Choices

‘No black!’ I heard my father say
‘Mourners in the East wear white’
his mourners tried to get it right –
everyone turned up wearing grey.

‘A barrow and a wooden tray
will do to wheel my body there:
leave the live flowers to bloom in air –
cut flowers will shrivel in a day.’

The coffin paused, my mother ran
and threw red roses on the lid
we didn’t know she had them hid,
it wasn’t anybody’s plan;

whatever it was the vicar said
I knew my father didn’t mind –
mourning is for the left behind
you get no choices when you’re dead.

 

On Saturday 24 September I visited a very fine exhibition of Christopher Wood’s paintings in the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Many familiar pictures, and some unfamiliar ones. I was particularly drawn to an early painting of flowers in a vase, presented as a black silhouette against a medium dark background. Disconcertingly, in the middle of the black shape of the foliage thrusting out of the vase, there is a cluster of carefully observed florets. The result is a bit like Magritte, but much more sensuous. Naturally (as is always the case) there wasn’t a post-card of the picture you particularly want to remember; I’m sorry I can’t show it to you. Maybe, in these digital days, you could buy an image for a small sum, generating fees for the gallery and the copyright holders.

 

Talking of small sums, it costs £10 to get into the Pallant House Gallery, which will inevitably cut out many people, and casual visiting.

 

On view in the Gallery bookshop there was a blazing cluster of Peter Iden reproductions flanking one of an Ivon Hitchens landscape. (Peter would have been pleased with the company). You can only see this work in reproduction in the bookshop: there is none in the Gallery. Here are some samples. About a mile away is the small room in a small flat where Peter did all his late abstracted Downland landscapes. It’s a neat illustration of the biblical adage, that a prophet has no honour in his own country

img_3235-copy img_3258-copy

 

Dear Penny,

 

You asked me where I stood on the referendum. I haven’t forgotten: I have been thinking about it. I did at first think it was an enormous red herring, and obscured the fact that Casino Capitalism (ie the City of London) was the main enemy, but I now think it has been useful. if only because people who aren’t obsessed by, or much interested in, politics begin to see that there are very few ‘facts’ and that most economic or political predictions or projections are (and always have been) guesses. Economics is still the dismal science. People do keep complaining they are not being given “The Facts” This is because there aren’t any. There is no clear “What is going to happen,” and policy remains the best honesty. Not “Where will we be in five years?” but “Where do we want to be in five years,” which is a better indicator of where we should be aiming, and which nobody seems daring enough to pronounce.

 

Where are we? For centuries up to 1945 Europeans in various nation-states have been killing one another. The European Community was an attempt to stop that happening, and has been an outstanding success: seventy two years ago it was still happening, but since then Europeans within the EC have stopped killing one another. This is not trivial. Some people will tell us that peace is due to Nato, which underlines how hypocritical the debate is. By belonging to Nato we give away some of this sovereignty which is so much talked about, to a supra-national body, led by America. (cf Article 13 of the Nato treaty which makes it clear that this is America’s outfit).

 

The fact is that no nation can have absolute sovereignty. We can’t go back to” Making our own decisions.” We give some sovereignty away by accepting the United Nations Organisation, the Geneva Convention, the International Court at the Hague, the Law of the Sea for territorial waters, and so on. We may or may not agree with EC Fisheries policy, but clearly some organisation has to sort out competing claims and sustainability unless we are to go back to the Cod Wars. There are many other cases like this.

 

There are also many issues which can only be sorted out by a supra-national organisation which has clout. We can’t face down trans-national companies unless we can deprive them of a substantial proportion of their customers by way of persuading them to get into line. We can’t cope with migration on our own. There are millions of people outside Europe who want to get in. Our borders are the borders of Europe: if we can’t control those (and at the moment we can’t), we certainly can’t control the coastline of these off-shore islands with two boats, a few coast-guards, and a bit of Dad’s Army. (Some enterprising East Anglians have been demonstrating that we can people-smuggle with the best of them). King Canute went down to the shore to show his people that you can’t stop the tide from coming in: he wasn’t trying to deal with a tsunami.

