A fact of the current restrictions upon our normal lives is at once curious, obvious and virtually universal; that being the loss of, and consequent longing for, normal, boring, and even tedious everyday experience. Missing erstwhile unremarkable pleasures of life, like going to the pub, restaurants and concerts is bad enough, but when one starts to get nostalgic over things like hopping on and off buses and even journeys on the tube, it’s apparent that the present regime is really starting to bite.
This nostalgia struck me keenly the other day when I was trawling through slides of old sketchpads dating from the time of my commutes to art school (an incredible forty-plus years ago). And, as an artist’s sketchbook is often a tool for magnifying the seemingly mundane into something more meaningful, it occurred to me that the drawings from those old books might provide a peculiarly apposite reminder, for all its apparent dinginess and dreariness, of the glory of normality…
Photography has played an ever-growing role in my picture-making since the first day of the second term, of my second year at Saint Martin’s School of Art. It was a bleak winter’s day in 1980 and I remember feeling particularity depressed about the direction – or lack of direction to be precise that my painting was taking. For the past four terms at the school I’d walked a wobbly tightrope between the pressure to emulate my tutors’ abstract expressionism, and my own innate passion for making representational images. The resulting stream of paintings echoed this dichotomy, rarely convincing as abstract or figurative; more often than not, a clumsy, unresolved mishmash of the two forms. If, as occasionally happened, I turned out a pleasing picture, it was always more by luck than by design, with me clueless as to how or why I had achieved this.
Then, on that winter’s day in 1980, while I was pacing back and forth, dreading the coming weeks and months, a new tutor called David Hepher walked into my studio space, and my art career was changed forever. David, unlike all the other tutors at Saint Martin’s was a figurative artist and to this day I have no idea how he came to be teaching there, but for me, his sudden appearance was as timely as that of an Old Testament angel. I distinctly recall his expression as he first set eyes on my paintings – large canvases full of expressively, heavily painted figures of young people hurtling boldly through a romanticised Israeli landscape.
A warm quizzical smile came across his face like that of someone unexpectedly bumping into an old friend. Then I remember that he sat down on my rickety paint-spattered moulded plastic chair. During the previous four terms at the school not one tutor had ever smiled this kind of smile when looking at my pictures, let alone sat down in my space. By the end of the ensuing conversation it became apparent that he was almost as relieved to see my work in that school, as I was thankful that he was now teaching there.
The first thing he asked me was who my favourite artists were, and when I said Vermeer and Hopper he looked curiously at my wild and frenzied pictures. He then reminded me of Vermeer’s reliance on the camera obscura for achieving these perfectly painted captured moments and asked me why I didn’t use my own photos in a similar fashion?
While I’d already been using photographs for the past year or so as a form of rough reference, in the same way I worked from my sketchbook, David convinced me to try something “bolder”, in his words, but hugely controversial; especially within such a temple of conceptualism and abstract expressionism as Saint Martin’s. He suggested that I take my favourite photographs and copy them as faithfully as possible in oils, like huge painted photographic enlargements. He felt certain that in this way I would find the inner artistic peace I was craving.
And cutting a long story short, David’s empathetic advice proved successful, even though the pictures I went on to produce with this new method ensured that I would prove even more of a problematic enigma for most of his colleagues. Presented here are several of the large canvases I painted as a direct result of David’s tutelage. Some them have appeared on this site before, but never side-by-side with the “offending” snaps!
I think I’ve mentioned before on these pages how, very occasionally, I had my uses to the powers-that-be at Saint Martin’s School of Art. While generally I was shunned by most of the tutors for my work being “hopelessly representative”, every-so-often, when they required the services of someone with common-or-garden drawing and painting skills they came to your’s truly.
The story of my mural in Covent Garden was the most high-profile example of this expediency, but there was another occasion when my usefulness to the school was probably far more significant.
It was shortly after the Easter break in 1981 when St. Martins received a visit from a delegation of Communist Chinese dignitaries from their ministry of culture, led by the minister himself. Although I was blissfully unaware at the time, the visit was part of a drive by China to open up access for their top students to elite academic institutions in the UK and North America. I subsequently discovered that their “shopping list” of British institutions comprised, Oxford and Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College, the LSE, the Royal Ballet School, and (incredibly to me at least) Saint Martin’s School of Art. I was equally ignorant of the fact that the visit mattered at least as much to my school as it did to the visitors, as even back then, foreign students were a lucrative source of revenue.
Thus, in effect, I was an unwitting cultural/commercial ambassador for St. Martin’s. The fact that my work was the polar opposite of everything that St. Martin’s stood for mattered not. That it was “safe”, accessible, “good of its kind” and most important of all, unlikely to be considered “decadent” by our communist guests mattered a great deal. When I later asked my head tutor John Edwards, why they didn’t simply visit the Slade School or the Royal Academy Schools, where nearly all the art was like mine, he pointed out that St. Martin’s was “so much more than a mere school of painting”. And that its fashion and film departments, in addition to its art and sculpture “made it uniquely attractive” to the Chinese. “In truth”, he added, “the art department was the least significant element” of the school and the main thing was “not to rock the boat”. As things turned out, not only did my work prove the steady ship my superiors had hoped, one of my pictures actually ended up pleasing our visitors more than anyone could have predicted.
On the afternoon of the visit, the art department was cleared of students except for me, and the delegation was brought up directly to my studio. There were about ten Chinese, all men and all wearing expensive English-cut suits, and they were led into the room by John Edwards and the principal of the school, Ian Simpson. After some words of introduction from John, the visitors began to notice my pictures, which wasn’t difficult, as at that time I was working on a series of monumental canvases. However – and it’s a moment I shall never forget – as their eyes (and I mean theireyes, for they turned their ten heads as if a single organism) landed on “Apple Pickers at Rest” they let out a collective “ahhhh…” and all broke into broad smiles. Then, the leader of the delegation (the minister himself as it later turned out) looked at me and asked, or perhaps stated, “workers in the field yes?”. I think I just nodded. He then walked up to the picture, and pointing at one of “workers” contemplatively holding a raspberry ice lolly, he turned to me, and grinning and nodding enthusiastically queried, “Little Red Book, yes?”. Before I could respond, he’d already uttered something to his compatriots, to which they all responded with an even bigger collective “ahhhh…”, followed by more smiles and nods of approval. Finally, after each shaking hands and bowing their heads to me in turn, the principal led them out of my studio to continue their tour. The last person to leave was John, who, as he walked out the door, turned around and gave me a big thumb’s-up.
I was left feeling peculiarly frustrated, having been completely unable to explain what the painting was in fact depicting – a scene of Druze labourers, hired by the kibbutz on which I was a volunteer, enjoying a rest from picking apples with a refreshing ice lolly (ice pop). In retrospect, my being tongue-tied was a blessing, as Ian later informed me that the minister had described their visit to my studio as the highlight of their tour of the school and even inquired about the possibility of purchasing the painting. I declined this however, when it was made clear all the proceeds would be pocketed by St. Martin’s. After all, I thought, I had already done more than my bit for insuring the future prosperity of the school!