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: Robert MacBryde

The Two Roberts on film, Arthur Berry on show

stillYes! At last! The 1959 Monitor Ken Russell short film, “Scottish Painters”, is available, complete and online – here, two thirds of the way down the BBC’s page marking the boys’ Edinburgh National Gallery retrospective, just finished. Sadly, you didn’t read it first here; in fact, the film’s been up since the start of February, and, to my shame, I hadn’t even noticed, so many thanks to Jack Doyle for the nudge.

Here’s a direct link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02j4ps1/player

I have a definite but indistinct memory of watching this in 1959 – the MacBryde sequence, with the Satie soundtrack, in particular. I would have been ten years old. Half a century on, it’s extraordinary to see the Roberts breathing and moving, to hear MacBryde’s remarkably gentle and meditative voice, and to see a familiar canvas or two in mid-progress. The cart in the opening and closing sequences seems a bit of a Russell contrivance, but what the hell – this is an absolute gem.

(Much more here regarding The Roberts on the “Colquhoun & MacBryde” pages tabbed up above.)

berry bookOn a parallel theme, news arrives from Barewall Gallery in Burslem of a significant show of Arthur Berry and L S Lowry starting in late July at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley and running till next January. (Nothing up yet about this on the PM & AG’s own site.) This will be the first major showing of Arthur Berry since a retrospective of 1984. I know that Berry rated the paintings of the Matchstick Man, but personally I could happily lose the Lowry here; Berry was the far greater talent. Though if it takes the Lowry populist peg to hang this on, to remind Potteries folk of Berry’s remarkable legacy, so be it.

That legacy includes his writings, most valuably his plays. I recall with great pleasure Dr Fergo’s Last Passion at the Victoria Theatre in 1979. When the Doctor’s gormless assistant Klondyke launched into a tearful song about his lost tortoise – “Me toytoy’s gone an’ ‘e wunna cum wom …” – my wife and sister-in-law, Stokies both, became quite literally helpless with laughter, for a considerable period.

(Use the “Arthur Berry” tag – tag cloud on the right here – for more Berry-related posts.)

Consolidating the Roberts

More dissident nostalgia! My big page on the Two Roberts, painters and roisterers Colquhoun and MacBryde, now has nine encounters with the twosome, including the reminiscences by Arthur Berry and Cedra Osborne from previous posts, plus three new excerpts from memoirs of the Roberts by Anthony Cronin, Julian Maclaren-Ross and John Moynihan.

Cronin by Patrick Swift

In his 1976 memoirs of bohemia, Dead as Doornails, Anthony Cronin devotes some thirty pages to the Roberts, every one worth reading. His writing is crafted, snappy, beautifully observed and frequently hilarious. In addition to the Roberts, he is excellent on Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Julian Maclaren-Ross. Doornails is obtainable for the price of a small sandwich on Amazon – recommended!

Cronin’s, of course, is the primary version of the famous episode when Colquhoun, brandishing a carving knife, is said to have pursued MacBryde around the front garden of Cronin’s Wembley digs at the height of a thunder storm, both men stark naked. But he is also good on MacBryde’s declining years after the death of Colquhoun, and gives a touching account of his funeral. And unlike some Roberts-chroniclers, he clearly looked closely at their paintings. One could excerpt almost any passage with profit, but I’ve chosen some of his core descriptions of the boys.

maclaren-rossThe first time that Julian Maclaren-Ross met Robert Colquhoun the latter is reported to have said “And you call yourself a Scotsman? You look like a bloody phoney …” – a comment that Maclaren-Ross clearly felt to be uncalled for. On the other hand, if the latter had been in his customary rig – long, fawn, belted “teddy bear” coat, buttonholed carnation, dark glasses and a gold topped cane – Colquhoun’s reaction might have been understandable. When Maclaren-Ross first met MacBryde (separately), the latter, “wearing a fringe and a kilt,” exclaimed “I don’t doubt he’s as scared of me as I am of him.” First impressions, then, were not especially sympathetic. But here, excerpted from his Memoirs of the Forties, is something of what Maclaren-Ross made of C & M on more extended acquaintance. To be taken with a pinch of salt, perhaps. But who was the kilted blacksmith “Shawn” who kept them company?

