Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: Denis Williams

“‘Draw!’ he yelled”: Francis Bacon, babysitter from Hell

A few posts back, I took a brief glance at the early London career of the remarkable Guyana-born painter Denis Williams. In January 1955 the artist Keith Vaughan, a friend of Williams, had a visit from him which made a considerable impression. He wrote in his journal:

Denis Williams, ‘Plantation No 3’ 1950

Interesting account this morning from Dennis[sic] Williams of the time he lived and worked in a small room adjoining Francis Bacon’s studio; idolizing Francis at the time, longing to be of service to him and ending by becoming so wholly enslaved to his personality that he was incapable of any independent action.

‘There was nothing I could do. He would lie in bed in the morning, purple in the face, looking ill – terrible – unable to move until he had taken enough pills, but talking all the time about the paintings he had dreamed of. If I offered him a cup of tea he wouldn’t drink it. He just didn’t see
me. I could have been anyone else and he
wouldn’t have noticed …’

(“Enslaved” is a bit of a loaded term; did Vaughan register that?) Williams went on to tell how, as a simple act of thoughtfulness, he had once hung up a suit of Bacon’s, fresh from the cleaners, that Bacon had dumped carelessly on a paint spattered table in the studio. Bacon had returned, had promptly taken down the suit and, without a word, had laid it back in the paint.

‘I felt absolutely shattered as though my personality had been wiped out.’

It was moving to see how affected D. was by the recollection of this incident. I felt how easily I could occupy the same role … ‘He sees people as mountains of flesh,’ Dennis said. ‘He is obsessed by this extraordinary capacity for flesh to breathe, walk, talk.’

The almost mythic theme of Bacon the charismatic and controlling monster sits easily enough with Bacon the painter of monsters. An extreme take on this is voiced by, of all people, the painter Cecil Collins, in an interview of 1979 with Brian Keeble, in Keeble’s Cecil Collins. The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings (Golgonooza, 1994):

[Bacon] paints Hell, and Hell is a most popular subject today because so many people are in it. Hell is very stimulating and very easy to understand … Bacon paints a condition of mankind which you find all over the cinemas, on the advertisement hoardings, in the police-court news, and in newspapers … It’s profoundly uninteresting because it’s beside the point. But I respect him, in the sense that he paints it uncompromisingly. He is damnation, and damnation is very important. In a way he’s my brother. I’m not interested in what he says and yet I see, very clearly, that it has to be said. It’s inevitable, and it’s exactly the opposite to what I am concerned with.

He’s an inversion of the light.

And Keeble, eager to out-Collins Collins, glosses his relation to Bacon thus:

… from Collins’s point of view … Bacon’s images express the subhuman. To concede that they express the truth of human nature would be to invite the belief that there are spiritual values that can be nourished by something other than the divine. This would amount to thinking that there could be some sort of reparation (why else should such images be made?), through appealing to the concatenation of passions and appetites that comprise and motivate the empirical levels of our humanity.

It’s easy enough to write this off. Collins’ best images are seductive, powerful and arresting, but in too many of them the urge to purify creates a slenderness and slightness that approaches mid-century decorative. Even as a post-Christian New Ager, he was still stuck spiritually in a three-decker universe, with one escalator pointing Up and the other (not to be taken) going Down.

But here’s the But … In a series of notes and aphorisms written between 1939 and 1955 (“Hymn of Life”), Collins takes, unexpectedly, a far more positive view of Hell:

The meaning of life is to come to fruition, to bear the fruit of life, which is happiness. But this fruition can only be obtained through growth, and growth is suffering – Hell. Hell is a state of growth, and growth is a process of purification.


And in the 1979 interview with Keeble he even applies that insight to his own work, in relation to a period in the late ‘fifties when it turned, in Keeble’s words, “blacker, more harsh … strident … more violent in mood”. Collins explains this as a necessary expansion of direct, gestural energy, an enlargement before an inevitable condensation and a new formalising. Hell, then, is a necessary phase in the process. Despite Collins’ claims to see “no context for redemption” in Bacon’s work, the reverse turns out to be the case. “In a way he’s my brother”. A necessary monster, then.

