Tag Archives: Carel Weight

Ruminating on the Titanic

Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness,” said Augustus Sly.

“Don’t you start,” I said.

“Well, why the rendezvous in West Ham Park? Do you have a concern that we might be overheard?”

I hesitated for a moment. The real reason for meeting outdoors was that, of the two most obvious indoor locations, my house was ruled out because the better half had taken to being vocally critical – in my view over-critical – of Augustus Sly’s dress sense, and the last time I had visited his flat it had been hard to talk, as the sound of the South African mouse in his wainscoting had become much worse: both as to the volume and as to the self-pity.

“It’s a lovely day,” I said. “And Bella needs an airing.”

It certainly was lovely. It was quite early in the morning and the sun shone on the dew that covered the grass. Indian women jogged past heavily encumbered by their saris. Pensioners with dogs called to each other and, with time, coalesced into quite large wagon trains that progressed in a stately fashion from one side of the park to another. At weekends the activity is more organised. There is running, with signposts and sponsored water, and groups of five or six women toning their muscles together; but this was a weekday and activity, such as there was, was individual. In the distance a man gestured with his arms. It might be tai chi; it might be insanity; at my distance it was impossible to tell.

“I love the Park,” I said. “I like the fact that everyone has their own little projects and everyone progresses at their own speed, and we can watch them in a detached way.”

“Like God,” said Augustus Sly.

“That’s true, I suppose. I was thinking, more like the opening sequence of the film Titanic. You remember that we see as if from an anachronistic helicopter the passengers promenading around the deck, each up to their own little schemes – all to be resolved in the course of the film – through the magic of recently invented CGI techniques. Unfortunately the CGI techniques were then so primitive that everyone walks at exactly the same speed, with their arms coordinated like soldiers’; in years to come we will all laugh at it for being so clumsy.

“I always wondered,” I said, “why the painter Carel Weight didn’t paint more pictures of people in parks. He often painted people progressing at their own speeds, up to their own little schemes, but rarely when he painted parks.”

“Were your wonderings crowned with a conclusion?”

“No. And he denied it. There’s a thesis for you: Social Interaction and Avoidance in Parks.”

“Where’s the colon in that? There has to be a colon if it’s a thesis.”

Parklife: Social interaction and Avoidance in Urban Recreation Space.”

“Anyway, I don’t need a thesis, I’ve got one: you,” said Augustus Sly. (Augustus Sly’s ongoing doctoral thesis is about this blog.) “And what have you been up to? You’ve been rather quiet.”

“Ah,” I said. “Two things. One was what I wanted to speak to you about.”

“Tell me the other one,” said Augustus Sly.

“First.”

“OK.”

“It’s the Anthony Powell Society,” I said. “They have a competition. You have to write about Lady Molly’s secret life. I’m planning to submit.”

“I suspect she had none.”

“I suspect that’s the point. But I’m thinking along the lines of Lady Molly as gentleman detective.”

“Good idea,” said Augustus Sly. “Very golden age. She had the advantage that at any given time she could bring everyone in her drawing room to order and say, ‘And one of you is the murderer,’ and have a good chance of being right.

“And who will be her Dr Watson? Jenkins?”

“Too obvious. I’m toying with Brandreth.”

“Brandreth?”

“Whenever there is a doctor in the novel it usually turns out to be Brandreth, who, indeed, was at School with the narrator.”

“I hope that you are not planning to put anything about it on your blog. Few of your readers know who Lady Molly is, let alone Dr Brandreth.”

“Of course not. Well, possibly just in the restricted access part.”

“And what’s the other thing?”

I produced my iPad with a flourish and showed him the two bottoms: Schiele’s and the photograph of Maria.

“Ah,” said Augustus Sly, scrutinising them. “Austro-Hungarian, obviously. Who is the painter?”

“Schiele.”

“Of course. Hang on. There was no colour photography in Schiele’s day. The painting must be a modern forgery.”

“Wrong way round. The photo and the painting are kosher. It’s different women.”

Augustus Sly looked more closely.

“I find it impossible to believe that. It’s the same bottom. I’d…”

“You’d put money on it?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Augustus Sly. “But it’s a staggering likeness.”

“The painting is in the Courtauld. I know nothing about the sitter. The photo is of my neighbour. I’m convinced there’s a connection. I want you to investigate it. Can you?”

“Intriguing. I’d probably need to go to Vienna.”

