My 2014 drawing of Francis Bacon, used as a mock-up for the cover of what’s regarded as the best biography of the man. He was an interesting figure, a mass of contradictions and his body of work was one of those, like Joyce or Merzbow or Picasso, that someone had to do, just to get it out there and out of the way so the culture could move on. I liked his work when I was younger, but over time it’s lost its appeal to me. The key 1940’s works that were so shocking at the time have now been fully assimilated into the monoculture, after which what becomes most interesting is trying to find out whatever it was that compelled the man, with no formal art training, to start daubing in his mid-30’s. Does this book answer that questions? I don’t think any Bacon biography really does. Then again, it was Bacon himself who said that art’s job was to “deepen the mystery.”
“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
“All like ours?”
“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
“A blighted one.”
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
This is my all-time favourite book. Published to accompany George Shaw’s 2001 exhibition ‘The New Life’, ‘I.D.S.T.’ is one of the most unique art books I’ve ever seen. Seeing George’s art for the first time in Autumn 2008 completely changed my life, and forced me to make a drastic change in my own artistic development. I got my copy for a tenner from Abebooks and there is no amount of drugs that could ever replicate the effect it had on me when I first opened it.
The whole design of the book by Martin Bird is perfectly aligned with George’s project at the time, which was a nostalgic revisiting of his youth growing up on a Coventry council estate, painting scenes from within the immediate radius of his childhood home. Anyone who attended secondary school in the late 70’s/early 80’s will remember the practice of using sheets of wallpaper to protect the covers of exercise books, and, that practice is replicated, complete with scrawled names, lesson notes, and even a clipping of murdered paper boy Carl Bridgwater. Conforming to school exercise book dimensions, the inner pages are lined and margined, with each of the paintings presented as if they were photographs glued in. Among the reproductions of the paintings are other images that help reinforce the specific aesthetic they’re going for, including Cathy Hargreaves from Grange Hill, pages from a copy of Mayfair strewn along a woodland path (which he would later revisit during his National Gallery residency), and photos of the artist himself when he was a student, dressed as a skinhead or Arthur Seaton from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
The really important content though is the paintings, and this book includes a lot of them, dating back from his days at the Royal College up to 2001, a 5-year period when he really became adept at his chosen medium of enamel paint. He acknowledges that the choice of painting detailed landscapes with enamels is a perverse one, but it’s the difficulties of working with that medium that forced him to really evolve a unique technique.
The subject matter – the streets, the garages, the woods, the shops, the playgrounds of Tile Hill as once was – is something I would never believed would be tolerated by the art world as a valid subject, but he brought to it a fierce working class auto-didacticism and a deep obsession with British culture (everything from the Pre-Raphaelites to Carry On films, from Samuel Beckett to Peter Sutcliffe) that gave every scene depicted an immensely powerful atmosphere, each one sending me hurtling back to my own youth, spent wandering around my home time, thinking too much and never realising at the time how much the place was imprinting itself in my imagination. The book includes my all-time favourite painting ‘Scenes From The Passion: Hometime’:
It could easily have been a scene from my own life and I find it utterly compelling. A print of it hangs framed above my work desk, and every day I look at it and feel a deep connection to the kid I was and feel the renewed surge of ambition that he once felt and which burns within me still. I really can’t overstate the importance this book holds for me. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be a painter and given how demoralised I’d felt about art before I discovered George’s work, I might well have given up on art altogether.
I while back I was asked by a record label if they could use some of my artwork for a proposed Bill Callahan tribute album. Over time that project was reduced to a single vinyl release, with two of my paintings used for the front and back cover. The front cover is my portrait of Bill Callahan (‘I’m New Here’), the back cover is ‘Palimpsest’, inspired by the song of the same name.
Two of my drawings were also used for the record labels as well:
I don’t know if this record has ever been released, and can find no trace of it online, but I’m still hopeful it will one day see light of day. Bill Callahan is one of my favourite singer/songwriters and I was pleased to be involved.
Neil Ansell did what many people claim to dream of. He walked away from the modern world, and lived for 5 years in a remote house in the Welsh hills. No power. No running water. We’re far beyond worrying about a reliable broadband service, this was about day to day survival in a place designed for, at best, working class 19th century living. He was totally alone, often not seeing another human being for weeks at a time. Rather than plunge him into deep introspection, he found that solitude completely suppressed his ego, freeing his nervous system to make a purer connection with the outside world, with the land and its creatures. His writing about those experiences is reminiscent at times of J.A Baker (though lacking in that man’s dark obsessions) but in the main it’s like being spun a yarn by some friendly old crusty in a pub. The book is Deep Country and I recommend it.
My portrait of Larkin from 2013, mocked-up as a cover for his 1974 poetry collection High Windows. Larkin was an unusual character, the product of a miserable childhood, who studied at Oxford with Kingsley Amis and spent the rest of his life as a librarian. When not at work (a duty he referred to as “the toad”) he wrote poems, dashed off letters to Amis, listened to jazz and slowly drank himself to death. His early poetry was heavily influenced by W.B. Yeats, as evident in his first collection The North Ship, published in 1945. Over the following decade he took in the influences of Auden and Thomas Hardy and the 1955 publication of The Less Deceived revealed a distinct style of his own that he honed over the next twenty years. By the late 70’s he was done with poetry, going out at his peak with ‘Aubade’ which describes the dread of his own death, the advance of which he was accelerating with his alcoholism. He died of cancer in 1985, after which it all came out – accusations of racism and misogyny based on his correspondences, spanking mags in the bottom drawer, the series of long drawn-out relationships and affairs with three different women – nothing you wouldn’t expect from a Tory Minister, for example, and it didn’t really affect his reputation as a peculiarly English literary figure who was at his best when expressing the quiet confusion of life in the post-war years.
I don’t own many art books, drawing most of my creative inspiration from literature, music or just looking out of the window, but this is one of the few on my shelf and it’s one I refer to often. The Last Romantics: the Romantic Tradition in British Art was an exhibition held at the Barbican Art Gallery in 1989. Covering the period from the fag-end of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the 19th century through to the first stirrings of 20th century Neo-Romanticism, the works selected represent everything that Modernism was determined to destroy, and resolutely failed to. As unfashionable as paintings like these might be – perhaps even more so in the late 80’s when the exhibition was held – the best of them still have something to offer. For a start off, they’re really well painted, there’s an abundance of technical ability on display and when even a once-shocking work like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon has been thoroughly deconstructed and neutered by the monoculture, there’s still something about this:
Edward Robert Hughes’ ‘Oh, what’s that in the hollow?’ that makes you pause and wonder what it is the artist was trying to convey. That sense of mystery, of ‘what is this?’, pervades the book, which covers a period when Britain went through monumental social changes, raising questions and concerns that the more engaged artists tried to address in their own ways.
This book also introduced me to the fantastic work of Phoebe Anna Traquair (above, ‘The Hunt’), whose murals and book “illuminations” suggest a Blakean influence while at the same time anticipating Art Deco and Pop Art. That’s what I see in a lot of this romantic imagery, the evolution of ideas and themes that subsequent generations of artists would need to consider if they were going to make their own work with any kind of resonance. The fact that so few paid any attention explains much about the moribund state of contemporary art today. The influence of this kind of work may not be immediately apparent in my own, but as with the literary and musical influences, I’d like to think it’s in there somewhere.