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: Robert Colquhoun

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.)

Picasso the diabolist

Some follow-ups to my earlier post on the painter Michael Ayrton, his interest (or lack of) in the ideas of Aleister Crowley, and his travels, astral or otherwise, in the “White Country” of the Potteries: Laver

The recollections of Ayrton’s friend James Laver, V&A curator and dabbler in the arcane, shed no light on any of this, nor on Barnett Stross’s alleged but unlikely astral battles with Crowley, though Laver’s gossipy autobiography Museum Piece (1963) is notable for its detailed account of his visit to Old Crow in Hastings in March 1947. By this point the Beast was sadly in decline, shooting up several times during the conversation; Laver noted the spots of blood on his shirt sleeves. He had been introduced to Crowley back in the ‘twenties by Gwendoline Otter, but makes no mention of him in connection with Ayrton or Stross.

Laver’s attack on Picasso as dictator and black magician turns out to be derived directly from Ayrton’s broadcast “A Master of Pastiche. A Personal Reaction to Picasso”, subsequently anthologised in John Lehmann’s New Writing and Daylight VII for 1946:

“I do not believe that it is possible to create living art out of anything but the direct visual experience of nature, combined with the heritage of a tradition, unless it be by the practice of magic ritual. Since Picasso does not attempt the former, he must be considered in terms of the latter, and considered in these terms his processes of stylistic inversion and formal disintegration are black magic, no more, no less … The parallel with black magic can be carried further, for destructive distortion and alteration of ritual is the basis of diabolism. To his most devoted admirers he is celebrated for his gift for paraphrase. Black magic is also the cult of personal power, and fame goes with it. Of these two latter attributes Picasso shows no lack. He is the most powerful influence and the most famous artist alive, but is it possible that any contribution to the mainstream of European art can be made by his particular form of diabolic egocentricity? In view of the fact that black magic is a death cult and in view of the fact that the whole impetus of Picasso’s art stems from manners and modes created for now extinct ends – the Romanesque, Catalan primitives, the Greek vase and medieval stained glass are examples – he is a very master of necrophily …

… It is part of his power that he is able to embrace the efforts of lesser men and restate their aims, in his own terms and in relation to the formula current in his own work. This in itself is the hallmark of a particular form of genius. But more than all this, his power lies in his position relative to his times, his temporal domination. Nor is this incompatible with the archaism of the different stylistic starting points of each new ‘époque.’ It is that Picasso is contemporary in the hysteria of his art in exactly the same way that Hitler is contemporary in the hysteria of his politics, much of which – anti-semitism is an example – is archaic in principle.”

This is an audacious critique, but it bears consideration. Its weakness is perhaps less its analysis of Picasso’s process than its rather dated, ‘nineties characterisation of “diabolism” as inversion, reversal etc. Despite his monstrous egotism and pursuit of personal power, Crowley was not a Satanist in any strict sense, and the terms in which Ayrton talks rather suggest that he had no real familiarity with AC’s theories. If so, the speculations documented in my previous post cannot stand.

Ayrton’s own work was perhaps excessively literary. Alan Munton points out to me that Robert Colquhoun once accused Ayrton of being a painter who did too much thinking, a distraction best avoided in that trade. “But what about Wyndham Lewis?” countered Ayrton. “Aye,” conceded Colquhoun. “But what a painter! Let him think if he wants to …”

Barnett Stross in 1935, by Margaret Marks

Barnett Stross in 1935, by Margaret Marks

Next, my thanks to Mark Finney for taking the Michael Ayrton-Barnett Stross connection in a new and interesting direction. The doings of the “Burslem Boys” – Potteries painters John Shelton, Arthur Berry and Norman Cope – are chronicled admirably on Mark’s site, with the benefit of his access to original documents in the keeping of the families of Shelton and Cope. The latter died tragically in 1943, but his own surviving lists of his work note two pieces sold to Barnett Stross (one being The Beer Drinker, for 6 guineas), and at least two “sold to Ayrton” for 3 and 5 guineas, including The Window Gazers. Both named pieces were brush drawings.

