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: June 2017

“Like a boxing coach”: Bruce Sherratt remembers John Shelton

A few days ago a rather fascinating reminiscence by painter Bruce Sherratt of the Potteries artist John Shelton landed in the comments box on one of my pages on the Two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde. This site has already pointed to John Shelton’s work in connection with the Roberts (top section, here), while an entire trove of great stuff on Shelton, including a catalogue of known oil paintings among much else, can be found here on Mark Finney’s site. Bruce’s recollections of Shelton’s tutoring of “this gauche, lost son of a coal miner” deserve better than to sit unnoticed on a past page, so I’m also posting them here, below.

 

Bruce’s own exuberantly feverish paintings can be found on his site here, and also here, at his Bali Center site. Here is his account of John Shelton:

I was a student of John Shelton from 1959 to 1962, and then went on from Newcastle-under-Lyme Art School to London and Camberwell Art School. John was my mentor and artistic father. John gave an identity and birth to this gauche, lost son of a coal miner who at 15 could do little else but draw.

From John I learned about the artists discussed here. Arthur Berry was a figure of mythic proportions to me as a boy growing up in the small Staffordshire coal mining village of Biddulph four miles from Stoke.

I used to see Arthur strolling like a mobile statue between Biddulph High Street and Coppice Wood where he lived with his dad in a jet black tar covered hut. Arthur and his dad kept a few pigs in a small sty next to the hut. Arthur was an enigmatic, statuesque figure feared by us boys. None of us knew his name or who he was. I only found out after entering the local art school in 1958.

At Camberwell there was an established school style. One was expected to strive to achieve this style, a painterly approach consisting of broad impressionistic brush strokes. Bonnard was held up as the ultimate role model. I was the odd-ball working class character from the North to whom this official style seemed shallow and anemic compared to what John Shelton had showed me, which included everything from the generation of British and other artists based in London during the war years whom you’ve discussed here, to the German Expressionists; Dix, Grosz, Barlach, Kolwitz and Max Beckman. My particular latent psycho-creative adolescent neurosis and talent propelled me directly into the very core of fantasy and surrealism and it’s most authentic purveyors, such as Ernst, Masson, Tanguy, Matta, Victor Brauna and on to their forbears, Grunewald, Durer, Goya and Bosch.

John Shelton encouraged and inspired me in all of this while also introducing me to the most revolutionary politically inspired artists in history; the Mexican muralists: Orosco, Rivera, Siqueiros, Tamayo, and the German-Austrian-Mexican surrealist Wolfgang Paalen, who Shelton told me was eaten alive in the Mexican desert by wild dogs. In fact, it appears he shot himself in the head on a hill outside Taxco in 1959 during one the bi-polar episodes that plagued, not just Paalen, but many other surrealists of his vintage throughout his life: a rich and heady initiation indeed into the artists’ world for the 15 years old coal miner’s son from Biddulph.

John showed me the work of Victor Brauner whose imagination had also been set aflame in Mexico, the Cuban Wilfredo Lam and the English woman surrealist and Ernst’s former lover and muse Leonora Carrington, whom I met in 1968 in Mexico city where my own work was first exhibited at the Instituto Anglo-Mexicano De Cultura.

John Shelton was an interesting mixture the tough, almost brutal taskmaster and benign, fatherly mentor who sowed the seeds for me to develop into what he called a “heavyweight” rather than a mere “bantamweight”. Indeed, like a boxing coach who goads the promising pugilist to reach far beyond himself John Shelton prodded, provoked and cajoled me, making it clear he was not at all interested in the verbally stated ideas and intentions of his followers but in what they actually produced. “Show me, then talk” was his axiom. On reflection I understood later that this was a continuation of the mentoring he had received as a young painter from the two Roberts and Adler: a blend of uncompromising, sometimes brutal honesty and candor cadenced with the sincere wish to nourish the seeds of an uncompromising, high voltage form of creativity and see them grow and mature into something splendid.

Having emulated John Shelton and the two Roberts (Colquhoun and MacBryde), Jankel Adler and others, unlike these London based painters of the 40’s and 50’s I went on to meander, not the streets of Soho but the world, setting up my first studio in Mexico, then San Francisco in 1970 and on to Africa, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Jakarta and now Bali.

I absorbed influences and inspiration from all these places and cultures so very far from my own geographical roots. These by now deeply digested influences, mixed with a hundred other ingredients including an early obsession with Buddhism, Eastern philosophies and psychologies, Freud, Jungian psychoanalysis, Melanie Klein’s ‘object relations psychology’ with reference to the origins of fantasy and on and on the list goes.

All this, plus much more led to the development of a visual syntax that is thoroughly international and archetypal, perhaps universal even in content, form and meaning.

Yet after processing this plethora of experiences that have impacted and mediated my own particular creative nexus and character over the course of more than five decades I find my thoughts returning to those potent early heroes of John Shelton’s youth and subequently my own early beginnings. Men such as Robert Colquhoun and Robert McBride, Jankel Adler, Graham Sutherland, Alan Davie, Francis Bacon and the poet George Barker.

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Voting Day

Well, it’s a funny old day, isn’t it? A day when by official conspiracy, nothing persuasive is permitted to be said. A non-day, a little like Sundays used to be when I was a kid.

So, having cast my vote early, I find myself passing time online, while listening to young master Aesop Rock. Oh yes, I’m down with the kids, even if he was my thirty-something daughter’s suggestion. What’s he on about? I’m not always sure, but his vocabulary is expansive and I like his tone of voice.

This afternoon I shall take Grandson One (aged six) to his swimming practice. I shall watch him thrashing and splashing on his back. From time to time he will bob his head up and look about him, invariably surprised to discover that he has continued not to move across the pool. It will be, I’m afraid, simply too trite a parable of our national condition.

All that remains is to wait for the coming bad news. So to pass a little time, here’s a poem that I like by Gordon Wharton, written the year he died, and unpublished, as far as I know.

Morning and Evening

More news from another unwinnable war;
detritus of spatchcocked women and more
maimed boys. A giant company’s shares
have dropped by a dizzying 5%;
but they’re not in armaments, of course.

On an inside page the crowds assemble,
darkening Wootton Bassett’s High Street
in anticipation of a flag-draped hearse’s
hushed procession; of the British Legion’s
abrupt salute: ‘Up’ a few moments, then ‘Down’.

Meanwhile I struggle with the problem
of sweetening my bran flakes. Honey, I think,
rather than sugar; and a saccharine derivative
to make my coffee palatable. A cigarette
to round off a light breaking of my fast.

Then, lifting my eyes, I glimpse the vain tower
with its weathercock flaunting high overhead
its repetitive message proclaimed at all hours
from dawn to dusk (and probably also in the dark):
NEWS it crows dumbly, NEWS, NEWS, NEWS.