 

If you say “Well, the EC fails to cope with immigration at the moment,” then I agree. But the organisation exists, the means is there. Where is the British Government’s great plan, with our partners, to deal with European borders and immigration? The British have been lousy team-players in the EC. If the alternative, Little Britain, policy is not to let foreigners in, you have to ask, how do they propose to keep foreigners out?

 

What we have is an inadequate European Community with many faults. But it is broadly benevolent and democratic. Here please note another of the hypocrisies. In the UK we have an electoral system which does not represent votes cast, and a revising House of Lords packed with entirely unelected old fogies. And we should complain about democracy in the EC? The answer is reform. Reform the UK, decide what you want the EC to be and reform that as well. Those who want to get out might well ask themselves: did we ever, really, get in?

 

I haven’t talked about economics and trade, because they are ephemeral issues on which hundreds of politicians and experts are fantasising. As I said before, there are no hard facts. That discussion has become unreal and boring, though I have no doubt that Brexit will be economically dire, the Brexiters, and I suspect the Government and the Civil Service, having no plans for that eventuality. Reminds me of a Head of Faculty of ours who memorably said “How can we have a contingency plan when we don’t know what is going to happen?”

 

Me, I want to belong to the group of nations who have created the culture I live in, and live by. I’m on the side of Bach and Beethoven, Dante and Verdi, Cervantes and Goya, Monet and Manet, Tolstoi and Turgenev (my Europe will definitely include Russia, when that country becomes a democracy again), and I want it to be wedded to ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity and sorority, and the proper use of a small planet. So I shall vote to stay in, with reservations, as a start. And I don’t believe they can legally deprive me of my European Citizenship.

P1000044

 

Here it is again – my friendly fieldmark. Most years the field next door (Claypit Hill rising to Dicky Hill- the two fields were merged in the years after the War, part of a general amalgamation of fields, and tearing out of hedgerows here), is ploughed up, harrowed, raked and sown, and then a final fieldmark is embossed on it like a watermark by a heavy tractor. It will sit here now for the next three seasons, accentuated by the growth as it comes, modified by the nature of the crop. It’s a natural  symbol – a bit like a Greek alpha or a rune, but very much itself. Next years fieldmark will probably look similar – but not the same – and will stare up at the changing moon, currently an orange sickle in the West at dusk, who presides over this sort of variability. It will certainly creep into some future picture of mine, as it has so many times in the past.

It’s a fairly odd thing to find a painting by one artist on one side of a canvas, with a painting by another artist on the other side – of course it does happen, but it isn’t very common, though artists have often painted over their own, or other people’s work. Well. now two Tony O’Malley paintings are coming up for auction, each with half a Francis Bacon sketch on the other side. There was an article about this, with pictures, in the Mail on Sunday. Of course, it wasn’t ‘a canvas,’ it was a piece of hardboard; it wasn’t cut in half by Tony O’Malley (we wouldn’t have let him saw the board, as he had a very dicky heart), and you had better not call him ‘a minor artist’ in Ireland.

 

Regular readers will know how the event came about (see St Ives Studio; The Disappearing Bacon which I posted on this blog six years ago). If you want to look at the MoS , go to: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3467476/A-20-000-slice-Bacon-artwork-renowned-British-painter-fetched-millions-cut-HALF-reused-minor-artist.html

 

What is amazing, and never occurred to me, was that the pictures would ever surface. I assumed that Tony would have primed the boards and then painted on them so that the Bacons would have been under two coats of paint: it certainly didn’t occur to me that he would have been foresightful enough to preserve what was already there. On one thing my memory let me down on – I thought the Bacon was on the knobbly side of the hardboard, but obviously it was on the smooth side. I suppose I was influenced, thinking back, by the fact that Bacon sometimes painted on the unprimed side of canvas, an idea he got from Graham Sutherland .

 

Anyhow, Tony painted on the knobbly side; two rather heavy, cludgy pictures, perhaps influenced by Alan Lowndes (who of course was in turn influenced by L S Lowry) – very unlike the luminous paintings he later produced.

