A S Byatt – Babel Tower,1996

Oz Magazine cover 1960s, no3,mona lisa
OZ London, No.3, May 1967. Cover by Martin Sharp

Up, up, up. The solid, shallow-stepped staircase hugs the wall of the Samuel Palmer School. It is wide — large objects are regularly carried up and down it. It has an elegant wrought—iron balustrade and its steps are worn in the centres, reminding Frederica of external processional staircases for monks. The staircase is dark, but at the top are the studios, roofed with glass, full of light. Alan takes Frederica through these, to the end of the building, past flashes of colour, past pools of dark and light, in the smell of oil and acrylic and turpentine and spirits. In the last airy space, in the centre, stands a strange object, surrounded by a swarm of students in black, tight clothes, and two men in jeans with what seem to be projectors of some kind. The object is a huge flask, or retort, or diving bell, with rounded sides rising to a kind of funnel into which one of the projectors appears to be pouring coloured light. As Frederica watches, this light changes from red-gold to cyan blue, and then to indigo, and then to acid yellow, and then to rose-pink. The walls of the retort or cask are painted matt black with variegated shapes and sizes of portholes out of which shimmer ribbons and flashes of changing coloured light. The light has a thick, liquid quality. The students are armed with black cardboard tubes, or periscopes, and drawing pads, and are peering in where they can, some crouched at low portholes, some perched on stools. The operations are being directed by a burly man with not much hair, in a paint—streaked and unravelling mariner’s sweater in oiled wool. Alan introduces this person, who seems to know and like Alan, as Desmond Bull, who is a painter, in charge of the Foundation Year. ‘This is Frederica Reiver-Potter —’ says Alan. ‘She’s going to teach literature.’

Good luck to her,’ says Desmond Bull.

Can I look at what you are doing?’

Please. Go up to the top, the view’s best from there. Matthew here invented these coloured lights — he’s got all sorts of oils inside jars and frames — it’s a kind of instructive colour-happening. Come up this ladder.’ ,

Frederica climbs up, and peers in. The diving bell appears to be full of liquid light, but it is only air, somehow dense with colour. The background colour changes and is traversed by shoals of green spots, or golden streaks or waving lines of crimson and emerald. So delightful, so mesmerising is the play of energy, light and colour that it takes Frederica some time to see that something is coiled below the imaginary depths, a wavering trousse of hair, or seaweed, a smooth succession of stones, or limbs, hard to fix, hard to discern, as it shifts from gold to green to sky blue.

Is it a sculpture?’ she asks, delighted, and is answered by a voice from the depths, plangent and twanging. ‘No. It is a living creature. The Human Form Divine, precisely. Any movement is illusory. I am a professional.’

You can come out now,’ says Desmond Bull. ‘Coffee-break time.’

Frederica retreats from the brim of the flask. Whoever is inside gives a little jump, and clasps the edge of the tank with long greyish fingers, distinctly grey, once out of the coloured light, though whether intrinsically grey or by contrast is hard to say. A head then appears above the rim, a head long, long with a long fine nose, hooded eyes and a thin mouth, a head clothed and veiled in long iron-grey hair, dead straight, smooth, long, iron-grey hair, that cloaks the shoulders and bust as they rise, so that it is impossible to see whether this is a man or a woman. A long grey leg, sinewy and thin is then hoist over the edge of its prison, also cloaked in the long grey threads, and then the strange figure, all blue-grey in the daylight, is perched briefly on the edge, jumps down, and advances towards Frederica on tall thin legs moving amongst its tent of hair. Frederica’s eyes focus on the genitals, which a swing of the hair-curtain, accidental or deliberate, reveals to be male, rather small, clouded by iron-grey pubic hair. The creature holds out a bony hand.

Jude,’ he says.

Frederica,’ says Frederica, registering a not very nice smell, a smell of fish, of old frying pans, of rancid oils.

A very ancient, fish-like smell,’ says Jude, in his high-pitched, cultivated voice. Frederica feels a frisson of distaste, and catches him looking at her, waiting for just such a frisson. When he has noted it, he turns away, and moves towards the folding chair by the studio heater, three roses of red elements on a metal stalk. He extends his grey hands into the red light, turns a thin grey shank in the rose. The skin on his ribs, the skin on his buttocks, hangs in sculpted folds, not flapping, but folded, like the plated armour of a rhinoceros. Students bring him coffee in plastic cups, and offer him biscuits, which he refuses. A whole group gather at his feet.

Alan takes Frederica into her little office, which is a partitioned-off corner of the high studio, still under the studio lights, and with a white table and a good anglepoise, not a desk. The chair is pink moulded plastic, with hands, feet, and a microcephalic head for her own head to rest against, its long-lashed eyelids closed, its red mouth pursed to kiss.

