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My maternal uncles were all creative, talented and much admired by my mother, Dorothy. The eldest, Stephen Sweet, was a naval architect and a talented water colour artist:
John Sweet, another of my maternal uncles, was a gifted writer and cartoonist. Unlike his four brothers, who all had careers connected with shipping, John’s was in the upper echelons of the Scout movement. He wrote amusing articles and drew cartoons for The Scout Magazine, and his ‘Scout Pioneering’ is still an important source book. Much admired by my mother (she was second youngest in a family of eight) he and she both encouraged my and my two siblings’, creativity.
The work of both the above illustrators gave realism and mystique equal power. The historical reality or unreality of King Arthur, or the feasibility of life on Venus, were not at issue. The point was that the artwork was an access to another reality.
At secondary school I was interested in both science and artistic subjects, particularly zoology and botany. I set up aquariums and terrariums and spent much time with a microscope, observing and drawing aquatic microorganisms. In the Sixth Form I decided I wanted to go to art college, and combined my Advanced-level studies in zoology, botany and art with evening classes in life-drawing and pictorial composition at The Hornsey College of Art, becoming a full-time student in 1960.
Powerful Influences 1960 – 64
Apart from life-studio studies, and outdoor drawing, my early works at Hornsey art college were in a symbolist style inspired by William Blake, Richard Wagner, Carl Gustav Jung and, perhaps most of all, the spirit of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. They all seemed to exemplify a notion that the human psyche has an innate access to the truth – an inner ‘greatness’ – the ‘Logos’ underlying the fiery life-energy which crackled between polar opposite. Eccentric as it may now seem, my aesthetic sense at the time was to dismiss anything that seemed to lack ‘polarity’. Besides Blake, Jung and Wagner, there were painters who, to me, had ‘polarity’, such as fellow students Terence Howe and Dereck Pitstow.
I used to be fascinated by a book on ‘Psychotic Art’ in the Hornsey College library. The book included painters like Hieronymus Bosch, as well as works by asylum patients. I don’t recall if Richard Dadd was among them! Bosch wouldn’t now be considered insane, and I wonder if Louis Wain’s series of progressively more electrified cats was more to do with what he was being prescribed. But see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Wain Whatever – I found them all a great inspiration!
William Blake, one of my greatest heroes, was also considered mad by some of his contemporaries, and even by some of mine. Like Heraclitus, Blake wrote in engaging paradoxes and aphorisms: “A riddle or the cricket’s cry, is to doubt a fit reply.” “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” “Eternity is in love with the products of time”
The prevalence of flames in Blake’s designs, and his idea of ‘contraries’, links him to Heraclitus, and adumbrates Jung’s view of libido, or psychic energy, as undergoing many transformations, and, like electricity, having positive and negative directions of flow, outwardly towards the daylight world, and inwards to the world of the psyche.
The 19 year old Samuel Palmer met William Blake in 1824. Possibly the best, written description of his own compositions is Palmer’s response to William Blake’s woodcuts of scenes from Virgil: “They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry. I thought of their light and shade, and looking upon them I found no words to describe it. Intense depth, solemnity, and vivid brilliancy only coldly and partially describe them. There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul, and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight of this world. They are, like all that wonderful artist’s work the drawing aside of the fleshly curtain, and a glimpse of that rest which remaineth to the people of God.” (Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer A.H. Palmer 1892)
Terence Howe and myself were very taken with Geoffrey Grigson’s ‘Samuel Palmer, The Visionary Years’ (1947) which argued that Palmer should be seen as a great painter in his own right and not merely a follower of Blake. But Palmer was, like Blake, a very linear artist, and this not only makes him seem very modernist at times – he has sometimes been compared to Van Gogh – but also rather medieval.
Another very influential book among some of the Hornsey students was ‘English Stained Glass’ with an introduction by Herbert Read, magnificent photography by Alfred Lammer, and text by John Baker (Thames and Hudson 1960)
In 1962 my ‘6’x4′ canvas The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’ was accepted for the Young Contemporaries exhibition in the the RBA Galleries in Suffolk Street, SW1. The work exemplified my (above mentioned) perception in terms of ‘polarity’ – in particular that of subject and object.
At the YC Forum, which I had not known about, my ‘Expulsion’ painting was reportedly praised by Anthony Caro, for what he perceived as its sincerity, but the Pop Art paintings of a rising generation of RCA painters attracted the most attention. Carel Weight objected to the inclusion of script on David Hockney’s large painting ‘A Grand Procession of Dignitaries in the semi-Egyptian Style’, but Hockney defended it, pointing out that Egyptian painting was invariably covered in writing top to bottom. Hockney is two years older than me, and while I have always been rather aware of his shining, extravert career, running parallel to my own low-key obscurity, I don’t underestimate his genius, or his importance in reasserting painting as an art of creating images.
Ours was the last year-group at Hornsey studying for the N.D.D. (National Diploma in Design) which was about to be replaced with the Dip. A.D. (Diploma in Art and Design). Art college entry requirements would become stricter in terms of school certificate qualification, though no more so in terms of artistic talent. Caught between avant-guard and traditional priorities, and with a more mixed and less upper-class range of students than in some art colleges, Hornsey tutors were worried lest Hornsey fail to meet the new standards.