 

As to the story (in the Mail on Sunday) about the row between Francis Bacon and his then lover, a painter friend (Clive Cable, who died some years back)) was in the pub in St Ives on one occasion when Bacon and his lover came in after a fight the previous evening. As Clive retailed their pub account of the fight, one of them dropped out his false teeth, and the other stamped on them!

 

 

HYTHPIC 1

The educational propositions of Utopia, laid out by David Austin and David Page.

 

I was walking past a junior school the other day: a nice school—a clarity of glass and formal brick with a warmth to it. The children had finished their break, the whistle had blown, and they were moving in. Crumpled over the railing in front of the school was an elderly man: as I came nearer I realised that he was convulsed with laughter. Tears were running down his cheeks. I must have looked puzzled, because he gestured with his hand and said, “Excuse me,” and then, as he wiped his eyes, “but it is all so very extraordinary. I have just been to see your zoo,” he said, “and the parallel is exact. You put your young into houses, yes? And there are keepers to control and feed them. Only to watch the tea-party here, it is free.”

 

I must admit I was piqued, although I am not a specially patriotic man. “Look here,” I said, “it’s generally agreed that our educational system is pretty good; we have put up some splendid buildings and we’re working on the old ones. The teachers are decent and thoughtful, on the whole, and the methods are improving—gradually, but perceptibly. How much better do you do in your country?”

 

Hythpic 2

 

His eyes widened. “Oh, but—” he said, “you see, we do not shut small people away, and do things to them. We leave them free, and let them grow in their own way.” I started angrily. “That’s a completely- Utopian idea . . .” but he caught my hand and before I could say any more was pumping my arm like mad, laughing and smiling. “Come, come, we must have a drink together, you are the first person, the first, mark my words, who had guessed my country. Tell me what you know of Utopia.”

 

Though of course, he told me; as we walked to a nearby pub we fell to discussing the stranger’s outrageous view of a generally accepted and admired system. He was not, it seemed, as ignorant of our ways as had appeared at first; but the novelty of the Utopian system gave me the strangest sensation, like a man standing on a path in the early morning mist, perceiving an unfamiliar set of shapes and volumes, not recognising his own house.

 

“Without schooling,” I said, “how can you possibly educate your Utopian children?” “In Utopia No-one is Educated,” he replied. On seeing the surprise and disbelief in my reaction he hastened to explain. “Our language does not have your transitive verb to educate. But what child would choose to go to school except following the Pied Piper, to find out where the other kids had gone? We have no schools to interrupt the process of learning, nor professional educators to corrupt it.”

 

Hythpic 3a

 

“Corrupt it,” I cried, unable to restrain myself, “but the pedagogic profession is most highly respected among us: we keep the remuneration very low, precisely so that mere material gain shall not exercise those who enter it. It is regarded as the vehicle which transmits our culture from generation to generation.” “In Utopia,” the imperturbable stranger replied pleasantly, “we are not as aware as yourselves of the generations. Furthermore your culture seems to me to be trimmed and distorted to fit your educators’ own dimensions. Your educators, after all, need reassurance as to the effectiveness of their work, which they will get by asking questions. To ensure that they will be reassured indeed, they teach children the answers to those questions which they intend to ask. We have a joke in my country about a self-fulfilling Professory. Indeed, it is much easier to pass on neatly ordered knowledge—to teach people a grammar in place of a language—and in the process English teachers produce philistines, and mathematics teachers produce tally-men.

 

” We paused to buy some beer and sit down. I was in something of a brown study over my glass. “Supposing,” I said, “that you are right; what then is the use of our educational system?”

 

“A good question,” he replied. “Primary education is unnecessary —children learn to read and calculate from literate and numerate parents anyway. Children of illiterate innumerate parents do not learn anyway. It is no good teaching children: you must first teach parents. However, primary schools do keep children off the streets, where they might pick up something useful. Secondary schools perform largely the same function, meanwhile selecting a docile group for training as an intellectual elite. Of course, no one knows whether they are intellectually superior, since it cannot be tested, nor what such a phrase implies, but it is enough that everyone believes it to be true, for so one gets your Government by Consent. In tertiary education, then, this elite is trained in obsolescent techniques by those who can’t or won’t make their way in their own profession.”

