Things went wrong from the first hour of my first day at school. We were told to write our ABC. I wrote a couple of capital As, got bored and prompted by the shape turned the rest into a row of boats. I was drawing happily until I found the teacher standing over me. She said that babies couldn’t be trusted with nice school books, so I would spend the rest of the week writing with chalk on a piece of slate. Sitting in the corner, scratching away with the crumbling chalk, smirked at by my classmates, epitomised my school days. I developed a deep hatred for the teacher and for school in general. My attitude was resistance and defiance. Contrariness became a matter of honour and a pattern was set. My school work remained poor, while the drawings improved and became my one area of achievement. I was always bottom of the class but winning children’s art prizes.
At home we didn’t have a television, which probably encouraged me to use my imagination and draw to entertain myself. In my bedroom I had the ten volumes of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia from the 1930s, over 7000 illustrated pages of myths, fairytales, history, animals, paintings and sculpture – all the wonders of the world. I spent a lot of my childhood looking at these books and drawing from them. Also in my early reading I loved the fantastic and the macabre. The Adventures of Theseus and Grimm’s The Youth who went forth to Learn what Fear was are still vivid in my mind.
When I was ten I went into class and found the boys huddled around a colour reproduction of Rubens’ Three Graces. The teacher admonished us that this was art, not smut, and that the human body was a beautiful thing. I begged my parents for a book on Rubens and they bought me Recollections of Rubens, by Burckhardt, my first art book which I still have. My parents had a painting of roses by my uncle the artist Albert Williams, so I knew a career in art was a possibility. My uncle also sent me books: Burne Jones, Watts, Titian, a book on how to draw the human figure, and Slade from 1907, drawings by Slade students like Augustus John. They had been set projects to paint big figure compositions, subjects done by Rubens. I was impressed by these and was eager to get to art school and do the same. I began to cover my bedroom wall in art prints, including the fantastic St Jerome in a Rocky Landscape, by Patenier, and spent a lot of time in Chelmsford public library, discovering Blake, Durer, Bosch and Bruegel, and reading science fiction and fantasy. I did large ink drawings illustrating Tolkien and Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, influenced by Burne Jones, Rossetti, Beardsley and Ernst. I bought the book on symbolists by Philippe Jullian Dreamers of Decadence and went to see the Moreaus and Redons at the Hayward Symbolist exhibition in 1972.
At sixteen I started the foundation course at Colchester School of Art and grew my hair long. I discovered some books which became important formative influences; the Dover books on graphic art including Alfred Kubin’s Dance of Death drawings, Goya’s Caprichos, Disasters of War and Disparates and Piranesi’s Prisons, and novels, including the Mervyn Peake ‘Titus’ trilogy, Kafka, Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé whose protagonist is a mad librarian who has to unpack the shelves in his head before he sleeps. This novel and the Borges’ story, ‘The Library of Babel’, from Labyrinths were inspirations for my Library-head drawings. I also read Kubin’s extraordinary illustrated novel The Other Side, Huysmans’ Against Nature (the hero of this novel collects the work of Goya, Moreau, Bresdin and Redon) and the satiric Smallcreep’s Day by Peter C. Brown. These writers are all connected. They inhabit the same world, dreamlike, absurd and grotesque, and informed my work at that time, a mixture of surrealism and symbolism.
My tutors at Colchester disapproved of the influences I drew upon. They taught that art should only be done from observation, cool and objective. When it was time to do a body of work to apply for a BA course, I was told I would never get anywhere doing the weird stuff, so I started to work in a more realist manner, influenced by Lucian Freud and Spencer. At the end of the foundation course I won the Munnings travel award to Rome and £200. I had never travelled before so I made the most of it, staying away for two and a half months and going to as many galleries as possible, two weeks in Rome, then wandering north though Tuscany and Umbria, hitching lifts and sleeping rough to make the money last. I visited the park of monsters at Bomarzo and Siena, Assisi, Urbino. I spent weeks in Florence and Venice, and ended up in Austria at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, which has most of the best Bruegel paintings, and visited the Albertina to look at the Alfred Kubin and Ernst Fuchs drawings.
I arrived home and started the three year BA course at Chelsea. The college was divided into studios, each specialising in a different tradition of modern art: a ‘systems’ studio with hard-edge grid abstracts, an abstract expressionist studio, another for op, pop and photo-realism, another for video and conceptualism, a life room, where everyone painted the model in a pseudo-analytic manner, using plumb-lines and leaving the measuring marks on the surface, and a miscellaneous room, for those undecided where they belonged.
I was unhappy with my observational realist pictures. I had always wanted to do figure compositions, so set about trying to teach myself how to group figures together. I began to feel increasingly isolated. Under the banner of Modernism anything traditional was despised. My drawing ability was seen as a redundant academic skill. The measuring in the life room and the squaring up of photos for the pop art were mechanical processes to remove the artist’s personal touch. To be modern meant an attitude of extreme cool and detachment. We were presented with a story of modern art as a formalist development from impressionism to abstract minimalism. The twentieth century art that I liked was marginalised by this pro-abstract, anti-subject agenda – the surrealists, the German New Objectivity movement (Dix, Grosz, Schad), the English surrealist Edward Burra, and Spencer – all excluded from the progressive march of Modernism.
