Ruskin Spear

Carel Weight was sometimes regarded as a poor man’s Stanley Spencer. Even at his funeral, David Wolfers solemnly intoned that he was ‘not as good as’ Spencer but ‘better than’ L. S. Lowry. Among his contemporaries he was often grouped with the English impressionists of the New English Art Club with whom he had very little in common except that they all distanced themselves from conventional modernism, post-modernism or whatever it was at the time. The fact that they all showed with David Wolfers at the New Grafton Gallery probably had something to do with this. Fred Cuming and Ken Howard, for example, were good friends and supporters but have very little in common with him as painters. Nevertheless, they were often lumped together rather disdainfully by critics who thought that they should all be doing something entirely different.

Bacon, Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff had established international reputations and were regarded as above the fray, but it is curious that there were two other English figurative artists who were treated respectfully by many of those internationally-minded critics who derided everything that Carel and the NEAC painters separately stood for. These were very different artists but they were united in being, in their different ways, rather bad. One was Frederick Gore with his garish and inept accounts of where he went on his holidays. The other, a generation before, was Cecil Collins, who combined smugness, a banal imagination and a painful inability to draw.

I am at a loss to explain the respect with which mainstream critics treat them.

But the painter with whom he was most closely associated was Ruskin Spear. Again, I think that this owed more to their friendship over decades, and the fact that they were colleagues on the teaching staff at the Royal College for many years, than to any similarities in their work. Spear was a superb technician, recording landscape and interiors, whether in Hammersmith pubs or further afield, a painter of great warmth as well as great skill. His sense of humour was broad and he had little imagination of the literary sort. At the end of his life he was largely confined to his home, and painted a succession of portraits of the family cat. Carel, when similarly confined, by a flood at the studio, imagined unspeakable dramas taking place in his back garden.

I met Ruskin Spear, but only briefly. I got to know his wife Mary better, after his death, and I was also privileged to meet his son, Roger Ruskin Spear, multi-instrumentalist and operator of trouser-themed automata with the Bonzo Dog Band; later an art teacher. Amusement can be had by searching ‘Ruskin Spear’ in Google and asking it to disclose its Images. Being only a bit of software it cannot distinguish between Ruskin’s lovingly depicted pub interiors, his acid portrayals of Mrs Thatcher and Roger’s trouser press and other dada excursions, all of which are jumbled together.

Carel had great affection for Ruskin Spear and also I think respected lively qualities in him that Carel felt that he himself lacked. Two stories illustrate this.

The painter R. B. Kitaj was one of Carel’s pupils. He was a crucial member of the generation of pop artists that emerged from the Royal College in the 60s: Peter Blake, David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips and so on. Kitaj was older than the others and in their different ways he and Carel were godfathers of English pop art, Kitaj as an older colleague and Carel, then the Professor of Painting, as enabler.

You can also make an argument for Ruskin Spear as a godfather of pop art. Back in the 50s, he was systematically incorporating advertisements and commercial brands into his paintings, long before Blake, Warhol and the others started doing so when pop art took its place as an official movement in art history in the 60s.

Anyway, in 1994 Kitaj had a retrospective at the Tate which was savaged by the English art critics. His wife Sandra Fisher then died of a brain aneurism. Kitaj blamed the critics: “They were aiming for me, but they got her instead.” He was in a very poor state. At this time I went to have tea with Carel.

I’m very worried about old Kitaj, he said. I rang him up to tell him that I was on his side. He answered the phone but he pretended to be someone else. He’s too depressed even to talk to his old friends.

I thought a lot about what I should do, he went on. I decided that the only person who could buck him up was Ruskin, so I organised for Ruskin to go and see him. It was not easy, what with the wheel chair, but I’m sure that it’ll do the trick.

Curiously, when I told the story later to my friend Caryn Faure Walker, her response was the same as to the anecdote about William Scott recorded earlier. You must be confusing the artists, she told me; Kitaj is American, Jewish, intellectual and highly allusive whereas Spear is an English genre painter of little interest.

The other story goes back a few years. You need to realise that Carel was bald.

I went with Ruskin, said Carel, to Eastbourne to see a show. It was by old students of ours. It was dreadful. We got back on the train for London thoroughly depressed. There is nothing worse than going to an exhibition that you hope is going to be good and it isn’t, especially when it’s by your friends. We were in one of those little compartments on the train that they used to have but they don’t any more.

These were the compartments that comprised two banks of seats facing each other and opened only onto the platform. They were discontinued when someone decided that they were an encouragement to rape, or, worse, the sort of consensual sexual activity that can be completed between two stops on a suburban rail service. Behind your head could be found either a pale pictorial representation of a seaside resort, such as Eastbourne, or an evil-looking grill that would dispense air, warm or fresh according to season, or suck it out. Carel was sitting in front of just such a grill.

We sat there disconsolately, he said. When we got to London, Ruskin called a guard over and indicated the grill. I wish to complain in the strongest possible terms, he said. When we got on your train, my friend had a full head of hair.

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