 

“It’s true,” I said, “that most would say their most intensive period of learning took place in the first two years after the course ended,” and he replied, “Why then postpone this experience?”

 

Hythpic 3b

 

But I wanted to go back a point or two. “You said that it is parents who teach; but in this complex age what two parents could cover the range of learning needed?” “Why two?” he said. “In Utopia a Wise Child Chooses All its Parents. Natural curiosity leads a child to those who can help him. In your country, contrariwise, two parents have two point five children, a dog, a cat, and three rose trees—and they build a wall around them!”

 

“It’s natural to want privacy,” I retorted.

 

“By privacy,” he said, “you mean freedom from intrusion while you do all those things which it is more fun to do in groups. The children, locked in, destroy your ‘privacy’ far more effectively than the neighbours you lock out; yet they long to get away—and do indeed escape for some hours to the community—to a larger house, a larger walled garden, and teachers in loco parentis (a quaint phrase). And through their life they will be pursued by the spectral ideal of the Big Happy Family. In the meantime, however, you protect them from the people next door, and they protect their children from you.”

 

“But eventually,” I said, “their education comes to an end and they get on with the serious business of life.”

 

“You mean this education was not serious?”

 

“Not the same as work.”

 

Hythpic 4a

 

“Aha, work. In Utopia Nobody Works. People make things, people create.. But by work, in your society, you mean doing something for most of the day, by compulsion. I have tried to analyse this. As far as I can see your people do three kinds of work. They slave laboriously because they are cheaper than machines which could do the same job. Secondly they watch machines slaving because they are cheaper than machines which could watch the machines. Thirdly they organise this money which discovers the shocking cost of machines in terms of human labour, and organise it with such complication that everyone forgets what it means. And so you have Economics: the solemn study of the phenomenology of a metaphor. Perhaps the real use of your education is to accustom men to a pattern of work, and to suppress their creative impulse—otherwise who would stand for it? But I forgot, there is a consolation prize, and this too we have not got: In Utopia there is No Dignity of Labour.”

 

“Talking of dignity,” I said, “let us return to the old; how do you look after them?”

 

“I am glad you mention them, for I had been told that here it was impolite to do so.”

 

“But what do you do for them?”

 

“We do not make them different,” he said. “In Utopia we Give Toys on Every Birthday. With toys one explores the world; one stops needing them when one stops learning. While the old learn, they are no different from the young, and in our society the young pass on the culture of the tribe to the old. Here it seems to me, even those in middle age have stopped learning, are frightened. But I forgot your national hero, from your most famous book—looking at his watch and exclaiming ‘Oh my ears and whiskers, I shall be late’.”

 

At this point, suddenly, he would say no more. We played a game of darts, but I got little more from him but a visiting card.

 

Hythpic 4b

 

I have not slept very well recently. I am haunted by the image of a man bent over a railing, helpless with laughter.

 

Note

David Austin and David Page wrote this article for the Spring issue of ARK (Journal of the Royal College of Art) 1970, before they had read Paul Goodman’s article, “The Present Moment in Education” in ANARCHY 107; Homage was then reprinted in Anarchy 115 (sadly without the drawings, more costly to reproduce in those days). We owe this dialogue to English teacher Harold Sheldrake, who made who made DP read Utopia, thus slightly undermining the argument here presented. Isn’t that just like life?

 

 

 

 

 

This was a Guardian headline: it was in fact about museum charges, but all the same it is a good question. The answer is, NO.

 

The great majority of living artists make no money at all: the lucky ones cover their costs. By ‘artists’ here I mean creators of visual or visual /tactile works produced for their own sake, as opposed to the (no less estimable) ‘designers’ who make works to satisfy specified criteria for clients who commission the work in advance. There is a perennial debate about boundaries and what constitutes which. (By extension I also point to all creators of content)

 

In my lifetime I have known very few artists who made a living from their art. Peter Iden from the middle of his life (see my past blog); Terry Frost late in his life…. Like Terry, many artists have made an income from teaching in Art Schools & Departments, but reductions in part-time staffing must have greatly reduced that number. To restate it as emphatically as possible, most of the serious artists I know do not make more money than covers the cost of their activity, most of them living on other work or a pension: no-one I know makes a living wage from their art. We are, in the real sense of the word, amateurs: we only do it because we love it, or are addicted to it, which makes us entirely out of step with the times.

