Richard Warren

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

Russell Quay, skiffle painter

[Excuse the oversized images in this post. WordPress have thoughtfully binned the old ‘classic’ editor, which worked perfectly, and have substituted a new, improved editor that resists all rational engagement with it. Maybe some day I’ll get the hang of it …]

Billy Bragg’s 2017 history of skiffle, Roots, Radicals and Rockers, covers a huge swathe of cultural history, not just duffel coats and washboards. I recommend it to anyone with a taste for the strangely remote yet familiar 1950’s.

In Bragg’s coverage of skifflers Hylda Sims and the City Ramblers we’re introduced to Hylda’s husband and musical collaborator Russell Quay (also Quaye) as a ‘modernist painter’ working in an ‘expressionistic style’. It’s a new name in art to me. Born in 1920, Quay had been a busker, a self-taught commercial artist, an anti-fascist and an RAF rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber before graduating post-war from Beckenham art school to live the Bohemian life in London. Red-bearded and aquiline, he was often photographed playing his cuatro (a four string guitar) and kazoo, clad at times in a cardie of the chunky, patterned variety that could only have been thought hip in the ‘fifties.

Russell Quaye with hand decorated cuatro – excuse the Shutterstock watermarks …

Quay’s online biographies tend to focus on the musical side of his career, while his art seems almost invisible. There are mentions of his portraits, from life, of Big Bill Broonzy and Pearl Bailey, but no sight of them. From the little I’ve seen, he turns out to have been a bit of a primitivist, borrowing from folk and outsider art and filtering this through the scratchy linear style typical of mid century graphics.Like skiffle – and the trad and folk revivals associated with it – his art seems an attempt to reconstruct a perceived authenticity.

Online, a search turns up The Revivalist Hall, described as pencil and watercolour, auctioned in 2008 alongside a little print titled The Hypochondriac; both were flogged off by Durham County Council Schools and Museum Service. In the print, a head and shoulders character examines himself with a stethoscope. In the painting, a huge red balloon extends from the preacher’s mouth, containing the Lamb of God (given as a ‘goat’ as in the auction description) with a visible Sacred Heart, the Cross, the Serpent and the flames of Hellfire. This has personal significance. According to Pete Frame’s The Restless Generation (2007), Quay had been raised in a fierce Baptist church where tongues were spoken. In Frame’s account of Hylda Sims’ recollections, Russell’s mother had been in love with the presiding minister, but killed herself on discovering that he had been carrying on with other women in the congregation.  

In 2019 a ‘mixed media’ item (possibly a cut out print applied to a yellow background) went under the hammer for a mere £20. It is signed, dated 1950 and titled as ‘Bessie Smith, Blues Singer’. Just as well, as Bessie’s likeness is not obvious in this generalised earth mother image, done in a sort of primitivised X-ray style. Today, should we be uncomfortable with this view of a black woman? I don’t think so. It’s clearly intended as honest but celebratory, and avoids the condescension that affects some images of black people by white British artists.

Beyond these, we can glimpse Quay’s hand in graphics and lettering that turn up on City Ramblers ephemera, record sleeves and instruments, including the four little musicians on a 1956 flier (illustrated in Bragg) for their Studio Skiffle nights. Russell Quay(e) died in 1984. Is any more of his artwork hidden anywhere online or tucked away in public collections?

The City Ramblers were heavily left leaning. A little oddly, they turn up in a Soviet film of 1957, in scenes of a Youth Festival in Moscow. Billy Bragg lays out the background to the making of the film, while the clip appears – of course – on YouTube. Click lower left to watch …

In uniform check shirts, the Ramblers perform Jelly Roll Morton’s Doctor Jazz. Russell and Hylda keep it swinging along nicely, and Pete Maynard is a whizz on the broom handle bass, though the into-the-camera blue-blowing solo is a cringe too far for me. Anyway, the audience seem to have enjoyed it, judging by the cutaway shots of them in various approved ethnic costumes.

 I suppose that, at one time, this clip would have made perfect sense …

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