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)

Category Archives: New Apocalypse

A tale of two Stanleys: Stanley Jackson and Stanley Jackson

I’m long overdue settling my confused account of the oddly varied work of painter and illustrator Stanley Jackson, as promised back here. Apologies to all involved. For previous episodes, see here and here, but rather than add bibs and bobs at this point, it seems better to lay out the whole thing afresh and refer back sparingly. Mainly because, as previously noted in passing, it turns out that there were two Stanley Jacksons, whose stories show some striking coincidences. To the extent, in fact, that at one stage in our investigations the descendants of one Stanley were pretty much convinced that both might have been the same person. But it wasn’t so … Let’s call them Stanley One and Stanley Two. As we retrace their lives, in many ways quite different, some strange points of convergence may emerge.

Stanley One

Self portrait [Courtesy Jackie & Eloise Hendrick]

Stanley Arthur Jackson, painter, commercial artist, newspaperman and advertiser, was born in 1910, though he was later to claim that his birth year was 1917. Vanity? Perhaps. An undated self portrait, apparently done in the ‘thirties, shows a confident, almost raffish, young man in a dark overcoat and white polo neck, gazing out steadily at the viewer. [Click all images to enlarge.]

We tend to assume that, war service excepted, the lives of our twentieth century forebears were pretty static, but in fact, for those with the need or the inclination to wander, the British Empire provided an early form of globalisation, with ready opportunities to uproot and begin again. And Stanley Jackson, a man clearly with both drive and charm, was never one who was afraid to begin again.


In the ‘thirties he worked in India, and from 1937 was General Manager of the Madras Mail, overhauling and expanding its advertising. In 1942 he was appointed Director of Public Relations to the Joint War Organisation in India, creating publicity campaigns employing press, radio and film. His surviving paintings of Indian subjects were done during this time: the National Army Museum has a cheerful 1943 painting of a Madras infantryman, while Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery has an undated oil of Madras boat builders, attributed to an E Jackson, but in my humble opinion by our man. (The identity of this painting has been the subject of an extremely protracted discussion on the Art Detective site, here.) These works are highly competent, the style chunky, with a warm, almost romantic feel.


At the close of the war in 1945 Jackson moved to London, working at Lintas advertising agency creating campaigns for soap brands, but two years later moved to South Africa and with his first wife set up his own business, the S & J Jackson advertising agency, Johannesburg. His commercial art of the period is fluent, highly styled, very much of its time. (Celrose, a Durban clothing manufacturer, is still in business today, incidentally.) Following his wife’s unexpected death Stanley Jackson remarried in 1950, sold up and returned to the UK, but before long was separated and on the move again, this time to Hong Kong.

 

From here the trail gets more than a bit hazy, but there are glimpses, albeit in different continents: we know that Jackson created murals at the Hong Kong Club and at some point was commissioned to paint a portrait of Chiang Kai Shek. Later in the ‘fifties he was in Kenya, and later still in Bangkok, where he married for a third time and raised a new family. In the ‘seventies he worked for a newspaper in Canberra, Australia.  He died at some point in the ‘eighties. An attractive painting from the Bangkok period, a lively, golden Thai dancer, turned up for sale recently in New Zealand. It has a touch of the psychedelic.

[Courtesy Jim Rowe]


There’s certainly a great deal more that we don’t know about Stanley One, a man of the world whose restless self-reinventions would make, as his granddaughter Eloise says, a great movie. I’m most grateful to her and to Stanley’s daughter Jackie for their help in pinning him down at least a little.

Stanley Two

Stanley Jackson, painter, commercial artist and writer, was born in 1917. (My thanks to Oliver Perry for unearthing a brief Who’s Who in Art entry for him.) He was schooled in Ongar and studied art at St Martin’s. His paintings – many apparently landscapes and townscapes – were exhibited quite widely in the late ‘thirties and early ‘forties, including at the RA.


Two watercolours with gouache, views of Edinburgh and Canterbury, sold at Toovey’s, the Sussex auction house, a few years back, fetching just £20 the pair. Jackson’s style is analytical but crisply confident; despite the mundanely picturesque subjects, the strong tonal planes owe much to post-cubism – there is a modernist lurking in here. On a rather different note, but recognisably by the same hand, is a painting of wartime refugees, the single Jackson item to show up on auction value sites.

Jackson also had an income as a commercial illustrator, including for children’s books; his cover for May Wynne’s Little Brown Tala Stories suggests a strong yearning for imaginary worlds. From 1944 this found a sudden and startling flowering in his covers for jazz publications written or edited by Albert (AJ) McCarthy of the “Jazz Sociological Society” – Jazz Forum, Jazz Review, Piano Jazz and publications by Jazz Music Books. The ambience of McCarthy’s jazz coterie was strongly literary and experimental, and in these images Jackson lurches abruptly into surrealist semi-abstractions, which found their ultimate bongoid flowering in his “Pattern of Frustration” series reproduced in black and white in George Woodcock’s anarchist literary review Now in 1944.


McCarthy’s write-up for “Pattern of Frustration” announced Jackson’s “withdrawal from the academic field towards a personal maturity which can only be expressed in less rigid forms.” That puts it mildly. I’ve re-gathered the images here, but McCarthy’s full text can be read in my first Stanley post, while Jackson’s own feverish artistic credo – “Everlasting layers of ideas, feelings, images, images which madden, which terrify, which intoxicate, images which sob” – can be read in full here, in my follow-up post.


Clearly, Jackson had toppled headlong into Bohemia and avant-gardism. However, at this point the bonkers abstractions suddenly disappear as his career veers off at right angles. In 1946 he married Ruth Pearl, a professional musician of real standing, the first woman to be a concertmaster of a professional orchestra in Britain and, until 1949, the leader of her own English String Quartet, a favourite of Vaughan Williams. That year she and Stanley moved to New Zealand where their son was born and where she thrived as a concert soloist, while Stanley did – what?

One of Ruth’s obituaries describes him as “a musician and artist who made a living as a commercial artist and music teacher”. Despite his jazz connections, I’m unsure about the music bit, as a quite different Stanley Jackson, organist and music teacher, was active in New Zealand then and beyond our Stanley’s death, which suggests a possible confusion. Three landscapes by Stanley Two are noted on Australian auction record sites, where he is down as “working 1950s” but unlisted in the standard sources; beyond that, I’ve found nothing. Stanley Jackson died in 1961 in New Zealand. His wife Ruth remarried, continued her career and died in 2008; her obituaries can be found here and here.

The Stanley convergences

At one point in this enquiry, I suspected that the apparent level of coincidence between the Stanley stories might be no more than my way of lending dignity to my own confusion, but then again …

To summarise: both Stanley Jacksons were born, or claimed to have been born, in 1917. Both were fine artists, commercial artists and writers. Both were in or around London during 1945 to 1947, and for all I know might have brushed shoulders on the Tube. Both then left the UK for new lives and new families in distant parts. Postwar, both lived and painted in the Antipodes. (The late emergence of a painting by Stanley One in New Zealand, where Stanley Two relocated, flung a particular spanner in the works!)