“You have a student card, don’t you?”

“Mm.

“Do you have an information pack?”

“I thought you’d ask,” I said, producing it from my pocket.

“And does your neighbour want to find herself linked to some demi-mondaine of the Viennese Secession?”

“She made it clear that notoriety would not be entirely unwelcome.”

Augustus Sly looked through the information pack, which had been painstakingly assembled.

“Elementary, my dear Brandreth,” he said with a smirk.

“No,” I said.

“No,” he said.

Unexpectedly a cloudburst started, and I regretted being out of doors. Even Augustus Sly’s sordid flat would have been better.

“How is your South African mouse? The one in the wainscoting?”

“Suddenly gone quiet,” said Augustus Sly. “No more self-pity, no more of his ramblings on about the toilet. Nothing at all. I rather miss it. He seems to have been removed elsewhere.”

“I think it shows a proper sense of shame,” I said.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Augustus Sly.

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Manchester: Dame Edna and Carel Weight

We went to Manchester for the weekend.  It was daughter three’s birthday and to celebrate it a group of us went to see Dame Edna Everage at the Opera House.  We had seen her in London but she was so appallingly funny that we wanted to do it again before it was too late.  It turned out to be the very last day of her farewell tour, her second to last (if Barry Humphries is telling the truth) performance ever – since it was the matinée.

 

We had booked late, so we were in the Gallery.  This, in the Manchester Opera House, is of a vertiginosity that rivals the mountainous roads of Montenegro.  We emerged from the staircase and looked straight down, as it seemed, onto the stage far below.

 

Caringly I gripped the better half’s elbow.  “We can do this,” I said.  (I have been reading Armistead Maupin.)

 

“Omigod,” said the better half – surprisingly, as she hasn’t been reading Armistead Maupin.

 

We clambered down, slipping alarmingly on the scree formed of popcorn from previous performances, and eventually were able to perch on our seats.

 

“If you clap,” Dame Edna shouted up to us, “do it with one hand and hold on with the other.”

 

I thought of the great song The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery, made famous by Little Dot Hetherington, who sang it all those years ago gesturing appropriately upwards and painted doing so by Walter Sickert:

 

The boy I love is up in the gallery,

The boy I love is looking now at me,

There he is, can’t you see, waving his handkerchief,

As merry as a robin that sings on a tree.

 

 

Sitting in the gallery at the Manchester Opera House I realised why he was waving his handkerchief.   It wasn’t for the love of Little Dot Hetherington, it was terror.

 

Dame Edna was of course wonderful.  It was nice to see jokes that had been snapped out in London being stretched as far as they possibly could be without falling flat, and vice versa: just like jazz.  At the end the ice cream sellers passed among us hiring out crampons – and access to a stout rope – at attractive rates and out we eventually emerged into the street grinning and repeating the good bits – explaining them to the slower among us – while Manchester night life got into gear around us.  (Manchester night life is just like night life in London but they wear fewer clothes for it there.)

 

The following day was Sunday.  We set out in a crocodile, but some people wanted to peel off for different things – such as a visit to the Manchester version of TK Maxx to buy a frock.  Four of us ended up, as I had hoped that we would, in the Cathedral, where they have two great paintings by my hero Carel Weight: The Transfiguration, and The Beatitudes, with Christ and the People above.

 

Weight made these extraordinary works in 1963, at the height (or one of the heights) of his powers, and he took the commission very seriously.  The Beatitudes are in the archway above the entrance to the Chapter House.  The fragments of the painting are fitted into the spaces between the stonework.  The board on which they were painted had to be cut exactly to fit.  Given Carel’s approximate way with a Stanley knife, as evidenced on other paintings that he reduced in size, he must have got someone to do it for him.  At the bottom are illustrations of the seven Beatitudes:  the peacemakers, those that mourn, those that hunger and thirst after righteousness, and so on.  Above, at the apex of the arch is Christ teaching the people, his arms unnaturally long so as to encompass them all, just as for those who mourn, below, the arms of God – in whom Carel didn’t particularly believe- come out of the walls to comfort.

 

You can walk into the chapter house.  They don’t invite you to, but the door isn’t locked.  Inside is Weight’s painting of the Transfiguration: that weird episode in the New Testament where Jesus takes three special disciples, Peter, James and John, to the top of a mountain where they see him, unnaturally clad in white raiment, talking on equal terms with Moses and Elijah, who are of course dead and also shining white.  It is an episode much approved by those who believe that Jesus was a spaceman: he was taking orders from the mother ship.

