Artist's Philosophy - The Poetry of the Every Day
My first memory of drawing is being six years old in Kindergarten. The teacher comes into the classroom and asks everyone to draw a squirrel, or Father Christmas. Such is my terror and shame at seemingly having no visual imagination that without wishing to outdo Tracy Emine, I throw up all over the desk. My memory is blank about what happened next.
At 11 years old, I draw a face of my Aunt and lo and behold, it starts to look like her. Somehow at that point a seed of hope took root at the back of my mind and waited there silently until I was 27.
In all the preceding years, music was the all consuming passion. I gave harpsichord recitals regularly at the South Bank until I was forced to stop performing because of a hereditary condition of loose ligaments.
After a few months, to alleviate the feeling of pointlessness and emptiness, I bought a book ‘Teach Yourself To Draw’, and straight away found enormous satisfaction from drawing a cup with all the shading. Then, it suggested drawing the same cup in line, but graduating the lines according to the light and shade. And so more and more basic exercises. By the second chapter I was hooked. This would be endless fun, variety, mood, energy, all created with the simplest of means onto a piece of paper.
I could see the parallels between counterpoint – as in Bach – and the fragile lines of a woodcut, creating a fine texture and harmony.
Brahms – I could see as dark brown smudges mixed with purple.
Beethoven – black and dark green. I believe this is called synaesthesia – seeing colour on hearing music and vice versa.
At this time, I had a longstanding friendship with Sir Hugh Casson, the then President of the Royal Academy of Art. I casually asked him if he knew of any life classes and he suggested having an interview with Roger de Grey, Principal of the City and Guilds of London Art School in Kennington. On showing him my meagre portfolio of cups he suggested, to my surprise, that I come and study there because as he put it “if you have been professional in one art form, you could very likely become so in another.”
So, four years at the City and Guilds – not much tuition in those anarchic days of the ‘70’s. I spent most of that time shut up in a small studio at the top of the building with a little old man called Jack who used to be a Yorkshire miner. I made several paintings of him, one of which won a British Council Prize.
My main influence at that time was a portrait in the Tate by Harold Gilman of his charlady – Mrs Mounter, done in planes of pastel colour. This picture captivated me for several years, combining poignancy with a mastery of composition, form, and beautiful colour harmony.
After leaving art school, I still felt there was an enormous amount to learn and I went to some classes at the Camden Arts Centre, given by Sargie Mann – a charismatic and forceful teacher.
Frankly, I had become bored with my painting. Doing planes of colour started to feel restricting and mechanical.
Sargie said “either you carry on as you are and become a fine portrait painter or you stop and become an artist.”
What a choice! Of course, I chose the latter and soon found myself in other classes where the main influence was Frank Auerbach. Suddenly, I had permission to enjoy the fluidity of paint. It was ok to smudge, to make a mess, scrape it down and start over again the next day. Thinking, planning – didn’t come into it – it was all about sensation.
For two or three years, I doggedly attended these classes, meeting many committed and earnest people all enduring the torments and joys of ‘freedom of expression.’
Then there came a time when I rebelled. The freedom no longer felt liberating. I wanted a discipline and also a more playful approach, where other elements could be used as well as unthinking passion.
I met a distinguished wood engraver – Dorothea Braby, who lived down the road in Hampstead. She was a stern and rigorous minded person, a colleague of the famous Gertrude Jeckell. They were the top in their field of wood engravers in the 1930s. I proudly showed her my portraits and the Auerbach influenced life paintings. What she said was a surprise and made a profound impression: “you need to learn to draw anatomy; if Michelangelo could do it then so can you.”
Well she was right. By that time I realised that my real interest was in human expression; the tensions, dramas, all expressed in muscles and bones. If I ever wanted to work from imagination I would need knowledge of the structure that lies underneath the skin.
Off again I went. This time to the Sir John Cass School, where I learnt basic anatomy. Gradually, I found a new way of drawing using a sponge and charcoal. Although I can’t really remember any of the details, what I acquired in those lessons has helped me ever since.
And so to the present exhibition.
I’ll start with the portraits. Most were done in the 80s in normal art materials and one or two very recently in sand and chalk. The one of Sadie was done very recently. Sand and chalk is very difficult to control especially when doing something as subtle as a face. One extra bump or crease and you have a nasty illness or 15 years extra in age.
All those people are my friends, except of course for Margaret Thatcher. I’ve always wanted to capture an off-guard expression – something from the depth of the personality. I would never imagine wanting to paint an Army General, all formally dressed up in his gear and medals.
‘Head Of An Ancient Horse’. This was based on a feeling that I had that in spite of all the forces of nature and then ultimate death, that the spirit or DNA or life force remains forever.
And so to the abstract fantasy pictures.
If I had not been forced to use a computer in the late 80s, maybe these pictures would never have materialised. I had an episode of RSI and couldn’t hold anything. I was lent an Apple Mac complete with headset and mouthpiece. Two years were spent nodding at the screen, puffing and sucking on the infernal mouthpiece. My wrists got better and I managed to produce a body of work more playful that before. I found that the marks that can be made on the computer can be more witty and subtle than by hand. I’m grateful for that time because, although physically irritating, it got me over the great divide and into semi-abstraction.
The language of the pictures that you see here were formed out of this experience.
Now we come to the main theme here today – ‘The Poetry of Everyday’
Again, and I promise this is the last time I’ll mention illness, a huge trauma happened 12 years ago. I was accidentally exposed to Carbon Monoxide because of a faulty gas coal fire in my studio. Following on from this I became allergic to all food, then all chemicals, then all noise and light and finally to all electricity. It has been a huge challenge to find ways of coping and to carry on working without conventional art materials, which are choc full of chemicals. Slowly, slowly I have found new ones: sand, chalk, dental concrete, carborundum and rice and barley glue.
I’m amazed that it has been possible to express something meaningful whilst using inert, seemingly inexpressive substances.
Why do I do people?
Well my childhood in Southport, Lancashire was isolated and lonely. To alleviate the boredom, I would run out of the house and into the street and chat to total strangers at the bus stop. Since then people have been a source of fascination.
I’ve wandered through various subject matters: Adam and Eve, animals, sport, birds, jazz - but I always return gratefully to my little people on benches, walking in the street, sunbathing, snoozing and enjoying the simple pleasures.
A queue – seemingly a mass of shapes, moving, coalescing and yet in each shape a mysterious human being, containing memories of small dramas and dreams, of twists and turns that are the substance of life.
My philosophy – “bend with the breeze, accidents can be gifts.”