Young Moynihan at the typewriter

The late (and legendary) football writer John Moynihan’s Restless Lives, 2002, is a gossipy, though sometimes painful, chronicle of the earlier careers of his parents, the painters Rodrigo and Elinor Moynihan (Elinor Bellingham-Smith). It includes a strangely distant and waspish portrait of the Roberts, mainly Colquhoun, with some salacious detail on the hetero side of his sexuality. (Apparently Colquhoun “much admired” the Cockney singer Georgia Brown, later to find fame as Nancy in Oliver!) More sympathetic towards the unhappy figure of John Minton, Moynihan seems to have regarded the Roberts mostly as feral gate-crashers. But then, the Moynihans were at the Chelsea end of the Soho-Chelsea axis, where bohemia interfaced with the establishment. Here are one or two of the few more interesting bits. (It’s doubtful, by the way, that W S Graham was alone in using speed, as reported by Moynihan. The benzedrine he is said to have “snorted” would have been in inhaler form. And might account for some of the volubility of his earlier work … But stealing bedroom ornaments?)

(My pieces on various painters influenced by the Roberts, and their mentor Jankel Adler, are now on a separate ‘Followers’ page, here, updated by the addition of my earlier post on Louis le Brocquy. Portraits of C & M, including self-portraits, remain on the ‘Encounters’ page. After all this gossip, it might make sense to take a look at aspects of the Roberts’ own work in due course …)

Cedra Osborne’s sweet princes, Colquhoun and MacBryde

Cedra O croppedMy last post introduced the recollections of Cedra Osborne, by way of a brief moment involving Burns Singer, Robert MacBryde, a piano and the threat of fisticuffs.

A more generous selection from her very readable 1993 article on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, is now available here, on my page devoted to them. This seems to be a bit of a neglected source, so I hope any Roberts-followers out there may find it of interest. I’ve scrounged together a little bit of biography on Cedra herself as well, including her time with Pietro Annigoni and her 1997 novel about the life of Jesus.

(For now, this is all at the top of the Roberts page, which I intend to expand and reorganise as and when.)

Cedra Osborne, the Roberts and Burns Singer

Jimmy Burns Singer puts on a poetic stare for the publisher's mugshot for 'Living Silver', 1958.

Jimmy Burns Singer puts on a poetic stare for the publisher’s mugshot for ‘Living Silver’, 1958.

A source on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, apparently not used by Roger Bristow in his 2010 biography of the dynamic duo, is the reminiscence by Cedra Osborne (later Cedra Castellain) published in the April/May 1993 London Magazine. (Though Bristow does cite personal conversations with her.) Selected excerpts (along with bits about them by Anthony Cronin and Julian Maclaren-Ross) will appear on the Colquhoun and MacBryde page here in due course, but meanwhile here is a moment when poet Jimmy Burns Singer (who has two pages on this site) comes very close to planting one on MacBryde:

Sometimes during 1955 [the Roberts] lived in a room above my own [in Chalk Farm], where Colquhoun did some drawings. They brought people with bottles back from Soho, and there were parties in my room, which had the piano. James ‘Burns’ Singer, a poet, brought his agreeable black wife to one of them. She was a child-analyst who, at a previous party, had offered to analyze Colquhoun, saying she was sure she could straighten him out. He was very polite about it. MacBryde used to play the piano for us. His limited repertoire unfortunately included ‘Way Down upon the Swanee River’. When he reached it, Jimmy leapt to his feet, crying: ‘I’d have you know my wife is black!’ He made for the piano, but was overcome by weight of numbers. MacBryde retired into the large cupboard (once a larder) off my room, and was heard sobbing. ‘Robert!’ shouted Colquhoun, ‘stop snivelling and come out of there.’ ‘Och, Robert’ came reproachfully from behind the door, ‘you know I like a good cry.’

Singer knew the Roberts well and counted them as friends, so his outrage must have been heartfelt. His later contributions to the TLS show that he became a forceful advocate for black literature and the civil rights movement. Marie Singer’s analysis of Colquhoun would have been worth a listen-in, had he taken up the offer. I assume that “straighten” is not used here in any homophobic sense.

osborne and roberts

Cedra Osborne and the Roberts with Barker children at Tilty Mill

Cedra Osborne, who died in 2006, is an interesting figure in her own right; she also appears in the photo here of the Roberts, George Barker and W S Graham at Tilty Mill – on the right, next to Paul Potts. She took a step up from bohemia in 1955 on becoming secretary to posh portrait painter Pietro Annigoni, but for a while was a bit of a poet herself, judging by the following piece by her from Nimbus 2, Spring 1952 – an early issue of this slim review with contributions by others of the Barker circle, including Cashenden (Betty) Cass.

