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P1000700

The Studio

Clearing out is the beginning of Open  Studios. Necessary, and useful because you have mentally to audit all that stuff, materials, tools, odds and bits, you have accumulated, So I move things around in circles and hop from one part of the floor to the next clear area, repainting with a lighter grey floor paint.  Result: cleaner, clearer, with more light. (The floor is chipboard, on top of polystyrene insulation, on top of the original plank floor of this off-the-peg shed). At the same time I put round a skirting, against the vertical lining boards. I do this mainly to inhibit mouse activity, but I must say the result looks very neat.

Mice are a permanent problem. They get into drawers and chew up my drawings; a mouse has even chewed away the fibres on the back of a canvas in one place, leaving small holes showing in the front paint surface which I will have to repair.  Why would they do that?  Aha, a visitor says: in the basement of the RA Schools they stored linseed, which turned out to be a food store for rats and mice. The little bastards have also chewed the spines off some of my books, for the starch glue. They chew off the best bits of drawings to make a nest in the drawer. Could be worse: I reused an ancient stretcher, and a wood-worm ate its way through the wood making marginal holes in my canvas. Thank God woodworm aren’t as nippy as mice.

Anyway, once the walls are toshed out white again the whole studio converted to an amazingly clear, clean place ( it’s never like that when I am actually working)  So it is actually a fraud on the public – like the Iraq war or Brexit. Never mind.  It’s the illusion which counts.  It reminds me of the time we used to pop round to have coffee in Terry Frost’s studio – pictures everywhere at all stages, hanging, leaning against the wall, ready for ‘the old one-two’; paint, brushes, stand oil, confusion, stove, warm Nescafe and chat in a creative clutter. Years later I saw his paintings hanging on the sterilised walls of Tate St Ives, & thought how changed they were as chaste icons. Should the product be exhibited quite clear of the warmth of its generation? Or contrariwise, why do we want to know how Hokusai produced his works: isn’t it enough to have the prints and drawings?

 

P1000709

Living Room

Visitors are generally very friendly. I feel an absurd need to chat them up.  Not to try for sales, but because my chatter seems to be required as part of the entertainment. As if I am the product, not the work. I know that most of them won’t buy anything – many can’t – and they know that I know, and so ad infinitum.  Some people don’t like what they see: too ‘trad’ or too ‘modern’. I am always one of Tom Lehrer’s children, as I go sliding down the razor-blade of life.  One woman complains that these aren’t textiles – she has been misled by a road-sign. Actually, Madam, they are textiles – but I know what you mean.

It’s an odd business, coming up with an answer to nobody’s question, and then putting it up for sale. Of course, the opposite has its drawbacks – I mean producing something commissioned, to someone else’s criteria, with all the frustrations of not quite fulfilling he brief, regrets the client etc. Though at least then you can hate the client, and not exclusively yourself,  sole composer and performer of inadequate tunes for an empty street.

Was it worth it? Yes. I cleaned out the studio.  The talk was good; the visitors were warm. I sold a print and three pictures to good friends. Does that count? I reminded my good friends that I am still here doing whatever ‘it’ is And two cards. – enough to buy the next batch of materials; my pictures cheered me up/my pictures depressed me. Shall I do it again?  I don’t think so.  Shut, Sesame!

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Dear John Humphries,

I heard you recently belabouring a spokesperson for the Labour Party with Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the Falklands War. Well, that was thirty-five years ago, and we might have modified our views or our language in the meantime. But I was also opposed to the Falklands War at that time – as was Tam Dalyell, so it was hardly a lefty knee-jerk reaction. or one which ought to be used to score sound-bite points out of context.

An immediate cause of that war was the decision by the British Government to withdraw the Royal Naval Ice Patrol Vessel ‘Endurance’ – our only naval presence in those waters at that time. The Argentinians took that as a further signal that the British were not overly concerned with the future of the Falklands. Margaret Thatcher made a small saving in Defence to lose the Falklands, and made a war and paid a fortune to retrieve them. But once you start a war you start killing and injuring people: the financial cost was less important than the human cost, and the effect on the world.