Who was that?’ says Frederica to Alan.

Jude. Jude Mason. Not his real name I suspect. He’s a bit of a mystery man, a bit of a poseur. No one knows where he lives or where he comes from. He doesn’t say much but occasionally he lectures the students on Nietzsche. They like him. They listen to him. He turns up for some sessions and asks for modelling work, and then he vanishes, and then he returns. Art school models are hard to come by, and he’s reliable.

‘He looks like Gollum. Or Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar only thinner.’

‘He’s not very pro-Blake. He gets into arguments with Raymond Bly’s Blake clique or claque. He prefers Nietzsche.’

. . . .

‘What is it like,’ she asks him, beglamorised by her surroundings, by the other-side-of-the-mirror world beyond the portals. ‘What is it like, teaching art history to artists?’

‘Horrible,’ says Alan. They think the dead are dead, and irrelevant to their own problems, or worse, threatening to their originality. Well, not all of them. Most. You’ll see. It’s quite testing. It tests your own reasons for caring about Raphael. Or Giotto, or Piero della Francesca. But they tend to vote with their feet, so you don’t always have the pleasure of arguing the toss with them. That’s one thing. Another is, that places like this are run on the energies of part-timers, paid low rates for piece-work. If they don’t come, you’ve got no class, no course and no money.

‘All the same,’ says Frederica. ‘It’s alive, here.’

A.S. Byatt, born 1936. Babel Tower, 1996

Image: OZ London, No.3, May 1967. Cover by Martin Sharp

Antonia Byatt’s, Babel Tower, the third in the Frederica Quartet, has our heroine teaching liberal studies in a 1960s London art school at a time when student rebellion, action art and happenings were taking the place of painting. This is based on the author’s experience of teaching at the Central School in the 1960s. 

Henry Cecil – The Gropists,1952

Tom Eckersley

                                                                    The Gropists

      Five or six lunatics have joined together and exhibited their work. They take a piece of canvas, daub a few patches of colour at random, and sign the whole thing with their name. It is as if the inmates of Bedlam picked up stones and imagined they had found diamonds.

       We shall be honoured if this sort of criticism is accorded to us. This is what was said of the famous Impressionists Monet, Pissarro, Morisot and others in 1876. Come and see for yourselves. If only we are as bad as they were. Exhibition opens at 10 a.m. On the 1st June at Drewe Galleries, 11 Touchstone Street.

      Special inducement: Every visitor will be given an opportunity of registering a protest against or recording his enjoyment of each picture, and of MAKING A LARGE SUM OF MONEY.

‘The police ought to stop this sort of thing,’ said Mr Hedges. ‘It’s prostitution; that’s what it is. Much worse than the poor creatures who get taken to Marlborough Street. They’ve no alternative.’

‘Don’t artists ever starve?’ asked Selina innocently.

‘Then they should give up being artists. Look at me. Did I ever starve? Not a bit of it. Of course. I was hard up to begin with and it was a bit of a struggle – but that’s not starvation. If you can’t make an honest living at art, do something else at which you can.’

‘Are you going to see them, Father?’

‘No, thank you. I do not require a LARGE SUM OF MONEY. My means are sufficient for my requirements, and I am thankful to say I made them honestly and not by bribing people to come and look at my pictures.’

‘But you don’t want to see if there is anything worth seeing?’

‘How can there be? Anyway in the unlikely event of there being something worth seeing, I shall be told, and then I can go and see it. There won’t be more than one. There won’t be that.’

‘Did they really say all that about Monet and Pissarro?’

‘I’m sick and tired about of hearing what was said in the eighteen-seventies. That’s nearly eighty years ago.’

But if prominent people make such bad mistakes then, couldn’t the same happen again?’

‘Of course people make mistakes and always will, but I can tell a good painting from pretentious nonsense.’

A fortnight later the exhibition opened. It was a huge success. Even the critics were a little cautious. Reminded in advance of the language used about the French Impressionists, they had to employ other phrases. Some, of course, dismissed the whole exhibition in a sentence:

‘This is beyond criticism.’

‘The only thing I noticed was the absence of onions.’

‘The public behaved as though it were an amusement park, but there was nothing to laugh about.’

Some critics, however, actually referred by name to a few of the pictures. For example, Mr Simon Plant’s In a Rectory Garden was described as ‘in rather bad taste’. But 8 at Henley by the same artist was referred to by another critic as showing ‘splendid breadth of treatment’.