Observant readers will have spotted that the chunky lettering of Stanley One’s signature is quite different to the usual sharp italics of Stanley Two’s. However, they may also have noticed that it’s not totally incompatible with the “Jackson”, “Jaxon” or “Jxn” signatures of Stanley Two’s loopy period, a  resemblance that threw me for a bit. (One distinguishing oddity is that Stanley Two seems to have signed his full name, at least on occasions, minus the “e” in “Stanley”, though in print he is always referred to as “Stanley”.)

Common to both their stories is the theme of repeated renewal, removal and reappearance, the reinvention of self. What creatively extraordinary lives some people have lived!


Finally, I’m still uncertain as to which of our two Stanleys may have been the author of An Indiscreet Guide to Soho, an obscure but racy little volume of 1946 that today is a bit of a cult buy. The blurb describes the author as “a master of the art of reportage” who “knows his Soho intimately and has lived in this colourful area”. Stanley One, newspaperman and advertising copywriter, seems at first glance the likely candidate, but then again Stanley Two’s Bohemian-jazz connections might suggest a deeper acquaintance with the pulsing wartime nightlife of the quarter, and he certainly could write. Both were in the right area at the right time, so it must have been one of them, surely?

Unless, of course, there was a third Stanley Jackson prowling the alleyways of Soho, perhaps alternating his masterful reportage with the occasional painting or illustration … If there was, please let me know!

Leslie Hurry’s palace of wisdom

In 2011 I posted here on a first, rather breathless, encounter with the ‘forties paintings of Leslie Hurry. He was clearly still working well into the 1970’s (he died in 1978); I may be missing something, but I still can’t see any recent monograph – is there really no big, glossy volume on this extraordinary artist?

coverThis lack makes Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry (Grey Walls Press, 1950) still a useful source, at least, up to that point. The book’s intro is by the “prolific and proletarian” Jack Lindsay; this is sympathetic but none too informative. Lindsay wastes several pages trying to set Hurry into some sort of mega history-of-art context, but then fails to locate him as a painter within the movements and networks of his own times, as if his development were some purely personal, hermetic affair. But the book does have 38 plates, though only two are in colour; despite the black and white, it seems worthwhile to scan a few here below. (Click to enlarge.)

Sketch for Self-portrait, drawing, 1945

Sketch for Self-portrait, drawing, 1945

The paintings give out all sorts of echoes. Hurry may have opted to work in detachment from organised surrealism, but his relations in that respect are obvious. Absent from much of the imagery is the standard post-cubist scaffolding, so that his figures often have a ghostly flaccidity, as if their bones had been carefully extracted. They swell, contract and flop like jellyfish. This watery, or airy, looseness is reminiscent of David Jones, and the earliest image in the book, a watercolour of a Breton mass from 1939, is strongly Jones-like, both in style and content. While some later figures show rather more structure, a constant Picasso borrowing throughout is the familiar multi-angled face, though in Hurry’s hands this becomes more an image of simultaneous ambivalence than a trick of animation across adjacent moments.

To my mind, his allegorical images of famine and so forth are the least successful. When Hurry does Agony it veers into cartoony; a 1945 watercolour titled Atom Bomb is awkwardly sub-Guernica. To compensate, the scenery designs are a pleasure; they are richly fantastic, and relate closely to the baroque obsessiveness of Robin Ironside.

Jack Lindsay’s introduction to the book rounds off with his own poem, “The Bough of Sweetness,” dedicated to Hurry:

O difficult regeneration of suffering men
on the star-anvils in Stepney and Glasgow clanging
Mass meeting Strike Prague Five-Years-Plan Shanghai
also the slight chime of a flower perfected
and the livid eyes of fear caught in a word
Steadily the hills close round
with the doves of dawn and the nearing annunciation …

Personally, I find Lindsay’s poetry more interestingly symptomatic than successful, though this does at least represent a clumsy attempt at a verbal equivalent of Hurry’s violent conjunction of the visionary and the political – all very ‘forties, very apocalypse.


In his introduction to the book, Lindsay gives us little by way of Hurry’s biography. Born in 1909, trained at St John’s Wood and the RA School of Painting, emerging in 1931, murals, landscapes, a loss of purpose followed by a “desperate retreat into his lonely self” at a cottage in Thaxted, a spell in Brittany and Montmartre in 1938, from these periods of crisis a move into his mature work, beginning with more geometric configurations but soon evolving into more organic forms, theatre work starting with Hamlet at Sadlers Wells in 1941 – and that’s about as factual as it gets. His Wikipedia page adds not a lot more beyond the interesting detail that his father had been a funeral director, a career path the son rejected.

At the time of my previous post there didn’t seem to be much of Hurry online, but matters have since improved. Copyright restrictions at the Tate site have been lifted, so his artist page there now shows six works, including  This Extraordinary Year, 1945, which called to me when it was on the wall at Tate Britain. Much of Hurry’s work was watercolours; these don’t qualify for the Art UK site, which now offers six paintings, of which four are portraits including two variants of himself, though not the self-portrait shown in this post. Beyond these sources, a Google image search will throw up a couple of dozen additional items from galleries and so on, not counting costume or set designs. Enough to go at.

I find it hard to account for the relatively low profile of such a remarkable British painter, particularly given recent stirrings of interest in the neo-romantic phase. Hurry’s tense, highly strung images layer up beyond exhaustion those twitchy, compulsive marks and fragments until they hiss and sing in a sort of maximalist coherence, hard won against the odds by forcing overwroughtness through to a point of virtue. For once here, the road of excess does lead to the palace of wisdom.

Satan meets Cinderella: two anarchist dramas of the ‘forties

Satan disguised as an engineer, a madman in the attic, an army of radioactive Welsh miners, plus Cinderella … Yes, it’s British anarchist drama of the ‘forties! This post will be a little longer than usual, I’m afraid, so be patient. First, a quick recap on the origins of all this in the poetic dramas of the previous decade.

The new poetic theatre

dance-of-deathPlenty has been written elsewhere about the ‘thirties heydays of the “new poetic theatre,” and in particular the plays, more or less political and Brechtian, of W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood, staged by Rupert Doone and the Group Theatre with the incidental music of Benjamin Britten, the sets of Robert Medley, and Faber to publish the scripts – quite a back-up! The first of these, The Dance of Death (1931), an Auden solo effort, is somewhat clunky but finishes splendidly with a brief guest appearance by Karl Marx:

Announcer. He’s dead.

[Noise without]

Quick under the table, it’s the ‘tecs and their narks,
O no, salute – it’s Mr Karl Marx.

[Enter Karl Marx with two young communists]

KM. The instruments of production have been too much for him. He is liquidated.

