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 Shelton

“Like a boxing coach”: Bruce Sherratt remembers John Shelton

A few days ago a rather fascinating reminiscence by painter Bruce Sherratt of the Potteries artist John Shelton landed in the comments box on one of my pages on the Two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde. This site has already pointed to John Shelton’s work in connection with the Roberts (top section, here), while an entire trove of great stuff on Shelton, including a catalogue of known oil paintings among much else, can be found here on Mark Finney’s site. Bruce’s recollections of Shelton’s tutoring of “this gauche, lost son of a coal miner” deserve better than to sit unnoticed on a past page, so I’m also posting them here, below.

 

Bruce’s own exuberantly feverish paintings can be found on his site here, and also here, at his Bali Center site. Here is his account of John Shelton:

I was a student of John Shelton from 1959 to 1962, and then went on from Newcastle-under-Lyme Art School to London and Camberwell Art School. John was my mentor and artistic father. John gave an identity and birth to this gauche, lost son of a coal miner who at 15 could do little else but draw.

From John I learned about the artists discussed here. Arthur Berry was a figure of mythic proportions to me as a boy growing up in the small Staffordshire coal mining village of Biddulph four miles from Stoke.

I used to see Arthur strolling like a mobile statue between Biddulph High Street and Coppice Wood where he lived with his dad in a jet black tar covered hut. Arthur and his dad kept a few pigs in a small sty next to the hut. Arthur was an enigmatic, statuesque figure feared by us boys. None of us knew his name or who he was. I only found out after entering the local art school in 1958.

At Camberwell there was an established school style. One was expected to strive to achieve this style, a painterly approach consisting of broad impressionistic brush strokes. Bonnard was held up as the ultimate role model. I was the odd-ball working class character from the North to whom this official style seemed shallow and anemic compared to what John Shelton had showed me, which included everything from the generation of British and other artists based in London during the war years whom you’ve discussed here, to the German Expressionists; Dix, Grosz, Barlach, Kolwitz and Max Beckman. My particular latent psycho-creative adolescent neurosis and talent propelled me directly into the very core of fantasy and surrealism and it’s most authentic purveyors, such as Ernst, Masson, Tanguy, Matta, Victor Brauna and on to their forbears, Grunewald, Durer, Goya and Bosch.

John Shelton encouraged and inspired me in all of this while also introducing me to the most revolutionary politically inspired artists in history; the Mexican muralists: Orosco, Rivera, Siqueiros, Tamayo, and the German-Austrian-Mexican surrealist Wolfgang Paalen, who Shelton told me was eaten alive in the Mexican desert by wild dogs. In fact, it appears he shot himself in the head on a hill outside Taxco in 1959 during one the bi-polar episodes that plagued, not just Paalen, but many other surrealists of his vintage throughout his life: a rich and heady initiation indeed into the artists’ world for the 15 years old coal miner’s son from Biddulph.

John showed me the work of Victor Brauner whose imagination had also been set aflame in Mexico, the Cuban Wilfredo Lam and the English woman surrealist and Ernst’s former lover and muse Leonora Carrington, whom I met in 1968 in Mexico city where my own work was first exhibited at the Instituto Anglo-Mexicano De Cultura.

John Shelton was an interesting mixture the tough, almost brutal taskmaster and benign, fatherly mentor who sowed the seeds for me to develop into what he called a “heavyweight” rather than a mere “bantamweight”. Indeed, like a boxing coach who goads the promising pugilist to reach far beyond himself John Shelton prodded, provoked and cajoled me, making it clear he was not at all interested in the verbally stated ideas and intentions of his followers but in what they actually produced. “Show me, then talk” was his axiom. On reflection I understood later that this was a continuation of the mentoring he had received as a young painter from the two Roberts and Adler: a blend of uncompromising, sometimes brutal honesty and candor cadenced with the sincere wish to nourish the seeds of an uncompromising, high voltage form of creativity and see them grow and mature into something splendid.

Having emulated John Shelton and the two Roberts (Colquhoun and MacBryde), Jankel Adler and others, unlike these London based painters of the 40’s and 50’s I went on to meander, not the streets of Soho but the world, setting up my first studio in Mexico, then San Francisco in 1970 and on to Africa, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Jakarta and now Bali.

I absorbed influences and inspiration from all these places and cultures so very far from my own geographical roots. These by now deeply digested influences, mixed with a hundred other ingredients including an early obsession with Buddhism, Eastern philosophies and psychologies, Freud, Jungian psychoanalysis, Melanie Klein’s ‘object relations psychology’ with reference to the origins of fantasy and on and on the list goes.

All this, plus much more led to the development of a visual syntax that is thoroughly international and archetypal, perhaps universal even in content, form and meaning.

Yet after processing this plethora of experiences that have impacted and mediated my own particular creative nexus and character over the course of more than five decades I find my thoughts returning to those potent early heroes of John Shelton’s youth and subequently my own early beginnings. Men such as Robert Colquhoun and Robert McBride, Jankel Adler, Graham Sutherland, Alan Davie, Francis Bacon and the poet George Barker.

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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.

Preview night at The Burslem Boys

Video of opening night of The Burslem Boys show at Barewall gallery, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, on Friday, courtesy of Mark Finney. Some great work by John Shelton, Arthur Berry and Norman Cope, of whom much, much more on Mark’s site.

The shows runs till Saturday 27th.

The Burslem Boys

In connection with the paintings of John Shelton, I’ve linked already to the excellent blog maintained by Mark Finney, which has shedloads of fascinating stuff on Potteries painters Shelton, Arthur Berry and Norman Cope. I’ll just add quickly that anyone with four minutes of spare time could use it very well in watching Mark’s excellent trailer for the forthcoming exhibition of their work. In particular there are some wonderful drawings by Norman Cope, not yet seen elsewhere, that float tantalisingly by:

John Kashdan, monotypes and the Two Roberts

Butterfly Catcher, 1946

My page on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, has been further embellished by a note on John Kashdan, the man who put the monotype in British modernism, a fine painter, and one whose work shared much, in both style and content, with that of the Dynamic Duo. Click here for the page, or use the tab up top, but you’ll need to scroll way down. The more I look at this, the more it seems that the circle of the Roberts in reality constituted something of a post-war movement, distinctively British but informed by European modernism and quite apart from the more literary neo-romanticism of Michael Ayrton etc, that might under other circumstances have challenged and withstood the tide of abstract expressionism.

Following the Roberts

John Shelton, 'Cat on a Table' 1960

The influence of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde on a number of young painters at their heels could maybe do with some flagging up. So added to my Two Roberts page is a note on the highly interesting Potteries painter John Shelton, information entirely courtesy of the valuable and much appreciated finbofinbo blog. Click here or use the tab above, and scroll to the bottom of the page.

Other Roberts-followers to follow, hopefully.