I spent a lot of time in Chelsea College library looking up artists which I’d seen when travelling in Europe. I much preferred pre-twentieth century art. Traditional art had no limitations. There was the entire fabric of the world to play with, the diverse shapes of every living thing, solidity, atmosphere, light effects, expression and emotion, fear and desire, allusions to myths and narratives. All these things had been systematically stripped from modern art. I came to see Modernism not as a freedom but as a restraint, defined by its prohibitions and phobias, against any remnant of tradition. In my own work I found these prohibitions inhibiting, and I was painting compositions of anonymous figures who were doing nothing in particular. I stopped going into college and worked at home. When my three years at Chelsea came to an end, I was given a third for my BA, almost a fail. However, my work was selected for ‘One Degree Over’, a show of graduate and postgraduate work at the Air Gallery.
I wanted a fresh start. After Chelsea I began thinking about how I used to enjoy art before I went to college, before all the rules that art should be this and should not be that. The first prohibition had been against working from the imagination. I had not drawn from my own head for three or more years. To start myself off I picked up a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and read through, stopping to draw whenever a picture came into my head, filling sketchbooks with ideas. Such had been the pressure against this kind of work that to begin with I felt guilty to be doing these drawings. My recent drawing Harpies Driven from the Table is a composition taken from a sketchbook from this period.
It was 1977. I met my partner, the artist Terry Curling. We discovered that in our teens we had both spent ages looking at the Burne-Jones and Rossetti pictures at the V and A and that we had owned a lot of the same books on the Symbolists and Decadents. Terry had a wider knowledge of art history and a larger book collection than I did, so she introduced me to a lot of art I hadn’t heard of before. We started to buy a lot of books, cycling around London from Richmond to Hampstead from one second hand shop to the next, rummaging though stacks of old art magazines, L’Oeil, Burlington, Apollo, drawing catalogues from Christie’s and Sotheby’s piled on the floor, as if emptied from a wheelbarrow. We spent so much time doing this that I would have recurring dreams of searching in bookshops, labyrinthine dark basements. We were also going to rock concerts, (the Cramps were a particular favourite), and to cinemas that were showing seasons of European art movies, Film Noir and horror. The David Lynch film Eraserhead fitted so neatly into my taste for the absurd and the grotesque that I felt that I had seen it before in a dream. We went to Europe. We were particularly interested in looking at art outside the mainstream, especially the 16th century mannerist period – Giulio Romano, Pontormo, Parmigianino, Dosso Dossi, Lelio Orsi, Beccafumi and the Fontainbleu School (Rosso, Primatice, dell’Abate and Caron), and the School of Prague – who had developed in their own idiosyncratic directions; pictures full of extreme poses and gestures, elongations and distortions, unnatural colours, grotesque invention and perverse eroticism, often of the amatory exploits of the Greek gods.
In 1978 I had begun drawings for a big mythological painting, The Flaying of Marsyas. I started on the canvas in 1980, and worked on it for about seven years. I was never satisfied and would more-or-less finish it and then scrub it out and start again, moving the figures about constantly. In 1983 the Royal Academy held the ‘Genius of Venice’ exhibition and Titian’s Marsyas was shown. I bought a season ticket and spent hours in front of it. This painting and the two ‘Diana’ Titians in Edinburgh are among my favourite paintings in the world. I destroyed my own painting in 1987. Ten years had slipped behind me since I left Chelsea. Whilst I was working on the large picture, I was also drawing ideas in my sketchbooks – ideas from my imagination. Eventually there were hundreds of these, from which I did small drawings and stuck them on the wall of my studio – the ‘ideas’ wall. I started to develop them into large drawings of hybrid creatures, cavorting skeletons and improbable architecture.
In 1989 our twin girls were born and we moved out of London to Wivenhoe. I started to enter drawings for competitions, won some prizes and began to sell my work. I was included in mixed exhibitions at the East West gallery in London and had my first solo show there in 1996, and then solo shows at Gainsborough’s House and Chappel in 1997.
At this time I was asked to do some talks about my work to students, and this made me think more coherently about the traditions and influences from which I was drawing.