Cope’s combination of meticulous draftsmanship with an extreme expressionism would certainly have attracted Ayrton, but one particular title on the list leaps out in connection with Ayrton’s own work – an item called Shraff Tip, “shraff” being broken ceramic waste from the potteries. Browsing Cope’s work and seeing this image, Ayrton may well have picked up the idea for his own later pieces, The Tip and The Sleeper, discussed in my earlier post.

Finally, apologies for having doubted the existence of Freda Cavell, with thanks to Bill Bennett for pointing out that in Frances Spalding’s biography of John Minton, Dance till the Stars Come Down, she has a walk-on part in 1945 as “the Witch of Streatham”. (Though Google only recognises the title as applied, oddly enough, by Iain Sinclair to Angela Carter, of all people …)

Kurt thoughts: Britters in Schwitain

From notes made on my way round the Schwitters in Britain show at Tate Britain:

Constant tensions between colour and texture, forms and references.

Colour – So much brown! But the landscapes and portraits too, even in the skin tones, appear predominantly brown. Seems regressive – the dull cubist palette of Picasso & Braque. But his colour cheers up a bit once he is released from the internment camp!

Forms – Constructivist? How much chance? What laws do his compositions obey? Any?

References (found material) – Social & personal history. He claimed to sit light to the original significances of found material and of elements of text. But it clearly wasn’t so. (An abundance of bus tickets indicates a prevalence of buses. In London, judging by the collages, he ate an awful lot of Liquorice Allsorts. He does not appear to have eaten Kendal Mint Cake during the Lake District period.)

Untitled, 1942

Untitled, 1942 (Note Liquorice Allsorts)

[Thought: a philatelist notices an extremely rare stamp glued into a Schwitters collage … Thought: British Counter-intelligence analyses his British collages, suspecting them to be coded messages.]

In the collages the upside-down elements (writing, images) are sometimes quite dominant. Did Schwitters work both/all ways up until the final resolution?

His process? Tension between congruences and incongruences. Exercises in daring. Relentless oddness. Defies Ben Nicholson’s tastefulness. Nicholson called Schwitters “an ass and a bore”. (Nicholson could be, in Sven Berlin’s words, “a cold, spiteful little sod”.)

The later paintings and small sculptures move towards a more lyrical, clean, hard edged colourfulness, lose their grubbiness, even take on a strange hint of style. But this threat of taste is always carefully recuperated by some element or small fragment of anti-taste. Allure, then deflection. A sideways step.

Lovely Portrait, 1942

Schwitters, ‘Lovely Portrait,’ 1942

Schwitters, portrait of george Johnston, 1946

Schwitters, portrait of George Johnston, 1946

Asger Jorn, 'The avant-garde doesn't give up painting,' 1962

Asger Jorn, ‘The avant-garde doesn’t give up painting,’ 1962

In Untitled (Lovely Portrait), 1942, Schwitters paints over an existing Victorian portrait, leaving only the face from the original. See Asger Jorn’s interventions (“defigurations”). But unlike Jorn, Schwitters did not disrespect the original, given that he was a conventional portraitist himself. See also Joyce Cary’s Gully Jimson (The Horse’s Mouth) buying an old Rembrandt to paint over in place of a new canvas. Also, Duchamp’s “anti-readymade” notion of using a Rembrandt as an ironing board – though that works only as an idea, not as an object. The portrait painted over by Schwitters as an anti-readymade?

[Thought: in 1943 in London Schwitters was in contact with Jankel Adler. Adler was in close contact with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. They could have seen Schwitters’s work on show alongside Adler’s in 1944. Could Schwitters have met the Two Roberts? If so, they may hardly have understood each other.]

