Memoirs 1936–2011

Chapter 11 1962 Work and Birth

Love Machines and early pop paintings.
The birth of Gerald’s daughter, Yseult.

I had an exhibition of the drawings which I had made during the summer in Europe.  It was held in a gallery in Camden Town, and in a modest way it was well received, with a number of them being sold.  Buoyed up with this small success, and with my funds augmented by a Christmas job sorting letters and delivering parcels for the Post Office, I intensified my search for a more salubrious lodging into which the new baby might be brought when it was born.

Eventually I found a flat in Swiss Cottage; it was clean and quiet and had two rooms and a kitchen and bathroom.  Jenny had managed to obtain employment as soon as we returned to Britain, but even so the rent was too high so we arranged to share the flat with the architectural student Terry Stuart who was already living next door to us in Maiden Road.  We moved a few months before the baby was due, and the calmer environment made it a great deal easier for me to work.

Nearby lived an architect called Peter Cook, who was beginning to publish the radical architectural magazine ARCHIGRAM.  At that time it featured drawings for his Plug-In City.  This was to consist of towering multi-storey cores containing lifts and services onto which could be plugged prefabricated rooms, enabling the occupants to expand their living space as necessity demanded.  It was a practical engineering proposal which derived from Corbusier’s dictum that a house is a machine for living in.  Like virtually all of the architecture of that time it ignored human dignity, culture and any reference to the past, from which it had been decided that nothing was to be learnt.  The dismal effects of this philosophy are now well understood, and it has become itself a part of the past; but at the time of its inception it was an extreme reaction against recent chaos and present fears, and in this context it becomes far more understandable and consequently seems less culpable.

Terry, in the room next door, was engrossed in his own plans for a Linear City which had similar characteristics; it consisted of geometric structures arranged symmetrically along a spine of superhighway, which together would form a glistening modern Utopia in a virgin landscape.

Both of these plans contrasted strangely with the environment in which we actually lived, surrounded as we were by the accumulated and overwhelming detritus of civilisation - but it was exactly this that they were intending to sweep away.  Chaos would be replaced by clarity; sentiment by good sense; decoration by design; and the new poetry would be one of a sterile linear beauty.  It accorded with a contemporary definition of drawing, which was described as the art of taking a line for a walk.  To me, staggering under the botched circumstances generated by repression, stupidity and hopelessness, it all seemed very attractive, because at that time we had actually experienced none of it in reality.  The underpass at Hyde Park Corner was just then being built.  It was the only clearly ‘Modern’ road in London and it represented that streamlined future in which the grubby past left far behind.

The physical restrictions of a modest sized room which already had a double bed in it, as well as table and chairs and other basic necessities of life, meant that at home I could work only on small drawings and constructions. Still unsure of the direction I should take, but already completely committed to a modernist aesthetic, I made some mobile paintings based loosely on Marcel Duchamp’s gramophone drawings - that is, his drawings which were intended to be seen revolving on the turntable of a clockwork gramophone. My versions of these were made by stretching canvas over bicycle wheels which were then mounted on the wall and which could then be spun by hand.

Ernest Gombrich’s book ‘Ways of Seeing’ had just been published and, as a result, those of us who had read it were very conscious of optical effects, illusions and anomalies.  At Pollock’s Toy Museum, there were examples of nineteenth century optical toys, some of which produced images which appeared to move. Depending as they did on the persistence of the image on the retina of the eye, they were early precursors of the movies.  I asked about them at the V&A and was shown the “toy box” in the Print Room at the Museum, which contains Victorian printed paper and cardboard toys and novelties, many of which demonstrate these optical principles. Using an interrupter disk, I made over the next few years a series of constructions which I called “Love Machines”, in which I combined an optically changing image with my taste for elaborate and highly finished machinery.

There was also a considerable amount of interest in the nature of the relationships between photography and painting. When it was first discovered, photography seemed to threaten the very existence of painting. Artists realised that it had changed the way in which they perceived their surroundings.  Now the very methods by which photographically created images were being reproduced commercially was augmenting our visual vocabulary still further. The head of the department of Art History at St Martin’s, Aaron Scharf, was particularly interested in this subject and was writing his first book, Photography and Painting1.

At the art school, I was able to embark upon much larger paintings, all of them based on my original idea of painting reproductions of reality rather than reality itself, so that the media image become the subject. I quickly refined my techniques for doing this.  My paintings increased still further in size and the distance between my methods and those of the wielders of the infamous hogs-bristle brushes became unbridgeable. Eventually I moved out of the painting studios at St Martin’s School of Art, with their comparatively low ceilings suitable only for easel painting, and instead occupied a wide and spacious landing at the top of the staircase.  There, I was left largely to my own devices and could pursue my work uninterrupted except by the one or two members of staff who approved of what I was doing.

The first painting in this series was of a still from the film ‘Lolita’, based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. It showed the nymphet curiously distorted by optical interference when seen by Humbert Humbert through a key hole.  There followed in quick succession images taken from Agnes Varda’s film, ‘Cleo de 5 a 7’, Brigitte Bardot, Roger Vadim and Annette Stroyberg and various other cinematic icons. I experimented with moving and fragmented canvases in acknowledgement of the abstract vein which I was also mining at that time, but soon returned to a simple rectangular format because I wanted these pictures to be seen as a part of the tradition of painting, not as separate from it. I intended them to be the version of art which was appropriate to this new age, an art which had been scoured of ambiguity just as architecture had been; an art capable of transmitting its message clearly and crisply.

