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Learning to Paint: Apprenticeship - Art, Yoga and Chippiness

For Christmas I bought Jeremy Michael Holroyd’s biography of Augustus John. It was well into New Year before we saw each other and exchanged presents by which time he was absorbed in another present, a Houellebecq, so I picked up the Holroyd. Holroyd is a good writer. The elegant and often funny prose is never overwrought and the subject a talented, engaging, sexually incontinent rogue. Perfect.

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. 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. Admiring its bright muted colours, intelligent composition, almost accurate draughtsmanship and loose painting technique messily outlined in charcoal, I wanted it. More importantly, 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. 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. Despite no practise, it was surprising to see some improvement since 1980 Higher Art days. Nervously showing the results to a few friends it was encouraging to hear them say they saw was a germ of talent and told 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 house, a small bungalow, there was a painting of interest. It looked 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 it’s 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 but didn't, that I was no expert but had read countless books about them and had enjoyed looking at their work for as long as I could remember. I'd 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 first to Spain as a young child and then 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 others say about it rather than by 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.

‘Bloomsbury, yes’, I said.

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.

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