[Exeunt to a Dead March]

THE END

img_0001Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935) is my favourite of the series; their fascist-infected English rural idyll of Pressan Ambo, closely related to the nightmare delusions of Edward Upward’s extraordinary 1938 novel Journey to the Border, blends banality with menace, and is a fine satiric invention.  In comparison The Ascent of F6 (1936) and On the Frontier (1938) seem to lose a little sparkle.

Not surprisingly, other McSpaunday personnel get in on the act: Louis MacNeice’s witty Out of the Picture (1937) or Stephen Spender’s execrable “tragic statement” Trial of a Judge (1938), both also realised by Doone and Faber. Somehow Spender manages to write an anti-fascist play in which the fascists are the only interesting characters. One can almost forgive them for locking up opponents who go on like this:

TWO RED PRISONERS.
Your days in dark, our dark that wakes,
Across the centuries and the waves
Will join to break our chains and break
Into the nobler day which saves.

And so on. And on. John Piper’s scenery was wasted on it.

The coming of war and the dissipation of that particular political-poetical consensus might appear to mark the end of these theatrical experiments. So it’s interesting, a decade on, to come across their minor progeny under the colours of anarchism, which in more or less individualist or philosophical shades had become the ideological flavour of ‘forties neo-romanticism. Here are two examples.

The Last Refuge

Wrey Gardiner by Gregorio Prieto

Wrey Gardiner by Gregorio Prieto

The more slight, but no less interesting, is Wrey Gardiner’s The Last Refuge, a single act affair that pops up in the 1945 edition of New Road, an annual neo-rom anthology published by Gardiner’s own Grey Walls Press, and edited at the time by Fred Murnau. Charles Wrey Gardiner was most active as a poet and autobiographer, but is better remembered for Grey Walls and for his sustained editorship of Poetry Quarterly. Whatever the strength of his sympathies, The Last Refuge seems to be an unusual instance of his nailing his black flag overtly to the mast.

The play must have been written a few years before it saw the light in 1945. Despite some minimal stage directions it’s maybe better considered as unperformable, a drama on the page in the manner of Gervase Stewart’s The Two Septembers, or Robert Herring’s “pantomime” of the Blitz Harlequin Mercutio, to give two others from the same period and sampled on this blog. Virtually the entire script is versified. The action (or conversation, mostly) is set in a bombed-out house deserted by its owners, emblematic of Blitzed England, and squatted by a selection of archetypes: an Old Woman, her earth-daughter Cinderella, a Lunatic (her traumatised son in the attic), and an Anarchist who ascends from the cellar. A Voice in the Air from a wireless interjects occasional propaganda and inane dance music. Visitors comprise a Poet, in love (inevitably) with Cinderella, and an Inspector, the embodiment of authority, come to arrest the squatters on a charge of “living dangerously.”

The few moments when Gardiner tries a satirical touch are uncomfortably clumsy: “Silvery Sid and his Sauntering Saps” is not a great mickey-take name for a radio dance band, and Cinderella’s unsophistication at times has a cor-luv-a-duck touch – “Did ever anyone have such funny men as come my way?” The writing is far happier when Gardiner goes with his usual (and rather likeable) overstrained earnestness. The central tension here is between the writer’s twin, dialectical self-projections, the Poet and the Anarchist, the Poet being apt to rhapsodise in gloomy symbols, provoking the Anarchist’s denunciation:

Your song is vague and indecisive, Poet.
What the poor people need is freedom,
Not the undying words of a dyspeptic dream
But a bitter marching song that none can stem,
A rising tide, a rousing fire,
An anthem for the world’s despised.

Where the poet sees the traumatised son as “a caged animal” the Anarchist hails his insanity as a liberation:

He has had that little jolt
That brings a man to know
His own will’s the source and fountain
Of his own world.
The second bomb would give him the full knowledge
Of one who walks and lies down at will,
Accepts and refuses the snags of fate,
Free in a world where mass suggestion has no power.

The Anarchist brings proceedings to a sort of conclusion when, in a moment of Stirnerite resistance, he grabs the poker from the fireplace and brains the Inspector, leaving the Lunatic to pontificate –

All you poor crackbrained fools who disdain desire
Are but the slaves of a crawling cesspool
Some call sanity.

– the Poet to ruminate –

Truth is still stranger than we know,
Like light falling in a chaotic dream
In the twisted corridors, suddenly upon the wall,
Haunting the mad, the suffering, the chosen few.

– and Cinderella to round it all off with a nice bit of bathos:

Love as a woman’s tear will always fall
Sure as the gentle rain upon us all.

It’s all agreeably heady, and very much of its moment.

Cities of the Plain

cities-of-the-plainIf the class solidarity of “the world’s despised” is only alluded to in The Last Refuge, it’s up front, with marching boots on, in our second contribution, Alex Comfort’s “Democratic Melodrama” Cities of the Plain, published by – who else? – Grey Walls Press in 1943. As poet, novelist, literary critic, anarchist theoretician and conscientious objector, Comfort was remarkably busy during the ‘forties, with a literary reputation later eclipsed by his Joy of Sex fame. (Cities had been preceded in 1942 by Comfort’s “mystery play” Into Egypt; as this is currently unobtainable, I can’t say anything about it.)

If Last Refuge was not designed for performance, Cities most certainly was. A slightly pompous permissions note states that the author “wishes to repudiate in advance all the ideological constructions, of whatever complexion … placed upon this play. Ideological theatres will apply unsuccessfully.” Whether any theatre, ideological or not, applied successfully to stage it, is an open question. Directions insist that it is to be acted “with the maximum of gusto.”

A remarkably schoolboyish Alex Comfort faces up to the shadows of the mid-forties

The play, closer to its Auden-Isherwood predecessors, is set in a parallel society. The title references the Sodom and Gomorrah of Genesis, but the narrative involves a single unnamed city in thrall to a ruthless capitalist corporation that mines the neighbouring mountain. (For some reason best known to Comfort, the miners have Welsh names: Iorwerth, Dai etc.) Facing imminent bankruptcy, the directors sell out to a proposal by two mysterious and unscrupulous “Engineers” to mine the mountain for radium; though many miners will die from radioactivity, this is presented to them as a noble and necessary sacrifice. Dissent is encouraged by the principled doctor, Manson (man’s son, presumably), who leads back from the mountain an army of scorched, ulcerated and mutated miners who tramp off into the future, members of the audience joining them, to lead the revolution.

While the majority of characters are believable to degrees, the two Engineers operate on a different level. The Black Engineer, so called for the colour of his clothing – black shirt, velvet dungarees and biretta – is revealed as something beyond human when he encounters the sherry quaffing Bishop of Sodom and Gomorrah (a “pillar of Conservative-Churchmanship”), who recoils in horror, crying: “I don’t believe in you! I’m not a Manichee! You’re a heresy!”