In that Falklands War 907 people were killed (649 Argentinian, 255 British and three Falklanders). Of course many were also injured. The population of the Falkland Islands at that time was 2932. Dalyell’s objection (also mine) was that the official Opposition immediately endorsed whatever warlike action the Government might take. With a great deal of hindsight we now know that the then Argentinian rulers were unwilling to negotiate, and too stupid to see what might happen next (in spite of warnings from the Americans), though this does not justify our inadequate pressure for a negotiated settlement. The crucial factor was generous support for Britain from the US, without which the British strike might well have failed.

Thatcher was determined to have a military solution. Sir John Nott (who was then Defence Secretary) said he would have preferred a diplomatic solution, but added “Mrs Thatcher was of the view, which in retrospect proved correct, that unless we actually landed on the Falkland Islands and defeated the Argentinians, that the national humiliation which we ‘d suffered would not be retrieved.” (see report in the Independent, 21 April 1989). Thatcher does not seem to have considered the national humiliation which would have occurred if we had failed, and presumably took the projected loss of lives as a given.

By her action she backed big-nation power over principle and international law, and war war over jaw jaw. The principle which needed, and still needs, to be reinforced (often ignored in the past) was that sovereignty always rightly belongs to the people who live there. This is the only point on which I disagree with Tam Dalyell. Australia was not terra nullius, nobody’s land, and Palestine was not Balfour’s to give away. By once again discounting this principle rather than insisting on it, Thatcher made the world less safe. Furthermore, we took on a moral obligation to the US which did not stand us (or them) in good stead later on.

It may be that Corbyn’s reaction thirty-five years ago was a bit strident, in yer face Dave Spart-speak. But basically it was right. And now we would be safer, not less safe, with someone for whom war is not a solution until the last resort, and who does not believe in a first strike, or a last strike, ensured destruction of people and poisoning of the planet.

The greatest political step in my life-time has been the creation of the European Union. Through the foresight and good faith of the likes of Adenauer and Monet, and for the first time in centuries, the tribes of Europe inside this new entity have stopped killing one another: this greatest of achievements went almost unmentioned during our silly Referendum. But the biblical adage remains true, “They that live by the sword shall perish by the sword.”

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.

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?

 

 

 

 

 

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

Morning at the Cross copy

Syleham Morning Looking North; Brian at his workshop oil on canvas 4 x 6 feet

Back in the ‘seventies, when I lived part & then full-time in a cottage at the Cross, Syleham, Suffolk, I decided to paint these 6 x 4 foot pictures of the view from the cottage upstairs windows, looking North in the morning, down to the Waveney & Brockdish village, and South in the evening at the humpback hills and the road leading up to Wingfield. At that time Brian lived next door (there was a kind of flying freehold). Queenie Harper lived a bit further along, in the lodge of Monk’s Hall, with her husband, the Estate gamekeeper at that time. Queenie had known the urban life, having been a barmaid at the Maid’s Head hotel in Norwich in her time.

Her husband had served in the war: he told me that after a fierce battle to establish the army in Italy his detachment were called out by the commanding officer, who said: “Now you men. You all come from a farming background, and as you can see, there are no able-bodied men hereabouts, and it’s harvest time. So you are going to get the harvest in.” They were fallen out, into this country of women, children and old men. And when the harvest was duly gathered, they were fallen in again, and continued fighting their way up Italy. There’s a film-script in that.

Looking South the road up the hill on the right led I believe to the house where Margo Mellis had lived with Frances Davidson. (Earlier Margo had lived in Cornwall, and befriended Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth when they fled London & came to an unknown St Ives). That was before my time, but the area obviously attracted artists.

The Old King’s Head in Brockdish is being reopened by Vicky Townley (a member of the Harleston & Waveney Art Trail) and her husband. Great news for the village, which used to have two pubs, a post office/shop and a restaurant. Good news for artists too, as paintings etc will be on show in the new Old King’s Head.

The opening is on Thursday the 19th Feb at twelve o’clock. All welcome.

