Early work - finding my voice as a painter

For most of the 1960s I commuted regularly to a small studio attached to the offices of my agents ‘Artist Partners’ in Ham Yard, Soho, and there pursued my work as an illustrator. Meanwhile, at home I experimented, trying my hand at picture making, hoping that what I was doing might one day lead to a show in a reputable London gallery. Although I loved illustration I was aware even then that a good painting had to be more than just a big illustration in a frame. What that ‘more’ might be I was yet to discover.

My early pictures drew mainly on the world of myth. Three Disciples, Lazarus and Magdalen were in naturalistic vein while others, like The Fallen Warrior and Ajax with the Body of Achilles 1 & 2, were stylised in ways that grew out of my enthusiasm for the vase paintings of ancient Greece. While stylised figures could often be intense and powerful, I felt they could never be the stuff of serious picture making. However they came into their own in Jason, Medea and Hercules (a set of linocuts) Centaur and Satyr (a plate design) and Peasant Bagpiper (a design for a mural.)

In 1966, still searching for a suitable mode of expression, I embarked on a number of heavily textured paintings featuring Icarus and the Minotaur - two characters from Greek myth I was obsessed with at the time. (Icarus Burning Up, Icarus across the Sun and The Minotaur in the Maze).

The large heads of The King, The Queen and The Prince (and to some extent Head in Profile) I was seeking to tap into something hieratic and archetypal and hoping to suggest recently excavated artefacts, with traces of earth still clinging to them. These pictures were made using an eclectic mix of house paint, powder colour, crumpled tissue and glue. Later, using the same materials, I made Head in Profile, Mans Back and Wrestlers 1 & 2. My wrestlers were derived from a sequence of photographs in ‘The Human Figure in Motion’ by Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering 19th Century photographer. (Using some of the same photographs year or two earlier, Francis Bacon had transformed Muybridge’s grappling wrestlers into lovers). In 1969, in a change of direction, I painted Ibiza Welcome (a dream picture with Surrealist overtones) and abandoning my lengthy flirtation with elaborate textures and techniques, painted it quite straightforwardly.

Throughout the 1960’s I painted portraits in a variety of styles among which were Leo Ciceri 1 2 & 3, Desmond Heeley, Angus James 1 & 2 and Papillon (a portrait of two little dogs). In 1969 I painted Roger Coleman. Roger was a fellow illustrator at Artist Partners who had graduated from the Royal College of Art, mounted exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art and taught for a spell before coming to illustration. This background made him the ideal companion for our occasional sorties to the National Gallery. One day, as we were standing in front of Nicholas Poussin’s painting ‘The Adoration of the Golden Calf’, Roger asked me for my thoughts. After looking at the picture for a while, something struck me as compelling. Although filled with dancing and gesticulating figures, the picture somehow managed to maintain a satisfying balance. It also seemed to possess an innate authority that took it way beyond illustration and I began to see Poussin’s picture with new eyes, not just as an image but as an orderly sequence of forms and spaces. It dawned on me that this sense of underlying order was lacking in my own pictures and was the element of picture making I had been searching for since the start of the decade.

Taking my cue from Poussin, I now determined to make formal structure a priority in the work. In 1972, Fischer Fine Art included a few of my paintings in one of their Group Shows and my life as an exhibiting painter began.