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: December 2012

Today there has been born to you a deliverer

flenite relief

Back to life with Alan Wycliffe Wellings

The “drawings” category of Ebay’s art listings is crowded out with old life studies. (They even outnumber the hopeful but hopeless Picasso fakes.) It’s sad, really. Pencilled and charcoaled ladies with their kit off (and the odd gent) from a variety of past decades, once laboured over in the life rooms but now unloaded onto the market in folders full. Mostly mediocre student stuff, and probably destined for the recycling bin, despite the occasional optimistic tag of “erotic interest”.

alan wellingsBut this one seemed worth rescuing for the price of a takeaway.

The artist is the teacher and illustrator Alan Wycliffe Wellings, born in Pattingham, near Wolverhampton – just a few fields away from me – in 1910. By 1926 he was at Wolverhampton School of Art, where at the age of 15 he was among the top eight candidates nationally in the Royal Drawing Society examinations, as reported in this cutting from the Wolverhampton Express & Star. (For another distinguished alumnus of the Wolverhampton School of Art, see the Annesley Tittensor page above.) Wellings went on to the Royal, and then taught at the Eastbrook School for Boys in Dagenham, which enjoyed a progressive arts curriculum at the time. By the late ‘forties he was at South East Essex School of Art. He died in 1985. A folder of his life drawings turned up a month ago at an Essex auction house, the buyer promptly turfing them out onto Ebay.

This one isn’t dated, but other pieces in the folder are said to be marked from the ‘thirties. This may date from Wellings’ time at the Royal, though the pen and ink style, with its dashed lines of shading and rather risky employment of a wide range of nibs, wouldn’t have looked out of place twenty years later. There is no under-pencilling; Wellings put the image down directly from observation, squatting at his donkey, resulting in a number of prominent alternative lines which, as in all best drawing practice, co-exist as successive thoughts and build to a vibration, rather than something “accurate” from which the life has been erased.

footThe figure is given a subtly neo-classical feel which might be a faint but knowing nod to Picasso’s drawings of around 1923. And the generosity of the limbs is certainly in that area. My favourite bit is the foot on the floor – you have to admit, that’s one hell of a foot!

The Mad Artist Gerald Wilde

Wilde sketching in 1954

Wilde sketching in 1954

In the chapter on Gerald Wilde in his Memoirs of the Forties, writer and poseur Julian Maclaren-Ross tells a fine story of the poetry impresario Tambimuttu making collections of money and food in the pubs and cafés of Fitzrovia “for Gerald Wilde the Mad Artist, he’s starving and with no money, you know?” Meanwhile the hapless Mad Artist is locked in Tambi’s flat with instructions to produce enough paintings for a show. Predictably, the money and the leftovers never reach Wilde. But then the paintings are never delivered either, Wilde – “by now presumably paint-stained and ravenous” – smashing his way out of Tambimuttu’s flat, taking with him the contents of the bookshelves to sell to buy food.

The arrival on the Warren doormat of a copy of Gerald Wilde 1905-1986, the October Gallery 1988 Wilde show booklet, provides a fresh acquaintance with the Mad Artist. David Sylvester’s introduction points out that at Wilde’s 1948 one man show at the prestigious Hanover Gallery not one work was bought. Likewise, a lithograph commissioned in 1956 sold, from an edition of 100, not a single copy. Beyond this slim booklet, there is no monograph on Wilde, nor has any museum ever curated a show of his work.

Piccadilly Circus 1946

Piccadilly Circus 1946

Sylvester observes that the 1948 sale did not include his best pieces, because “he had sold too many off as he went along, sold them off for next to nothing so as to get some money to buy drink or to give away to strangers in the pub or, literally, to burn, when he chose to demonstrate his independence by throwing the contents of his wallet on the fire.” Maclaren-Ross recalls that Wilde would “simply give [his paintings] to any bystander who showed appreciation, which he once said gave him a feeling of being liberated.” But Sylvester also notes that Wilde’s work, perhaps at its peak in the late ‘forties, was simply “too tough, too demanding, too far ahead of its time” to sell.

