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)

Monthly Archives: November 2012

Creating a poor impression

It is possible to have one’s better judgement coshed into submission by an appeal to heroic recklessness. Recounting a doomed and penniless jaunt across Europe in the late 1940’s in the company of Brendan Behan, Anthony Cronin noted that at moments of crisis, Behan would propose a solution that, in any sane view, could only compound disaster, but then get his own way by casting himself as “man-of-action-thwarted-by-inadequate-lieutenant”. This brings to mind a far lesser expedition taken one shameful day in late 1977 by myself and my friend, the artist and experimental film maker Peter Hatton, on which my better judgement was left behind, wailing. At a distance of 35 years, confession begins to look something close to appropriate.

Memorably described by Philip Norman in the Sunday Times as “a bony, spasmodic boy, with hair like a mass of bubbles,” Pete was a charismatic, Rimbaud-ish mass of tics with a talent for unexpected and absolute enthusiasms; the fingers of his left hand were rigid from some teenage crisis where he had punched through the glass of a phone box. But his commitment to his art was absolute. Our artistic careers then being a tad in the doldrums, he had hit on the sudden strategy of an unannounced, in-person appeal to Impressions Gallery, the pioneering and well regarded photography venue in York. They had already very decently shown odd bits of our work (photograms, photocollages and so on) alongside Moholy Nagy and Dr Harold Edgerton, no less.  So they were, by Pete’s calculation, certain to be grateful for the opportunity to give us a headline two man show.

The virtue of this plan lay exclusively in its audacity. Since we had not thought to prepare the ground for our proposal in any way whatsoever, Pete judged that the required forceful spontaneity would be entirely to our advantage. Our naked vulnerability would be the guarantee of our authenticity, to the point where, as he explained, our benefactors would hardly consider wounding us by a refusal. I had some doubts, but sat on them, not wishing to appear the inadequate lieutenant or anything short of authentic.

Peter Hatton, collage, 1979, from the ‘Hostility’ series

The day, in my recollection, was flat and overcast. I have an image of rain, but maybe it wasn’t so. A car being well beyond our pockets, public transport was our only means, and so we set out on what should have been a relatively straightforward train journey from Wakefield to Leeds. Having lined our optimism with a stiff pre-expedition drink, we strode off for Kirkgate station.

In those days, most substantial railway platforms hosted a sturdy café that thoughtfully offered tins of beer to lighten the humdrum journey. Having welcomed this offer with open arms, we contrived to dash onto the wrong platform for our change of train at Leeds, realising much later that we were travelling at speed away from York, passing Batley and Dewsbury and heading rapidly for Huddersfield and Manchester.

Another Hatton collage

Confused back tracking followed, with hangings about after lost connections on wind scoured stations whose monotony was alleviated only by further supplies of beer. Once we were back on board, the grey, scratched, hard-done-by landscape of South Yorkshire limped painfully by. It was as if we had entered a metaphysical funnel where time snoozed. Emerging (some real hours later) under darkening clouds, we rolled unsteadily off the vast platform at York and, as directly as we could manage, headed for Colliergate.

With a degree of triumphant hurrahing, and imagining ourselves more sober than we really were, we finally burst through the doors of the gallery, to find ourselves, to our complete amazement, confronted by a crowd of unfamiliar people, largely in formal dress, most of whom who turned to stare at us in silence. After what seemed like (but may not have been) a very long pause, we must have said something lame and drunken about why we were there. We may even have asked to see Andrew Sproxton, the much respected founder and co-director of Impressions. After another awkward pause, someone explained quietly but very firmly that his funeral had taken place that afternoon and that we had interrupted his wake. With some sort of mumbled apology, we backed out.

Andrew had died at the age of 28. So rigorous had been our disdain of any form of reconnaissance that even this piece of tragedy had avoided our attention.

I don’t much recall the conversation on our return journey. I was probably too drunk by then to notice. I think we might have reassured ourselves with the notion that this comprehensive disaster had in some way sealed the purity of our approach, reckoning our refusal to compromise with reality as a kind of moral high ground. We were, after all, poètes maudits, and comprehensive disaster was our pride and our club badge. Though I dare say both of us, in the privacy of our own hearts, felt rather differently about what we had just done. On the rare occasions when I have since managed to bring myself to think about this incident, I have tried to construct a scenario in which we might have got things more comprehensively and tactlessly wrong, but have never succeeded.