 

Weight’s picture makes the mountain almost as vertiginous as the Gallery of the Manchester Opera House.  On top, like a top hat, are the three main honchos.  The three special disciples are behaving with as much dignity as Little Dot Hetherington’s inamorato and scuttling down a ramshackle wooden pathway.  At the bottom of the painting the others, and I guess everyone else, are getting on with good works, or bad, according to inclination.

 

They are two great paintings, great in the same way as you would find in a treatment by Breughel of the same subjects, if he had attempted them, but painted with a post-War sensibility.  I am of course biased, and you can if inclined to do so see for yourself.  What saddened me though is the way in which these, at the least, important works are treated by Manchester Cathedral.  This is an organisation whose other art treasures are as vilely sentimental as anything on the railings of Hyde Park. They could not treat their Weight paintings with more contempt if they tried.  The Transfiguration has come loose from its surroundings and would fall out if pushed.  There are postcards of the art treasures of vile sentimentality but none of the Weight paintings.  There are no signs to draw them to your attention.  They are not lit.  If you type ‘Carel Weight’ into the search function on the Cathedral’s website it tells you ‘No Result’.  It is significant that even on the internet there are merely blurred images to be found of the Beatitudes and nothing of the Transfiguration.  It is disrespectful and a disgrace: qualified by the joy of seeing the paintings, but a disgrace nonetheless.

 

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War & Spottiswoode

You’re in The Anthony Powell Society Newsletter, I said to Amy. They’ve quoted the bit where I compared you with Jean Templar: the Googling Lampreys post.

Amy was having one of her obtuse days and I had to remind her about this blog, which to my great regret she does not follow regularly, and then give her an outline of the plot of A Dance to the Music of Time, or at least those features salient to the post in question. This took some time. Doctorates have been earned for less. She listened with politeness rather than interest and then went to the crux of the matter.

Who told Anthony Powell about me?

Anthony Powell died, I said, some years ago, but his Society lives on. It is in rude health. The Earl of Gowrie often contributes to its deliberations.

Grey Gowrie! shouted Amy, familiarly I thought. The man who wrote about Carel Weight!

I had recently lent Amy a work by Carel Weight to hang in Great Secret Miss. It is one of his Sussex walk paintings. It is late summer and a middle-aged couple struggle down a country lane. Nothing but their rather chippy decency preserves them from being submerged by the foliage. She had liked the picture so much that she removed it to her private quarters, whether in London or Kettering I do not know her well enough to ask. Furthermore she liked it so much that she read whatever she could find about the artist and inevitably came across Grey Gowrie’s article in Modern Painters all those years ago.

Gowrie is a man of many parts, I said. Carel Weight is not all that he writes about.

Nevertheless, I reflected, if His Lordship is remembered in a hundred years’ time, that perceptive and unfashionable article is undoubtedly what he will be remembered for.

Amy returned to the point.

Who told Anthony Powell Society then?

According to the Newsletter the post was spotted by Robin Bynoe.

Robin Bynoe should mind his business, she said. Maybe I bar him from Great Secret Miss.

That would be only fair, I said. He sits here nursing a single cup of green tea, absorbing gossip like a great sponge and never contributing any of his own.

Secretly, however, unlike Amy, I was pleased to see the blog quoted in so Augustan a publication as The Anthony Powell Society Newsletter and I have kept a copy with me to show people.

(To be fair to Amy, it is her pubic hair, not mine, which in the post is made the subject of an anecdote in questionable taste, and that may have contributed to her irritation. Probably the topic is best dropped.)

Curiously I have been thinking about Powell recently. I bought and read a first edition of his book about John Aubrey. I read it in paperback years ago and made little headway. It still seems to me that he might have taken a step back to examine his subject in the round. The focus is relentless and half his text is quoted directly from Aubrey and other Seventeenth Century writers, so that it is not always easy to follow what is going on. Maybe it is no accident that The Anthony Powell Society Newsletter digresses from Dance to the stand-alone novels, the Memoirs and the Journals, and indeed to many other fascinating things of merely tangential relevance to Powell, but rarely ventures into the world of John Aubrey. In Dance, Powell’s alter ego Nick Jenkins writes a book about Robert Burton at a stage of their lives when Powell himself wrote his Aubrey book and you can’t help thinking that Jenkins’ book might have been better.