 

Does this mean that there is no longer a demand for visual images, or at any rate, for visual images made by artists? Contrariwise, technological change has enabled a much greater consumption of visual images than was possible in the past. These images used to be mediated by printing and printed media, via a long-winded (but loveable) technology which produced books, newspapers and magazines. Television first broke the monopoly of that technology, followed by other means of instant transmission. The new technologies have also enabled a vast mining of visual material in time and space. You only have to think of the way in which artists mined the visual material of Greece and Rome, using their own drawing via time- and skill-consuming media like etching, and then the way Picasso, Braque, Modigliani etc mined African art, to see that that ease of access has enormously increased the amount of visual material available to any individual. You might think this increase might remove the need for current origination. But no: the demand for new images , new ways of looking at the world, is increased rather than marginalised.

 

Partly this results from what we could call the Many Mansions and Wallpaper phenomenon. There are now an almost infinite number of spaces (Mansions) in the house, almost all of which require a visual element (Wallpaper). In the present world the visual component, which used to be freestanding or an optional extra, has become an essential. Sound is also an optional addition, but, so far, less essential than the visual. Some of us are paid, some of the time, to provide the visual component.

 

Artists are caught out by habits which were appropriate in the past, I mean that we present our reproduced images for free in order to advertise our unique objects; but the terms of trade have changed, and it is the reproduction which is now the valuable commodity. To take a current example, an original Auerbach painting may well be priced north of two million, but his images are dispersed through the media and are consumed, apparently for free, by millions who could never afford his unique object. For most of us, whose unique objects sell very far south of two million, a small incremental payment for each view or reproduction would be liable in aggregate to produce more than returns from sales of the unique objects themselves. This may seem a truism: what is new is its reinforcement by a massive change in technology. Some return comes from the use of our reproduced work in print, or on TV etc, , (though the terms of trade are not very favourable), but little or none flows from the Great Gobbler, ie the Internet. We get even less than musicians, which is saying a lot.

 

One central problem with the Internet, which admirably sets out to make everything available to all, is that a generation has grown up believing that content is, or should be, free for consumers, leaving creators of content marooned high and dry away from the tidal flow of income, which is what everyone else uses to buy the means of life. Well, you can have free content, and when you have done plundering the past there will be no new content, as the creators will have died out. Or you can pay for content and have living creators. You may try to shade it, but it’s that stark a choice. For those of us who are artists, or who want art to continue, there is only one option: to compel the new distributors of content to pay its creators the full fruit of their industry. We would not begrudge distributors their own fair reward for distributing, but we object to their taking 99% of the cake.

 

The traditional way, and still the best way, to confront this problem is through Trades Unions -with the proviso that here once again the new technology changes things. We no longer have the concentrated work-forces who made up the powerful industrial unions with their self-reinforcing ethos of solidarity in the work-place. We do however have instantaneous networks, a different form of connectivity, but potentially just as powerful as the old one. We need a confederal union for all creators of content, and one which transcends national boundaries as the distributors do, so that creators can enforce fair pay for work done. Such a system will not emerge overnight, but it will have to emerge.

 

Meantime the answer to the question “Should Art be Free?”is an emphatic NO. Art is work, and if you want live art, you must pay living artists.

 

 

18 01 2016

 

 

 

A remarkable literary event took place in Redenhall last week: through the diligence of a friend we were there. It might sound pretentious to say that this was a major event, the sort of thing which in London would be heralded by a fanfare of trumpets and celebrated in the media. Here in Norfolk however it was Corbyn-style modest, and no less wonderful for that.