I came to see the history of art, not as separate layers of sediment or strata but as a living thing like a tree, growing with intertwining stems, alive from root to twig. My work belongs to the tradition of the grotesque and fantastic. It is possible to classify the various ways that reality is distorted in this kind of work: the mixing of forms, changes of scale, elongations, compressions and reversals, a distorted reflection which shows the world in a different light, a different perspective, the world re-imagined in a dream, subjectively influenced by the dreamer. The word ‘grotesque’ is derived from ‘grottos’, the caves, the buried palaces of Rome, where Renaissance artists discovered fantastical Roman decoration. They adopted this style and it spread throughout Europe. The origins of the grotesque lie in antiquity, the hybrid creatures of mythology, where the forms of nature, animal, human and vegetable even mineral, are mixed together, some of which feature in my drawings, including the monstrous children of Echidna and Typhon: Cerberus, Hydra, Chimaera and Sphinx. Another of its roots is classical satire. Lucian’s True Story is a comic voyage including a trip to the moon, which influenced Rabelais, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Tales of Baron Munchausen. The comic grotesque is also alive in the decorative margins of medieval manuscripts, where hybrid monsters such as Blemmyae (the inspiration for my ‘Bodyheads’) and Sciapods recur, and in the Renaissance the fantastic is also found in images of hell and apocalypse, by Durer, Bosch and Bruegel, and such extraordinary works as the Isenheim altarpiece by Grunewald, the Room of Giants by Giulio Romano, the vegetable portraits of Archimboldo and the ruined cities of De Nome,
The tradition of the grotesque is particularly alive in prints. The fantastic is especially suited to the graphic medium, and it is possible to track almost its entire history in etchings, engravings and woodcuts. A fine book The Waking Dream: Fantasy and the Surreal in graphic Art 1450-1900 charts this progress through Holbein’s Dance of Death, the macabre prints of Urs Graf, the engravings of Callot, seventeenth-century alchemical prints, scientific, medical and anatomical illustration (I adapted the embryonic development diagrams of Ernst Haeckel for my drawing Species/Gender), emblems, the topsy-turvy world popular prints, Piranesi’s Prisons (which influence my architectural fantasies), Rowlandson, Gillray (whom I studied for guidance on how to draw caricature for drawings like my Seven Sins) , Goya, Fuseli and Blake, and into the nineteenth century with Grandville, Daumier, Meryon, Dore, Victor Hugo’s drawings and Redon. The tradition continues with the Symbolists and Richard Dadd, Ensor and Kubin, through to Surrealism, which recognised many of the artists of the grotesque and fantastic tradition as precursors. It is via Surrealism that much of this work has come to be appreciated. In the twentieth century this type of imagery has permeated culture, and is found everywhere, in diverse art forms including: the satiric installations of Keinholz, the drawings of A. Paul Weber, the cartoons of Robert Crumb, the animated films of Jan Svankmajer, photographs by Witkin, plays by Beckett, science fiction by Ballard, fantastic literature like Meyrink’s The Golem, Jean Ray’s Malpertuis, the art and writings of Bruno Schulz and Leonora Carrington, films by Lynch, Cronenberg and Gilliam; all are part of a spreading network of connections, the branching tentacles of the grotesque.
This is the tradition to which my work belongs, and when I am drawing I am aware of making connections with every strand of this tradition. For example, when I was working on my skeleton drawings I thought back, via zombie movies, to the thousands of animated skeletons in art, from Posada and Kubin back to Bruegel’s Triumph of Death, and back further to the scene of necromancy in Lucan’s Pharsalia from the first century CE, a scene that influenced Shelley’s Frankenstein, which in turn influenced Romero’s Day of the Dead zombie movie. For an early drawing Cars I applied the ‘animated inanimate’ methods of Bosch to London traffic, after reading Ballard’s Crash. I draw on mythology, fairytale and tradition, but equally from reading the papers and watching the news. Many of my ideas come from dreams while half asleep. Some of the ideas are new, some I have had in mind for twenty-five years or more. I keep a picture-list book, hundreds of ideas, with their dates, and origin and development, so I can refer back to relevant sketchbooks. It is a great relief finally to get on paper an idea I have had in mind for years.
Recently I have been shown in the context of outsider and visionary art. I was included in a show at the Chamber of Pop Culture, at the Horse Hospital in London, ‘English and American Visionary Art 1903-2003’. Many of the artists in this show are featured in the outsider art magazine Raw Vision, and their work shows points of similarity with my own work in that they would all also fit into the fantastic and grotesque tradition. More importantly, and the reason I enjoy being in the company of these artists, is that that they are all individuals, working in their own idiosyncratic manner.
The use of fantastic metaphor and poetic allusion allows me great freedom, to portray any idea from the exterior political to the interior psychological. And the materials I work with give me freedom; charcoal is very flexible, and can be wiped, erased, sandpapered and redrawn. It is open to chance effects that can lead to unanticipated directions and solutions. I make constant revisions and alterations. Even with a medium like pen and ink which would favour the permanent, spontaneous, linear mark, I have found a way (by using sandpaper on card) of reworking, to end up with textures, tones and atmospherics.
For my work to conform to modern taste it should be more gestural, ‘marks on paper’, linear rather than illusionistic. My work begins sketchy and gestural, and some artist friends urge me to leave it like that and not spoil it by wasting weeks bringing it to a more finished state – but I can’t stop myself. I am addicted to the moment when the marks and smudges metamorphose, solidify into an illusion of real space, with solid objects and figures under a unified light and atmosphere. It is only when I feel I can climb into the picture, wander about and touch things that I am happy with it.