Sadly, Powell records no dealings between Aubrey and his contemporary Abraham Cowley. The name of Great Secret Miss was taken from one of Cowley’s poems and Amy and I are both great fans of his.

The first edition of Powell’s Aubrey book was published in 1948 when the wartime austerity measures adopted in the publishing industry were still in force. It says so. Nevertheless it is an immensely elegant book, with its minimal dust cover, its stitched pages and its traditional type-setting. Wartime austerity measures or not, when books are printed like this these days they are self-consciously marketed as craft products.

The publisher was Eyre & Spottiswoode. From my earliest years I have been accustomed to thinking of Eyre & Spottiswoode as one of the great publishing houses, and I had sort of assumed without really considering the matter that it still was. However it appears to have been absorbed like so many other imprints into one of the publishing megaliths and I don’t believe that Eyre & Spottiswoode books are to be found any more – at any rate new ones.

This is quite sad, but it is particularly a shame for a personal reason. A joke is about to disappear over the event horizon and I had better record it before it is too late.

I was brought up in a village in the Surrey hills. In the 1920s, two things happened there.

The first was that they raised some money to build a village hall to commemorate the men of the village who had died in the recently ended World War. They raised some money but not enough.

The second was that someone called Spottiswoode died, leaving a sum of money to build a village hall to commemorate himself, or, as it may have been, herself. It too was insufficient.

The village elders, practical farmers then rather than investment bankers and superannuated pop stars as it would be now, did the sensible thing and combined the two funds to build a single viable village hall. It was called The War & Spottiswoode Memorial Hall. This caused decades of wholesome amusement to my father, and, when I first became familiar with the publisher’s imprint (on if I recall rightly a library copy of Titus Groan), to me too.

Of course the echo of the publisher is not the only reason why calling a building The War & Spottiswoode Memorial Hall is funny, but I think that it’s necessary to make the thing memorable.

It is still called The War & Spottiswoode Memorial Hall. The investment bankers and superannuated pop stars tend not to pick up literary references anyway. If you refer in conversation even to such a famous, modern and middle-brow figure as J K Rowling they will look puzzled and then politely correct you. No, ‘J P Morgan’, they will say. But even among the cultured the name of the hall will raise a wry smile only among those of a certain age. And that seems sad to me. Wry smiles are not to be sneezed at, in these terrible times.

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Art

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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Bunanza!

The better half likes to sleep late when she can. I will be working away in the morning, preparing Notes for the director of one of our successful TV series perhaps, just in earshot, and I will hear her lovely voice:

Tea!

This morning I was working on another new project, Bunanza! This is an exciting one. Someone pointed out to us that there was a gap in the television schedules. There are no series that are competitions for members of the public who like to bake: cakes, buns, bread and so on. There is Masterchef, of course, but that’s for cooking generally; there’s nothing just for baking. I see two judges, they said, and someone to introduce it, bond with the competitors and so on; I see a lesbian comedian, to make to edgy, less WI. The judges throw out the useless ones and the lesbian comedian sympathises with them.

And that was when I had my brainwave. Not a lesbian comedian, I said, but Dame Jenni ™ Murray. You can’t get more cutting edge than Dame Jenni ™ Murray. Everyone of course agreed at once and the lawyers are in touch. Bunanza! is already fast-tracked to the nation’s heart.

I was engrossed in annotating the script for a ‘rap’ which Dame Jenni ™ is, lawyers permitting, to make about gender bias in baking, and I’m afraid to say that the better half had to shout twice:

Is anyone making my tea?

This was a rhetorical question. There is only me and the dog, and the dog for all his very positive and indeed inspirational qualities cannot make tea, not having an opposable thumb.

She has it black and I wait to have my first cup of the day with her; mine is green. I hurried up the staircase with two steaming cups, some dried fruit for her and two pickled eggs for me. I was still excited about Dame Jenni ™ and the buns and I started to tell the better half about it all as I entered the bedroom. She was on the phone, however, so I sat on the bed and waited for her.

It was one of her regular callers.

The better half is slightly hard of hearing at present, a persistent niggle with her sinuses, and the caller was having to speak up, to the point that he was quite audible from the other side of the matrimonial pillow.

Are you wearing a bra?

What?

A bra. Are you wearing a bra?

What! I can’t hear a word you say.

Are … you … wearing … a … bra?

