A week or so ago I went to see my friend the painter Evelyn Williams, and a few days later I visited my dentist. He is also, by complete coincidence, a friend of Evie’s and like me owns some of her work. We talked about it as the anaesthetic took hold. Apart from the fact that we both loved the work we agreed on three things.

The first is that when people come to the house they like her paintings or loathe them but everyone has a view, which they are keen to express. This is rarer than it sounds. I am always surprised at the ability of people simply to ignore what is on the walls. There are in my living room paintings by Carel Weight in which acid colours appear, perspective goes dangerously awry and appalling things happen to those characters who haven’t managed to escape, and most people don’t turn a hair – let alone an eye.

The second is that if a painting by Evie is surrounded by other painters’ work, people tend to gravitate to Evie’s. My dentist told me that his children make a point of always paying half-respectful obeisance to one particular painting of hers before they regard themselves as entitled to embark on general conversation.

Thirdly, the work has a directness, an intensity and seriousness that embarrass some, but none so much as art experts. My dentist told me about a friend, something in the art world, who, visiting his house, had inspected this one particular painting of Evie’s and told him that it would undoubtedly increase in value but until then was best placed in a bank vault; a wall in a home was the last place for it.

At this point the drill came upon me and in due course, the extraction being successful, the sound of my grinders ceased; that particular grinder anyway. As is common with the extraction of teeth my ability to discuss questions of aesthetics had ceased some time before.

(There may be a principle here, that anaesthetics are the enemy of aesthetics, but we will leave it unexplored for the time being.)

You can see more about Evelyn Williams and some of her work on her website .

Many years ago Carel Weight (whom I have written about before and the posts are tagged accordingly) invited me to a dinner at the Royal Academy. The hook was being allowed, after the dinner was over, to see the Monet exhibition then showing there, for which there were queues around the block, without people in the way. The disadvantage, which he revealed to me only after I had accepted the invitation, was that I had to make the after-dinner speech. I prepared something that I thought might amuse and I remember at the critical moment rising to my feet and looking around the table at a sea of immensely distinguished faces, many of them sporting Van Dyke beards, and ditching half the jokes that I had planned to include.

The resulting speech was therefore a little inconsequential, and there were gaps where my best material was self-censored. I remember being reminded at the time, as I was still on my feet, of seeing the soft-porn film Emmanuelle in a cinema in Jersey when it was first released, some ten years before that. The Island then maintained standards of decency that the mainland had abandoned. I remember that the whole film lasted about half an hour and characters had only to make eye contact for the action to cut judderingly to something completely clothed and different.

Perhaps it would have amused the RAs if I’d told them that.

Anyway, one thing that I did say is that a good painting should be able to fight for attention, that the idea, then becoming fashionable, that art should be inspected in a white cube did the art no favours and that a good painting was one that could hang over the television in a living room and still get its share of attention.

I’m not sure if I still believe that. Whether I do or not, Evelyn Williams’ work triumphantly passes the television test.

Later that evening, after I had sat down to muted applause and a glass of rather good port, we got to see the Monet paintings without people in the way. The painter Tom Phillips explained to me that when looking at art it was important to have no visual distractions and said that he always carried with him an empty roll of lavatory paper, through which he inspected the work. I wouldn’t go so far as to advance this as a general law of aesthetics, and I don’t believe that he would either. It would render white cubes entirely unnecessary for a start, and it directly contradicted what I had just been saying about competing with the television. But I can tell you from personal experience that it certainly does the business for Monet.

This whole train of thought was provoked by a story that the better half told me – some time back, but it has been festering with me. She had become friends with the wife of G-, a distinguished art critic. The better half had said to her friend that the distinguished art critic and I should perhaps meet, since we both had spent decades looking at, thinking about and loving art, and we would no doubt have things to talk about.

Oh no, said the friend. You see, G- is a philosopher of art; he would find nothing of interest in anything that your husband had to say about it.

A little later the better half ventured the opinion that the work of Damien Hirst was a little one-dimensional, and that he made a few simple ideas go a very long way.

The friend sighed. Damien Hirst, she explained, like her husband was a philosopher. He made his work for a tiny coterie of other philosophers, who would understand. What the better half or I thought about it, or indeed almost anyone else, was a matter of complete indifference.

I don’t know if Damien Hirst would recognise that analysis. But presumably G-, the distinguished art critic, would. I imagine that he and his wife discuss such things at the end of a long day when there’s nothing on the television – and in the G- household I imagine that there are no bourgeois daubs above the television.

Actually I don’t much care whether he would recognise it or not. I’m just glad that there are painters like Evelyn Williams and Carel Weight who move people to laughter and tears, even if they are lawyers or dentists; and indeed painters like Tom Phillips who carry lavatory rolls with them and are prepared to share the secret of them with callow youths (as I was then) who are not philosophers.

Neither life nor art is ever entirely straightforward. For reasons that are too complicated to explain, I inherited some shoes from the philosopher of art (G-, not Hirst, whose feet I believe are far too big for me). According to a stamp on the sole, they were made by a cobbler called Prada.

They look terribly cool but you can’t walk in them without falling over.

Can this be a metaphor?

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7 thoughts on “Art

  1. Anthony Perry says:

    Dear Robin,

    Good morning. Showed your blog to Evie cheered her up. Did you drop off a book on Philip?

    We totter on. Evie not too good. We have a stair lift and 24 h our oxygen and the NHS docs are being wonderful sharing our desire to keep her out of hospital. But not looking too good.



    From: la blague Reply-To: la blague Date: Sun, 4 Nov 2012 23:38:04 +0000 To: Anthony Perry Subject: [New post] Art alablague posted: “A week or so ago I went to see my friend the painter Evelyn Williams, and a few days later I visited my dentist. He is also, by complete coincidence, a friend of Evies and like me owns some of her work. We talked about it as the anaesthetic took hold”

    • alablague says:

      I did, and he was delighted, since when I proffered the package he thought it was an x-ray of my molars. Of course when he opened the book all confusion immediately evaporated. The conversation described then ensued. He is a huge fan and very perceptive.

      Do give Evie my best love, and of course to you.

  2. SB says:

    There are some prolegomena towards the fascinating principle of anaesthetics vs. aesthetics, here:

  3. alablague says:

    Goodness! My dentist told me nothing of this.

  4. alablague says:

    Thanks. Algernon Newton was a wonderfully mysterious London painter, like Carel but in a very different way.

  5. […] weekend we went to the cremation of Evelyn Williams, about whom I wrote recently. It turned out that that meeting was to be our last. The ceremony was enormously dignified, as […]

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