This is a painting I did in 1956, I had just finished Finals at Oxford, and worked through that summer in Southend with Derek Nice. He had just finished his NDD, and I met him when we were both visitors at the hospital bedside of the same girl. My parents went away for a few weeks, so we took over the back room and worked all day – drawing, painting, making mono-types on old etching plates on my father’s small table-top etching press, throwing some pots and baking them in an improvised kiln at the bottom of the garden. Derek made me do some things I hadn’t done before – working on drawings in sequences, and squaring drawings up accurately to enlarge them for painting. In the evenings we went visiting, went to parties, and took it in turn to tell the same interminable shaggy dog stories, each of us preserving any additions made by the other at the last telling. It was an exhilarating time, with for me a great sense of release from the cocoon of the Oxford English Syllabus, or, come to that, from the idea of works to be studied rather than life to be lived.
There were literary influences – we both read Joyce Carey’s The Horses’ Mouth at that time, and benefitted from its exuberance and optimism – and still do. It seems to me a profound as well as very funny book, entirely aware of the problematic position of the individualist artist in a capitalist society. (I find John Berger’s view of the book perverse). Derek was greatly taken by Wallace Stevens:
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
The Man With the Blue Guitar 1937
He did a series of drawings and monotypes based on the poem. Our subject matter at that time was anything natural you could pick up and look at: seed-pods, spikey twigs and so on, including grasshoppers, but not flowers; still life objects – oil lamps various, and whatever was in the kitchen, with occasional bits of landscape. It didn’t at that time include people, and we weren’t (yet) drawn to abstraction.
This painting came out of a series of drawings in which the objects became increasingly wild. I had been an admirer of Braque’s work for a long time, as is plain enough here, so this is at the restrained end of transmutation, characteristically rendered as planes parallel to the picture surface, without perspective (Braque’s “eye-fooling devices”). The transparent areas and the white lines derive rather from Patrick Heron’s take on Braque (before Heron himself was drawn to abstraction). The bowl was earthenware, one of Derek’s, I think, and the green fruit which you might suppose would be an avocado was in fact the slightly speckled fruit of a Japonica.
There is perhaps a touch of Gris in the pictorial organisation, but I don’t think I really knew much of his work at the time, so maybe it’s there and maybe not.
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