Don’t be so silly, Thumper. Of course not. I’m in bed.

A little sigh escaped him and he hung up.

Why do you call him Thumper, I asked once, or is that his real name?

There are such strange noises on the line whenever he calls me, she said. It must be his phone. I think he needs a new contract.

Of course the better half knows perfectly well what Thumper is up to. Where we differ is whether it is right for him to do it in our bed.

It’s good for him, she says, not answering my point and moreover taking a diametrically opposed view to that generally held not so long ago, when it was thought to lead to insanity, blindness and an early grave. Of course in those days there were no mobiles and that may make a difference.

Who is he, I persist. Have you met him?

Not so far as I know.

Why don’t you just hang up then?

She looked at me in disbelief.

That would be rude.

I changed the subject gracefully.

Are these pickled eggs Waitrose? They don’t half repeat.

She gave me to understand that she pickled my breakfast eggs herself. She said a little sharply that she was surprised that I hadn’t noticed her doing so in our kitchen, so I changed the subject again.

The dog is much improved. He has finished his course of anti-biotics and we now mix his ‘intestinal’ hard bits judiciously with regular hard bits. He no longer pauses to catch his breath on the stairs. However, the stress of his illness seems to have taken its toll on his mental powers.

In the bedroom, we have a wooden figure of Christ on the cross. It is Sixteenth Century from Spain and I inherited it from the painter Carel Weight. At some point in its long life it has become scorched, and another friend guessed, fancifully or not, that someone condemned to be burnt at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition was clutching it at the moment of his death. So it is an object full of resonance even to sceptics who question the literal truth of the Resurrection.

Yesterday I came across the dog standing over this piece and growling.

So, I said to the better half, changing the subject again, the dog has always, like you, been inclined to question the literal truth of the Resurrection, but this is a step change. I see the hand of our Great Enemy here.

Satan?

The same. I think he’s been turned to the Dark Side.

She thought for a moment.

The vet will be no help, spiritually.

No. I’ll have a word with Father J. He may be able to exorcise the dog.

Not before the daughter’s wedding though.

No. One thing at a time.

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Edward Stott

Edward Stott, one of Carel Weight’s favourite painters, as noted here, is currently the Artist of the Month on the Royal Academy website.

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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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The Boots of the Fisherman

People to whom the strangeness and fear in Carel’s paintings appealed would try to help, by suggesting locations and situations that he would enjoy and that he might use. They rarely got it right. Certainly I rarely got it right.

We went once for a week in the south west of Ireland, where I then had a cottage. We spent so much time fretting about the arrangements that it was November by the time we got there. He was in his 80s and this was too late in the year. It was cold inside and outside the house, and it not only rained a lot, but the light, as is its way there, changed constantly – to Carel’s fury. He would stamp back into the house, leaving the plein air behind and shouting ‘Bugger!’, the only expletive that he ever in my hearing permitted himself.

The local people were delighted to have a famous painter from London in their midst and suggested local beauty spots for him to paint. He thanked them politely, but I knew that there was no chance of his painting a beauty spot. Indeed the two paintings that he completed in the week were one of the back of my house and the other of an industrial gate leading onto a scene of soggy farm rubbish.

One evening we went out for supper. There is nothing quite as dark and uninviting as Castletownbere in the rain on a November evening. A café was open, however, and we went in and ordered something to eat.

There was a woman who was both cooking and serving the food, and apart from her and us the only person there was a fisherman. He was paralytic drunk. He sat as upright as he could, gazed unseeingly into the middle distance and from time to time collapsed head first onto the table.

The woman served him some soup, and went back into the kitchen to prepare our fry-ups. The fisherman dabbed at this but was still prone to collapse. This now became critical since the soup intervened between him and the table so that there was now a danger of drowning. In retrospect a sandwich would have been safer. But every time that he started to tip forward, the woman abandoned the range, ran out of the kitchen, caught him just in time and propped him back up, with the spoon back in his hand.

I watched fascinated. Then something caught my eye in the darkened window. Twenty or thirty children holding lanterns and in face paint were drifting up the street. They gazed silently and lugubriously in at us as they passed.

It was like nothing so much as the boys and girls recently dead coming out to play.

I have no idea what they were doing there. It was too late for Halloween and they don’t have Guy Fawkes, for obvious reasons, in West Cork.