The Alarm 1947

The Alarm 1947

The plates reveal that Wilde’s lithographs of the late ‘twenties were technically accomplished and quirkily observational. But by the ‘forties he had evolved the slack but scrunchy abstract expressionism (idiosyncratic and entirely un-American) for which he is best known, the later work becoming flatter, more cartoony, more Jungian. Frank Auerbach is maybe a point of contact, but only obliquely. Perhaps also Alan Davie, at least the earlier, messier stuff. Spiritually, Wilde was closest perhaps to the spontaneism of the CoBrA group – certainly a better fit than William Gear, the official CoBrA Brit, whose tasteful abstractions have always seemed a bit contrived to me.

The Tomb 1948

The Tomb 1948

An appreciation by William Feaver sees “no indication of artistic ambition” as “one of the strengths of Wilde’s work,” which “conforms to no professional demands or guidelines,” and “evade[s] expectation.” This uncompromising stand is very Gulley Jimson, though it’s generally recognised that Wilde could not have been the model for the reprobate painter of Joyce Cary’s 1944 novel The Horse’s Mouth, given that Cary only met Wilde five years later. But meanwhile in Jimson Wilde had recognised himself.

The booklet contains several photos of Wilde, and one sees that Alec Guinness’s Jimson, in the film of the novel, while no impersonation, was maybe a relation. In some photos Wilde appears happy, but in others his eyes have the thousand yard stare of a man who has just woken to find himself, as he put it, living in purgatory.

Which is a little unnerving, given that he had lost the use of his left eye in a childhood accident. These paintings were made by a partially sighted artist. And in fact many of them do seem to snap into view when stared at with one eye closed. The monoscopic reduction in sharpness washes out the harsh edges of some of the looser strokes, melding splatches of paint into a continuous entity, and allowing the brain to process, interpret and inhabit the image more comfortably.

wildeComing to terms with a Wilde is always challenging. But hardly as challenging as it was for him to make it, we feel. Some works, particularly quick pastel or charcoal drawings, seem tentative or throwaway. The more substantial pieces seem sometimes to have been wrestled onto the surface, lines and shapes whacked around until something with conviction, but still quite alien, starts to appear. Though the images may be in that sense resolved, they are not reconciled to us; there remains a “wrongness” that, as in the best “Outsider” art, takes us to somewhere beyond, a wrongness that is ultimately right.

Writing in 1955, John Berger saw the heavy black lines of Wilde’s paintings as a grate, or as the bars of a zoo cage: “… he paints the gates (again the iron bars) on the very perimeter of the Conscious, beyond which is all the raw material which, when it is brought inside, is fashioned into our ideas of heaven and hell.” Maclaren-Ross also saw the cage: “Perhaps it was the vision of his own interior chaos that was struggling to break through the cryptic coloured patterns that enclosed it, as he had broken out of Tambi’s flat.”

The Hostility of the Luminarist: some collages by Peter Hatton

One or two people have said how much they liked the late ‘seventies collages by Wakefield artist and film maker Peter Hatton in my last but one post, which chronicled artists behaving badly. So here are some more. Shamefully, these are all I can find, and they are not originals but photocopies that Peter sent to me at the time, paper creases included. The three slightly Max Ernst-ish pieces and the Hostility series were shown at the Breadline Gallery, Rodley, Leeds in 1979. On the copy of The Patient (my favourite) Pete noted: “This one sold to Trevor who sold it to someone else.”  Trevor being Trevor Whetstone, Breadline’s owner and much loved local art hero. The four concluding Burroughsian photo-collages, to my mind, hesitate to interfere with the found texts and images as forcefully as they might, but what the heck – they still carry some weight.

Hardly representative of a lifetime’s work, but better than nothing.

Click the thumbnails for bigger images.

The Patient

The Patient

Cityscape

Cityscape

The Surgeon

The Surgeon

Hostility  series

Hostility series

 hostility 2  hostility 3  hostility 4
 photocollage 1  photocollage 2  photocollage 4
 photocollage 3

The vanity of sculpture

Images can be copied perpetually, but a piece of sculpture is unique to the space that it occupies. Which can hardly bode well for its survival. The “real” presence of sculpture encourages a sense of resistance to mortality, but in the real reality it ain’t so.

On arrival at Sheffield School of Art in 1975 I was arm-twisted into the Sculpture Dept just to make up the numbers. (As I have never been able to think or work three-dimensionally, this created a problem or two.) The department at that time was the fiefdom of Bryan Macdonald, a faintly patrician figure in his early forties who appeared to me somehow older. He seemed to have settled back comfortably on the laurels of his earlier career, having progressed from pleasing modernist-Hepworthian carving to great big boring constructivist metal jobs. Visiting speakers were usually pulled from his personal contacts, so we saw a lot of Richard DeMarco (since translated to sainthood) and of the oddly annoying Bruce Maclean (ditto). Maclean came to announce the death of painting, showed us images of his own deadpan, mannered performances, and then of course, a couple of years later, re-branded himself as a painter. Of sorts.

