Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: Keith Vaughan

“‘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 …)

Snaps of mortality

Here’s a few odd things that turned up around corners on our recent trip up North. Even if I have a camera with me when I’m away, in the event I too often end up using my phone, though at times it gives a sort of pleasing phone-y quality, especially in black and white. (Click for slides and click lower right of the slide for full size.)

1: Wystan in Derbyshire

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine
at Cashwell raises water …

The boy W H Auden’s fascination with industrial dereliction was stimulated partly by, among other things, a holiday in Derbyshire, and the landscape of the lead mining areas contributes to the decaying backdrop of some of his earlier work. Here, by the side of the Cromford canal, are one or two abandoned buildings and the Leawood pumphouse.

 

2: Barbara in Sheffield

Spotted in the womens’ wear at John Lewis’s in Sheffield: Hepworth’s Writings and Conversations roped in as a signifier of  “Modern Rarity”, the flower arrangements in the cover image cunningly extended into the display. As prices of Hepworths continue to spiral beyond all sanity, Barbara herself, in trademark beret and stripey top, is now employed by Lewis’s as a “national treasure”, at least of a northern sort, it being not too far from Wakefield here.

 

3: Damien and Lucian

And on to Chatsworth, the simply too, too large residence of the Devonshires, for the eyeball-bashing “House Style” fashion and costume exhibition, knowingly curated as a stately spectacle of shameless excess. Dramatically subdued lighting made it difficult in places actually to see much of the clothes or to work out what it was that one was unable to see, not that the elbowing crowds of tablet snappers seemed too bothered. In one vast room, housing an elevated, candle-lit, Fellinian parade of sepulchral wedding dresses, I felt a little sorry for the Damien Hirst at the far end, on loan from Sotheby’s but now unable to hold its own against the invading weight of all the other kitsch. (An oversized gilded Saint Bartholomew, holding aloft his flayed skin, this is nicked from Vesalius, as all Hirst’s ideas are nicked.)

It was a relief to struggle out of the sumptuous vampiric gloom to find myself in a small, overlooked, sunlit corner hung with half a dozen Freuds, various Devonshires having trooped off to have themselves done by family friend Lucian in the ‘sixties. After all the spotlit satins, baubles and feathers, what a welcome dose of honesty! The upper classes as they are, beneath the costumes – saggy, vexed, irritable, bored, anonymous. Just people, in fact. The baby has a worrying quality of elderliness, as if Freud had seen in his or her features the sufferings of the adult to come. Now there’s a lesson in mortality that Hirst, a successful dealer in attractive surfaces, just can’t match.

 

4: Poor Keith

Another passed-over piece of corridor holds a sampling from the archive of Jorge Lewinski artist photos purchased by Chatsworth. Among the familiar faces I noticed the less familiar one of Keith Vaughan, photographed by Lewinski in 1963. Set against the company of his life sized young men, all hard edged, vigorous and assured, he himself seems ill at ease, poorly defined, subdued, resentful, as if the stick and the stool are there to give him something to do with his hands and feet. Or perhaps as if instructed, a bit too cleverly, to mimic the pose of the central figure, generating an unhappy irony. It’s too easy, of course, knowing of his suicide in 1977, to read suffering into any image of Vaughan, but looking at this, while admiring the painter one can’t help feeling for the man.

Tattoo

I don’t know anything about Michael Davies except that he was a Graphic Design student at the Royal from 1955 to 1958. He gained a 2.2. I wonder what became of him? A few years ago his student sketchbook pages came up on eBay, and I bought this one for a tenner. A young man in a t-shirt has taken off his jacket or outer shirt to reveal an elaborate tattoo on his upper arm. The inscription reads:

“tatoo[sic] the first noted. recorded as seen in South Harrow train on a hot evening. Michael Davies”

The loose pen and ink lines are very period, and both style and subject owe something to the example of Keith Vaughan. (This is probably the closest I will ever get to owning a Vaughan …) I’m impressed that someone working in art & design in the mid ‘fifties should have been motivated to sketch examples of tattoo art; I can’t think offhand of other examples.

I imagine that Davies drew this from memory, so the details of the elaborate design are not clear, but I’m guessing that it might be a naval or regimental badge of some kind?

“Weirdly overwrought and hysterical”: Leslie Hurry and other neo-romantics at Tate Britain

At Tate Britain the Clore Gallery has been rebranded till next June, putting Turner within the broader context of The Romantics. (Details on the Tate site via the Collection Displays pages.) The whole thing is well devised and curated, and it’s good to see the odd Blake, Palmer or Fuseli in there among the straighter stuff. And as a little bonus, it all signs off with a separately curated roomful of 20thc neo-romantics.

Which, naturally, includes a bunch of Sutherlands (always a pleasure, especially the rich early etchings) and the regulation nod to Piper and Nash. But it’s also a joy to be able to inspect a totally gonzoid Michael Ayrton, a brooding John Craxton, and Keith Vaughan’s Cain and Abel, in which Vaughan appears to have stretched the scriptural record by having Cain slay his brother, Samson-like, with the jawbone of an ass. (A weensie bit strained, and not one of his best, but what the heck? Any Vaughan on show is a gift these days, and we should be grateful for this one.)

