Once, when a number of Royal Academicians were invited to Buckingham Palace, the celebrated abstract painter John Hoyland (1934–2011) found himself enjoying a conversation with the Duke of Edinburgh about art. ‘The real problem with painting,’ said the Duke, in Hoyland’s delighted re-telling of this encounter, ‘is not so much the doing of it, as to know what to paint.’ Hoyland immediately concurred, adding that his friend Patrick Caulfield had been saying the same thing only the day before.
This definition of painting’s central challenge appears again in Studio Voices, recollected by Tess Jaray as one of the first things her tutor at the Slade, Andrew Forge, told her. In the same interview, Jaray, herself an abstract painter, claimed that Hoyland only spent seven-and-a-half minutes teaching a day, the rest of his time being devoted to chasing girls. It’s a shame Hoyland isn’t here to answer back, bearing in mind that one of his finest paintings was hung upside down in a memorial display of his work at the RA when Jaray was the senior hanger.
Personalities have always publicly clashed in the art world, long before Constable was upstaged by Turner at an Academy Varnishing Day in 1832. Michael Bird’s fascinating compilation of interviews recorded for the Artists’ Lives project of the National Sound Archives (housed at the British Library and largely accessible to the public), brings such conflicts and confabulations into focus, highlighting the early years, studentship and professional travails of more than 40 artists.
The book is very much a personal selection, so Hoyland appears only in passing — which is a great loss, as he was an extremely funny interviewee, and humor is not much in evidence in these pages. But Bird has chosen some good stuff, and the authentic voice of the artist speaks clearly through his commentary and linking passages.
The Artists’ Lives project was initiated in 1990, and the first contributor was the veteran surrealist Eileen Agar (1899–1991), who recalled her privileged upbringing in Buenos Aires with servants and a governess. Looking back, Agar remembered that a choice between having children or being an artist had seemed clear cut to her. This was something that Bridget Riley, coming from a very different generation and background, also felt. But not all artists have been so rigid, many managing to raise families while continuing to work. On the subject of having both children and a career, I was sorry not to find Karl Weschke (1925–2005) quoted. He was always proud of the fact that he brought up his children alone and still managed to paint. He was also very funny about the fabled enchantment of Cornish light; but then, having to paint at night, he had every reason to be.
I have myself conducted a number of interviews for Artists’ Lives, and can vouch for the intensity of the experience, which, for the artist, must be a little like an extended session of In the Psychiatrist’s Chair. Some talk for hours unprompted; others, such as Patrick Caulfield, find the simplest question often difficult to answer.
The most moving interview I ever recorded was with Ian Welsh (1944–2014), who was terminally ill but told the story of his life in art with undiminished brio. In this sort of interview, theoretically nothing is taboo and all sorts of topics are broached: upbringing, education, likes and dislikes, relationships, the development of a style, sex, finances (or the lack of them), alternative careers, and (sometimes) what it all might mean.
If the material is too sensitive or libelous, the interview can remain closed at the artist’s wish for a specified number of years. But what is said and recorded cannot be edited — much to Roger de Grey’s dismay when he asked me if he could change something he’d stated earlier. You can re-tell, but not expunge. Thus the interviews retain their freshness and all the vivid characteristics of the spoken word — the hesitations, repetitions, digressions and doubling-back of conversation.
Bird concludes his engrossing study with a bouquet of comments about the activity of making art. ‘People have this romantic idea about being an artist, and it’s just not like that at all,’ declared Jack Smith. ‘It’s so difficult getting the whole thing right, and I mean, it’s a lifetime’s job, it’s not this idea that you get up and be inspired, and do a painting and then off to the pub.’
This book is a very readable account of how art is perceived by some of those on the front line.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.