Why ever they were there, I could see it all as one of Carel’s paintings: the bright painted faces coming out of the darkness, the woman’s arms unnaturally lengthened as she stretches to save the fisherman from drowning, all too ironically, in his soup.

The street cleared, leaving the window black again. The fisherman with sudden resolution stood up and left, making purposeful but aquatic sounds with his gumboots. The woman retired into the recesses of the kitchen. Silence descended.

I turned to Carel.

Wasn’t that wonderful?

He gave me a faintly reproving look.

Very interesting wallpaper in this room, he muttered.

*******

After I had posted this piece, the moral occurred to me.

Except in special cases, like The Seven Deadly Sins, the story was secondary. The starting point was the location and the figures grew out of that. They responded to the atmosphere of the location, or more likely its geometry. If the figures made a story so much the better, but that was at the third level of importance.

This was not of course what people expected. It was not after all how Spencer constructed his paintings and Carel Weight was expected to perform like a poor man’s Spencer. And for the sake of a quiet life he played along with the expectations.

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Some Other Painters

Turner was God.

He thought Lucien Freud a boorish man and a clumsy painter. He particularly disliked the much-feted Large Interior W11 After Watteau. Their faces are all two inches in front of where they should be because he’s done them later and the woman on the left has a water pipe sticking out of her back.

David Hockney was ‘Old Hockney’. He liked his work but thought it was facile. He helped him to get started, beyond teaching him at the Royal College, but that’s another story.

Francis Bacon was also ‘Old Francis’. I think that they respected each other; certainly in public. He helped Bacon when in lowish water, organising free studio space for him at the Royal College. The College did all right, inheriting some large works when Bacon moved on.

Roger Hilton was ’that murderer’, a reference to the incident at the prize-giving for the John Moores competition in 1963, where Hilton won, got aggressively drunk and insulted the mayor’s husband, I think, who had a heart attack and died. His wife, Rose Hilton, was a much better painter. (I profoundly disagree.)

Stanley Spencer: a great painter but a puritan. He hated paint. Carel on the other hand loved nothing more than ‘pulling paint around’, stretching it thinly over the board, an example of the overlooked principle that you don’t have to lay it on with a trowel to be sensual with it.

John Bratby was the painter with the most innate ability that I taught – and the one who wasted it the most.

Camille Pissarro was the best of the Impressionists. There was a strong family connection, through Carel and Helen’s friendship with the granddaughter Orovida Pissarro, and Carel had several works by them both as well as the intermediate Lucien.

The second time I met Carel I got over-excited and referred to Henry Moore as a ‘pompous and sentimental old fraud’. I immediately apologised, thinking that they were probably friends. I can bear almost everything from Moore, said Carel, after considering the question – except his sheep.

Lawrence Gowing ‘gets absolutely everything wrong’, an epithet also used for the hapless Sir John Rothenstein.

He taught Ian Dury and they maintained a strong mutual respect. Dury called him ‘the Governor’. I found a copy of New Boots and Panties, Dury’s first solo album, among the Schubert and the opera in Carel’s living room. I asked if he liked it. I particularly like the song, said Carel, where he says ‘fuck’ a lot.

He had nothing against abstract painting. I’d love a Miro or a cubist Picasso. It’s just that the English don’t do abstract art very well. He was proud of teaching Albert Irvin though.

John Piper: a lovely man, except for his paintings.

Once I was with him at the Arts Club and he bumped into William Scott. They talked affectionately for a few minutes. He’s an old friend, said Carel afterwards, and a very good painter. I told the story later to Caryn Faure Walker, a friend of mine and someone with a decided view of how the art world should operate. You must be mistaken, she told me; Scott is an abstract painter and Weight is figurative.

(She was another of my sententious female friends, and although she was quite wrong about the relationship between Carel Weight and William Scott she taught me a lot about art, died tragically young and is much missed.)

He preferred Kossoff to Auerbach, which was a shame as it was Frank Auerbach who would loyally turn up for his private views.

I asked him whom he rated whose work was still affordable. George Chinnery, Ethel Walker, Thomas Hennell and Edward Stott, he said. And there was Denton Welch, but he was more a protégé of Helen’s.

Chinnery’s paintings were not affordable but his Chinese drawings would turn up from time to time for a few pounds at the Abbot and Holder gallery, and probably still do. Carel thought that Chinnery was in the very first rank of draftsmen. I have a Chinnery drawing that was misidentified by a Director of Christies as by Rembrandt.

