Flowers for George: painted after the death of Georges Braque in 1963

Recently I had to fill in a form for the Green Pebble publication The Artist in our Midst 2, which required me to specify my formal art training. It’s a long complicated story, so I asked them to leave that rubric out altogether, which they obligingly did.

Here is the story.  I started painting at about 12 when I was given a set of oil paints by my father: I still remember physically how strange and sticky they seemed. When I was living with my pen-friend’s family in Rochefort-sur-Mer, I did a large number of pastel drawings, and later I did some life drawing at Southend Art School (where I drew Quentin Crisp, among others). I went up to Oxford to read English, and while I was doing a post-graduate degree I went to the Ruskin School to do more life drawing: this was a facility for Oxford Students left over from Ruskin’s original intentions, so I was briefly taught by Percy Horton, who also taught Kitaj while I w as there, though I didn’t meet him, and Updike, and whose brother taught my wife Jane German at Loughborough – I enjoy these little overlaps.

Then I went off to teach in Germany for two years, with a spell thereafter in Greece and St Ives, after which I taught in London, painting most of this time and exhibitingwith the London Group, The Penwith, and  so on. After Hornsey my main stretch of teaching was at the North East London Polytechnic(now rechristened The University of East London).  By the ’80’s the Communication Design Degree, a very innovative course which we had set up, and which had endured some teething problems, was shot away from under us by the then Director, by what Stalin referred to as the Administrative Method. I carried on, doing odd bits of teaching, rather longer than I might otherwise have done because the Art Faculty suddenly acquired a very good head, Tom Whiteread (father of Rachel), and I enjoyed working with him.  Anyhow, eventually Tom became rather ill, and left; meanwhile the authorities were looking for bodies to throw overboard, so I applied for early retirement, to see what I might get. When I saw it, I decided to take it.  It seemed a rather stupid policy of the then Conservative Government to pay many of the best teachers to leave when there was obviously going to be an expansion of student numbers down the line, but it was a common stupidity, like reducing the number of public toilets when the population is ageing with ever weaker bladders. But that’s Government for you.

Part of the Early Retirement deal was that you could have a year of retraining, subsidised by the Government. If I stayed at NELP to do it, the institution would be that much better off. I had reviewed my life, and decided that I wanted to get back to full-time painting, so I would stay and do that.  NELP was running its Dip.HE  ‘by individual study’, which broadly meant that its students were parasitic on the staff in main courses: I had supervised some of these students myself. The Dip.HE was a two year Diploma course: on successful completion a student could apply to do a further year and convert it into a degree. This bolt-on degree was also available to students whose qualifications entitled them to take the first two years as read: I had already two degrees and a teaching Diploma, so I qualified.

I was going to have Stuart Ray (formerly Head of South East Essex School of Art before it was absorbed into the Polytechnic), with whom I’d been working for years, as a supervisor, but he died suddenly in the Summer, so I moved on to John Greer, who gave me spirited crits. A t that time I was living alone & a bit dismal, so I cheered myself up by buying a false nose which I wore in the little painting room I’d been allocated. Don’t ask me why it worked, but it did, and I produced a ‘self-portrait with false nose’ along the way. I came in one day to find that someone had gone into my room, stolen my false nose, and daubed some paint on my current canvas. Students weren’t in principle allowed to lock their rooms: I made a fuss and got a key, but was reproached by the management for pulling rank. The next problem was that Caroline Tisdall, who was the external examiner, pulled out. She was replaced by Gordon Lawrence, whom we had previously brought in as an external for Art area Dip HEs.  Gordon’s credentials were impeccable, but he was a close friend, and in fact we had together written the Art & Design policy for the poytechnic Union (ATTI). The internal examiner, Andea Duncan, was an art historian I had also worked alongside for years.

For my first degree Finals at Oxford in  1956 I was viva’d by a Board on which I knew nobody, thought I had heard some of their lectures. I was extremely nervous: a lot hung on it. The verdict, I discovered afterwards, was ‘polite and intelligent, but doesn’t know enough.’  I should have known not to be polite. They gave me an upper second. At NELP I wasn’t remotely bothered one way or another, and it was as informal and matey as the local pub. I had produced a lot of work that year, they looked at it, and I got a degree. Just  in time to give up teaching and become a ‘retired person.’

So if anyone asks me about my formal art training, this is why I say “Well……….”

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