The event was an introduction to, and part reading of, Arnold Wesker’s play Roots. The remarkable thing was that the performance took place in the front room of the actual cottage where Wesker wrote the play. For anyone who doesn’t know this fine play, it is peopled by Norfolk agricultural labourers and written in Norfolk dialect. This can be a problem: I listened to one BBC radio production in which the actors spoke assorted Loamshire (or at any rate, listened as long as I could bear it). On this occasion, however, it was performed in proper spirited speech: (some of the actors were native speakers), so it sounded like what you might hear in a corner of any Norfolk pub – only that it was rather clearer. We were told that the play is constantly in production: on that particular day there were 13 productions taking place elsewhere in the world, presumably translated into the appropriate agricultural regional argots of French, German, Korean or wherever, so the fact that it is not written in King’s English, or Buehnesprache etc, paradoxically makes it more, rather than less, available. So much for the Questione della Lingua: there does not have to be one central official language: we all speak and hear different language versions, and we can all perform in a variety of registers.

 

One way to describe Roots might be to call it a Norfolk Waiting for Godot, only with real people instead of archetypes, and with hope rather than despair. Beatie, the daughter of a farm-labouring family has been living in fabled London with East-End Jewish socialist Ronnie, the hero/anti-hero of the preceding play Chicken Soup with Barley. Here she is, back home, and bringing her family together to await the arrival of wonder boy-friend and intended husband Ronnie. Of course, as with Godot, he never arrives. But, and it is the point of the play, Beatie in a despair of abandonment suddenly discovers in herself an awakened ability to stand and deliver – Ronnie’s victory by proxy – a difficult transition for actor and director, but immensely moving in performance. Goodbye to the ‘ idiocy of rural life.’

It was great to enjoy the introduction to Wesker’s work, (I hadn’t realised how little he was taken to the heart of the British theatrical world), the warmly personal account by his old friend, the nephew of his wife Dusty, and sections of the drama performed, while we the audience looked out through the window, like Beattie’s mother, to see if the bus was passing. Wesker had looked through that window as he wrote the play. As if one could have sat in Dickens’ writing room for a reading of Copperfield, looking through the window from which he saw Miss Mowcher. It was that sort of amazing event.

I had forgotten just how funny, as well as poignant, the play was. When I gave a lecture on it to German students studying for a degree in English, in 1960 or ’61 (‘Contemporary British Literature’) I was worried that it was so much a naturalistic Ibsenite play, at a time when theatre seemed to be moving away from eavesdropping on the room behind the proscenium arch to a much wider and more flexible mode. But hearing it again now, that sort of concern seemed of no importance. Many flowers bloomed, in their own way. I was a bit sad also to hear that Wesker (you can hear him say it on the recent Desert Island Disks) regretted being bundled as an Angry Young Man. Contrariwise, I always wore AYM as a badge of pride. At that time, the mid ‘fifties, we were coming out of another ‘low dishonest decade,’ and there was plenty to feel angry about, and to denounce, and there is plenty of anger, as well as empathy, in the Wesker Trilogy

So rather more than half a century on, here we were, like Beatie, back in Norfolk, at last honouring a prophet in his own country, or at any rate a country he made his own. About time too. Thanks to all those who made it happen.

I suppose most people know the lines:

When I was but thirteen or so

I went a golden land

Chimborazo, Cotopaxi

Took me by the hand

For me romance was as absolute, but engendered differently. An exchange was organised for some of us at school, at the end of the 1940’s (probably via Doris Gare, our French teacher). I was put on a train in London, and met at the Gare du Nord by a man called Monsieur Nash, who took me back to the XIV Arondisement for the night: the next morning he put me on the train to Rochefort-sur-mer. Monsieur N , dressed in navy workers’ jacket and trousers, was an Englishman who had moved to France when young, had lived through the German Occupation unharmed, and now worked as a concierge: he had completely forgotten English: I asked him what words he remembered, and he replied “Plum Pudd-ing?”

At Rochefort I was met by Madame Masson and her son Paul, who was my exchange partner. They lived with M. Masson, le patron, proprietor of the Cafe du Medoc, avenue Camille Pelleton. (I have done a Google-walk, but I can’t see the cafe there now; in the evening the mosquitos used to float in from these plane trees outside, in clouds).