We had other moments, but not quite up to that standard. Not the night when, after an epic bus journey across the West Riding on some futile art-related errand, we found ourselves marooned without taxi fare in a gay bar in Bradford. Nor the post-performance pub session at Butler’s Wharf in London where Pete simply disappeared overnight (later claiming to have been abducted by a predatory witch), leaving me with the suitcases. Not even the climactic occasion in the crypt of St Martin in the Fields when, with Robert Worby and Jez Welsh, fellow members of the Aerschot Performance Division, we delivered a piece of performance art of such heroic and alienating ferocity as to hack off every man jack and woman jill of the watching Arts Council panel authorised to offer us a generous grant. The performance was essentially unplanned; the sheer intolerable volume of electronic white noise rammed through our speakers brought clergy down to complain and sent Adrian Henri scurrying for the exit.

Pete went on to work with distinction at Fieldhead Special School in Wakefield, caring for children with severe learning difficulties and physical disabilities. The use of moving coloured lights as a sensory stimulation for children with special needs has now been mainstream for many years, but he had pioneered this in the late ‘seventies as a natural development of his art practice, and I believe he should be credited with the original idea. When he died in 1998, he was only in his mid-forties. Later that year, Wakefield Art Gallery gave him a posthumous show, his first and last real solo exhibition.

Following an earlier visit by Pete to my Sheffield bedroom (I’ll skip the details except to say that they involved a drop of what was alleged to be opium oil, considerable vomiting and some alarming auditory hallucinations), I had experienced for a short while the strange sense of being propelled forward a couple of decades, to live through some momentous, troubling but unidentifiable future event. Many years later it occurred to me that I had foreseen his death.

Perhaps, as Cronin observed, “it is almost impossible for sensitive, intelligent, over-imaginative people not to make a hames of their development.” Or had we just mistaken a reckless lifestyle for some rich vein of creativity? In the end, Pete remained loyal to his instinct for self-destruction. Whereas these days my Imp of the Perverse, God forgive him, can manage only a little wilful neglect of relationships or of necessary tasks; at one time, in the absence of any grander gesture, he would have contemplated rolling up everything and flinging it at the wall.

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Women bishops – over the cliff with General Synod

Off topic for this blog, I know. But when you need to shout, the nearest rooftop is at least somewhere to start.

Breakfast TV and the morning papers say that the Church of England is now “in turmoil”. “Meltdown” hardly does it. “Tailspin”, maybe. In thirty years or less, the national church, in which every person in every street in every parish in the land may claim a stake if they care to, will have become a dispersed, disestablished, reactionary cult, populated by a few nutters.

Women clergy have gone to work this morning dismayed and angry. Many seriously tempted, I don’t doubt, to throw in the towel. In this diocese at least, emails of pastoral support to them from their concerned bishops are conspicuous by their non-existence. Maybe they need their PA’s to do their emails for them. I don’t know.

Who (apart from the Taliban) would contemplate a system in which women could be teachers but never heads, on the check-out but never managers, nurses but never consultants?

And all engineered by a handful of religious rednecks who have used the inertia of the majority to push themselves onto Synod. I nearly wrote “fascists” there, rather than “rednecks”. But to be honest, when we take a cold look at the distasteful, square-headed fundamentalism of Reform and the childish, ultramontane ponciness of Forward in Faith, the term doesn’t look too inappropriate.

Once you boil it down, there simply are no good, rational reasons to oppose the episcopacy of women. Not even simplistic and confused appeals to Scripture. It is pure and shameful misogyny – nothing more, nothing less.

More Roberts-following: the tinkers of Louis le Brocquy

Louis le Brocquy, who died earlier this year, has been canonised as one of Ireland’s greatest 20th century painters. His earliest work, from 1939, adopted a solid documentary realism, but within a few years the example of Picasso had pulled apart all that. In 1946 he moved to London, worked from a flat near Baker Street, met Jankel Adler, Colquhoun, MacBryde and others, and exhibited at the Leicester Galleries and Gimpel Fils. By 1948, in the view of Maurice Collis, he “thoroughly deserve[d] his reputation as a leading exponent of the school to which Adler and Robert Colquhoun belong.”

