizz and throb with dark, interior energy.


There’s no doubt that Berry’s first sight of Lowry’s work was a revelation to him, in that it showed him what he might accomplish in and with his own particular back yard, without any wider search for subjects. But beyond that Berry owes Lowry nothing, except perhaps the use of whiteness as a dark ambience. While Berry’s own recorded comments on Lowry’s work are enormously generous, it seems to me that much of this was Berry’s projection of his own vision onto the work of the older but lesser painter.

I can see no evidence, for instance, that Lowry’s facile and wonky caricatures betray a deep familiarity with life, death and the human condition, as Berry claimed, but that’s exactly what Berry himself narrates. Berry noted, seemingly with approval, that Lowry’s townscapes are theatrically staged, kept “professionally” at a safe middle distance. In fact, Lowry remained a voyeur, a Peeping Laurence, but with Berry things got up close and personal.

In Berry’s intensely local images I can detect a broad and knowing inheritance: Daumier, Rouault, Sickert, Dubuffet, Soutine, Matthew Smith, even Kossoff, Auerbach, and many more. In Lowry’s work I can see … Well, not a lot, actually.

But matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs and tumty tumty something something clogs weren’t all that LS painted, it seems. As a footnote, the show’s Lowry selection also contains three of his “mannequins” – rather unpleasantly fetishistic private drawings of suffering young girls dolled out in choking corsets and massive bows. (It’s significant that in the last few years the release of these previously embarrassing images has been deemed necessary just to keep Lowry interesting.)

Image294Should this surprise us? As a whole, Lowry’s human beings are always mere dolls, inert toys, miniaturised simulacra, emptied out on the carpet to be manipulated. In contrast, Berry’s take on suffering, the suffering of women included, is, though darkly affectionate, always empathetic, altruistic, wisely observed and thoroughly humanitarian.

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

 

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