Eventually, one day in April, Jenifer felt the urgent need to go to hospital when I was out at the pub with Terry, so she rang for an ambulance herself from the telephone box on the corner of the street.  By the time we returned home she was gone.  She had left a note which read: ‘Baby coming.  Gone to hospital’.  We leapt into the now completed Lotus and shot off to the hospital.  In Camden Town a drunken Irishman stepped slowly and deliberately off the pavement and into our path.  His leading foot, extended unsteadily into the road, was struck by the cowl of the Lotus’s radiator and he spun round like a top.  We stopped and shoved a piece of paper with our names and addresses on it into his pocket, and sped on, only to find Jenifer perfectly relaxed and still pregnant.  The Doctors assured us that the baby would not arrive for some time, and advised me to come back in the morning, so we returned home.

The following morning I telephoned from the box on the corner, and I was told that I was the father of a little girl, and that all was well with both the mother and the child.  I felt none of the jubilation which is supposed to accompany such events; I had a vague thought that I should be running around sticking cigars into people’s pockets, but this was both our of character and out of the question.

However, I did realise that in spite of myself I had somehow acquired a thing of great value, and while the birth had happened while I was absent, there was a powerful mystery about the appearance of this new individual which I could not fathom.

I was reading Gottfried von Strasbourg’s version of the story of Tristan.  After a brief meditation, which I aired in the canteen of the art school, on the idea of calling her by the name of some other and incongruous object such as car or table, I named the little girl Yseult.

Shortly after this, Andrew, the loyal and battered dachshund, expired.  He lived to ripe old age, but perhaps he also realised that the new and noisy arrival in the house would make a fundamental alteration to his status and his life, and decided instead to depart with his dignity more or less in tact.

Jenifer supplemented our income by looking after another child during the day, and I continued at St Martin’s.  At the end of the summer term one of my fellow students, Marcia, aware of our plight, kindly arranged for us to spend the summer holidays in a barn on her parents’ property near Whitwell in Hertfordshire, then still a surprising rural spot in spite of its proximity to London.  In exchange for this I was employed as assistant to the gardener and also did a range of odd jobs ranging from domestic repairs to decarbonising their two Morris Minors.

The gardener, who was in his seventies, had never been to London.  Indeed, he told me he had only been to Hitchin on one occasion and that was on the night that news of the relief of Mafeking had arrived, and he’s gone there on a cart with some friends, and they had celebrated and had a very good time.  He told me that when his children were fractious and upset he would calm them by sucking the bridge of their noses; this, he assured me, never failed to be affective.  He was a man at the end of his time, situated right on the brink of the change from truly rural to weekend resort which was about to happen to these small settlements within easy reach to London.

Marcia’s father was Lord Mayor of London, and came and went in his large motor car in a flurry of importance.  Her mother was a true eccentric and absolutely delightful.  She was hardy and brave, and had the habit of moving out the house in May and sleeping under a sheet of corrugated iron propped up over a camp bed.  There she stayed until October, at one with the wind and the weather.

When Marcia was a young girl she had problems with her back.  Stephen Ward, who had achieved so much notoriety in the Profumo affair and who had recently committed suicide in jail, used to come regularly to stay in order to give Marcia physiotherapy.

He always had the same bedroom, steep ceiling, half timbered, nestling under thatch gable of the old farm house.  After his death guests using the room complained frequently of chill feelings, strange sounds, and odd interferences.  One sunny afternoon, therefore, Marcia’s mother went into the room, sat down by the fireplace, and in her strong authoritarian voice declaimed: “Stephen!  You are now dead.  Kindly get on with whatever it is you are supposed to be doing, and leave us, the living, alone”.  After that there were no more manifestations to upset guests.

Towards the end of this pleasant summer I began to look for a place to live in London which would both be more convenient for our small family and at the same time more conducive to serious work as an artist.  By this I mean it is difficult to paint or sculpt in a place whose purpose is already thoroughly defined, such as a house or a flat set up for a certain lifestyle.  Finsbury Park had a certain louche freedom; Malden Road reeked of despair; and Swiss Cottage was reasonably comfortable but at the same time suffocating.

By starting my search before most students returned from their summer absences I had a greater range of possibilities.  In addition, my Mauritian friend (he of the spurious Castro connection) was one of the people who would walk the streets looking at upper floors of buildings of signs of neglect and dereliction, and who would pursue unusual possibilities for accommodation with an effective mixture of imagination and sheer cheek.  This had resulted in his acquiring a magnificent late Victorian workshop in Whitechapel, which he had fitted out with junk furniture both found and bought cheaply – large collections of paint brushes in pots, and rows of chemists’ jars full of pure pigment; for he was one of those who loved the mystique of art but found it difficult to actually produce paintings.  He therefore preferred to loose himself in the grinding of colours, the stretching of canvas, and its priming and preparation.  There he lived with Nicki, a mature student who had left her Doctor husband in favour of this more picturesque and exciting existence,  and their daughter who was roughly the same age as Yseult.

Brian told me to try Whitechapel; particularly Fournier Street.

  1. THOMPSON, DAVID. Photography and Painting, Aaron Scharf, Studio Vista, London and Reinhold Publishing, New York, 1965. (back)