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)

Tag Archives: John Minton

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 …)

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“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.

Brief encounters with the Two Roberts

I have a definite childhood memory of watching a black and white TV programme about two painters at work, occasionally talking to camera, punctuated, I think, by snatches of Erik Satie – maybe Gymnopédies or Gnossiennes, though I would hardly have been able to identify the music at the time. I must have been ten, and this must have been Ken Russell’s first short TV film for the BBC Monitor series, Scottish Painters, broadcast in October 1959.  And the two Scottish artists were “the Two Roberts”, Colquhoun and MacBryde, exiles in Fitzrovia and beyond, the matter of legend, and both fine painters. My parents were not art lovers. (Dad was one of the very first to buy a print of Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl.) But I was deemed to have talent in that direction, so the film might well have been switched on for my edification. A false memory? I don’t think so. Though I don’t recall any details clearly. I’ve trawled around online for clips of the film, but it seems inaccessible. Did a copy even survive?

Neglected for many years, the Roberts have undergone a bit of a boost recently with Roger Bristow’s essential 2010 biography, The Last Bohemians. Though for a quick start, but with some fascinating new information and images, try the excellent 2010 catalogue from The Scottish Gallery, downloadable as a pdf.

Anyway, it’s high time I devoted a page to some brief encounters with the Roberts. I’ve made a start here, reproducing the short feature on them in a 1949 Picture Post, followed by Wyndham Lewis’ 1951 account. As yet, no images of their work, but that can be remedied at a later date.

Trog, John Minton and ‘Flook’

I was a childhood victim of my parents’ choice of newspaper, the unspeakable Daily Mail, in which Rothermere had once proclaimed “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” Only one thing was worth reading in the Mail: Flook, the snappy, satirical and beautifully drawn comic strip created in April 1949, a month before my birth. Flook was always drawn by Wally Fawkes as “Trog”; it was written by Fawkes’s fellow jazzmen Humphrey Lyttelton (from 1953) and George Melly (from 1956). Its only rival in the Mail was the hopelessly suburban and unfunny Fred Bassett.

Launched as a strip for children, Flook soon turned savvy and adult, with a great line in social commentary. Flook, the oddly snouted companion of young Rufus, the other central character, became less “magical” and more of an innocent satirical eye, and in the process used far less his ability to metamorphose into objects of his choice.

John Minton’s biographer, Frances Spaulding, mentions in passing that Fawkes took drawing lessons from Minton. This makes a lot of sense when you take a close look at Trog’s style. In the earlier years, as demonstrated in the Flook cache online in the British Cartoon Archive, the line was loose, fluid, almost erratic and amateurish at times, though soon showing the Minton influence. But by the mid ‘fifties it had tightened up wonderfully, and Fawkes became a master at enclosing finer lines of detail within heavier outlines, at hatching and small texture, at an alternating use of white line on black, at integrating silhouettes, and at stacking layers of figures within the enclosed perspective of the individual panel.

His work showed a fondness for pattern reminiscent of Edward Bawden, and he also developed a splendid virtuosity in stylised foliage in the Minton manner, though given the confines of the format, trees and leaves usually had to be tucked into corners. Even Fawkes’s children’s heads took on the distinctive horizontal elongation first seen, for example, in Minton’s Children by the Sea. The only faintly regrettable intrusion was the standard printer’s mechanical dotted grey tone, but Fawkes was cleverly restrained and appropriate in his use of it.

Not too much survives from the mid to late ‘fifties high era of Flook. In 1958 Faber and Faber put out a selection of three recent strips – “Roman in the Gloamin’”, “The Great Battersea Safari” and “S.S. Tapioca Cruise” – in a Giles book type format, titled simply Flook, but sadly the Mail never repeated the experiment. “Roman in the Gloamin’” has been scanned in its entirety here, so I’ll just pick out a few frames from my favourite, “The Great Battersea Safari”.

In this adventure, the permanently adolescent establishment mandarin, Sir Montague ffolly, persuades Flook, as a practical joke, to pose as a rare wild animal in Battersea Park, within the gun sights of the Blimpish big game hunter Buffie Cordite-Smith (“Col. [Retd.] The Bluffs”). The ensuing safari winds through London from Covent Garden to Trafalgar Square, then heads west to cross the river for its Battersea Park denouement, via a rowdy Chelsea party thrown by Caroline Toppe-Draw, Sir Montague’s niece. “Safari” is 20th century British illustration at its best, soaked through with the cultural flavour of the time and place, all beautifully observed.

Here the safari makes a stop at the Fetish coffee bar in the King’s Road. Notice Fawkes’s clever use of silhouette and white line, and the opening up of the perspective of heads, potted plants and paraphernalia inside the coffee bar. Over fifty years on, the bar and its inhabitants seem remarkably modern – only the spelling of “cappuccino” has changed.

The Toppe-Draw party gets completely out of hand. The musical context is nicely sketched in these scenes: at the Fetish coffee bar the musicians play skiffle (“It takes a worried man …”), while at the Cheyne Walk party the hired band play modern jazz, read Kafka during their break, and say things like “She’s a jazz-type chick, the one in the pink. She wants to know like mad too.”

In the black and white counter-changing and the stylised detailing of the bed post, the Blue Room at Toppe-Draw House shows the clear legacy of Braque, maybe via the still lives of Robert MacBryde and other ‘forties and ‘fifties painters.

The Battersea Park setting of the final scene gives Fawkes an opportunity to indulge in Mintonesque leaves and branches, for which he clearly had a considerable affection.

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.

Seven Suicides: some Dead British Artists

My friend and colleague Shirley suggested the other day that I put online “Seven Suicides: some Dead British Artists”, my series of large pen and ink drawings and accompanying texts, which visualise the regrettable deaths of various 20thc British artists. These were exhibited briefly at St Peter’s Church in Wolverhampton in late 2007, and haven’t been seen since. So here they are (or use the tab at the top here). The names of the seven are on the flier for the show on the right here, and are among those in the tags below.

My comments on the critical neglect of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde were written before the publication of  Roger Bristow’s 2010 joint biography and catalogue raisonee of the Two Roberts, The Last Bohemians. (Naff title, but a most excellent book.)