This odd disjunction is a deliberate dramatic contrivance. In a discussion on Shelley’s The Cenci in “The Critical Significance of Romanticism,” later collected in his 1946 Art and Social Responsibility, Comfort notes that in that play, as in those of Ford and Webster:

img_0002The human players pass through a tragic conflict, but their opponents are not persons – they are naked, animated symbols. The impulses and powers of evil and of infatuation which in tragedy operate through imperfect living people are here made external and come to occupy whole persons, elevated to the same status of identity and reality as the protagonists … [Cenci] is a mask, as if the Devil had inspired a dummy or a suit of armour and made it walk.

Here is the Black Engineer’s offer to the Directors, in return for the mountain:

I offer you the price of your living, to drink the wine of this plain and to sit at this table – to sleep with your wives and to keep your names out of the papers; to make the sun and the moon stand still in the sky, and to sanctify the status quo. I offer you a new grip on the reins, a new leg for your broken chair. You shall not become bankrupt but be rich, and you shall die and lie in gold coffins …

It’s remarkable that the atheist Comfort, in order to personify and animate corporate evil, is obliged to fall back on this Faustian religious supernaturalism.

Like Auden and Isherwood, Comfort keeps his verse passages for key moments and uses far more vernacular conversation than Gardiner, though this can be a bit overdrawn and heavy handed at times. With the possible exception of the miners’ songs, which have a passing touch of Disney’s Seven Dwarfs (“With a will, ho!”), the verse is effective. Comfort was, in fact, a pretty decent poet. Here’s some of Manson’s big speech at the end of Scene II, pleading for the healing of the sick earth:

Now in the night, when continents
like tables cool and creak, and each tap’s timbrel
flickers invisible, constellations rise
westward on Europe moving carefully.
Out of Orion’s cockpit with no noise
the white aseptic stars watch blind earth tossing,
clawing the mask, going under; see the rivers’
reflexes quietly fade, the body grow quiet.
Between the hems of night the inflamed cities
throb in the flank; the finger in wise pity
probes the soft coils – as the stars’ gloved hands
draw up the wounded countries with small stitches.
You of the lancets, Sirius, Betelgueuse,
scanning the festered cities, plotting the fever,
cut to the permanent bone. This sickness is mortal.
Incise the will. Restore the healthy granite.

As a bit of a contrast, here’s the feverish, apocalyptic dance of the revelling shareholders, sung as the miners march to their fate, with a touch of Louis MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music”:

The hills are tumbling round our ears,
The stars crash down from the night;
But the bonds are good and the wheels go round
And there’s wind in the bagpipe yet.

Seven red madmen dance to the moon,
Seven pale horses rode,
But spades are trumps and the sun stands still,
And there’s wealth on the turn of the card!

Their wheels are broke and their bones are dry –
Their hammers bang for the coffin;
But all we see is a five-pound note
And a Union seat in the offing.

And grey death hides behind the door
With a rattle of shot in his throat,
But the wheels go round and the people roar
To keep the bastard out.

Can you hear the crash of the steeples, boys,
And the guns go crack in the trees?
The world shall burn to warm our hands –
It makes a lovely blaze!

There is more of value in this play, and much more could be said about it. But I will return at some point in these posts to Comfort’s poetry. He wrote two further plays. The first act alone of The Besieged appeared in Life and Letters Today for April 1944, but it was never published entire. Gengulphus is also listed as unpublished; some sources give a date of 1948, suggesting a possible publication, though I can find no trace of that.

The quick fade to these experiments in anarcho-drama is probably attributable to the same factors that saw off neo-romanticism in general. The verse speeches, the heightened, symbolic characters, the open calls to political action, the almost expressionist intensity – these are worlds away from the kitchen sink social realism of ‘fifties theatre.

It would be interesting to know if either of Comfort’s two published plays was ever staged. My ex-library copy of Cities (Croydon Public Libraries) sports a fully clean borrowing label; clearly Croydon Rep didn’t jump at the chance to put on this “Democratic Melodrama.” Which is rather a pity.

A rose extinction: the poetry of Gervase Stewart

In issue two (1944) of Stefan Schimanski and Henry Treece’s New Apocalyptic review Transformation (For Treece, see here) appears a prefaced “In Memoriam” to four poets killed on service: Sidney Keyes, R Brian Scott, Gervase Stewart and Alun Lewis. Though the dedicatory poem by Richard Church doesn’t quite hit the spot – “Out of the tumbled plane, the dead boy … there flutters again the phoenix of death, whose song surprises” – its sentiment is honourable enough.

IMG_0003Of the four enfants perdus, the dead boy out of a tumbled plane who is not so well remembered as Keyes and Lewis is Gervase Stewart, killed in August 1941. Beyond contributions scattered among small magazines his only poetic legacy is a slim selection put together hastily by Treece and published by The Fortune Press in 1942. For title, Treece chose No Weed Death, culled from Stewart’s “Obituary notice for the Squire”:

He craved no weed death but a rose extinction …

If the choice of title was a happy one, Treece’s judgement in the selection of poems was maybe less secure. Even so, there’s enough quality in these three dozen small pages to show that Stewart was a poet of real ability who deserves our attention, even if his output had not yet achieved the volume and confidence of Keyes, Keith Douglas or Drummond Allison, the obvious comparisons. (For Allison, see here and here.) “Had he lived,” wrote Treece with maybe not too much exaggeration, “there is little doubt that he would have become one of the most eminent poets of his generation.”

Trevor Tolley noted approvingly Stewart’s “Audenesque stylishness,” and identified his strength in “an urbane blend of imaginative fantasy and a sensitive awareness of the everyday world that was characteristic of the poetry of the thirties.” On the whole, the influences of Auden and Eliot served Stewart well. He is at his best in a sort of Audenish, floating, hawk’s eye commentary that picks out among the minutiae of daily life the signifiers of the anxieties of the age: nostalgia for the pre-war peace, fear of what is to come, the relentless betrayal of ordinary people.