Tinker Woman with Newspaper, 1947-8

His “Tinker period” paintings, from 1945, feature travelling people comparable to the peasants and beggars of Colquhoun and MacBryde, who represent the fragility of the human condition. (Tinker Woman with Newspaper of 1947-8 is plausibly credited with sparking off De Kooning’s series of semi-abstracted women.) Accumulating the generalised anxiety of the times, these images developed into something of an “apocalyptic” theme. Constructed in flattened triangles of loose, expressionist paint, le Brocquy’s tinkers possess a distinctive shadowless twitchiness, but show particular points of convergence with the Roberts; hands, for example, are sometimes mannered and massively fingered in a style reminiscent of Adler, Colquhoun or MacBryde – compare the study for Man Creating Bird (1948) with MacBryde’s 1947 Backgammon Player – while Goat in Snow of 1950 is clearly related to some members of Colquhoun’s menagerie.

A “grey period” of 1950 reverted to the Picassoesque; after that le Brocquy went through numerous transitions, initially flirting with Bacon but always moving towards increased flimsiness and superficiality, though rendered with increasing technical finesse. The culmination of this trend was perhaps a late portrait of that great Irishman, Bono. But never mind. The earlier stuff is edgy and masterful, and fits well within the post-war school headed up by the Roberts – internationalist in outlook, post-cubist in style and primarily concerned with the humanity of the human figure. We can see now that this was neither Celtic fringe nor an easy Picasso-ism, but a definite “look” within a movement that had clearly diverged from the Palmer-based neo-romanticism of Craxton, early Minton etc.

Study for Man Creating Bird, 1948

 

MacBryde, Backgammon Player, 1947

 

le Brocquy’s paintings are densely documented on the official website (link above, at the start), but a couple of examples here can make the point. (Once I have the Two Roberts page reorganised, le Brocquy can take his place on there.)

Goat in Snow, 1950

 

Colquhoun, Woman and Goat, 1948

 

“A world you didn’t grow old in”: a pub crawl with the Two Roberts

Arthur Berry in the early 1940’s

In 1942, Arthur Berry, a promising 17 year old art student from a Potteries working class background, was given the opportunity of a London visit by a benefactor and art buyer, a Mr Thompson. First stop was to be a visit to the National Gallery in the company of “two Scottish painters”, whom Berry, wearing for the occasion a hopefully bohemian trilby, awaited eagerly. The painters turned out to be the Two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, and the cultural visit turned rapidly into a Fitzrovian pub crawl. This account is excerpted from Berry’s highly readable autobiography of 1984, A Three and Sevenpence Halfpenny Man, reprinted this year by North Staffordshire Press. (This should really go on the Roberts’ page above, but that’s now getting a bit crowded, and will be reorganised in due course.)

A recent post on Mark Finney’s blog lists the drinking holes of wartime Fitzrovia as catalogued by Berry’s fellow Potteries painter John Shelton. The York Minster, the Fitzroy and the Bricklayer’s Arms, all visited on this occasion, are included; Shelton notes that the latter was nicknamed “The Burglar’s Rest”. He lists several drinking clubs, including the famous Colony Room, but this cannot have been the basement club visited here, given that the Colony is on the first floor. The trio’s meal may have been at the “Coffee An”, a disreputable late night eatery on New Oxford St.

Berry in his later years

At this time the Roberts were at a flat in St Alban’s Studios in Kensington, a high ceilinged room with a raised gallery and staircase (“a little balcony”, as Berry puts it) at one end. Berry writes well on the Roberts’ dress sense, and on MacBryde’s singing (even if he does spell him as “McBryde” throughout). Their paintings in the studio also clearly made an impression on him; the “smaller pictures of lock gates” are a clear reference to Colquhoun’s oil The Lock Gates, recently painted, exhibited in 1942 and 1943, and now in the Kelvingrove, Glasgow.