The watchword of the time was “truth to materials,” so standing stones were very much the thing, DeMarco putting us through his endless holiday slides of Maltese prehistoric temples. This maxim came to be extended to an abhorrence of almost any interference with ingredients, so the studios were soon littered with arrangements of the bucket-of-sand-and-length-of-rope school.

greasborough
Bryan still got the odd local commission, which the departmental technicians were kept busy fabricating (in time that they should have spent assisting students, it seemed to me). I recall the prolonged birth of a great big stainless steel thing on poles, destined for a public space in Rotherham. The geometric flangey bits forming the pergola roof were supposed to rise and fall kinetically in the breeze, but on erection it was discovered that they were stuck, so the whole thing was disassembled and brought back for further welding and riveting. I see from the Hallam University public art website that it finally went up at Greasborough Library in 1980, though they had to fill the legs with concrete to keep it standing. Against the odds, it’s still there, though looking a little the worse for wear, and very much compromised by nearby trees. The flangey bits still don’t work.

weston park hospital

A more embarrassing fate met Bryan’s earlier magnum public opus at Weston Park Hospital, Sheffield, in which a kinetic grid of stainless steel parts (circular, supposedly representing cancer cells) was this time applied to a wall of the hospital building – in the centre of this shot. The “cells” were to be rotated by motors, and the whole shebang cost £30K, a sizeable sum in 1972. I quote from the Hallam public art site:

“The moving portions of the piece were switched off after complaints about noise from patients and staff at the hospital. Efforts were made to lubricate the moving parts and subsequent leaking fluid from the motors is thought to be responsible for the staining on the exterior wall of the hospital. Installation of the work was a difficult and complicated undertaking requiring the use of specialist equipment including a thermic lance.”

Even worse, for much of the ‘nineties the sculpture was completely masked by an enormous Cancer Care Appeal chart. By then, I suppose, it had come to be seen as some sort of unimportant decorative plaque.

milford haven
What of his other works? They are not too easy to trace. Here, at the 1968 opening of an oil refinery in Milford Haven, Her Maj looks a little bemused at a rather Caro-esque Macdonald commemorating, well, something to do with oil. Is it still there? The refinery site has long since changed hands.

unityunity nowGoing further back, here is Unity, a metre tall chunk of carved alabaster from 1965, when Macdonald was Gulbenkian Fellow at Keele University. I quite like the look of this – a sort of hard-edged but Hepworthy Moebius strip hugging itself. But here it is in its current location at Keele, shamefully stashed away with the notice boards and recycling bins, as snapped by a thoughtful visitor and uploaded to flickr. And what of Cantilever, from the same era, and once in the Senior Common Room at Keele, but now, according to the Public Monuments & Sculpture Association site, suffering from “cracks, splits, breaks, holes”? Another infinity loop, but with real poise and zing, and appearing rather well carved in walnut – the best of this little bunch, to my mind. As for what he was making in the ‘fifties and early ‘sixties, I can find no trace, at least online.

cantilever

Bryan later moved to the Darwin Institute of Technology in Australia. He died there in 1990, only in his late fifties, leaving behind a handful of video interviews with other forgotten academics. The Sheffield Poly School of Art at the Psalter Lane site was demolished a couple of years ago; there are some desperate photos of the abandoned buildings here, and a tribute page somewhere on Facebook.

macdonaldIt all seems a bit sad, really. Leaving aside the problematic issue of the current direction of sculpture, which after minimalism has veered off into dire post-modernist kitsch, the validity of sculpture in a culture of representations has to be in doubt. What will have happened in twenty years’ time, for example, to all those Pegasi, rusting steel girders and similar giant clutter, intended as signifiers of industrial “heritage”, that now grace the roundabouts of the West Midlands? How shall we break to them the bad news concerning their hopes of permanence?

Though in this Advent season, when we are invited to contemplate the Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell – the mortality of sculpture may at least throw into relief the sheer scandalous audacity of the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body, and of the final permanence of matter.