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)

Percy Shakespeare and the hand of Satan

A chance meeting in 1920 between fourteen year old Percy Shakespeare and the Principal of Dudley Art School in the Black Country proved to be the beginning of a remarkable career as a professional painter for this disadvantaged young man, born and brought up in the tough Kate’s Hill and Wren’s Nest areas of Dudley, which still have a challenging reputation today. Percy’s fees were waived at the School, where he excelled, moving on to Birmingham College of Art and achieving his first Royal Academy success in 1933. On naval service during the war, he was killed at the age of 37 by a stray bomb during an air raid on Brighton.

A number of his paintings and studies are kept at Dudley Museum and Art Gallery. (Though not necessarily on show. Dudley Museum’s displays are an eclectic jumble, and big on dinosaurs.) Their site also offers a slightly expanded downloadable biography by Robin Shaw. The work is also shown and listed on the Black Country History site. In addition, the oil paintings are hosted on the BBC’s Your Paintings.

Shakespeare was an accomplished and fluent painter, earning a living from portraits and figure studies, his most ambitious pieces being a series of large compositions showing the good folk of Dudley in various leisure scenes – ice rink, boating, tropical bird house, music hall etc. Modernism made little impact on his style, but much of his work shows a pleasingly smooth art deco tonality akin to that of Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, one of his Birmingham teachers, though without Fleetwood-Walker’s celebratory high polish. At its best – Boy and Dog, On the Rhine, Schoolgirl – it shows an attractive Deco mannerism. The depersonalised and mildly unsettling Boy and Dog, though presumably commissioned as a straight domestic portrait, is closer to the more nuanced moodiness of, say, Dod Procter.

But there is one stand-out surviving painting, which has acquired the title of Self Portrait (Mephistopheles) and is dated to 1933. In this extraordinary and disquieting image, the artist faces the viewer at an oddly jaunty angle. Under a wide brimmed black hat, his heavy conjoined eyebrows emphasise an expression that might be intended as a hearty grin, but which feels more like a malicious leer. There is something worryingly artificial and insincere about the stylisation of the features and the gloss of the lips. The sinister effect is heightened by the rigid banality of the view through the window of council houses, trees and lawns on the “Wrenner”.

One might suspect that this self portrait acquired the “Mephistopheles” tag after the event – except for the sitter’s left hand, which is prominently highlighted against the dark of his clothing in the gesture  often tagged the “sign of Satan”, and popular nowadays with generations of juvenile Satanists and heavy metallers – middle two fingers curled down, index and little finger extended in imitation of the goat’s horns.

Despite (or because of) frequent confusion with a similar deaf sign and the “hook ‘em horns” gesture of the football team of the University of Texas, the obsessive collecting of photos showing celebrities and politicians apparently flashing this sign has become a boom industry for conspiracy theorists and  Illuminati spotters. As a result, the Wikipedia entry on this is not helpful on its origins. Was the gesture current and recognisable in 1933 in the Black Country? It seems unlikely. Or are we in danger, like the conspiracy theorists, of seeing significance where it was not intended?

Whatever the case, this deeply enigmatic painting has a darkly iconic quality, and deserves to be far better known.

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One response to “Percy Shakespeare and the hand of Satan

  1. Brendan Flynn June 22, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    What? Percy Shakespeare a closet Satanist? Surely not. It looks to me as if he is putting his coat on to go down the pub and turns to the viewer with that time honoured “fancy a bevvy” gesture. I think he is a well-meaning Mephistopheles who is trying to tempt us out for a pint, not to sell our souls to the devil.

    Kind regards

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