Within a short time it was plain that Basil was right. They were in the money. The printing presses rolled out pool coupons, the public voted for the pictures, filled in the coupons, bought postal orders, and waited for the results. The dividends rose steeply. The treble chance became the most valuable. It seemed as difficult to forecast a draw at pictures as at football. Mr Rock became as famous for his forecast of picture favourites as of winning football teams. ‘Note Simon Plant’s pictures’, he advised his readers. ‘There is a type of person who always votes for them and they are therefore sure to secure some points. So never risk a draw with them. Keep the draws for the pictures you think will get no points at all. Here are my suggestions for this week.

Walking into the Samson Galleries one day, Mrs Grantley Wotherspoon horrified Mr Mackintosh by referring to the Gropists, but he was careful not to show his feelings and, on the contrary, he started to work out how much as an honest dealer, who valued his reputation, he could decently charge her for one of their productions. But £100 seemed to him like highway robbery. Yet anything else would probably make her refuse to buy it. It was an awkward predicament for him.

‘D’you know,’ confided Mrs Wotherspoon to him, ‘I’ve been three times. It was so crowded I couldn’t do it all at once. I wish they’d stop those silly pools. It brings such a lot of people there and many of them are rather undesirable, I’m afraid. I’m sure they think more of the pools than the pictures.’ For once Mr Mackintosh was inclined to agree with mob opinion, but he held his tongue.

‘I don’t mind telling you, Mr Mackintosh, that I’m not at all sure they aren’t the coming thing in art. What do you think?’

Mr Mackintosh coughed slightly. ‘I haven’t had time to go there yet.’

Mrs Wotherspoon looked surprised. ‘Not been there yet?’ But you must, you really must, if only for your own pleasure. I must own I want you to buy me one or two, but I’m really not urging you to go for that reason. It’s so stimulating.’

‘It sounds most interesting,’ said Mr Mackintosh, and realized sadly that he would have to go. He resigned himself to the inevitable. After all they wouldn’t be the first monstrosities he had to get for a customer.

‘Have you any particular ones in mind, Mrs Wotherspoon? I was thinking of going there tomorrow, and I’d have a word with Mr Drewe.’ He spoke of Nicholas as though he were an old acquaintance, although he had never seen or heard of him until the advertisement came out.

‘Well, there are several, really. There’s a most attractive little one of an eye. That’s all it is. It’s called Going my way? It’s amazing what the artist has got into that eye. You can see the whole scene. It’s much more effective than if he’d painted all of it. So much is left to the imagination.’

Mr Mackintosh commented to himself that the visitor could probably fill in the gaps better than the artist, but to Mrs Wotherspoon he simply repeated: ‘Most interesting.’

‘Of course, I know nothing really,’ went on Mrs Wotherspoon, ‘but it seems to me like an entirely new form of art. The more that is left to the beholder to do for himself, the better he likes it. It makes him a partner in the work, so to speak.’

Mr Mackintosh would have liked to suggest that another good idea would be to exhibit blank canvasses and let the beholder do the lot, but again he refrained. He was, however, a little surprised at the fact that Mrs Wotherspoon was able to voice such criticisms. At any rate, they didn’t sound too ridiculous. He did not know then that Mrs Wotherspoon had been well primed by Nicholas, who had warmed to the work.

‘I’ll expect you’ll find them very expensive,’ Mrs Wotherspoon went on. ‘D’you know he didn’t even hint at selling me one?’


‘Mr Drewe.’

‘Oh, of course.’

‘No; he just talked quite naturally and explained the partnership idea which I’ve mentioned and several other things which I’ve forgotten.’

‘What other pictures took your fancy?’

‘Well, there was another very clever one, I thought. Just two pairs of hands. One right way up, the other upside down. The first were obviously those of a jockey making a great effort to win a race, and below them was the other pair, a greedy pair waiting to collect the winnings. It was called First Past the Post.’

Mr Mackintosh reflected. ‘I suppose there could be something in it,’ he said to himself, ‘If the drawing was good enough.’

‘Any others?’ he said aloud.

‘There are so many really. D’you know, I’m almost thinking of letting you have the Monet back to make room for some of them, though I’d hate to part with it. Oh, there was a very grim one, but terribly good, I thought. It was called And may the Lord have Mercy on your Soul. I could see the whole thing: the prisoner in the dock, trembling with fear, the jurors looking away from the man they had sent to his death, the wife sobbing her heart out – all that and more, just from a forehead. You really must go, for your own sake.’