Have we not watched the terror of the night
Receding and winging up and down the stairs
And a floor board stretching in the heat
Has spoken death to us. You too have been alone
With the table lamp, standing as a lady stands
On Brighton beach in summer with her hands
Clasped ecstatically behind her head …

Or –

Day goes with sun as golden lift girls go
slipping to basement down the shaft of night.
Sea makes its soft shape comfortable, assumes
an easy shade, as from their broken rooms
in tribes the chosen people make for tubes,
take escalator down
to dream of bricks and straw and wait for dawn
at Earls Court, Leicester Square and Camden Town …

He is at his less best in lyrical, self-torturing  teenage boy mode, but then he was a teenage boy when most of his work was written. Some pieces give the impression of being unfinished, and there is a tendency to wander off or to unravel towards the end, plus an occasional but persistent weakness for rhymes ending in “-ation”. But there are also many pieces to admire, and I’ve transcribed my own selection of sixteen – a personal choice, not representative – on a new Gervase Stewart page – go here or find the tab up above. I hope you’ll read them.

wikiThere is no comprehensive point of reference, but the life of Gervase Leslie Stewart can be picked out from various sources. (Thanks to Bill Bennett for his input on this.) He was born in March 1920 in Monkseaton, a pleasant village near Whitley Bay in Tyneside. He followed his father to Tynemouth School (later renamed King’s), a local and aspirational public school. In a poem not in my selection, Stewart voices himself as “essentially one of the rank and file … persuaded our suburb was rather elite” who has “attended a school of exorbitant fees”. But it clearly suited him, and his fingerprints are all over the school magazine of the time, in the cricket and rugby teams, the boxing club, composing a “rugger song,” in the library and the debating society, in amateur dramatics and musical theatre, and then as house captain and head boy. The magazine reports that as a boxer Stewart “is keen, and has an admirable physique … quite stylish and a heavy hitter. His footwork must develop from the hopping shuffle which it is at present.” As a cricketer, he was no batsman, but his fielding is said to be “particularly stylish” and, later, “singularly spectacular.”

Henry Treece was at the time a popular young teacher at the school, organising boxing and drama and supervising the magazine. He came to know Stewart as a confident and vital young man with “an enthusiasm for life which may best be described as Elizabethan … kind though candid, sincere though subtle,” good humoured, versatile, with a strong faith in God and in essential human goodness. On the other hand, many of the poems indicate that behind this “handsome presence” lay a full portion of doubts, anxieties and melancholy.

In 1935, when Stewart was just fifteen, he was already writing poetry, and showed his efforts to Treece, who judged them “competent, but a little too commonplace and literary.” Despite his natural ebullience, his serious teenage writing seems to have been a rather guarded affair; the school magazine contains just one contribution, in 1937, a promising descriptive exercise on the topic of “Rain” which bears the stamp of Treece’s encouragement:

The boles of trees reflect a growing smudge
Of light, a soft electric lozenge squashed
On sodden, shining oaks. The miles of streets
Gold-splashed, run oil, and fish-scaled gutters see
Within their mirrors, hazed red, yellow, green …

IMG_0001Both Treece and Stewart left the school in the summer of 1938. In 1939 Stewart went to St Catharine’s, Cambridge to read theology, with the intention of ordination. (He may initially have been at Fitzwilliam House until it was disbanded and the students transferred.) In his first year he became editor of Granta and in Lent term 1940 a “chairman of debates”, the wartime equivalent of Union president, being considered “one of its wittiest speakers.” In the ‘eighties his fellow poet Nicholas Moore recalled that Stewart avoided the Cambridge literati: “He hung out with the rugger crowd, all tough, bumptious boys together.” (Despite this, contact with Moore was close enough for Moore to publish Stewart’s work in several outlets and to dedicate a poem to him.) “He was a brilliant scholar. Yet when it came to exams, he became as nervous and fluttery as a girl before her first party – a bundle of nerves, shivering and quaking like a trapped animal and chattering away nineteen to the dozen.” Derek Stanford remembered Stewart simply as “an Apollo in tweeds.”

A few of Stewart’s more effective poems have a London setting, and at some point after the outbreak of war he must have spent time there. During this period his poems appeared in Seven, edited in Cambridge by Moore, Delta, run by Lawrence Durrell, The New English Weekly, Granta and Fords and Bridges (“The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine”), also edited by Moore among others. In 1940 six of his pieces appeared in the Hogarth Press’s Poets of Tomorrow: Cambridge Poetry 1940, edited by Moore and Alex Comfort. A short story, “Gretchen,” later appeared in the Schimanski-Treece anthology of 1944, A Map of Hearts.

In 1940 Stewart abandoned his studies, joined the Fleet Air Arm and was posted as a flying instructor with 749 Squadron to HMS Goshawk, a naval air station in Trinidad. On 25 August 1941 his Walrus seaplane exploded in mid-air. Temporary sub-lieutenant Stewart RNVR was killed with both members of his crew. He was 21 years old.

IMG_0002Given that (or perhaps because) Treece chided the schoolboy poet for a preoccupation with the Divine (“He replied that God was within his experience as much as anything on earth”), there is relatively little of the overtly Christian showing in Stewart’s surviving writing, though he was clearly extremely sensitive to ordinary suffering and injustice. No specific political allegiance emerges, but at times he demonstrates an outspoken and angry radicalism. In “The Two Septembers,” an early and apparently unfinished “play” (more a declamation in rhyming couplets) later published in Treece’s Transformation, an “orator” exhorts the crowd to demolish the Whitehall Cenotaph and replace it with a huge toilet:

…   This cold white stone
Is a mockery out of the past. Let us tear it down,
And build for ourselves a luxurious lavatory,
For a public convenience will perpetuate the memory
Of unnecessary death as well as a monument will.

PEOPLE

Call the workmen and bid them tear it down.
Let us drag to the spot the mobile crane …
Out of the old we will build the new,
Out of the rotten will grow the ripe …

Down with it. Down with it. Down with it.

IMG_0004Even at his most nationalistically anthologisable, in “I burn for England,” Stewart’s patriotism is, as we now say, considerably nuanced: “Flame shall destroy whoever seeks to turn [her people’s] sacrifice to profit” in a “war for freedom” fought by those “who were never free.”

Naturally, he also wrote his share of navel-gazing soliloquies –

Will none remember that I walked upon this land
And penned one bearing note upon its song?

– and of love poems, some quite direct:

Naked at night in a golden chariot
Drive to my heart, my lover.

It’s possible to read these in the context of the seismic uncertainties thrown up by the outbreak of war, but in the main they seem to me the less successful pieces, and I’ve tended to avoid them in my own small selection, in favour of Stewart’s broader visions of social complacency and despair, parting and war – the “brightly coloured maze moving massed and individual.”

Photo Ralph Gould, North East War Memorials Project

Photo Ralph Gould, North East War Memorials Project

“Pick up my book,” he wrote in maudlin-mortal mode, in the early “My Vanity.” “Read but one verse, and I … will know that one, at least, remembers me.” Well, we have, and we do, but for better reasons than that particular verse. In place of the neo-romantic spectre of Death, mortality in Stewart’s poems is recurrently, and presciently, figured by clocks – the stealthy tread of clocks, the swinging heart of clocks, obsequious clocks, hammer clocks, watch ticks, semitones, persistent tappings, rhythmic pulse. There is a dreadful brevity in the easy transition from the school 1st XV to college to warfare, all tough, bumptious boys together. His short life seems little more than a countdown to that awful, unnecessary, mid-air moment when, quite literally burning for England in living flame, he was extinguished in a rose of fire.

To save retracing steps, here’s another link to the selection of his poems.

*           *           *

As a suffix, two appeals. Google threw up, then promptly lost, a snippet of a later poem involving a pint of beer and an air raid. If you have the full text of that, I’d love to see it.

