Dick French: On The Town – September 2016

There’s a room in my flat that I rather grandly refer to as ‘The Library’. About 20 years ago I had it fitted out with shelves up to the ceiling with nicely boxed-in corners. It’s painted deep red. For a few years it looked splendid, then it gradually started filling up with junk. Now it’s waist-deep in motorcycle parts, leather trousers, helmets, exhaust pipes and tins of oil. I’ve been trying to excavate it recently as my son has gone off to work in New York, and now the whole flat resembles a junk yard. The book I’m trying to find is the collected writings of Sir Thomas Lawrence. So far I’ve had no luck. I remember it was dark green with faded gold lettering and quite thick. The reason I’m keen to find it is the exhibition Painters’ Paintings at the National Gallery. The great treat of this show is a preparatory drawing by Carracci for The Loves of the Gods, A Woman Being Carried Off by a Sea Monster, which used to belong to Lawrence. It’s such a fantastic piece that I’m sure he must have written about it at some length. What condition was it in before he bought it? Was it rolled up or crumpled? Where did he get it from? How much did he pay for it?

When I find the book I’m going to be like Lieutenant Columbo when he started to whistle ‘This old man…’, but until then I’ll just consider the exhibition, which is interesting but puzzling.

How could such a great draughtsman as Degas have lived with Cézanne’s cack-handed Bather with Outstretched Arms? The universal veneration offered up to Cézanne has always been a mystery to me. He did some lovely still lives, but get him away from the fruit and veg and the wonky bottle and jug and he’s just dreadful. Matisse owned a horrible small Cézanne of three bathers, quite ill drawn and formless – viridian, yellow ochre and navy blue. Lucien Freud also lived with a nasty little number by Cézanne, L’Après midi à Naples. Freud’s own self-portrait in this show was dismal. Thick paint, once it is dry should never be painted over. It made me itch. Lord Leighton had a dubious small Tintoretto and Van Dyck had a wonderful Titian.

Well, so much for art.

I wandered up to the National Portrait Gallery to see ‘The Beep’. It’s worse than ever this year. The most revolting thing of all was a photo-realist job of Andrew Motion. Motion is an unfortunate name for a poet but it’s a good description of his portrait, and from the little I’ve read of them, his verses as well. Oh, and I nearly forgot. After the Painters’ Paintings show I popped upstairs to see the Humbrol bloke from Coventry and his woodscapes. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins: “This exhibition fills a much-needed gap.”

After another search of the library I’ve accepted that Sir Thomas Lawrence is no longer there. It’s funny how books go missing. It can be of hardly any interest to anybody but in the process of looking I’ve discovered a few old favourites: The Biggles Omnibus and a fat book of Maigret stories (illustration: Jean Gabin as the sleuth). I’m looking forward to reading these again. A few years ago Penguin started re-publishing some of the early Maigret stories and I didn’t find them all that interesting. In those early pieces Simenon had yet to discover the importance of digression which is one of the great pleasures of his later stories. I’m really interested in what Maigret had for breakfast, whether he has a demi-blanc with his croissants, and I love the way he is always sending down to the Brasserie Dauphine on the Quai des Orfèvres for beer and sandwiches when he’s in the middle of a long interrogation.

Back to the Humbrol Man. At no point during his rather complicated tree pictures does he take advantage of a slip of the brush. Nothing is allowed to enliven his initial intention. You will search in vain for the “free gift”, and they would have looked much better on wood. The interesting piece among his life drawings was one of Aphrodite at the Waterhole, Tony Hancocks’ great sculpture from The Rebel.

A large, shell-off crustacean with a head-mounted penis emerges from Barry Humphries’ left sleeve. It’s heading for the Dame’s face with her mismatched eyes. I am of course attending the new exhibition of David Hockney’s portraits at the Royal Academy. Hockney should be congratulated for making a little go a long way. I suppose it’s his Yorkshire thrift. Squeeze out the shrimp paste and mix it here and there with a bit of white. It should be called The Prawn Show. He has an electric motor to make his easel go up and down and employs a “studio manager”. Maybe I should get one ­– that must be where I’ve been going wrong. He even has someone to squeeze his tubes – and that’s not intended as a double entendre. He’s quite good at shoes. I think these portraits are meant to be seen as an ‘installation’ and not individually ‘interrogated’. It’s just as well. Hockney is another painter who has never let a happy accident enliven his pictures. What a plodder.

But who am I to slag off a national treasure. Well, I suppose it’s because I’m so bitter and twisted I recommend a good slagging off. It’s much more fun.

A few years ago an artist and good friend of mine, Whingeing Loser in fact, wrote a critical piece about some aspects of the art business, which he showed to someone connected with his local arts council. “You do realise,” this worthy said, “that if you publish this your career will be over.” To which my friend replied, “What career?”.

Thus was born The Dreadnoughts, we who will slag off anyone. Fear us, we are the future.

Now, some notes on my recent beauty panels…

I like to have things unfinished and go back to them later, sometimes years later, and then I know exactly what to do with them. It’s a good way of avoiding the demon of preciosity which can creep up on you and has a paralysing effect.

Every 20 minutes or so I like to take a break, wander into the front room, see what’s going on in the street. Check how the sukebind is coming on. It’s slow to flower this year but the beans are doing well.

I do a lot of work from the video screen these days. You have to work fast because if your equipment is anything like mine it jumps after about ten minutes. It’s just like working from life without the chalk. I get a lot of films from my friend Kenny, who runs an exotic shop on Goodge Street, and I’ve done a fair bit of ‘Gonzo’ stuff but I find it rather formulaic. I prefer the transitional movements when the figures are moving between partners and may be a bit off-balance. It would be hard to capture any other way except through photographs but that means you are using someone else’s choice – by stopping the films the choice becomes your own.

I’ve been working on my men recently ever since Laura Gascoigne described mine as ‘cyphers’. I think she was right but they’re much better now. I got into this way of working because I like to draw the nude, but my nudes have to be doing something. I can’t stand pictures of some poor woman shivering by a radiator.

In the past the use of nude models served to illustrate mythological themes but those times are long gone. So what, I ask you, do people do with their clothes off? I recommend that you pop along to Kenny’s and discover some rare and wonderful things.

Dick French
The Jackdaw Sept/Oct 2016

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