In many ways there was confusion. While learning to draw – out of doors and in the life studio – still seemed of central importance, our painting professor, Maurice de Sausmarez, also introduced a Basic Design course, entirely in terms of the abstract properties of colour and visual form. This, it seemed, addressed the increasingly perplexing issue of what exactly an art college was supposed to teach. The answer seemed to be a new ‘academicism’ which would underpin all visual art, craft and design, based on the modernist teachings of the Bauhaus.
British Modernists and Neo-romantics
Apart from the liberating influences of abstraction and Picasso, Blake and Palmer influenced many British painters in the early 20th C, including obvious ‘Neo-romantics’ like Graham Sutherland and visionaries like Stanley Spencer, and perhaps even the figurative paintings of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. What does seem certain is that Bacon and Freud, and other British modernists with romantic leanings, were admirers of Albrecht Dürer’s great contemporary, Matthias Grünewald and particularly his Isenheim Altarpiece, 1506-1515
At Hornsey I wrote my N.D.D. dissertation on Matthias Grünewald, arguing that there were similarities with British ‘Visionaries’, such as a sort of rubbery expressive distortion, linearity, what might be called ‘ripples and silky flows’, and a luminosity seeming to come from within. It may seem absurdly pretentious to even mention such works in context of my own, but nevertheless I/we greatly admired them, and, at the time, my work found something in common with such visionary styles and subjects.A medievalist intensity can be glimpsed in my ‘Prodigal Son’ linocut and other of my works from 1960. The fact that my later work became less overtly expressionist is in itself significant. The emotive, moral and intuitive issues of Christianity lingered in the post-war modernist generation, even affecting the works of such atheists as Bacon and Freud, but perhaps went no further. We shall see.
Influences from other contemporary artists came indirectly via teachers and fellow students. I knew nothing of Frank Auerbach or Giacometti at the time, but their influences affected my drawing. One possible source was Julia Wolstenholme, whom I met comparatively briefly. At the other extreme were tutors like Jesse Cast, John Titchell and his friend Frederick Cuming, whose work I did not see at the time, but who exerted a verbal influence towards more reticent objectivity.
Cast had in fact been a pupil of Henry Tonks at the Slade School of art, and Titchell, Cuming, and even Bridget Riley, who were former students of the Royal College of Art, had all been influenced by a tradition of observational drawing derived ultimately from the Renaissance.
It would have been impossible, at art college in the 1960s, to ignore the American abstract expressionists. In any case, artists like John Hoyland, who now and again tutored at Hornsey, made sure we didn’t. Finding myself relatively bereft of my former insistent ‘visionary’ instinct, I nevertheless identified with the elemental sense of physical performance in Jackson Pollock’s work – (‘in the moment’) and found the vibrant presence of his large canvases on the gallery wall enviable and compelling. This possibly influenced some of the paintings I did in Newcastle, though they were always on the spot responses to a subject or setting.
Graduating from Hornsey in 1963 I commenced an Art Teacher’s Certificate course in Newcastle Upon Tyne. The Big names at the Art College were Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton, who had also established a Basic Course, which I attended under the inspiring tutelage of the artist Rita Donagh. I also attended two lectures by Hamilton, one on Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Large Glass’ – otherwise known as the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even – which he had reconstructed; the other was about Pop Art. Ironically, Hamilton clearly considered himself to be ‘the father of Pop Art’, which was, of course, as much about significant imagery as abstract form. Arguably, the art of painting has always been deeply concerned with both.
The post-graduate year in Newcastle in 1963-4 was my first experience of living away from home. I found the new surroundings exciting, and collaborated with sculptor/painter John Richter on art projects, both in the city and in the Northumbrian countryside. As well as artworks inspired by ancient Egypt, Richter was making small sculptures of walking men, inspired both by Giacometti and by Samuel Becket, particularly the latter’s extended soliloquy, “From an abandoned work”, written for radio in 1957. John found that he could relate to Becket’s metaphor of vagrancy.
I was already impressed by the visionary expressionism of Oska Kokoshka. In addition, John Richter drew my attention to the defiant independence of David Bomberg’s work.
After Newcastle, John Richter found work as a Water-Bailiff in Scotland, and subsequently travelled to Egypt, camping alone in the desert or in the presence of great monuments. Meanwhile I returned to London where Terence Howe introduced me to a Cabala group which met in Highgate. Despite its esoteric basis, and its affiliation with Jung’s teachings, the teacher, Anthony Potter, regarded me with some disapproval. A number of the group’s members were former art students, but Potter, whose day-job was editing a technological magazine, ‘Automation’, seemed sceptical about the value of art and artists. However, one important aspect of what was called ‘The Work’ was emphatically practical: one must leave Mother’s apron-strings and become materially independent. By the time I left the group, in about 1974, I had made considerable progress in that regard – as well as in esoteric studies. I have written elsewhere* about Anthony Potter and another esoteric teacher, Barry Long, whom I met in 1980.