Despite the two new works in this show (elaborate, self-indulgent, ignorable) commissioned to honour the “Lake District legacy” of Schwitters, there is no such legacy. One wet Lakeland weekend some years ago, I failed to find any trace of his time in Ambleside. (Though recently the Armitt Collection has started to pull things together.)

Before I viewed this show, I thought that I understood Schwitters’s work. Now I find that I don’t. But I like it all the more for that.

More Roberts-following: the tinkers of Louis le Brocquy

Louis le Brocquy, who died earlier this year, has been canonised as one of Ireland’s greatest 20th century painters. His earliest work, from 1939, adopted a solid documentary realism, but within a few years the example of Picasso had pulled apart all that. In 1946 he moved to London, worked from a flat near Baker Street, met Jankel Adler, Colquhoun, MacBryde and others, and exhibited at the Leicester Galleries and Gimpel Fils. By 1948, in the view of Maurice Collis, he “thoroughly deserve[d] his reputation as a leading exponent of the school to which Adler and Robert Colquhoun belong.”

Tinker Woman with Newspaper, 1947-8

His “Tinker period” paintings, from 1945, feature travelling people comparable to the peasants and beggars of Colquhoun and MacBryde, who represent the fragility of the human condition. (Tinker Woman with Newspaper of 1947-8 is plausibly credited with sparking off De Kooning’s series of semi-abstracted women.) Accumulating the generalised anxiety of the times, these images developed into something of an “apocalyptic” theme. Constructed in flattened triangles of loose, expressionist paint, le Brocquy’s tinkers possess a distinctive shadowless twitchiness, but show particular points of convergence with the Roberts; hands, for example, are sometimes mannered and massively fingered in a style reminiscent of Adler, Colquhoun or MacBryde – compare the study for Man Creating Bird (1948) with MacBryde’s 1947 Backgammon Player – while Goat in Snow of 1950 is clearly related to some members of Colquhoun’s menagerie.

A “grey period” of 1950 reverted to the Picassoesque; after that le Brocquy went through numerous transitions, initially flirting with Bacon but always moving towards increased flimsiness and superficiality, though rendered with increasing technical finesse. The culmination of this trend was perhaps a late portrait of that great Irishman, Bono. But never mind. The earlier stuff is edgy and masterful, and fits well within the post-war school headed up by the Roberts – internationalist in outlook, post-cubist in style and primarily concerned with the humanity of the human figure. We can see now that this was neither Celtic fringe nor an easy Picasso-ism, but a definite “look” within a movement that had clearly diverged from the Palmer-based neo-romanticism of Craxton, early Minton etc.

Study for Man Creating Bird, 1948

 

MacBryde, Backgammon Player, 1947

 

le Brocquy’s paintings are densely documented on the official website (link above, at the start), but a couple of examples here can make the point. (Once I have the Two Roberts page reorganised, le Brocquy can take his place on there.)

Goat in Snow, 1950

 

Colquhoun, Woman and Goat, 1948

 

“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.

Sylvia’s juvenilia

Speaking of Sylvia Plath (see end of previous post, and note to recent post on Veronica Forrest-Thomson) …

Directed by a sixth sense to my local discount bookshop the other day, I was pleased to pick up a massively discounted copy of Eye Rhymes. Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (OUP, 2007). Old news to hardened Plath-followers, no doubt, but not to me. Anything discounted to this extent is usually the sort of book you find interesting but for which you wouldn’t want to part with any significant quantity of the hard-earned. And so it proves here.