Evening at the Cross

Syleham Evening Looking South; Queenie Harper Riding By. oil on canvas 4 x 6 feet

Somewhere in the corner of the room there has been a lot of discussion about the Arts in the last few days. The Guardian carried an interview with Julie Walters (Sat 24 Jan) in which she said that she, and working class kids like her, probably wouldn’t get into drama school today. This came in the context of a spat about a supposed dominance of silver-spoon singers and actors initiated by the Labour shadow culture minister Chris Bryant. There is an argument to be has as to whether ‘working-class’ is an adequate label any longer, but we know what Julie Walters means.

I would like to start the next paragraph “The fact is…” but we are desperately short of facts. Very little serious research is done into ‘cultural’ education. As a surmise there are probably fewer working class students studying and training on Arts courses these days, for two reasons. Firstly because this education is no longer easily available to the poorest potential students. The Education Ministry over decades pursued a relentless policy of pushing up entrance requirements. As I’ve pointed out before, this was a civil service policy, because until Gove, the average life of a Minister was about two years, which would not have given them the time to take on board and modify existing policy. Back in the ’60s Art and Design course were a conduit into higher education for working-class students; it was fairly easy in those days to get a place on a course.

Secondly this education is no longer free. Presumably the prospect of being lumbered with a £40,000 debt by the time you start work will put off students proportionately the poorer their background.

So far as raising the entry bar goes, in the late ‘sixties we were able to show that having five O levels or two A levels or no qualifications at all had very little influence on outcomes. Most Art & Design students in those days obtained employment related to their study within three months of leaving college. (Ritchie Dight Frost and Dight : The Employment of Art College Leavers HMSO 1972) This put paid to the myth that thousands of long-haired art school leavers were swelling the dole queues, so the report was sneaked out in the Summer recess. in the hope that no-one would notice it. The Ministry, faced with an actual concrete fact, continued nonetheless to push up the entrance qualifications in some drive for uniformity. But every rise in the bar meant denying access to a cohort of working class students. There is no good reason for these requirements: they should be dropped.

The second obstacle, affordability, requires a radical solution. Of course there is a problem of cost to the State when it expands education. Leaving aside the increase in cost itself, the proposition that it should be left to the Colleges to set the fees was crazy. The colleges immediately pitched their fees at the top end of possible charge, to show that they were not inferior to anyone else. Students meanwhile became lumbered with debt. It all was done in bad faith too, because the (non-silver-spoon) MPs who voted for these charges had mostly themselves been the beneficiaries of a free education.

A graduate tax system, which I read is to be advocated by Peter Hain in his new book The Future of Socialism, implies that the community (The State) accepts responsibility for enabling its citizens to undertake education or training to they level they require, while beneficiaries repay the community by paying somewhat higher tax over their lifetime, rather than carrying a mesmerizing individual loan debt at the beginning of their career. I associate this (I’m afraid wrongly) with “Here come I, Little Jack/ With my wife and family on my back!” To which you can add “my student loan and my mortgage”

So far I have talked about access to the Arts via education.
; there needs also to be much discussion about accessibility of the Arts, and the conditions of work and remuneration of the Arts makers. Here are some notes for that discussion:

1 The Arts are not a frill. They are a major industry in which (because of past investment) this country excels. It is in the natonal interest to sustain it.

2 If you want a peak of excellence, you have to maintain a broad base

3 A healthy arts ecology depends on artists of all varieties (writers, actors, musicians, painters, potters, designers etc) receiving a fair percentage of the profits made from their work. The Government can ensure a fair market-place, but does not.

I have given up on Sayid Javid. He doesn’t seem to have done anything as Culture Minister (please explain otherwise if you are listening). In any case the election is coming and he won’t be in post much longer. What I think anyone who cares about this area should do just now is to write to the political parties and ask them for their Arts policies. If, in the memorable words of someone interviwed by the BBC in a Grays Working Men’s Club the other day, “UKIP are Tories in Drag”, maybe they have a good line on drama?