Ethel Walker is now deeply unfashionable, but she was made a Dame for her art, either the first or the second (depending (I forget and it doesn’t really matter) on Laura Knight’s timing) and she was a lesbian in the grand style, tweeded and assertive. Carel was amused by the fact that I would visit his studio, still quite young, have tea and buy work directly from him and forty years before he had done the same with her. At the end, nearing ninety, her mind went. On one occasion, he told me, she removed her tweeds and started on her foundation garments, crying, See! I still have the body of a young woman.

Hennell was also tweeded and assertive, cycling furiously round north Kent painting visionary landscape watercolours. Unfortunately the only book on him, by Michael MacLeod, doggedly misses the visionary quality. He was killed as a War Artist, facing down Communist insurgents in Malaya, armed, I like to think, only with his Lee Enfield and his fierce half-mad stare.

Stott, a contemporary of and not to be confused with William Stott of Oldham, was killed in the First World War. His paintings go for a lot of money but his drawings and pastels, dreamy and Munch-like without the angst, can be found cheaply.

Actually, Abbott and Holder is the best place for all four: Chinnery, Walker, Hennell and Stott.

There will be much more of this, I’m sure: in particular Carel’s loyalty to his preferred students.

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Tea with Mick Rooney

Pretty much every other Sunday afternoon I would drive from Hammersmith where I lived to East Putney where he had his studio. We would drink tea made with water which he would heat in an ancient saucepan. I like a good sergeant-major’s brew, he would say with some self-satisfaction. In fact it was always extremely weak, partly because he didn’t allow the saucepan to approach anywhere near boiling point.

Sometimes we would have fairy cakes which I would buy from the filling station around the corner.

We would talk about this and that and then I would drive him home to Wandsworth, where we would drink enormous whiskies with Helen, his wife, sometimes accompanied by curried eggs. These looked virulent but in the long term turned out not to be life-threatening. Then I would drive home for my Sunday evening tea. Standards as regards drinking and driving were different in those days.

Carel never drove. I tried when I was in the Army, he said, but I always found something better to look at than the road. Left to himself he took the bus, and the locations depicted in his paintings are often determined by bus routes around and between his home and his studio.

One Sunday afternoon when I arrived, he had his overcoat and hat on. We’re going to see Mick Rooney, he said, and we’ll have tea there.

Mick was a very good friend of Carel’s and is a painter for whom Carel had huge respect; as do I. He then lived in Mortlake, two or three miles up the river from Putney.

I drove to Mortlake with quiet competence.

What’s the address, Carel?

I have no idea.

Do you have a phone number?

No.

Is Mick expecting us?

No.

Do you remember were the house is?

He gave me a look.

Don’t worry, he said. I think it used to be a post office. Everyone in Mortlake will know where Mick Rooney lives.

Mick himself has written about how outings with Carel turned into adventures of exploration. For example, he would spot the dingiest of junk shops across the road.

We’ll go in there. They’re bound to have a Rembrandt.

There never was a Rembrandt, but there were all sorts of other finds, including an El Greco that he once bought in the Shepherd’s Bush Road for 7/6d. He beat the man down from 10/-. Lord Clark of Civilisation, who was a good friend of Carel and of Helen and the Director of the National Gallery at the time, got it authenticated and it hung in their living room next to the fire.

On this occasion however I was not in a mood for an adventure. Leaving me in the car Carel fixed on a house in an adjacent terrace, marched up the path and was about to knock when an old lady came out, already dressed for the street. They spoke together for a minute and then came down the path together like old friends.

Well, she said to me, I never thought to hear anyone mention the old sorting office from before the War. I must be the only person left in Mortlake who remembers it.

She directed us and a couple of minutes later we were there. Mick and his then wife had bought this former sorting office and were converting it. They were surprised but quite pleased to see us. They showed us the extravagant and wonderful work that they were doing on the house (now lost, or at any rate lost to them) and some of Mick’s recent paintings.

He’d recently had a show featuring paintings of refugees standing on station platforms with all their belongings in cardboard suitcases. People liked them but didn’t want to hang them in their living rooms. I’m going back to my mad children, Mick said. Carel agreed that that was wise.

I now have a small painting by Mick Rooney of mad children. It used to sit on the desk at my office. I am extremely fond of it.

The tea was strong and hot and I’m pretty certain that the fancy cakes did not come from a filling station. They may even have been made.

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