Ace of Spades

Esther saw me lying dead
In a bitter cold and windy place,
With greasy cobbles underhead
And a knife stuck in my face.

I know the place, a fishing town
Once prosperous but now decayed,
With a small river bringing down
The sewage near the esplanade.

The breakwater courageously
Still stands against the battering shock
Of monstrous seas, and tenderly
Cradles the wrecks with arms of rock.

And there on the deserted quay
At dead of night I deadly lie,
My hair spread out in disarray
And a short knife in my right eye.

What dreadful passions here ran rife!
Who snared me in this fearful skein?
Oh whose the hand that drove the knife?
Oh Esther, read the cards again.

nimbusI like this.  It’s not the deepest poetry ever written, but it has a macabre, balladey smack to it that reminds me of Charles Causley’s “Dying Gunner”: “Oh mother my mouth is full of stars / As cartridges in the tray …”  True, the first verse is the strongest, but even so the poem seems well worth rescuing here. I haven’t come across any other published poems by Cedra Osborne.

More Roberts-following: the tinkers of Louis le Brocquy

Louis le Brocquy, who died earlier this year, has been canonised as one of Ireland’s greatest 20th century painters. His earliest work, from 1939, adopted a solid documentary realism, but within a few years the example of Picasso had pulled apart all that. In 1946 he moved to London, worked from a flat near Baker Street, met Jankel Adler, Colquhoun, MacBryde and others, and exhibited at the Leicester Galleries and Gimpel Fils. By 1948, in the view of Maurice Collis, he “thoroughly deserve[d] his reputation as a leading exponent of the school to which Adler and Robert Colquhoun belong.”

Tinker Woman with Newspaper, 1947-8

His “Tinker period” paintings, from 1945, feature travelling people comparable to the peasants and beggars of Colquhoun and MacBryde, who represent the fragility of the human condition. (Tinker Woman with Newspaper of 1947-8 is plausibly credited with sparking off De Kooning’s series of semi-abstracted women.) Accumulating the generalised anxiety of the times, these images developed into something of an “apocalyptic” theme. Constructed in flattened triangles of loose, expressionist paint, le Brocquy’s tinkers possess a distinctive shadowless twitchiness, but show particular points of convergence with the Roberts; hands, for example, are sometimes mannered and massively fingered in a style reminiscent of Adler, Colquhoun or MacBryde – compare the study for Man Creating Bird (1948) with MacBryde’s 1947 Backgammon Player – while Goat in Snow of 1950 is clearly related to some members of Colquhoun’s menagerie.

A “grey period” of 1950 reverted to the Picassoesque; after that le Brocquy went through numerous transitions, initially flirting with Bacon but always moving towards increased flimsiness and superficiality, though rendered with increasing technical finesse. The culmination of this trend was perhaps a late portrait of that great Irishman, Bono. But never mind. The earlier stuff is edgy and masterful, and fits well within the post-war school headed up by the Roberts – internationalist in outlook, post-cubist in style and primarily concerned with the humanity of the human figure. We can see now that this was neither Celtic fringe nor an easy Picasso-ism, but a definite “look” within a movement that had clearly diverged from the Palmer-based neo-romanticism of Craxton, early Minton etc.

Study for Man Creating Bird, 1948

 

MacBryde, Backgammon Player, 1947

 

le Brocquy’s paintings are densely documented on the official website (link above, at the start), but a couple of examples here can make the point. (Once I have the Two Roberts page reorganised, le Brocquy can take his place on there.)

Goat in Snow, 1950

 

Colquhoun, Woman and Goat, 1948

 

“A world you didn’t grow old in”: a pub crawl with the Two Roberts

Arthur Berry in the early 1940’s

In 1942, Arthur Berry, a promising 17 year old art student from a Potteries working class background, was given the opportunity of a London visit by a benefactor and art buyer, a Mr Thompson. First stop was to be a visit to the National Gallery in the company of “two Scottish painters”, whom Berry, wearing for the occasion a hopefully bohemian trilby, awaited eagerly. The painters turned out to be the Two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, and the cultural visit turned rapidly into a Fitzrovian pub crawl. This account is excerpted from Berry’s highly readable autobiography of 1984, A Three and Sevenpence Halfpenny Man, reprinted this year by North Staffordshire Press. (This should really go on the Roberts’ page above, but that’s now getting a bit crowded, and will be reorganised in due course.)

