some Dead British Artists
drawings and texts by Richard Warren 2007
You either drive them mad,
or else you blink at their suicides,
Or else you condone their drugs,
and talk of insanity and genius.
BUT I will not go mad to please you.
I will not FLATTER you with an early death.
Ezra Pound, Salutation the Third
“The creative personality” can seem ephemeral – almost nothing at all. It could well be just a cultural construct.
The men and women pictured here all crossed paths at various points in their lives. So maybe the suicide of the artist was also just a cultural construct, specific to a period or mindset? But do people really kill themselves for so little?
“The creative personality” does seem to take a powerful revenge when deferred, obstructed, denied or prematurely spent.
Art is The Enemy to the artist.
And suicide is always an option, though it is one that most of us, most of the time, refuse to consider.
August 21 1930. Platform two of Salisbury railway station. Suffering from the side-effects of withdrawal from his addiction to opium, Kit Wood dives, screaming, in front of the London train. That morning, a hotel waiter has noticed a revolver in his coat pocket. Three-headed characters from Lord Berners’ ballet, Luna Park, have featured in his most recent paintings.
The worst of Wood’s paintings show a clumsy naivety. The best show a fierce and melancholy sensitivity. It is not always easy to tell which is which.
Max Jacob wrote of Wood as a “philosopher-warrior” and a “hero”. Sebastian Faulks concludes that he “lived a life of cultural daring.” By sheer willpower, Wood made himself into a great painter, and Faulks judges that he was indifferent to all dangers to himself in this pursuit.
Winifred Nicholson maintained that “… he practically gave his life for those pictures. He put everything he knew and every force he possessed into them, and then had nothing left …” Augustus John agreed that Wood “burnt himself out gloriously.”
11 March 1932. When the death of her companion Lytton Strachey makes her life seem purposeless, Carrington shoots herself in her bedroom with a borrowed shotgun, wearing Strachey’s dressing gown.
The revisionist tendency within the Carrington industry would now have us believe that Bloomsbury did not denigrate Carrington’s art, that her drift from serious work into decorative amateurism was her own free and valid choice, and that Strachey did his best to encourage her career.
But even her fictional appearances in her own lifetime (as Betty Bligh in Lewis’s Apes of God, or as Mary Bracegirdle in Huxley’s Crome Yellow) do not recognise her as an artist.
Virginia Woolf judged that Strachey “absorbed her, made her kill herself.” Carrington told her, “There is nothing left for me to do. I did everything for Lytton. But I’ve failed in everything else.” Her art might have saved her, had she not been so pigmyfied by years of servitude as Strachey’s housekeeper and pet.
Further in the background lies the dead hand of Roger Fry, who cruelly discouraged her. But the worst of Carrington’s paintings is worth twenty of Fry’s own cold, mechanical exercises in Frenchiness.
June 23 1939. Three years after an attempt to cut his own throat, Mark Gertler puts a mattress over the door of his studio, and turns on the gas. He has struggled with his tuberculosis, his marriage is over, and he is despondent about the progress of his work. Most immediately, he is unable to cope with the prospect of being moved from his studio for financial reasons. Rolled up in a corner is his unsold 1916 masterpiece, The Merry-Go-Round. It is a long time since he was hailed as a young lion of British painting.
A few days before, the young painter John Minton spots Gertler sitting alone in a Parisian café, “looking silly”. Minton does not appreciate that Gertler is about to kill himself. 18 years later, Minton also will take his own life.
“There are two creatures in me – the painter and the man,” wrote Gertler. “It is the painter that causes difficulties.”
December 16 1956. At midday on a cold Sunday, Nina Hamnett falls forty feet from the window of her Paddington flat, injuring herself fatally on the railings below. There is a stool in front of the open window, and her throat is gashed.
Fanciful stories circulate that she had been persecuted by the ghost of her estranged friend, the occultist Aleister Crowley.
The next day, the Times obituarist writes:
It is an open question whether the world lost or gained by the partial sacrifice of Nina Hamnett the painter … to Nina Hamnett, the Bohemian … Whatever she might have done ultimately in painting if she had stuck to it more closely, Miss Hamnett was a complete success as a person: generous, good humoured, loyal and witty.
Despite this gracious judgement, a great sadness colours the decline of this brilliant young artist into middle age, alcoholism and poverty.
To settle for being the “Queen of Bohemia” seems like a poor second best.
January 20 1957. Sunk into hopeless alcoholism and depression, and having given away much of his work, John Minton overdoses on prescribed Tuinal capsules and dies quietly in bed. His death has been prefigured in his last paintings, while a late canvas of a car crash victim in Barcelona is said to make reference to the death in 1955 of the filmstar James Dean, whom Minton adored.
Minton’s biographer Frances Spaulding cautions us not to stereotype him as just another gay martyr.
As the Johnny Minton party lifestyle drained the content from his work, he slid from serious painting into commissions for endless book covers and adverts, though he had no need for the income from these.
Finally, the relentless American promotion of Abstract Expressionism finished him off, as it did others in the figurative movement associated with English neo-romanticism.
In that sense, the CIA killed John Minton.
6 May 1966. Four years after Robert Colquhoun, his lover and collaborator, dies in his arms, MacBryde, inconsolable and hopelessly drunk, falls under a car in Dublin. Drinking yourself to death is certainly a sort of suicide.
Time has reduced the brief glory of the Two Roberts to ghostly fragments – an early short TV film by Ken Russell, brief chapters in a few books.
Where is MacBryde’s work now? Scattered, neglected, unlisted. Even while he still breathed, the critical consensus set him behind Colquhoun. Though even MacBryde himself deferred to his partner, this judgement is unfair.
His figure paintings are awesome and ominous. In them, husks of men posture and perform vainly, their sweeping gestures enveloped in massive shadow. Their empty sockets gaze from paper faces into the transfixing glare of approaching headlights.
November 4 1977. Alone in his studio, Keith Vaughan overdoses on prescribed medication. Depressed by his cancer, his loneliness and his impotence, he has seen the validity of his own painting and teaching undermined by the triumph of Pop Art.
In his dying moments, he continues to write down his thoughts in the journal he has kept for 38 years:
I cannot believe I have committed suicide since nothing has happened. No big bang or cut wrists. 65 was long enough for me. It wasn’t a complete failure. I did some …
“At this point,” notes his editor, “the words lapse into illegibility and stop.”
As he loses consciousness, his spirit is gathered into its afterlife by the ghostly forms of the young male bodies that he has painted so obsessively, and which for him have embodied all that is beautiful and true.