Secondly, I can find no picture of Stewart. There are hints online of  a second edition of No Weed Death, possibly by Bodley Head in 1944, that contains a portrait. If that’s so and anyone can send a scan of that or of any other image of him that I can use here, I’d be very grateful.

Jazz and the undulating see-fields of Stanley Jackson

After five years’ blogging, you’d think I’d have learned to exhaust leads before rushing to post, but I haven’t, so here’s a second instalment on the marvellous but mysterious Stanley Jackson (see previous post).

The A J McCarthy who penned the text to Jackson’s images in George Woodcock’s Now 4 was indeed jazz writer Albert McCarthy, and the next issue of Now ran an advert for a new review, Jazz Forum, edited by McCarthy and due out in September 1945. In the event, with rather modified contents, it appeared in June 1946 and lasted for just five issues, spanning a little over a year. Interestingly, McCarthy’s policy was to blend jazz content with a wider literary flavour, taking jazz out of the specialist box and making it an element in a broader modern movement. Accordingly, contributors were pulled from the philosophical anarchists and neo-romantic poets networked around Now, plus pukka British surrealists such as Ithell Colquhoun and Toni del Renzio, with some transatlantic contributions.


From issue three the weight shifted, purer jazz writing dominating, but all five issues sported a front cover by Stanley Jackson. Fortunately, every issue is digitised here on the National Jazz Archive site, from where I’ve borrowed images (discreetly “watermarked”) of the covers. I find his designs remarkable. Not only have they an assured virtuosity, but they are bang on the cusp of the cultural moment, or a lurch beyond it; it’s hard to believe, for instance, that the fifth cover was done in 1947, so perfectly does it gel with 21st century cartoonoid mini-character design. The carved characters there and in number 3 (the oddest of the bunch) are maybe chosen for their supposed African qualities; otherwise, the covers keep to morphing, musical abstractions. They are signed “jaxon”, “jxn” or “stanly[sic] jackson”; apart from the reduced spelling, the latter is perfectly compatible with the signature on the National Army Museum painting mentioned last time, proving that both are indeed by the same hand.


The ad for issue 1 of Jazz Forum indicates that it incorporated Conception, previously advertised as the “experimental jazz literary review” of McCarthy’s “Jazz Sociological Society”. It’s unlikely that issue 1 of this ever made it into print; if it had, it would have included more “reproductions” of Jackson’s work, but I can’t find any trace of it. A couple of other covers for Jazz Sociological Society publications are clearly by Jackson, but are considerably less edgy in style.

However, Jazz Forum 1 does contain a book review by Jackson, which seems to have been created by tacking some very brief afterthoughts onto an existing personal credo. (The “review” is of number 5 of George Leite’s US literary review, Circle, to which McCarthy was a contributor, available from Jazz Forum.) This feverish piece of writing reveals a descent into oneiric worlds that might even hint at some hallucinogenic input, as well as a fondness for italics and for neo-Joycean hyphenated compounds such as “tumult-foam” or “pure-truth”. It may not be the most cogent artistic manifesto ever but it’s well worth a read, so here it is. (Jazz Forum has its share of typo’s; the three bracketed corrections are mine.)

CIRCLE 5.

The object in writing, painting, music, is to reveal something of the grandeur which belongs [brings ?] potential to man.

*           *           *

The music of the laughter of sound as thrown off from undulating see-fields, the multitudinous laughter of the ocean billows-love addressing the ear and the eye-mustering tumult-foam weaving garlands of translucent radiance for one poised moment in the eddies of gleaming abysses, sea-cradel’d[sic] flowers to the eye raise phantoms of gaiety rising as far as the eye can reach ….

*           *           *

Painting … sinking into night depths, blazing into day-heights, now skimming the shimmering surface, now sinking heavily into darkness, rising buoyantly into light. The layer upon layer of pigment extorting the torments; winging the dream-imagery to lofty brilliance – this tumult of images! Everlasting layers of ideas, feelings, images, images which madden, which terrify, which intoxicate, images which sob, have fallen – softly as light, as light upon light, upon the artist’s perception, conception.

Each successive image has seemed to bury all that had ever happened before, and yet, in its sur-reality, not one has been extinguished, They are all predetermined, gathered, waiting … ignoring whatever heterogeneous elements life may have accumulated from without. The pall of present, the pall of future, deep as oblivion, has been thrown over every trace of these vrai-experiences, they, so long, have slept in the dust of memory-past, there waiting for the bright steel tube of memory-future to probe and shatter them into a thousand multi-coloured fragments of human grandeur …

Suddenly a signal, a word, a note, a colour from the artist who can dream splendidly, the pall lifts, the fantastic, incredible, yet pure-truth theatre is revealed.

*           *           *

Whatever may be the number of those in whom this faculty of dreaming splendidly-sleeps, there are not many in whom it is developed – and far more rare is it for a man, who possesses this ability, to awaken the sleep – and to capture the instant. For unfortunately, the condition of living which burdens the vast majority to a daily existence incompatible with much elevated dream-thinking, undoubtedly sullies the colour of grandeur in the capturing-faculty of phantasy, even for those whose minds are filled with imagery. To dream splendidly, a man must have an incredible determination for imagery, and a continual obsession to awaken his sleeping dream-phantasy.

“Circle” have published two such men in their issue number five.

Frederick [Frederic] Ramsey Jr., his story of Vanicilio Meban, and Dane Ruhdyar, his Neptune, evocator extraordinary. It is also very pleasant to see Klee’s provocative thought-sketches again.

STANLEY JACKSON.

After 1947, the Jackson trail goes cold for me. What happened to him? Do his illustrations crop up elsewhere? Where is all the rest of his artwork? If anyone reading this has access to Buckman’s Artists in Britain since 1945 (sadly no longer online at issuu.com) or any similar directory, could you scan me Jackson’s entry, if he has one? I’d be very grateful. Otherwise, the hunt for more of Stanley Jackson is most well and truly on, over the undulating see-fields of billows-love to the bright steel tube of memory-future …

conception ad

Royal academician goes bonkers: the mysterious Stanley Jackson

Now 4

 

 

It’s good when something rather wonderful turns up unexpectedly, especially if it involves a “lost” British surrealist. Or quasi-surrealist, even. Yesterday the postman delivered my copy of Now 4, George Woodcock’s anarcho-arty-literary review put out under the Freedom Press banner, this issue apparently from late 1944. A few pages away from what I’d been looking for were four bonus and totally bongoid images by an unheard-of artist, with this curious little write-up:

PATTERN OF FRUSTRATION

Four Drawings by Stanley Jackson

The work of Stanley Jackson has not yet received the attention that it undoubtedly merits, the main reason for this being that it deals with subjects which society prefers to ignore – death, frustration, the hopelessness of individual life and the pointlessness of accepting the current solutions. In this sense Stanley Jackson is a Romantic in outlook for he sees man as a victim of his environment, and has no faith in the political panaceas which glib-tongued orators espouse so convincingly, and with such cost to mankind. In the past he had paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy, but his present development represents a withdrawal from the academic field towards a personal maturity which can only be expressed in less rigid forms.