A recent post on Mark Finney’s blog lists the drinking holes of wartime Fitzrovia as catalogued by Berry’s fellow Potteries painter John Shelton. The York Minster, the Fitzroy and the Bricklayer’s Arms, all visited on this occasion, are included; Shelton notes that the latter was nicknamed “The Burglar’s Rest”. He lists several drinking clubs, including the famous Colony Room, but this cannot have been the basement club visited here, given that the Colony is on the first floor. The trio’s meal may have been at the “Coffee An”, a disreputable late night eatery on New Oxford St.

Berry in his later years

At this time the Roberts were at a flat in St Alban’s Studios in Kensington, a high ceilinged room with a raised gallery and staircase (“a little balcony”, as Berry puts it) at one end. Berry writes well on the Roberts’ dress sense, and on MacBryde’s singing (even if he does spell him as “McBryde” throughout). Their paintings in the studio also clearly made an impression on him; the “smaller pictures of lock gates” are a clear reference to Colquhoun’s oil The Lock Gates, recently painted, exhibited in 1942 and 1943, and now in the Kelvingrove, Glasgow.

It’s not quite the case, as implied here, that Berry was never to meet the Roberts again, but by the time he caught up with them in 1945, he suspected that already their “talents were now beginning to show signs of being damaged by the bohemian life they were living.” It does seem extraordinary quite how much drinking went on in the middle of a war.

Berry admits freely to having been a bit naïve about homosexuality at the time, but even so it’s odd that he shows no sign here of realising that the two Roberts were an item …

*          *          *

… I saw two young men coming up the steps towards us. They were both in their late twenties and were dressed in what to me was a very bohemian way. Colquhoun had a long, handsome, bony face, with thick curly hair that grew down the back of his neck. He was wearing a cap and had a leather jacket on. McBryde had hair as black as liquorice and a round, high cheek-boned, Irish face. He was smoking a cigarette that hung from the middle of his top lip. Immediately, I felt the magnetism of their personalities. They were completely different from each other, yet were a perfect pair. Both spoke with rich, Scottish accents.

[After a short spell staring at pictures in the National, the three head off for a drink, starting at the York Minster (“the French Pub”), where they run into John Minton – “a thin-faced man dressed in a sailor’s jersey”, moving on to the Fitzroy and then to The Bricklayers in Charlotte Street, where Berry, not used to the pace of drinking, throws up in the toilets …]

The rest of the day was just a long succession of drinks. When the pub shut in the afternoon, McBryde led the way down some steps into a drinking club, which was a dimly lit cellar where the drinks cost twice as much as in the pub. The place was packed. At the top end of the tiny bar, a haggard-faced man with long hair and a cigarette holder was talking to a beautiful young girl who appeared to be drunk. As soon as she saw McBryde, she came over to him and kissed him. After the drinks had been bought, he started to sing again and as he sang, the company stood aside from the bar to watch him. I had never heard the song he sang before. It was about a girl called Lisa Lindsay who was about to be married but went off with the Lord Ronald McDonald instead. When he finished this song, there was a round of applause and drinks were bought for him, and he was prevailed upon to sing again. This time a Hebridean love lilt, a song which sounded sad and lonely and very far away from the club we were in.

[After more drinking, a confused café meal, at which he ruins a Vienna steak with excessive tomato ketchup, and a taxi ride back to Colquhoun’s and McBryde’s studio, Berry passes out.]

… when I awakened in the middle of the night, I’d got all my clothes and my shoes on and was lying on what felt like a camp bed against a small stove. I could hear someone snoring, and when I raised myself up, I could see the shape of a figure lying face to the wall on the other side of the studio. I could tell it was a studio by the big window that covered one side of the room … The sleeping figure, I could tell by its shape, was Colquhoun. I wondered where McBryde was sleeping, then I heard someone cough and saw a little balcony above my head and realised he must be sleeping up there …

Then suddenly I heard McBryde start coughing and get out of bed. A moment later, the light went on and he came down the stairs from the little balcony and went through the door. In a second or so, I heard the lavatory flush, so I got out of bed and went to relieve myself. I thought I’d never been so glad to have a pee in my life. McBryde, who I knew by now was called Sasha, didn’t go back to bed but made a cup of tea and lit a cigarette and began laughingly to go over what had happened last night. He said we’d all been drunk when we got back to the studio. This came as a tremendous relief to me as I’d imagined I was the only one in that state. Then Colquhoun began to get up and pulled the blackout blind up from the studio window. It was daylight outside and McBryde gave me a toasting fork to toast some bread. The studio was small and had two easels on a raised platform. On both of them there were half-finished pictures. The pictures were like nothing I’d ever seen before. They were cubist in the way they were structured, but had very distinctive colouring – mustard yellow and deep earthy reds. As I looked closer at them, I could see the images were of peasant-like figures with heavy faces split up in many places. Then I noticed some smaller pictures of lock gates and one still life of yellow citrus fruit. I didn’t know what to make of them or what to say as I sat drinking tea, while the two Roberts got dressed. Sasha, the very dark one, put a kilt on and a black shirt with a light-blue bow tie, while Colquhoun was pressing his trousers. They were both very particular about how they looked and dressed very elegantly in an artistic way, in clothes that seemed to suit their personalities perfectly.