§ Cafe du Medoc   oil on canvas  c. 1951

Cafe du Medoc oil on canvas c. 1951

M.Masson was entirely devoted to his Cafe: he worked seven days a week, from dawn to dusk, and never took a holiday. The Cafe did not have a bathroom: it was a bowl and jug in the room. The cabinet (loo) adjoined the Cafe and was reached from the yard. It was the usual ceramic hole in the ground. with two islands for the feet; on the wall was a wire hook with neatly torn up pages from l’Equipe, the cycle racing paper. If you needed a crap you lowered yourself over the hole by holding onto a bar on the door, which also served to keep the door shut (there was no lock). If someone came and tried to get in while you were on the job it was a bit hard on the stomach muscles. If we needed a bath, there was the Municipal Bath-house, where piping hot yellow water poured into the large bath, straight from the river Charente, silt and all.

Madame Masson was plain but sweet-natured, totally committed to her son, her husband, and to the household. I owe her a lot. I often went along with her early to the morning market, where she would check the whole line, asking “Ils sont a combien les oeufs, Madame?” and so on, finally returning to the best offer. M. Masson, as I said, never left the Cafe, but in the early evening in season he would carefully write the latest placements of the Tour de France on the mirror behind the bar, using a stick dipped in some kind of whitewash,. Those were the grand days of riders like Fausto Coppi and Robic, and I was taken a couple of times for a long wait by the roadside to watch the race swish past in moments.

Mme. Masson took Paul and I to the sea-side – Fouras. Perhaps we all cycled there, and took the Teleferique across the Charente, or maybe we went by bus – like my family, the Massons did not have a car. The Teleferique was a platform which swished across the river suspended on long cables – now preserved as an ancient monument. On the coast we prized oysters off the rocks. We went to a casse-croute cafe with outside tables: you took your own food and just bought drink. Madameproduced a long French loaf and butter to eat with the oysters, and we ordered a bottle of white wine: it was one of the great meals of my life. I must have gone many times to Fouras, sculling a boat there, or swimming in warm water among vast jelly-fish. And of course I drew. and painted all the time, cycling out into the country. Madame Masson reproached me, in the nicest way, for not speaking enough French, but I made pictures relentlessly.

Fort Boyard from the Ile D'aix ?  oil on board c 1951

Fort Boyard from the Ile D’aix ? oil on board c 1951

Paul Masson was an only child, and in those days there didn’t seem to be any mixing of boys with girls in Rochefort: at any rate, though I would have been susceptible to their charms, I never actually got to know any young woman during my exchanges.

The only friendship I made outside the family was with a postman who frequented the cafe. He had a wooden leg, as so many did in those post-war days, but was a vigorous cyclist all the same, with one leg out before him like a prow. He suggested that I should join him fishing for eels -“S’il mouille, on y va pas,” he said. I think it did rain a bit, but we cycled off on a grey day and spent some hours looking at the water, occasionally lifting the cantilevered net, like Puvis de Chavannes’ Pauvre Pecheur, but catching nothing. The wags in the cafe were delighted, and a tall glass duly appeared on the bar, with a dead frog floating in it, and the legend “Specimen of Fishing at XXX.”

I realised, around then, that I was at home in France: I could speak French; sometimes I could even think in French, and I could connect with the past and the present. Later on in my life I spent time in other parts of Europe, and lived in Germany and Greece. I am a European by custom and conviction, a townsman and a countryman.

Yes, it is true that the present governance of this homeland of ours is muddled and inadequate, (partly because the pragmatic British have spent so long with one toe in the water, unwilling to commit). But after so many wars, this is a place within which we have ruled out fighting as a political tool, where we are free to enjoy wonderful lands, a magnificent history and culture. Let nobody try to take my European citizenship away. Have teeth. Will bite.

Over the years I have done a number of paintings which I have called Homages. I define this personal label, in a rather restrictive way, for paintings, interpreted and developed from black and white photographs of painters I admire. The use of news-photos as a basis for paintings is something Sickert freely used, aware that one can’t be there to see what a news-photographer sees, but that the content is immensely tempting: I have done some of that as well. Somehow trying to paint a picture of a painter you admire, in his environment, seems an affirmation and you hope some of it rubs off on you.

I have been making Homages for a long time: the earliest is a painting of Douanier Rousseau in his studio, holding his violin as if it was a palette, and his bow as if it was a rather long brush..