It’s not quite the case, as implied here, that Berry was never to meet the Roberts again, but by the time he caught up with them in 1945, he suspected that already their “talents were now beginning to show signs of being damaged by the bohemian life they were living.” It does seem extraordinary quite how much drinking went on in the middle of a war.

Berry admits freely to having been a bit naïve about homosexuality at the time, but even so it’s odd that he shows no sign here of realising that the two Roberts were an item …

*          *          *

… I saw two young men coming up the steps towards us. They were both in their late twenties and were dressed in what to me was a very bohemian way. Colquhoun had a long, handsome, bony face, with thick curly hair that grew down the back of his neck. He was wearing a cap and had a leather jacket on. McBryde had hair as black as liquorice and a round, high cheek-boned, Irish face. He was smoking a cigarette that hung from the middle of his top lip. Immediately, I felt the magnetism of their personalities. They were completely different from each other, yet were a perfect pair. Both spoke with rich, Scottish accents.

[After a short spell staring at pictures in the National, the three head off for a drink, starting at the York Minster (“the French Pub”), where they run into John Minton – “a thin-faced man dressed in a sailor’s jersey”, moving on to the Fitzroy and then to The Bricklayers in Charlotte Street, where Berry, not used to the pace of drinking, throws up in the toilets …]

The rest of the day was just a long succession of drinks. When the pub shut in the afternoon, McBryde led the way down some steps into a drinking club, which was a dimly lit cellar where the drinks cost twice as much as in the pub. The place was packed. At the top end of the tiny bar, a haggard-faced man with long hair and a cigarette holder was talking to a beautiful young girl who appeared to be drunk. As soon as she saw McBryde, she came over to him and kissed him. After the drinks had been bought, he started to sing again and as he sang, the company stood aside from the bar to watch him. I had never heard the song he sang before. It was about a girl called Lisa Lindsay who was about to be married but went off with the Lord Ronald McDonald instead. When he finished this song, there was a round of applause and drinks were bought for him, and he was prevailed upon to sing again. This time a Hebridean love lilt, a song which sounded sad and lonely and very far away from the club we were in.

[After more drinking, a confused café meal, at which he ruins a Vienna steak with excessive tomato ketchup, and a taxi ride back to Colquhoun’s and McBryde’s studio, Berry passes out.]

… when I awakened in the middle of the night, I’d got all my clothes and my shoes on and was lying on what felt like a camp bed against a small stove. I could hear someone snoring, and when I raised myself up, I could see the shape of a figure lying face to the wall on the other side of the studio. I could tell it was a studio by the big window that covered one side of the room … The sleeping figure, I could tell by its shape, was Colquhoun. I wondered where McBryde was sleeping, then I heard someone cough and saw a little balcony above my head and realised he must be sleeping up there …

Then suddenly I heard McBryde start coughing and get out of bed. A moment later, the light went on and he came down the stairs from the little balcony and went through the door. In a second or so, I heard the lavatory flush, so I got out of bed and went to relieve myself. I thought I’d never been so glad to have a pee in my life. McBryde, who I knew by now was called Sasha, didn’t go back to bed but made a cup of tea and lit a cigarette and began laughingly to go over what had happened last night. He said we’d all been drunk when we got back to the studio. This came as a tremendous relief to me as I’d imagined I was the only one in that state. Then Colquhoun began to get up and pulled the blackout blind up from the studio window. It was daylight outside and McBryde gave me a toasting fork to toast some bread. The studio was small and had two easels on a raised platform. On both of them there were half-finished pictures. The pictures were like nothing I’d ever seen before. They were cubist in the way they were structured, but had very distinctive colouring – mustard yellow and deep earthy reds. As I looked closer at them, I could see the images were of peasant-like figures with heavy faces split up in many places. Then I noticed some smaller pictures of lock gates and one still life of yellow citrus fruit. I didn’t know what to make of them or what to say as I sat drinking tea, while the two Roberts got dressed. Sasha, the very dark one, put a kilt on and a black shirt with a light-blue bow tie, while Colquhoun was pressing his trousers. They were both very particular about how they looked and dressed very elegantly in an artistic way, in clothes that seemed to suit their personalities perfectly.