Denis Williams may have felt desperately uncomfortable under Bacon’s influence, but it didn’t prevent him, if only as an occasional last resort, from parking the nipper with him. In Evelyn Williams’ excellent The Art of Denis Williams (Peepal Tree Press, 2012), his daughter Janice recalls the novel experience of being babysat by Francis:

Denis Williams, from the ‘Human World’ series, 1950

‘Denis shared a studio with Francis Bacon. From my earliest memories it appeared to be in a derelict building, bombed during the war, a wrecked shop front on the ground floor served as an entrance. Upstairs Denis had a room on one side of the landing, Francis on the other. Art materials and canvases were interchanged across the hall. A ray of light from a small window breached the dilapidated interior of Denis’ work space whilst Francis had metamorphosed his into a cavernous enclosure, blacked out and ominous. I can feel it now, being overwhelmed with the smell of turpentine and a dark foreboding. Denis was appreciative of canvases discarded by Francis, and would reverse them thus creating a clean serviceable area on which to paint. Francis didn’t have much patience with disappointing or unsatisfactory work. It would be quickly scrapped, a luxury most struggling artists could ill afford.

‘… a cavernous enclosure, blacked out and ominous … always in a black shirt, black trousers …’ Francis Bacon in 1950 by Sam Hunter

It’s like theatre in my head; the imagery and drama of such visits have remained with me forever. A highly charged tense atmosphere pervaded the studio emanating from both Francis and the decor. As a young child it was overpowering, seated on a rumple of bedding on the floor watching him paint on a large canvas hanging on the wall. He turned to check on me every now and then. “Don’t move and don’t talk to me,” he pronounced. Clutching my crayons and paper I was dumbstruck. “Draw!” he yelled. I gazed up at his face and black-attired body. He was always in a black shirt, black trousers and sandaled feet. At any given moment he could start shouting and swearing if things weren’t going well on the canvas. He was bold, intimidating and impatient; a big personality with big paintings. My memory tells me Francis had inherited family money from Anglo-Irish landed gentry connections. He didn’t visit our home more than a few times but I remember he was very fond of Catherine my mother. He gave her some beautiful cut glass dessert dishes, part of his inheritance which I now treasure, passed on to me in memory of the times Francis babysat me.’

She seems to have survived unscathed, with the cut glass to prove it. In fact, we might judge it a formative experience, a necessary phase in the process of growth. And who kindly provided the crayons and paper? My guess is Bacon.

(Incidentally, which of the various addresses at which Bacon worked in the early ‘fifties was this? In 1951 he sold his studio at Cromwell Place, and would not move into the famous Reece Mews studio – now reconstructed in Dublin – until 1961. Not that it matters …)

Pantechnicon painter: Wyndham Lewis meets Denis Williams

From the October Gallery in Bloomsbury comes word of their show of work by Aubrey Williams, from their stable of artists, opening on 13 September. Much vibrant abstraction, and definitely worth a look – go here for biog and images. The circumstance that Aubrey Williams was born in Guyana reminds me to take a more considered look at the art of the remarkable Denis Williams, artist, art historian, archaeologist, anthropologist, biographer and novelist – no relation but also born in Guyana, of the same generation as Aubrey W, and also a young painter in post-war London.

Denis Williams

My copy of Evelyn Williams’s The Art of Denis Williams is still in the mail as we speak, but meanwhile there’s plenty to be found online. In passing, I’m struck by the wholehearted enthusiasm demonstrated for the young Williams and his work by the ageing Wyndham Lewis, who reviewed him twice for The Listener, and then did his best to give the young painter a leg up in the art world. Lewis’s collected Listener pieces from 1946 to 1951 are immediately accessible thanks to the invaluable work of Jan Cox and Alan Munton, hosted here (no distinct url’s for articles, but the artist A to Z is in the menu at left).

In July 1949 Lewis took a look at the work of “two coloured artists” at the Berkeley Gallery. That of Ghanaian Kofi Antubam he dismissed quickly, finding it Europeanised and saccharine, but Williams he hailed for his “most remarkable gifts” and on the strength of it asked him round for a chat:

… this descendant (as he tells me) of African slaves responds to European barbarism with enthusiasm. The ‘dark unconscious’, as Lawrence would have called it, staring at itself in the Picassoan mirror, is unquestionably a fascinating spectacle – though when I mentioned Picasso he answered, ‘It is not a case of my going to Picasso, Picasso came to Africa and to me’.

