For Christmas I bought a friend Michael Holroyd’s biography of Augustus John. It was well into New Year before we exchanged presents by which time he was absorbed in another present, a Houellebecq, so I picked up the Holroyd and have been mired in it ever since. Holroyd is a good writer, one of the best. The elegant and often funny prose is never overwrought and the subject a talented, engaging, sexually incontinent rogue. Perfect. Only another 100 of 650 pages to go.
Augustus John attended the Slade School of Art with his equally famous sister, Gwen. Another pupil, now almost forgotten, was Edna Clarke Hall. Edna was a talented young woman whose work included some illustrations for Wuthering Heights, an illustrated volume of her own poems and still-life studies. Sadly, she married young and, with little encouragement for her work from her older lawyer husband, seemed to lose impetus for art. On a website dedicated to her work, one still-life in particular appealed. I loved its bright muted colours, intelligent composition, almost accurate draughtsmanship and loose painting technique messily outlined in charcoal. I wanted it. More than wanting it, although I had hardly lifted a pencil or a paintbrush since school, I wanted to try my hand at copying it. That afternoon I headed to the nearest town to Mr. Bricolage where I knew there was an aisle of art materials. Over the following few weeks I produced, along with a few terrible failures, three works which, although poor, were not entirely shame-worthy: two copies of the Clarke still-life and two works of my own: a small study of a reclining nude and a landscape in oils. The strange thing was, despite virtually no practise, I seemed to have improved since 1980 Higher Art days. Nervously I showed the results to a few friends. They were surprised, said there was a germ of talent there and encouraged me to keep at it. After two years of struggling to look at art without panic, suddenly I wanted to do little else. Every painting I saw I scrutinised hoping to learn something.
Later that month a neighbour invited me to join her yoga class. The class was held in the participants' houses. New to yoga and not knowing anyone, I was nervous. The 2nd week, at another new house, I scanned the walls and noted a painting of interest. It looked to me like the work of a former Slade pupil, 1920s perhaps. After the class I asked the woman whose house it was about the painting. ‘Why do you want to know?’ she asked. ‘Because I think it’s rather lovely.’ I replied. She drew herself up, smiled indulgently and asked, ‘Have you heard of the Bloomsbury Group?’ Resisting the urge to plant my forehead with great force into hers, I sighed. I wanted to tell her I was no expert but had been reading and looking at their work on and off for as long as I could remember. I had stood reverently outside houses where they’d lived. I'd worked in the art business for 30 years. For the past few months I’d been looking at their paintings closely and teaching myself to paint by attempting to copy them. So yes, I had heard of the Bloomsbury Group.
Despite appearances — faded red hair and Scots accent, I’m more than half English. My Scottish father lost his accent when he moved to England in his late teens in 1932. I love England and the English. I spent long, happy summer holidays with my working class Staffordshire grandmother. But there is sometimes a problem. Some famous visitor to England in the 1800s, I forget who, said, ‘The English see with their ears.’ He meant, I suppose, that they judge things, art in particular, by what they hear rather than trusting their instincts. If an artist or a wine is expensive he/she/it must be good. I would take it further and suggest if a certain type of English person hears a Scots accent such as mine, or a regional accent, they make negative assumptions about the intelligence or culture of the person to whom they’re speaking. I’ve seen it many times.
‘Bloomsbury, yes’, I said, ‘shocking bunch!’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that at all…No!’ she replied. She continued with the story of the painting, an unsigned, unfinished work by John Nash’s wife, Caroline, who was at best peripheral to the Bloomsburys. Who the painter was made no difference to my opinion of the wee watercolour. I’d have liked it just as much if it had been painted by a 12 year old Scouser.