[That day Colquhoun and Berry meet Mr Thompson, Berry’s benefactor, at the Savile Club, where Berry suffers from some social embarrassment. Berry and Thompson move on to an appointment with Jacob Epstein, bidding farewell to Colquhoun.]

Colquhoun … said good bye and walked off towards Bond Street. I felt sad as I watched him, for although I’d only known the two Roberts a few hours, I knew I’d never met anybody remotely like them and never would again. They were from a bohemian world I’d never realised existed – a world far more exciting and dangerous than the one I lived in, a world where you lived from day to day and drank without remorse. It was what I imagined the Paris of Modigliani and Soutine had been like. I didn’t realise then it was a world you didn’t grow old in.

In Manchester with The Roberts

A quick pointer to a new post on The Two Roberts – Colquhoun and MacBryde – on the site of Mark Finney, who has been burrowing in the vaults at Manchester Art Gallery. A good shot of Colquhoun’s late painting (1958) Mater Dolorosa – very spare and monumental. Plus a begging telegram from Colquhoun and a nice letter of 1947 from MacBryde to David Baxandall, then Director of Manchester City Art Galleries. All good stuff!

Burns Singer, forgotten bad boy of British poetry

I’ve been meaning to do something on Burns Singer, aka Jimmy Singer, blond boy wonder / bad boy of the ‘fifties poetry scene, ever since the late Gordon Wharton confessed to me that he’d hit Singer with a bottle of wine at a literary party in 1955. Singer’s attack in Encounter on the poetry of William Empson is now on my Empson page, and I had thought of putting Singer on the W S Graham page, given that he was very much an acolyte of Graham’s. But Singer seems significant and interesting enough to deserve a page of his own, so here it is (or use the final tab above). So far, I’ve focused on his life, death and larger-than-life persona. For someone so universally and fiercely unpopular, he seems to have inspired an equally fierce affection in some. A look at the poetry will come later – it’s well worth looking at.

Remarkable that Singer links so many personalities peppered across this blog: Empson, Graham, Wharton, Dylan Thomas, the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde, Benjamin Creme, and George Barker … Though I guess the ‘fifties bohemian scene was something of a small world.

This is the world’s starvation centre.
I sit with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde
Listening to letters Sydney Graham once sent or
Barker shook down when words stuck in his side.

Paul Potts on Robert MacBryde and Jankel Adler

Just caught up with the 1960 autobiographic collection, Dante Called You Beatrice, by the trenchcoat-wearing, tyewriter-stealing, broadsheet-hawking People’s Poet, the penniless Paul Potts. My 1961 copy is a book club edition; extraordinary that Potts went in one move from utter obscurity to Readers Union choice of the month. Included are very readable short pieces on painters Robert MacBryde and Jankel Adler, which I’ve added to the Two Roberts page – the MacBryde bit at the very top and the Adler bit at the very bottom, so easy to find.

Potts may have been a dodgy poet, but he wrote wonderful prose. Rather than advancing in steps by argument, his mind seems to have hammered out his world in aphorisms, so that every sentence has the quotability of a punch line. To save my summarising Dante, there’s a nicely readable appreciation of it here by Robert Latona – recommended. And Potts on George Barker is still here.

Jankel Adler, mentor to the Roberts

My lengthy page on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, has been rounded off (for the time being) with a short thought on their mentor, the exiled Polish painter Jankel Adler. The Roberts are said to have borrowed much from Adler, so it’s hardly fair to peg him as their follower. Though I wonder if the borrowing wasn’t more two way? I know very little about Adler’s work, but I am struck by the way that his painting techniques at this time seem to have borrowed from the experimental processes of etching he would have encountered during his collaboration with S W Hayter in Paris.

Anyway, use the Colquhoun and MacBryde tab at the top or click here if you’re interested, and then scroll way, way down. The paintings are sumptuous.