This less than satisfactory study is built round a wholesale tipping out from the archives of Plath’s childhood drawings and art school exercises, none of which would have any real significance detached from the reputation of their creator. (And a prolific scribbler she was, too!) The great wadge of school essay illustrations, diary doodles, home made paper dolls, sketches in the margins of lecture notes and so forth is lovingly narrated in more detail than you could ever want by Kathleen Connors. Her plodding magnum opus looks like the original bulk of the book, rescued by the bolting on of a handful of sharper academic pieces. The academics, as academics will, have a good time erecting some very wobbly assertions around this inconsequential material, most of which appears to me considerably less parodic, satiric or even knowing than they would have us believe. (To give just one example, a Mother’s Day card drawn for her grandmother by Plath somewhere between the ages of eleven and fifteen, which includes images of herself, her brother and her mother, “strongly suggests,” by virtue of “this incorporation of the identities of both her mother and grandmother into one card” that “Plath had a sense of both women as products of a domestic regime – an arrangement in which any singular identity is denied.” Or so says Sally Bayley. There is a good deal more of such over-reaching, but I suppose it is only to be expected.)

Woman with folded arms

To be fair, Plath was serious about her art up to college level, where she realised that it might be a mistake to give up her day job as poet. Though later on she became a very able, if pedestrian, illustrator. And I like her Cambridge lecture-note sketch of Leavis at the podium; F R must have been on more than usually tedious form that day. But her college level exercises show too well the dangers of an early, complacent facility combined with a fearsome industriousness and a deep lack of real understanding; the lazy, decorative, pseudo-modernist pastiches, slapped together in bewildering patchworks of random colours (all different but all equally bright), are, if nothing else, an indictment of American art education of the era – at least at Smith College, Massachusetts. (Curiously, in with the mock-Braque, the mock-Expressionist and the mock-Cocteau, there is what might almost be a mock-Robert Colquhoun: Woman with folded arms, c 1948-50. Not that it is any more coherent than the rest.)

The dust jacket is given over to what must have been a standard directed exercise – Triple face portrait, a “tempera” (American for poster colour) painting of around 1950, in which intersecting (male?) profiles are made (rather awkwardly, and at some distance from Picasso) to form a (female?) frontal face. Naturally, the academics lap up this evidence of Miss Plath’s divided personality, making the piece stand well for the weaknesses of both Plath’s artwork and the book itself.

Triple face portrait

None of this, of course, detracts one jot from the luminous and spiky brilliance of Plath’s poetry. And all her artwork has an earnest honesty about it that makes it infinitely more bearable than, say, the irredeemably cringeworthy paintings of D H Lawrence. But it does raise the highly interesting question of why visual and verbal genius are so rarely combined. Which may renew our admiration for the authentic ambidexterity of those, like William Blake or Wyndham Lewis, whose brain hemispheres appear to have been held in perfect tandem.

In Manchester with The Roberts

A quick pointer to a new post on The Two Roberts – Colquhoun and MacBryde – on the site of Mark Finney, who has been burrowing in the vaults at Manchester Art Gallery. A good shot of Colquhoun’s late painting (1958) Mater Dolorosa – very spare and monumental. Plus a begging telegram from Colquhoun and a nice letter of 1947 from MacBryde to David Baxandall, then Director of Manchester City Art Galleries. All good stuff!

Jankel Adler, mentor to the Roberts

My lengthy page on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, has been rounded off (for the time being) with a short thought on their mentor, the exiled Polish painter Jankel Adler. The Roberts are said to have borrowed much from Adler, so it’s hardly fair to peg him as their follower. Though I wonder if the borrowing wasn’t more two way? I know very little about Adler’s work, but I am struck by the way that his painting techniques at this time seem to have borrowed from the experimental processes of etching he would have encountered during his collaboration with S W Hayter in Paris.

Anyway, use the Colquhoun and MacBryde tab at the top or click here if you’re interested, and then scroll way, way down. The paintings are sumptuous.

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.

Colquhoun and MacBryde by themselves and others

The new page on the Scottish painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde has been topped up with some scrounged images of the Terrible Twosome themselves, done by themselves or, in a couple of cases, by others.

We usually come across these in ones and twos, but it’s interesting to see them in a bunch. I know it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, but it’s hardly possible to have too much of the Two Roberts.