[That day Colquhoun and Berry meet Mr Thompson, Berry’s benefactor, at the Savile Club, where Berry suffers from some social embarrassment. Berry and Thompson move on to an appointment with Jacob Epstein, bidding farewell to Colquhoun.]

Colquhoun … said good bye and walked off towards Bond Street. I felt sad as I watched him, for although I’d only known the two Roberts a few hours, I knew I’d never met anybody remotely like them and never would again. They were from a bohemian world I’d never realised existed – a world far more exciting and dangerous than the one I lived in, a world where you lived from day to day and drank without remorse. It was what I imagined the Paris of Modigliani and Soutine had been like. I didn’t realise then it was a world you didn’t grow old in.

Sylvia’s juvenilia

Speaking of Sylvia Plath (see end of previous post, and note to recent post on Veronica Forrest-Thomson) …

Directed by a sixth sense to my local discount bookshop the other day, I was pleased to pick up a massively discounted copy of Eye Rhymes. Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (OUP, 2007). Old news to hardened Plath-followers, no doubt, but not to me. Anything discounted to this extent is usually the sort of book you find interesting but for which you wouldn’t want to part with any significant quantity of the hard-earned. And so it proves here.

This less than satisfactory study is built round a wholesale tipping out from the archives of Plath’s childhood drawings and art school exercises, none of which would have any real significance detached from the reputation of their creator. (And a prolific scribbler she was, too!) The great wadge of school essay illustrations, diary doodles, home made paper dolls, sketches in the margins of lecture notes and so forth is lovingly narrated in more detail than you could ever want by Kathleen Connors. Her plodding magnum opus looks like the original bulk of the book, rescued by the bolting on of a handful of sharper academic pieces. The academics, as academics will, have a good time erecting some very wobbly assertions around this inconsequential material, most of which appears to me considerably less parodic, satiric or even knowing than they would have us believe. (To give just one example, a Mother’s Day card drawn for her grandmother by Plath somewhere between the ages of eleven and fifteen, which includes images of herself, her brother and her mother, “strongly suggests,” by virtue of “this incorporation of the identities of both her mother and grandmother into one card” that “Plath had a sense of both women as products of a domestic regime – an arrangement in which any singular identity is denied.” Or so says Sally Bayley. There is a good deal more of such over-reaching, but I suppose it is only to be expected.)

Woman with folded arms

To be fair, Plath was serious about her art up to college level, where she realised that it might be a mistake to give up her day job as poet. Though later on she became a very able, if pedestrian, illustrator. And I like her Cambridge lecture-note sketch of Leavis at the podium; F R must have been on more than usually tedious form that day. But her college level exercises show too well the dangers of an early, complacent facility combined with a fearsome industriousness and a deep lack of real understanding; the lazy, decorative, pseudo-modernist pastiches, slapped together in bewildering patchworks of random colours (all different but all equally bright), are, if nothing else, an indictment of American art education of the era – at least at Smith College, Massachusetts. (Curiously, in with the mock-Braque, the mock-Expressionist and the mock-Cocteau, there is what might almost be a mock-Robert Colquhoun: Woman with folded arms, c 1948-50. Not that it is any more coherent than the rest.)

The dust jacket is given over to what must have been a standard directed exercise – Triple face portrait, a “tempera” (American for poster colour) painting of around 1950, in which intersecting (male?) profiles are made (rather awkwardly, and at some distance from Picasso) to form a (female?) frontal face. Naturally, the academics lap up this evidence of Miss Plath’s divided personality, making the piece stand well for the weaknesses of both Plath’s artwork and the book itself.

Triple face portrait

None of this, of course, detracts one jot from the luminous and spiky brilliance of Plath’s poetry. And all her artwork has an earnest honesty about it that makes it infinitely more bearable than, say, the irredeemably cringeworthy paintings of D H Lawrence. But it does raise the highly interesting question of why visual and verbal genius are so rarely combined. Which may renew our admiration for the authentic ambidexterity of those, like William Blake or Wyndham Lewis, whose brain hemispheres appear to have been held in perfect tandem.