Pattern of Frustration is, in my opinion, one of the clearest statements of the evolution of the individual in society. In the first reproduction we see the apparently solid footing suddenly merging into nothingness, and from this moment the individual is caught up in the struggle which can end only in defeat. The symbolism of the second phase needs no explanation while the third part shows the ephemeral moment when an ecstatic realisation is glimpsed. The final stage is portrayed in the last reproduction – the moment vanishes to be followed by the inevitable frustration – either the individual has to accept and adapt himself, or he faces annihilation. From this dilemma there is no escape.

A. J. McCARTHY.


Frustration? Er, well, yes. This doesn’t exactly flood the subject with clear light. A J McCarthy is no easy name to place, but I’m pretty sure that this has to be the A J McCarthy who wrote widely on jazz in the ‘fifties and who lived at this point in Notting Hill. I imagine Jackson was a mate. As for People and assJackson himself, he was born in 1917 but at the moment I can find little else. It seems that he did his time as a serviceman, but he is nowhere credited as a war artist. The National Army Museum holds a competent oil portrait of a soldier of the Madras Guards, done in 1943, signed with that name in a style not incompatible with the signing on our four images, while auction value websites throw up just one image of a painting of wartime refugees, shown here, and list a still life and a couple of watercolour views possibly by the same man – precious little survival for his “academic” phase and RA showings.

The four images in Now (click them above to enlarge) show a technical competence compatible with these two earlier pieces, but in every other respect they are light years away; their “Jaxon” signature suggests, for whatever reason, a very deliberate dissociation, while their cartoony plasticity and psycho-content surely owe much to the example of the wonderful Reuben Mednikoff, potholer of the unconscious. (See this post.) They’re described as drawings, but the rather grainy reproductions suggest that, if not pastels, they might even be paintings.

In the same issue of Now, McCarthy’s slightly baffling use of the term “frustration” is echoed, and perhaps explained, in a stodgy opener by editor George Woodcock on “The Writer and Politics” which bemoans the “schizoid frustration [my emphasis] … of the modern intellectual when confronted by social issues,” and proposes a disengagement of the writer from collective political activity as the only guarantee of uncontaminated authenticity. All part of the ongoing wriggling and repositioning of British leftist writers post-Auden and post-Popular Front. McCarthy’s outline implies that the crisis of Woodcock’s writer is experienced by every individual in a modern society in their compromised relations to social and political forces. (Woodcock’s position amounts to a neo-Stirnerism, an egoist or existentialist anarchism, which was common ground among Freedom Pressers, Apocalyptics and Personalists at the time. See also my piece on the anarchism of Henry Treece. More to come, incidentally, on the “anarchist” poetry of Woodcock and Alex Comfort in future posts.)

The works’ four titles have to be Jackson’s own, but is the sequence title “Pattern of Frustration” just McCarthy’s after-gloss on a selection of Jackson’s images? Or was that meta-meaning part of the artist’s intent? It’s hard to be sure. If the latter, these would not be surrealist works; rather than emerging from a process of automatism they would be symbolisations of pre-existing ideas. And it’s maybe true that they lack something of the unexpectedness of the comparable but genuinely automatic imagery of Mednikoff, Grace Pailthorpe or Sam Haile. So are they merely contrived and cynical pastiches of the surreal?

I don’t think so. And to be honest, I don’t care. I think they’re great, and it’s a huge pity we only have them in black and white. The fragmented amoeboids sucked past blasted trees through the sgraffito wind tunnel of Awareness are a classic image of wartime angst, while the John Tunnard-ish outline face of Ultimate Despair (great title), while practically toppling over into comic doom, sits brilliantly over the strange pointy-breasted nude and the drooping background monsters. What’s really going on here? Is it too glib to ascribe this extraordinary lurch into psychologism to the trauma of Jackson’s wartime experiences? It’s hard to imagine what might otherwise account for it, so perhaps not.

And what happened to these works of Jackson’s “personal maturity”? Do they survive? And are there more of the same out there? I need to know. If you can tell me, use the comments option, please!

Minor post script

On closer inspection, there is another war period Jackson hidden on the Art UK site, an oil of boat builders at Madras, listed as by E Jackson. However,  subject location, painting style and signature are all compatible with the National Army Museum picture, and it’s easy to take an “S” for an “E”. The painting is here. It’s owned by Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery and was bought in 1970. It’s a decent, unremarkable work, and I’m struck again by the extraordinary transition in Jackson’s career.

Incidentally, is it just me, or do others find the Art UK site, with its annoying, floating, pinterest-style, pick n’ mix pages, a lot harder to use than the old Your Paintings site?

 

A neglected modernist masterpiece: Terence White’s ‘Irene’

Squashed in among the largely amateurish outpourings of sincerity that bulk out Tambimuttu’s Poetry London X (1944) sit six pages of stand-out writing: an episodic prose poem, surreal, satiric and punctuated by feverish sonnets, that builds into a rolling onslaught of Joycean wordplay. This neglected modernist masterpiece is billed as Terence White’s “Extracts from ‘Irene’”.

This is not the Terence Hanbury White of The Sword in the Stone etc. Nor Terence de Vere White, the Irish novelist. But Terence White (1913-68), aka Terence d’Olbert White, aka Terence White Gervais – musician, composer, music scholar, Associate of the Royal College of Music, logician, film theorist, psychoanalyst, poet in five languages, playwright, translator, artist, Theosophist and flagellant, described by a contemporary as a “small red-faced man with crazy eyes.”

This is the Terence White whose suite for flute and string quartet, performed at the Wigmore Hall in 1956, drew the comment from a Times reviewer that “one movement after another ended with raised eyebrows.”

The Terence White who reportedly declared: “You know I am feminine in my nature and I have always wanted to experience pregnancy myself. I would love to give birth – just a small animal would be enough to be my salute to the universe!”

The Terence White whose Chastisement across the Ages (1956), penned under the suitably dominating name of Gervas d’Olbert, claims to be a “scientific” survey of corporal punishment (“’comprehensive’ might be a more appropriate word than ‘scientific’”, notes one reviewer) and begins thus:

“Amid a world torn and bruised by dissension and misunderstanding of every type, it is a relief to record one human activity which knows no frontiers of race, religion, dialect or epoch. Chastisement is universal …”

And, sadly, the same Terence White who by the mid-‘fifties was obliged to bed down, destitute, in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

But what of his organ concerto, of his piano sonatas, of Piscarille, his prose satire in French, of his “large-scale work” After Leonardo: Quality and Quantity for a New Civilisation, of his play about Sappho, or of his long poem in terza rima, “Sylvia Pregnant”, said to have been admired by James Joyce? None of them published, and all apparently lost forever.

