In 1982 I had never heard of Carel Weight. I had then a wary relationship with the visual arts. It started with a double blow when I was scarcely started.
At my school the art teacher had his favourites and I was not one of them, largely because of an inability to draw. When I produced anything for him to look at he would greet it with a sneer, and a Glaswegian sneer at that. He was called Jock. Jock Something. I devoted my adolescent artistic aspirations instead to writing and music.
Years later a colleague of his told me that he was a sensitive man and amusing company. No doubt he thought that his gruffness was loveable. But I will never entirely forgive him.
When I left school I had a girlfriend who was a painter. One day we strayed from the ever-interesting subject of our love for each other onto painting. I said that I liked the work of Salvador Dali. She then sneered too. She said that Dali was rubbish and that the only painter that really mattered was Cezanne. I said that I thought Cezanne was rubbish; we left it at that.
Decades later I told Carel the story. These people, he said, with real feeling, do so much damage. I often wondered afterwards who he meant by ‘these people’.
I went right off art. This was the era of Morris Louis and his unappealing friends, so there was not a lot to drag me back.
Coming across Carel’s work was a damascene moment but not the first. That was Goya. I met a friend in a café. She had the Dover edition of Goya’s Disparates, and I looked through it. It fell open at the picture of the elephant. I was astonished, absolutely dumbfounded. My friend said, People fall into two categories, those who think that Goya was a fantasist and those who think he is true.
How sententious my female friends were.
But in both cases absolutely right.
Anyway, I was watching the television in 1982. Carel had a retrospective, organised by the Arts Council and showing at the Royal Academy and this had provoked a programme made by John Read. I thought that it seemed mildly interesting and went along to have a look. The show was in the upstairs gallery, before it was done over as the Sackler Gallery. I looked around the walls and was astonished to see my most private memories and dreams displayed there.
I realised that I badly wanted one of his paintings to live with. In the catalogue Carel said that he liked selling his work privately and that he found Cork Street and the rest repellent. “The art galleries like Waddington make me feel rather ill.”
I went home and wrote him a fan letter. He replied by return. He had no work in the studio and I was to write again in six months’ time. That seemed fair enough, and I resolved to do so.
I went to the show a couple more times and loved the work more and more. It was to close on a Saturday, so I went for a last look on the Saturday morning. Carel was standing there; I recognised him without difficulty from the television and introduced myself. Oh well, you’d better come to the studio, he said, naming a time a week thence and giving me the address, in Sloane Gardens.
As the week went past I became more apprehensive. I had no idea what paintings cost. I rang up my friend Ben Johnson, a painter and as it turned out a former pupil of Carel at the Royal College. I never let anything out of the studio for under a thousand pounds he said. And he had a studio in Hammersmith, never mind Sloane Gardens.
Carel’s studio turned out to be a spare room in a rather posh infants’ school, where he had been allowed to camp – a not unusual arrangement with him as I was to learn. It looked out onto the gardens themselves and some very eccentric Victorian red brick buildings.
I have four paintings, he said. This one (a man in a flying machine) is promised to Mervyn Levy so you can’t have it, and I think that this one (one of his paintings of anguished couples in gardens) is important, so you can’t have it either, but either of the others you can have. I chose one. It is twelve inches square, a figure walking in – out of – a garden in Sussex, Olwyn Bowey’s garden as I later discovered. You can have it for £100, he said. It was an extraordinarily generous price for someone he‘d just met. He didn’t then know me well enough to ask for cash.
Mervyn Levy later sold the man in the flying machine and eventually I bought it, only to lose it again in my divorce. It’s illustrated in R. V. Weight’s book.
As I left, he said, It’s a new painting and it’s only got retouching varnish on it. It needs proper varnishing but it’ll have to settle down first. You can get the varnish from Windsor & Newton or you can bring it back to me and I’ll do it.
The following morning I realised that I had forgotten something important. I rang him up.
What’s the picture called?
He gave this serious thought.
It’s called Sussex Lane with Figure.
I considered this in turn.
That’s a very dull title.
Yes he said, and I’ve already painted many pictures with that title. So we’ll call it Sussex Lane with Figure II. I’ve never before made a painting called that.
Sussex Lane with Figure II was my first proper painting, by anyone. I loved it like a teddy bear. I took it around the house with me, propped it against some walls and hung it from others. I turned it upside down, put it on its side and covered bits of it up with cardboard. Everybody goes on about the literary content of his paintings but they are full of fiercely wonderful designs, like the best purely abstract paintings, which sometimes work best when divorced from the content.
Six months went by. I rang him again and reminded him. It’s very easy to get varnish at Windsor & Newton, he said.
Yes, but it would be nice to see you.
So I went back to Sloane Gardens, Carel varnished Sussex Lane with Figure II for me and I bought another Sussex painting to go with it. Six months later I was back and bought a third, and so on until we knew each other well enough that I didn’t need an excuse for a visit.
I’ll write separately about the individual paintings and about how things developed from there.