Sayid Javid, (the new Minister for the Arts), was interviewed in The Guardian on Friday 6th June. What he said was hardly a manifesto, but we might as well start there. He said:  “I’ve made it clear that I didn’t grow up in the kind of family that went to the Donmar Warehouse [in London] or even the Bristol Old Vic. To be frank, it was a treat to get to the cinema to see a movie.”   Mark Lawson, interviewing him, continues: ” ..both the nature and variety of his childhood cultural experiences have informed his call that culture must be genuinely “for all,” drawing in those who have felt excluded by lack of money, education, or, most worryingly, by race or class. Javid is concerned with statistics showing that people from “black and minority ethnic” and “lower socio-economic” groups are much less likely to engage with the arts or to apply for jobs and grants in the sector. Why is that so?”  “Well, I’m asking the question. I’m not going to sit here without any research and come up with the answer.   I’m going to talk to people, maybe feed in my own experiences, and see what can be done to increase accessibility and diversity” This seems to mean that Javid believes in evidence-based policy. Let’s hope it does.

 

The one really weighty piece of research into Art and Design in our time, which flashes like a beacon, was Ritchie, Dight and Frost’s The Employment of Art School Leavers (HMSO 1972), research which was undertaken under the aegis of Margaret Thatcher  (who, the article tells us, is Javid’s ‘democratic hero’). The Ministry of Education, however, was intent on slimming down Art and Design, and so the intention, as justification, was to show an overproduction of students receiving a final qualification, who thus swelled the ranks of the unemployed. But the Report showed, contrariwise, that nearly three quarters of qualified students obtained an employment related to their studies within three months of completing their course, a better result than achieved by graduates from many other courses at that time. As this was definitely not the message the Ministry wanted, the Report was sneaked out in the Summer Recess, so as not to be noticed. I was on holiday like everyone else: in fact I was in the bath in St Ives when Richard Bourne, then Education Correspondent for The Guardian, rang to ask if I would like to review it. It became clear that the authors of the Report had not been properly briefed, that is to say, had not been made aware that there was a vigorous debate going on in the Art and Design sector about relevant entrance qualifications, Fortunately we were able, with the help of a friendly peer, to get some of the statistics re-run, to show that, in terms of outcome, there was no difference between those who had entered with 5 “O” levels and 1-2 “A” levels, and only a marginal difference between those with no “O” levels or 1-2 “O” levels. That is to say you didn’t do better because you started off with more academic qualifications.. This was obvious to those of us in the sector, but it was nice to have it officially stated. In fact the information was already available in the shape of Royal College of Art statistics. but there are none so blind as those who don’t wish to see.

 

The Schools of Art and Design since the war had been an admirable mix: women made up a large proportion of the intake, and working-class students learnt comfortably beside middle and upper class students. Within the melting-pot of Art and Design, students were equal, and it was what you created that mattered, not where you came from. That’s not to say that class didn’t impinge. One of my second year students, part of our interviewing panel, advised firmly that we should not accept the applicant we had just interviewed. “Why not?” I asked. “Because you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse!” But the central point is that Art and Design courses were a conduit into creative employment for working-class students; academic qualifications were broadly irrelevant to the skills needed and acquired. And each time the entrance qualification barrier was raised (because of some specious need to achieve uniformity across the system), another cohort of working-class people was denied access to this particular path into skill and employment. Furthermore, it is not enough to make the Arts available to all, though that is a worthy aim: they must also be made by all. And it follows that gifted individuals must be enabled to enter the system, whatever stratum of society they originally come from.

 

What was true in the early seventies is sadly still true now. Potential students from certain groups, as we are all ceaselessly reminded, are unlikely to have the (irrelevant) entrance qualifications required of them. So if Javid wants to increase access for “black and minority ethnic” and “lower socio-economic” groups, he should seek to get entrance qualification barriers lowered. I’ll say that again: it makes sense to reduce the entry requirements. Now that Gove has been forced out, there may be people in the Education Ministry who will listen to reason On the 6th of June 1968 Sir John Summerson, addressing the assembled members of Hornsey College of Art, Crouch End Hill, said that there were loop-holes in the entrance requirements for his new qualification: “It’s a doorway – but you think it should be a triumphal arch.”  Well, yes! That’s what we thought then, and it’s what we think now.