Richard Warren

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

Monthly Archives: March 2012

Christ in the clay-pit: the vision of Jack Clemo

A drawing for Holy Week:

“I was astonished,” wrote the Cornish poet Jack Clemo (who became both deaf and blind for much of his adult life), “when early in February 1945 I came in from a stroll around Goonvean clay-work one Sunday afternoon and immediately wrote, quite effortlessly, some lines which I knew at once were the finest poetry I had ever penned. The poem was ‘Christ in the Clay-pit’ …”

… I peer
Upon His footsteps in this quarried mud;
I see His blood
In rusty stains on pit-props, waggon-frames
Bristling with nails, not leaves. There were no leaves
Upon His chosen Tree,
No parasitic flowering over shames
Of Eden’s primal infidelity.

Just splintered wood and nails
Were fairest blossoming for Him Who speaks
Where mica-silt outbreaks
Like water from the side of His own clay
In that strange day
When He was pierced …

Clemo later reflected:

“I brooded much on this ‘resurrection’ of a dormant faculty, and began to realize that this too was part of the paradox of my Christian life. While I lived for poetry I wrote only doggerel; it was only after I turned my back on poetry that I became a poet. I proved in the literary sphere the truth of Christ’s words: ‘He that loseth his life for my sake, the same shall find it.’ I renounced poetry because it had meant for me the worship of strange gods, the cultivation of ideals that could never be reconciled with the curt brutality of the Gospel. I chose the bristling, harsh barren world of dogma because it was the world of our Lord; and the result was that I began writing poetry of a quality that would never have been possible to me had I devoted myself to the beautiful, the ideal, the fanciful. The claywork symbolism, sensuous Calvinism, credal sexuality – all the idiosyncrasies of my writings – were produced by the renunciation of the ‘natural’ vision of the poet. All poets are aware of the antagonism between Nature and dogma, but no poet, except by the grace of God, ever takes the side of dogma against Nature.”

The worrying kitsch of W F Colley

Of the smattering of prints and drawings that grace our staircase, one of my favourites is this pencil sketch by the Birmingham artist and lithographer William Frederick Colley, which I found going for a small song in a Leominster antique shop:

I know nothing of Colley except that he was born in 1907, died in 1957, and was a member of the RBSA (Royal Birmingham Society of Artists), though that wasn’t necessarily a big deal, to be frank. He was also an artist member of the Senefelder Club, a lithograph subscription scheme. His surviving prints seem mostly to date from the 1930’s, though the styling of the faces in this drawing suggests the ‘forties or ‘fifties to me. I imagine that this montage of panto scenes was a design for a lithograph. It’s signed with his monogram on the leg of the cat (a bit Louis Wain) at lower left. The drawing has something of an expressionist feel, and features such as the up-lit shadows on the audience faces, and the way that the witch’s head jigsaws exactly into the space over the main character’s shoulder,  give it a bit of a sinister edge, which seems calculated.

Dancer c1930

Workmen c1930

Cart Horse 1933

Spring 1935

A comparable spookiness in some of his earlier work seems to be less than calculated, judging by this selection of prints culled from auction sites etc. His style and content were vernacular and must have been aimed at the popular end of the market. What effect there is of modernism can be seen mainly in the heavy, gradated sweeps of the lithographic crayon across the stone, laying down strong sub-cubist tonal forms, which have led to his work sometimes being tagged as “Art Deco”. But at times this tonality is so strong that the effect is predominantly dark and rigid – and inadvertently so, we suspect. The bleating lamb in Spring ends up as anything but innocent, while his Gazelle, which seems to have attempted a heraldic decorativeness, has taken on a distinctly demonic air. In fact, all Colley’s muscular animals are a little worrying …

Lilies c1935

The Farmer 1935

The Bull 1936


This gap between intent and effect takes some of his work into the category of kitsch, but a kitsch of accidental malevolence, rather than one of sentimental melancholy, of nostalgia or of totalitarian wholesomeness. Having said that, Moonlight achieves petit-bourgeois sentiment nicely, and is entirely successful in its polite nods to Frances Hodgkins et al. And Colley has a nice line in chunky, Paul Nash-like trees.

Gypsies in Autumn 1939

Young Colt 1941



It would be good to find out more about him, but I doubt that I will be visiting the RBSA, given the £20 per enquiry that they ask. I wonder what might be in the vaults at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery? Comments and any further info welcome.

More following of the Roberts

The Two Roberts page has been further embellished by another of their followers, the neglected but interesting David Carr. (Go here or via the tab up top, and scroll right down to the bottom.) The influence on Carr of Prunella Clough has long been acknowledged, but the effect on his work of the Roberts seems significant to me.

I like Carr’s stuff. Even when it doesn’t quite come off, he’s always pushing for something rather edgy, which you just have to admire. A real one-off.