But his poems do survive. And thanks to Tambi’s foresight, we do still have “Extracts from ‘Irene’”, though this is clearly excerpted from a longer original work. In case anyone imagines Terence White Gervais to be some sort of invention of mine, I have posted the full text of “Irene” on a page here (or use the tab above), together with a few notes and three related pieces that seem also to have been part of the full work.

There is much to be done before even the basic facts of White’s life and work can be sketched out here. A photo of the man would be a good start! Meanwhile, my thanks to Bill Bennett for sharing the labour of Googling down what we do know. Much more to come, hopefully …

A psychodrama of the Blitzscape: Robert Herring’s ‘Harlequin Mercutio’

Ego, Harlequin, Mercutio, Hamlet and Merlin prowl the shattered landscape of the London Blitz, debate in best Shakespearian English, are blown to smithereens and fused in transcendent spiritual regeneration. What else could this possibly be but the long lost and remarkably odd 1943 “pantomime” Harlequin Mercutio, by Robert Herring, poet and pioneer modernist film critic? For the full neo-romantic weirdness, read the write-up here on my Pieces of Apocalypse page – scroll down half way, past the piece on Henry Treece.

Anarchism to Personalism: Henry Treece and the New Apocalypse

I’ve moved my recent post on Henry Treece, his poetry, his anarchism and the New Apocalypse movement, to a new page here (or press the Pieces of Apocalypse tab above), given that (a) it was a bit lengthy and everything else was scrolling off the bottom, and (b) it will be joined by other short pieces on the New Apocalypse and related topics.

Humphrey Spender’s ‘Atomic Flower’ and the New Apocalypse

(Since this was first posted, a larger image of this painting has become available at the ‘Your Paintings’ site, here.)

The release of the Public Catalogue Foundation’s (PCF) volumes of Oil Paintings in Public Ownership, and the development of the “Your Paintings” website, gives us all, at long last, a chance to see just what’s hidden away in the vaults of our local galleries that rarely or never comes out into the daylight.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery (my local) devotes whole furlongs of wall space to its unrivalled collections of Georgian and Victorian sepia mediocrities (the Fuseli excepted), justified by a display policy focused around social and historical content, a policy which also drives their recent purchases and contemporary collection. This doesn’t allow too much of an airing for the very decent 20th century material they mostly keep under the carpet.

A thumb through the PCF Staffordshire catalogue reveals quite a bunch of modernist and English surrealist items at Wolves: John Armstrong, John Banting, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, John Selby Bigge,  Duncan Grant, Tristram Hillier, Thomas Esmond Lowinsky, Augustus Lunn, John and Paul Nash, John Piper, William Roberts, Stanley Spencer, John Tunnard, Anthony Twentyman (six canvases), Edward Wadsworth, Alfred Wallis and, last but not least, Christopher Wood. Most are not often seen on the walls, and some never. They would make a good roomful, and a nice change from all those dull Georgian worthies and Victorian farm girls.

And in the Wolverhampton basement there is also this: Atomic Flower by Humphrey Spender. (This small image here will have to do for the time being.) Yes, that’s Spender the photographer, Mass Observationist, textile designer and brother to poet Stephen. His paintings (a bit of a sideline) tended to follow prevailing styles, which in the late ‘thirties for him meant surrealism, though Michel Remy carefully excludes him from his 1991 study, Surrealism in Britain. This canvas is dated to 1939-40, and is not among his most technically accomplished, even for that relatively early date. But to me it seems of unusual interest.

The collection catalogue describes it as an “open interior of a room in a landscape. Inside the room is a giant flower with a colourful fiery centre. There are scientific/mechanical objects placed in the landscape.” The “room” is perhaps better described as a box-like building with the near wall and roof missing. A front door is left hanging in space above the steps, and a window has clearly been blown out. The walls appear black and charred.

Distant mountains are fronted by a flat plain punctuated by receding poles or fence posts in the manner of Paul Nash etc. The foreground objects clearly owe a great deal to Edward Wadsworth’s semi-surreal marine still lives, a couple resembling ship’s screw propellers in a non-specific way. In the corner of the room sits a metal object composed of three elliptical loops around a central axis.

At the heart of the building, and of the composition, a huge dark textured flower unfolds, its five molten petals surrounding a centre of orange and blue flames – the atomic flower of the title. Despite the naivety of its execution, the image achieves a disquieting and threatening quality.

Given the dating, we are likely to take this for a Blitz image, a surrealist variant of the bombed street ruins made iconic, in a neo-romantic way, by John Piper, John Minton et al. On the other hand, given the title, this does look uncannily like a premonition of nuclear warfare – gleaming scientific instruments creating a mushroom-like exploding fiery form that devastates the landscape. And where is this landscape? (New Mexico? Los Alamos?) How likely is any of this for 1940?

Nuclear fission was discovered on the eve of World War two, and a practicable atomic bomb was still widely considered impossible in 1940, the Manhattan Project not getting under way until 1942. Could the dating of the painting be wrong? Or the title have been adopted at a later date?

The term “atomic flower” is now sometimes colloquially applied to the familiar stylised  “atom symbol” representing electrons circling the nucleus. Variants show either three or four ellipses, making six or eight “petals”. Remarkably, a three dimensional version of this symbol is present in the painting, in the shape of the scientific object on the corner of the floor. The symbol may have been known to Spender at this time in some diagram form, but the term “atomic flower” is a recent coinage, making his prescience even more striking.

The term has lately acquired a different connotation. As a contribution to the work of the US Human Interference Task Force, charged with devising “nuclear semiotic” warnings against contact with stored radioactive waste that will remain intelligible for the next 10,000 years, the SF writer Stanislaw Lem has proposed the development of “information plants” or “atomic flowers” that would grow only in the vicinity of terminal storage sites. Spender’s monstrous flower lends itself well to this scenario.

Though the fear of “nuclear apocalypse” was not born until 1945, the catchphrase “Apocalypse” or “New Apocalypse” was coined in 1940 as an umbrella for the vague coalition of philosophical anarchism, “personalism” and neo-romantic tendencies in the arts, loosely related to surrealism, promoted during the war years by Henry Treece, J F Hendry, Stefan Schimanski, Robert Herring and others in reviews such as Transformation and Kingdom Come. It seems ironic that at the end of the war, just as the coherence, such as it was, of the New Apocalypse movement was unravelling, the prospects for nuclear apocalypse suddenly drew terrifyingly close. A real New Apocalypse!

The poetry of the Apocalypse movement has since been largely discredited in critical terms, though British neo-romantic painting has enjoyed a re-evaluation over recent years. The quality of the Apocalypse poets and writers was variable, to say the least. But the movement is not without interest, and I aim to consider some aspects in the future on this site. Spender’s Atomic Flower would have made a fine poster image for the New Apocalypse.