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)

Mr Gartsides and the Giles-like gnomes

I didn’t have much of an art education. My secondary school (a hopelessly narrow Direct Grant Grammar) had just the one part time art teacher, Mr Brown, who taught the first couple of year groups only, and spent most of his time carving memorial tablets or fabricating ambitiously elaborate box sets for school plays. But at least he (alone of all the staff) had a great beard.

I later had reason to be personally grateful for his support of my extra-curricular artistic leanings, but I was perplexed at first by his scrupulous, near total abstinence from any direction in lessons. “Boys,” he would suggest, “you’ll have seen the Lord Mayor’s Show on television the other day; do me a lively painting of the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Lots of colour.” Or he would chalk up some brief topic – “A Picnic on a Sunny Day” or “A Storm at Sea” – and after the briefest discussion of its possibilities would bugger off to the back of the art room and chip away at a piece of granite while we got on with it. Pupils were unavoidably distracted under this lax regime; a friend and I once experimented to see how far we could shoot the cap off a fat, unopened tube of white by “accidentally” dropping it on the floor and lowering a chair leg onto it. (It went a long way, and an impressive trail of rich white paint went with it.) But Mr Brown handled any mischief or spilt paint with experienced patience.

Marion Richardson

Marion Richardson

Was he a uniquely lazy teacher? I admit that I thought so. Only many years later, encountering the art education theories of Marion Richardson and her many followers, did I realise that this was the progressive orthodoxy of the times. The good Mr Brown would rather have chiselled off his own drawing hand than interfere with our intrinsic creativity by presuming to direct and advise, or even, within the limits of practicality, quell our chatter. His duty was to set the ambience, to provide sugar paper and paint, and to present a neutral stimulus; our childish and privileged urge to self expression would do the rest.

art and the childMarion Richardson pioneered her child-centred art teaching at Dudley Girls’ High School from 1912, winning the attention and approval of Roger Fry, no less, though her book Art and the Child was not published until 1948, posthumously. By then her spontaneist methods, in various degrees of exaggeration or dilution, had become mainstream, and were not challenged until the plodding sub-Bauhaus “basic design” approach came along in the ‘sixties.

In a chapter of Rotting Hill (1951), his entertaining chronicle of post-war drabsterity, the ageing writer and painter Wyndham Lewis encounters an apostle of Richardson (filtered via Herbert Read) in the unlikely shape of Walter Gartsides, pugnacious Geordie and ex-Indian army sergeant, now demobilised and retrained as a slum school art teacher:

“A thigh thrown over a desk, an arm akimbo, his utility shoe dangling, the children were addressed by Gartsides; and their fidgety little eyes popped out of their curly little heads. They were told that what was spontaneous was best. Spontaneous meaning what spurts up, free and uncontrolled,  not fed out by a nasty tap … They would get no direction from him, his role was that of a helpful looker-on. Ready to give a hand, that was all …

… The children – typical Giles-like gnomes from the neighbouring sooty alleys and crapulous crescents – were of course alarmed and excited. Then he appeared one morning with a number of tins of house-painters’ colours and a couple of dozen suitable brushes … He pointed dramatically to the walls of the classroom crying: ‘Here’s paints and brushes and there’s the old wall! Attaboy! Paint me some pitchers on it!’

His petrified class suddenly saw the light. With squeaks of rapture they went to work. Soon the walls, part of the ceiling, as well as the cupboards and doors and even some areas of the floor of the class-room were as rich with crude imagery as the walls of a public lavatory. Some of the children were smeared from head to foot with paint.”

When school inspectors view the outcome, Gartsides escapes dismissal by feigning imbecility.

A

A “fine, rough artlessness”: ‘Fenland Couple on the Costa Brava’ by Melville Hardiment

Did this apocalyptic outbreak of infantile spontaneity actually take place? One hopes so. But “Gartsides” is Lewis’s semi-fictionalised caricature of the real Melville Hardiment (1915-1996), painter, poet, teacher and editor. Hardiment was indeed an ex-regular sergeant but was from the Cambridgeshire Fens, not Durham, studied  at Camberwell under Victor Pasmore, and taught at Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, not in the slums of Bermondsey. He visited Lewis several times, finding the older man’s “faded flat” suggestive of  “decayed gentility”, and conversed much. For his part, Lewis approved of Hardiment’s no-nonsense attitude:

“I rather liked Mr Gartsides. I even secretly wished him luck …  That that day to this I have breathlessly followed his career. He has grown to be a somewhat different person: but he retains, to the full, his fine, rough artlessness.”

A somewhat different person indeed. Hardiment was already a Second World War poet. (Three remarkably brutal pieces are anthologised in the Oasis collection of 1983.) He went on, among many other things, to champion school magazines, co-editing (with Caroline Benn, wife of Tony) a failing periodical on the subject, Antiphon, but he is best remembered for being the man who introduced William Burroughs to LSD (or tried to). He is stated to have been “familiar with the London underworld” and to have had five wives and nine children. There will simply have to be a proper post devoted to Hardiment here shortly (or to as much as I can currently trace of him).

School art lessons pre-Gartsides, as seen by Giles

School art lessons pre-Gartsides, as seen by Giles

Likewise a post or two on the vexed history of school art in the 20th century, drawing from my dusty accumulation of vintage manuals of art teaching. The Giles cartoon reference by Lewis was spot on, by the way. In Giles’s world of school, even post-war art lessons were still reduced to silent Victorian copying exercises under the dreadful gaze of the cadaverous “Chalky”. Only rarely (in particular in woodwork) might real mayhem break free …

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3 responses to “Mr Gartsides and the Giles-like gnomes

  1. Charlotte Mackie August 26, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    I, too, had an art teacher like that. I guess we are of similar ages – I was in the sixth form from 1969 – 1971, and my teacher, Mr Cox, would just say, ‘Go and create!’ which always filled me with fear, as I was a shy teenager and always believed it was a fault within me which prevented me from rushing to do just that.
    I believe, now, that young people need more guidance than that, and that freedom to create is only created after one is guided round the materials at hand, and given instruction on what one could do with them.
    Needless to say – I failed my A level art exam, and, although I have always harboured a secret desire to paint, have never dared to have a go, although I am creative in other ways.
    I think that method was a reaction to the very formal teaching which had gone before it. I remember my mother being shocked by Mr Cox’s method and muttering that he was lazy, but, having read your blog today, I now believe it must have been a new method of teaching art.
    Considering the rigid curriculum young people suffer today, perhaps some of those ideas need to be revived.
    Charlotte Mackie

    • richardawarren August 26, 2015 at 3:57 pm

      Agreed! Guidance is vital, though teaching to prescriptive exam board marking schemes does tend to produce introverted, formulaic processes!

      I guess it was a pendulum thing – deadly Victorian copying was succeeded early in the 20th c by a Ruskinesque approach involving close direct observation of natural forms. Which in turn fossilised into drawing daffs in jam jars. Against which Marion Richardson and Co rebelled, proclaiming self expression. Which became the emptiness that we experienced. Challenged in its turn by the Bauhaus-inspired “design” grammars for school art of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, which became the “spots and dots” programmes that bored kids stupid … and so on.

      Charlotte – you should have a go at painting!

  2. (orginally) Julian October 2, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    I certainly needed more guidance than Melville Hardiment gave me. He was my father.

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