Wyndham Lewis in his later years

The whole question around modernism’s espousal of “primitivism” is now rightly found uncomfortable in several respects; we might also curl the odd toe at some nuances of Lewis’s language, though it would have been considered unusually respectful at the time, and there’s no doubt that Lewis gave generously of his time and effort to assist Williams. The young painter had been in London for three years, the first year on a British Council art scholarship and then working at the Colonial Office. In a few days’ time, he told Lewis, he would be leaving for the ‘States. Lewis promptly took the liberty of giving Williams the New York address of the academic Felix Giovanelli, a close friend of Marshall McLuhan, and wrote to Giovanelli to let him know:

Denis Williams is an extremely intelligent young man … He will not be a disagreeable contact (though I hope he will not be a socially embarrassing one) … you may by chance know a Negro artist? – you might assist him re any charitable organisation to help visiting Negroes of the student type. That sort of thing … it seems abominable for the British Council to give him one years lift, and then drop him. Guiana is no place in which to be a painter. It would be wonderful if he could stay in New York … The main fact in all this is that he is a very unusually promising artist. I hope I have not done the wrong thing in giving this young chap your address …

By late 1950 Williams was back in London, with a one man show at Gimpel Fils, which Lewis reviewed at length:

I do not wish to be guilty of what is called overpraising … but I consider Denis Williams a young man of very remarkable talent. He paints pictures the size of a pantechnicon with as little effort as the blackbird sings. But these huge canvases are not the apparently carefree vocalism of a bird, they are heavy with human import … The canvases are big because there is such a volume, such a weight, of emotion there, requiring a big receptacle into which to pour itself …

Human World, 1950

One of the three large canvases described at some length in the review was Human World (1950), since justly celebrated. Lewis found this a “parade of symbols”, focused around “pregnancy … standing for the new regenerate mankind … encompassed by human obtuseness”. The symbolism he found sympathetic but also a little problematic:

The lot of the Negro, and related to that the lot of the underdog everywhere, is, with Williams, an ever present tragedy. The word ‘Korea’ is for him a violent irritant … Williams is an existentialist, or has been greatly influenced by the teaching of Sartre. ‘Anxiety’ is a word that often recurs in his conversation: the Kierkegaardian ‘Angst’ receives a new interpretation entangled with contemporary politics. ‘Horror’ is another word obsessively frequent.
It is what Anxiety merges in when stimulated
by such symbolic names as ‘Korea’ or ‘MacArthur’.

While gently dissociating himself from Williams’s philosophies, Lewis admits gladly their stimulus to his painting.

All I have to do here is to acclaim these pictures, full of power and vitality. No one interested in what is being done in London today should fail to see them.

Human World has been so much reproduced online that I feel able to add to that accumulation here without permission. It’s an impressively humane and stonkingly powerful piece of painting, and was subsequently purchased to form the basis of the National Collection of Guyana. Today, in the aftermath of the “Windrush Generation” scandal, we might be more inclined to read the painting as an image of a migrant community confronted by an alien and industrial society. And I’m surely not alone in seeing in it clear afterimages of some of the mannerisms of the painter Wyndham Lewis?

In November 1950 Lewis tried again on Williams’s behalf, this time tugging at the sleeve of Herbert Read:

… if he is to survive he must be found a job. Because of colour this presents great difficulties. It is a pity that all this talent should be lost for no better reason than that its possessor’s skin is controversial.

In the end, Lewis helped to enable Williams to obtain a teaching position at the Central School of Art in London. He later taught at the Slade, exhibited at the ICA and went on to participate in the legendary This is Tomorrow exhibition of 1956. Later he came to feel that he was working within a culture that was not his own, and moved on to other forms of success.

For devotees of Lewis, the image of a “pantechnicon”, used by him for the hugeness of Williams’s canvases, rings a bell. In Blast, decades previously, he had characterised Ezra Pound as

Demon pantechnicon driver, busy with removal of old world into new quarters.

If we choose to apply it to Denis Williams, the description takes on a interesting new resonance. Was there, at the back of Lewis’s mind, some distant echo of Pound in Williams?