Douanier Rousseau in his studio acrylic

Douanier Rousseau in his studio 1961  acrylic on duck   68 x 46 cm

The image resonates for me with the description of the celebration banquet for the Douanier, described in that entrancing book The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck, at which, after tributes, Rousseau gave the company a waltz on his fiddle. I painted the picture in 1961, when I was living in Galatas, Greece, on the mainland opposite the island of Poros. (There is another, more personal, resonance here: I much later learned that Patrick Leigh-Fermor had lived down the road, at Lemonodassos in 1935. and that John Craxton and Lucien Freud had lived on Poros for a while in 1945). There is a bizarre surreality about the Douanier photograph, which the painting hoped to accentuate. Greek houses at that time tended to have framed photographs on their walls displaying family patriarchs and matriarchs: these were really artworks, because the portraits had been retouched and remodelled on the plate before printing, sometimes so much that the image was more drawing than photograph. This feature of Greece also suggested a possible direction.

What the Homages seek to do is to take an image of the admired (iconic) person – hero, if you like – and to re-interpret it so as to catch something more general about the artist and his view of the world and artistic vision (so far all the subjects have been men), while at the same expressing my own feeling about that  conceptual package. If that sounds pompous I apologise. So, anyway, it is not about making a pastiche, ‘in the style of’, and cannot depart too far from the framework of a photographic image or, as a portrait, from the recognisable features of the subject. These constraints, it seems to me, take the enterprise out to what Browning called ‘the dangerous edge of things’, to contradictions, with the danger of not satisfying any of the implied criteria because of exigencies created by the others.

GEORGES BRAQUE AT VARENGEVILLE FINAL.20.06.15

Georges Braque at Varengeville oil on canvas 2015 100 x 60 cm

The latest picture in this series is called Georges Braque at Varengeville and comes from the b/w photograph at the beginning of Edwin Mullins’ 1968 book on Braque, the first modern master I learned from. Unlike my contemporaries who went to art school, I chose that master before I had fully sharpened my life drawing (honed at the Ruskin School while I was studying English at the University of Oxford). A sort of reverse development from conceptual to perceptual. This picture does not, as I proposed before, try to develop the image via a Braqueian idiom – though when Braque died I had painted a broadly cubist memorial picture: Flowers for George, 1964.

Flowers for George copy

Flowers for George oil on canvas 1964 53 x 40.5 cm

The recent picture accentuates the wonderful seed fronds of grasses which blaze across his silhouetted jacket, like braid on a military uniform: shapes which Braque himself might have wanted to allow to develop into individual entities. Like my old mentor, Tony Oldfield, Braque would not have approved of spatial indicators leading potentially to holes in the picture surface (though I think that the lane does all the same remain more or less vertical like a step-ladder, rather than sliding backwards into depth): he would have tidied and organised the wild growth along the walls of the little canyon which the lane forms. But I wanted Braque set in some confusion and profusion which was not reducible to an organisation of clusters of rational shapes. I saw the silhouette of the painter as an epitome of his elderly self, but the picture widened, tugging at old me, into a statement about age itself. Well, that’s my reaction as the painter, but look and judge for yourself.

The Homages differ from one another, obviously, because they are a response to different personalities and circumstances.

Monet by the Lilly-Pond 2 copy 2

Monet by the Lilly-pond oil on canvas 2007 91.5 x 91.5 cm

Obviously in this one I’ve called Monet by the Lilly-Pond there is a joke about the figure: Monet is so self-consciously posing for the photographer, lying back and holding still, though his right leg wants to pop up as if pulled by the strings on a puppet, and the broad hat prevents one seeing much of the face, just the tip of a nose and a large beard – as often happens in photographs of him outdoors. For me it is all admiration, but irresistably funny – I can’t look at this picture without laughing. Cupped in the curves of the bench, lines of shadow anchor Monet to the ground: behind him there is the lilly-pond back-drop, in a sense his masterpiece. For me a chance to paint a scene, so powerful in Monet’s own pictures that it is almost interdicted as subject-matter for us who come so soon after, was a wonderful experience.

Geoges Braque at Varengeville will be on show in The Forum, Norwich, from July 13 – 17th