The relevant Tate web page also appears to promise John Minton, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, but no such luck. A pity. Though it’s only a small space and you can’t have everything, it is all rather Sutherland-heavy, and a sample from these three would have made things more considered. But in compensation for the omission, tucked in at the end, there is This Extraordinary Year, 1945 by Leslie Hurry.

Leslie Hurry, 'Conflict', 1944

Oo-er. Blimey! Leslie who? The name wasn’t too familiar, but on the strength of this painting it is clearly one to conjure with. It’s not possible to link to images of this or any other of his six pieces in the Tate collection, thanks to copyright restrictions (boo!), but This Extraordinary Year is an extraordinary painting, in which a glowing and naked Liberty raises the red flag among a writhing, apocalyptic mass of figures that includes a pope and a politician trampled under the revolutionary surge. Sound stuff!

Available information on Hurry seems limited, though a quick google will give an idea of his style. There is no mention of him in Remy’s irritatingly doctrinaire Surrealism in Britain, though he explored and exhibited automatic drawing, was tagged an “ultra-surrealist”, and was related to the painter John Armstrong (John Hurry Armstrong), whom for that matter Remy also writes off as less than surrealist. The last significant show of his work seems to have been in the ‘eighties. There is a nice self portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, but only one oil, Dialectic No 2, 1940, is to be found on the BBC Your Paintings site. In this the rather geometric figures look a bit Wyndham Lewis, even a bit Merlyn Evans. Most other pieces appear much more fluid. Many surviving works are designs for the theatre and ballet, though to my mind these are of lesser interest. He was also a friend of Mervyn Peake.

In The Spirit of Place, Malcolm Yorke quickly disposes of Hurry as “weirdly overwrought and hysterical”. What’s so wrong with that? Once could say the same of (for instance) the once derided but very wonderful Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, who these days have pukka status. And as British surrealists go, I’d rather take one Hurry than any number of those dry, clunky, repressed pastiches of Ernst by the amateurish and ludicrously over-rated Conroy Maddox.

“British Masters”, presented by James Fox, BBC 4, Monday 25 July, episode 3

It could have been worse. The final instalment of “British Masters”, to be fair, was perhaps the least absurd of the three, though that’s not saying much. Sauntering and chuntering his way towards the expiry of his nebulous thesis, the anxiously photogenic Dr Fox seemed to have calmed down slightly  – unless I’m getting used to him?

For Fox, every painting is a symbolist painting. And worse, a symbolist painting that only admits of a single one-dimensional interpretation. So Sutherland’s thorns represent weapons, inhumanity, post-war angst etc. But jagged natural forms appear in Sutherland’s paintings from the mid / late ‘thirties. He himself wrote that thorns “established a limit of aerial space … pricking out points in space.” In other words, his fascination with these shapes was at least as much formal as symbolic. As evidenced by his own words on archive film included in the programme, and by the optimistic colourings of some of the thorn paintings shown. But Fox only recognises symbolic and narrative content (which is why he rather obviously avoids the abstract), and seems oblivious to form, colour, texture, tonality – all the actual elements of painting.

So Bacon’s Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) are “badly painted”, according to Fox. But what does “badly” mean in this context? He wasn’t saying. Ah, if only Alfred Munnings had done this instead – how much better it could have been!

Hockney’s California paintings were reckoned to be images of utter paradise. But the vast flatnesses, the bleak architecture, the sterile colouring, the absolute  absence of humanity in Bigger Splash – aren’t these indicators of at least a degree of two-mindedness on Hockney’s part? There’s paradise and then there’s paradise …

A figure composition by the wonderful Keith Vaughan was “explained” as some sort of Seven Ages of Man. Seated figure: clearly foetal. Figure with small limp willy: clearly rampant adult sexuality. Figure in a shade of grey: clearly dead, etc etc.

And so it went on. At least we were spared the talk (threatened in a trailer for the series) of Vaughan as “an obsessive masturbator”, which was an unexpected piece of good judgement. Meanwhile the doctor was still much in evidence, peering quizzically at a small piece of thorn bush, slumming it down a Bradford back alley, camping it up with a waxwork of David Hockney, fondling a Chevrolet etc. In a narcissism contest, Keith Vaughan would not have stood a chance here.

Most misleading was the poor attempt to make Vaughan’s sad suicide a signifier for the supposed death of British painting. Vaughan took the tablets in 1977, since when, according to Fox, it’s been sharks and beds all the way. Yet Vaughan recognised, in comments read by Fox in the programme, that his own eclipse was symptomatic of the triumph of Pop Art, which Fox had just hailed as a reinvigoration of the “tradition”. And what about the ‘eighties revival of painting and all that flowed from that? What about (to name three off the cuff) the popular, albeit over-rated, Paula Rego? The mysterious landscapes of Peter Doig? Or Jock McFadyen, whose gutsy characters are rooted in the ‘fifties paintings of Colquhoun and MacBryde, which were overlooked by Fox? (Too Scottish, maybe? Despite the series title, Fox clearly doesn’t do provinces, feeling most secure in the home counties.) But one could add dozens of more recent significant names, without even touching the ghastly Stuckists.

The last word on TV Art presenters can go to Keith Vaughan (Journals, 24 November 1973, reacting to John Berger on the box):

“Well – he’s too smooth. Too much the professional orator for me to believe in. Effective? Yes. He knows how to hang on the ball …Takes himself too seriously. A pundit. He overbids his hand.”

That’s about right. Cheers, Keith.

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.)