The return of the repackaged

Googling recreates the world as a fine, serendipitous conspiracy, with its own pleasing coherence. But then you stumble against the frankly shocking. Wasting time recently fumbling through sideways associations between the abstract painters Richard Smith, Robyn Denny and Ralph Rumney, the Situationist International, the ICA and the CIA, I landed on this:








Yes, at Heart Fine Art dot com you may become the owner of a creased copy of King Mob Echo, the inflammatory broadsheet put out in 1968 by Chris Gray and other British SI rejects, for a mere £395. The price tag announces that it has been redefined as Art. And therefore as an investment. I sold a bunch of situationist ephemera a while ago on eBay and was moderately surprised by one or two high bids, so I suppose we should have seen this coming. Do the revolutionary instruments of one era always become the pricey collectibles of the next? With a bit of luck, the idiot who wastes his money on this will be a hedge fund manager. That would be a kind of potlatch, after all.

While he’s at it, he could add to his basket a blank sheet of Art & Language headed letter paper for just £45. Its blankness will speak volumes.

Following the Roberts

John Shelton, 'Cat on a Table' 1960

The influence of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde on a number of young painters at their heels could maybe do with some flagging up. So added to my Two Roberts page is a note on the highly interesting Potteries painter John Shelton, information entirely courtesy of the valuable and much appreciated finbofinbo blog. Click here or use the tab above, and scroll to the bottom of the page.

Other Roberts-followers to follow, hopefully.

Another stab at Empson

William Empson

Last June I put up a page on the poetry of William Empson, which contained a number of unworthy ad hominem comments. Trying to be clever, I succeeded only in upsetting someone who had known and respected the Empsons, and who rightly found my comments irrelevant and facetious. So the page came down. After a prolonged re-think, here (or via the Empson tab up top) is another stab at it. Or the beginnings of a stab, at least.

I have kept my personal memory of Empson’s bizarrely derelict and deserted Sheffield basement, if only because it speaks to me imaginatively of something in the                                           man and his work.

Jimmy Burns Singer

In place of my own comments on Empson’s poetry, which struck me at first as infuriatingly obscure, I’ve substituted a review of his 1955 Collected Poems by the poet and blond wunderkind Burns Singer (born James Hyman, or Jimmy, Singer).

This makes some similar points, but more cleverly, and far more interestingly, given that Singer was writing for the review Encounter, at that time a covert CIA mouthpiece with a very definite interest in discrediting Empson, who had criticised the magazine’s pro-American stance and had questioned the origins of its funding, infuriating its UK editor, Stephen Spender. A cold war hatchet job, in fact, but written by a neglected British poet whose career and work are of real interest in themselves.

I expect more scraps on Empson will follow. And Singer, come to that.

Colquhoun and MacBryde by themselves and others

The new page on the Scottish painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde has been topped up with some scrounged images of the Terrible Twosome themselves, done by themselves or, in a couple of cases, by others.

We usually come across these in ones and twos, but it’s interesting to see them in a bunch. I know it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, but it’s hardly possible to have too much of the Two Roberts.

Brief encounters with the Two Roberts

I have a definite childhood memory of watching a black and white TV programme about two painters at work, occasionally talking to camera, punctuated, I think, by snatches of Erik Satie – maybe Gymnopédies or Gnossiennes, though I would hardly have been able to identify the music at the time. I must have been ten, and this must have been Ken Russell’s first short TV film for the BBC Monitor series, Scottish Painters, broadcast in October 1959.  And the two Scottish artists were “the Two Roberts”, Colquhoun and MacBryde, exiles in Fitzrovia and beyond, the matter of legend, and both fine painters. My parents were not art lovers. (Dad was one of the very first to buy a print of Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl.) But I was deemed to have talent in that direction, so the film might well have been switched on for my edification. A false memory? I don’t think so. Though I don’t recall any details clearly. I’ve trawled around online for clips of the film, but it seems inaccessible. Did a copy even survive?

Neglected for many years, the Roberts have undergone a bit of a boost recently with Roger Bristow’s essential 2010 biography, The Last Bohemians. Though for a quick start, but with some fascinating new information and images, try the excellent 2010 catalogue from The Scottish Gallery, downloadable as a pdf.

Anyway, it’s high time I devoted a page to some brief encounters with the Roberts. I’ve made a start here, reproducing the short feature on them in a 1949 Picture Post, followed by Wyndham Lewis’ 1951 account. As yet, no images of their work, but that can be remedied at a later date.

George Barker by Mervyn Peake

My first page of fragments on George Barker updated with an image of him by Mervyn Peake, artist, illustrator and author of the Gormenghast trilogy. (When will the BBC get round to repeating the excellent TV adaptation of Ghormenghast broadcast in 2000?) The Jessica Dismorr image of Barker on the same page makes an interesting comparison to this charcoal drawing by Mervyn Peake published in the London Mercury for June 1937. There seems to have been no particular connection between Barker and Peake, though both were in London at the time, and Peake wrote to Barker in the same month, presumably in connection with this. Peake was an inspired illustrator, and this is a pleasing image and a good likeness in its way, though with Peake’s portraits one feels that living people are seen through a lense of authorship, somehow tending towards the condition of characters. In effect, everyone is slightly Gormenghastified. Here, Barker could almost be a benevolent and sensitive elder brother to Steerpike.