Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

True and untrue grit: Arthur Berry vs L S Lowry

berry bookAnd so, at last, to Stoke-on-Trent and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley, to see Lowry and Berry: Observers of Human Life, which runs till next January. A telling shame, as I’ve said before, that the show needs L S Lowry as bait in order to remind Potteries people of Arthur Berry’s importance, but hey ho …

Though the divided room is sixty-forty in Berry’s favour, the Lowry wall space would have been better used in doing fuller justice to Berry. For if this pairing proves anything, it is that Berry’s work knocks Lowry’s into a bent matchstalk. (All images here are by Berry.)


The upsweeping pastel marks of Berry’s violent left hand – his useless right arm was injured in childhood  – build layers of densely vibrating texture. His images breathe living dust, while Lowry’s are limp constructions of washed-out cardboard rectangles, flat and dead, reliant on blocky outlines for their existence. Lowry’s facades give off a flatness of spirit; they don’t emote, and his buildings surely have no insides. Berry’s gothic, grubby terraces fizz and throb with dark, interior energy.


There’s no doubt that Berry’s first sight of Lowry’s work was a revelation to him, in that it showed him what he might accomplish in and with his own particular back yard, without any wider search for subjects. But beyond that Berry owes Lowry nothing, except perhaps the use of whiteness as a dark ambience. While Berry’s own recorded comments on Lowry’s work are enormously generous, it seems to me that much of this was Berry’s projection of his own vision onto the work of the older but lesser painter.

I can see no evidence, for instance, that Lowry’s facile and wonky caricatures betray a deep familiarity with life, death and the human condition, as Berry claimed, but that’s exactly what Berry himself narrates. Berry noted, seemingly with approval, that Lowry’s townscapes are theatrically staged, kept “professionally” at a safe middle distance. In fact, Lowry remained a voyeur, a Peeping Laurence, but with Berry things got up close and personal.

In Berry’s intensely local images I can detect a broad and knowing inheritance: Daumier, Rouault, Sickert, Dubuffet, Soutine, Matthew Smith, even Kossoff, Auerbach, and many more. In Lowry’s work I can see … Well, not a lot, actually.

But matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs and tumty tumty something something clogs weren’t all that LS painted, it seems. As a footnote, the show’s Lowry selection also contains three of his “mannequins” – rather unpleasantly fetishistic private drawings of suffering young girls dolled out in choking corsets and massive bows. (It’s significant that in the last few years the release of these previously embarrassing images has been deemed necessary just to keep Lowry interesting.)

Image294Should this surprise us? As a whole, Lowry’s human beings are always mere dolls, inert toys, miniaturised simulacra, emptied out on the carpet to be manipulated. In contrast, Berry’s take on suffering, the suffering of women included, is, though darkly affectionate, always empathetic, altruistic, wisely observed and thoroughly humanitarian.

The Two Roberts on film, Arthur Berry on show

stillYes! At last! The 1959 Monitor Ken Russell short film, “Scottish Painters”, is available, complete and online – here, two thirds of the way down the BBC’s page marking the boys’ Edinburgh National Gallery retrospective, just finished. Sadly, you didn’t read it first here; in fact, the film’s been up since the start of February, and, to my shame, I hadn’t even noticed, so many thanks to Jack Doyle for the nudge.

Here’s a direct link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02j4ps1/player

I have a definite but indistinct memory of watching this in 1959 – the MacBryde sequence, with the Satie soundtrack, in particular. I would have been ten years old. Half a century on, it’s extraordinary to see the Roberts breathing and moving, to hear MacBryde’s remarkably gentle and meditative voice, and to see a familiar canvas or two in mid-progress. The cart in the opening and closing sequences seems a bit of a Russell contrivance, but what the hell – this is an absolute gem.

(Much more here regarding The Roberts on the “Colquhoun & MacBryde” pages tabbed up above.)

berry bookOn a parallel theme, news arrives from Barewall Gallery in Burslem of a significant show of Arthur Berry and L S Lowry starting in late July at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley and running till next January. (Nothing up yet about this on the PM & AG’s own site.) This will be the first major showing of Arthur Berry since a retrospective of 1984. I know that Berry rated the paintings of the Matchstick Man, but personally I could happily lose the Lowry here; Berry was the far greater talent. Though if it takes the Lowry populist peg to hang this on, to remind Potteries folk of Berry’s remarkable legacy, so be it.

That legacy includes his writings, most valuably his plays. I recall with great pleasure Dr Fergo’s Last Passion at the Victoria Theatre in 1979. When the Doctor’s gormless assistant Klondyke launched into a tearful song about his lost tortoise – “Me toytoy’s gone an’ ‘e wunna cum wom …” – my wife and sister-in-law, Stokies both, became quite literally helpless with laughter, for a considerable period.

(Use the “Arthur Berry” tag – tag cloud on the right here – for more Berry-related posts.)

The noble vision of John Currie

A trip to Stoke (up Hanley duck, specifically) has reminded me of the wealth of stuff at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, not least the jaw dropping collection of British ceramics and a chunk of the Staffordshire Hoard. And currently in pride of place in the art rooms is John Currie’s marvellous The Supper, dated to 1912-14.

the supper

Dollie Henry as 'The Witch'

Dollie Henry as ‘The Witch’

Potteries-born Currie, trained as a ceramics decorator, was a little older than his fellow “new primitive” Slade painters Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Adrian Allinson and Stanley Spencer. (“Primitive” in the Italianate sense, that is.) His volatile and disturbed relationship with model and mistress Dollie Henry collapsed into nightmare in October 1914 when he shot her dead and turned his gun on himself. Mark Gertler, his close friend and himself a later suicide, was deeply traumatised by this tragedy. No monograph on Currie has yet been done, but his story was covered in Sarah MacDougall’s 2002 biography of Gertler, passing into David Boyd Haycock’s popular A Crisis of Brilliance. Among Currie’s stately female portraits, which are on the whole very close in temperament to Gertler’s, is The Witch, an unmistakable image of flame haired Dollie; superficially, this carries mere sexist charm, but on more careful consideration the attraction-repulsion projected into the face is psychologically troubled.

'Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron.' Left to right: Currie, Gertler, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Allinson.

‘Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron.’ Left to right: Currie, Gertler, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Allinson.

Over two dozen Curries survive in public collections, mostly at the Potteries, which could furnish a room full, and should, but doesn’t. His work touches the trends of its day: a bit of Brittany, some soft cubism, post-Impressionist colourings, and so on. But the group angularities, diagonals and rhythms of The Supper are aligned with the human abstractions of Bomberg and Roberts, and suggest the way Currie might have travelled had he survived.

Self portrait, 1905

Self portrait, 1905

It is a noble vision of the coming Kingdom. There is a strong hint of the Last Supper in the group around the table at the back, not least the Jesus-ish features of the central figure to the top left of the head of the dark haired woman in the foreground; are she and her blonde companion meant for Mary and Martha? This is society as common-wealth, as table, as agape, but agape here comprehends eros; the embracing couple at lower right seem intended for Dollie and Currie. This is the way things could be, could have been, but were not and are not. We are invited to trust that it is the way they will be.