Henry Cecil, 1902-1976 The Gropists, in, Ways and Means, 1952.  © Estate Henry Cecil. House of Stratus. 1952-2011

Image: © Tom Eckersley, 1914-1997

Henry Cecil was the pen-name of barrister and Judge Henry Cecil Leon. The Gropists is a humorous short story, set in 1950s London, about two plausible rogues, Nicholas Drewe and Basil Merridrew, who use their knowledge of the law, and understanding of human nature to their advantage. The narrative presents a comic vignette of a small private art world of pompous and affected dealers, rich collectors, and both starving and self-important artists. The values of traditional painting supported by Mr Haynes RA, echo the opinions of Sir Alfred Munnings, President of the Royal Academy of Art, London who, in an inebriated speech in 1949, attacked the modernism of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. The story features the portrayal of clichéd bearded, starving artists who in return for a regular income enthusiastically create commercial paintings to order for a gallery, who create a popular and lucrative betting scheme for selecting art based on football pools. The images may be influenced by the work of graphic designers such as Tom Eckersley, and Abram Games, whose motto was ‘Maximum meaning, minimum means”.

Colin Wilson – Adrift in Soho,1961


F N Souza-self portrait 1949

The record came to an end. Propter was asking Robby if he could come and see some of his poetry. I was glad that his visit been of use to somebody. I called over to James (who had cornered a bottle of burgundy) to ask if we should take Sir Reginald up to see Ricky Prelati. Vera roused herself sufficiently to say: ‘He’s in one of his anti-social moods today. Says he’s painting the mansions of eternal peace. He’ll probably throw you out.’

‘We’ll try him, anyway,’ James said. ‘Will you come on up, Sir Reg?’

‘I went out of the room first. Doreen followed. I knocked on the door. No one answered. I opened it cautiously, afraid of being greeted by the same roar that had met me this morning. But Ricky was standing six feet away from the easel, staring into the room. I realized he had a model. A small, brown Hindu was squatting, quite naked, in the middle of the rug, his legs crossed. He also continued to stare blankly in front of him without moving a muscle. It was like walking into a waxworks. James and Sir Reginald followed us in. James was not at all disconcerted. He said: ‘Ah, the master is in samadhi.’

He went and stood beside Ricky, and stared at the painting. After a moment, I went over too. I could see then why Ricky looked hypnotized. The painting was an incredible, abstract-looking effort, that might have been a luminous white jellyfish trailing nerve-like antennae through black water lit with red and yellow lights. But the white blob in the middle of the canvas concentrated the attention; everything seemed to lead back to it. After staring at it for a moment, I began to feel hypnotized myself.

James clapped Ricky on the back ,saying: ‘Master, you’ve produced a masterpiece. Don’t you think so, Sir Reg?’

Ricky seemed to come out of his trance. He looked at us curiously, but without hostility, wondering how we got there. Propter said: ‘A most remarkable work – most remarkable. Er . . . what do you call it?’

Ricky pointed to the naked Hindu. ‘It’s Narendra.’

Sir Reginald glanced at Narendra as if he might turn out to be the Thing from Outer space. James introduced Propter to Ricky; they shook hands. Propter said: ‘Tell me, sir, would you consider selling that painting?’

Ricky shook his head vaguely. ‘Oh no. No.’

We waited for further explanation, but none came. James interposed tactfully: ‘It’s not finished.’

Propter began to wander around the room. James obligingly turned on the spotlights and directed them at the pictures. I could see that Propter was as impressed as I had been that morning. He asked: ‘Have you had any exhibitions?’

Ricky shook his head. He was still staring at the painting. At last he took up his palette again and added more paint. He said finally: ‘I’ve only been painting for five years.’

‘Indeed. What did you do before that?’

‘Built bridges.’

‘These are really quite astounding.’ Propter added. He turned to James. ‘I’m very grateful to you for bringing me here.’

James came over to him and spoke in a low voice. Since I was standing next to them, I could just overhear.

‘Don’t ask him about buying them now. He hates to sell his pictures. Wait until you know him better.’

I couldn’t help admiring James’s knack of creating ‘sales interest’. Propter nodded briefly, and then contented himself with examining the painting without speaking. I noticed that Doreen was looking at Ricky with more interest than at the paintings. And felt a flash of jealousy. In the glare of the spotlights he was one of the most impressive-looking men I have seen. Between the domed, bald forehead and the black beard, the face showed power and character; but it also made an immediate impression of decency and good humour. I realized that I could hardly blame Doreen if she preferred him to me.

Colin Wilson,1931-2013. Adrift in Soho,1961. Chapter 5. Published by Victor Gollancz,1961

Image: Francis Newton Souza, 1912-2002. Self Portrait,1949, Gouache on Paper

Adrift in Soho describes the lives of a group of the English Beat generation set in Soho and Notting Hill in 1955. The central character, nineteen year-old Harry Preston, echoes Colin Wilson’s experience, as a would-be writer who moves to London from a provincial town and pursues adventures with out-of-work actor, James Street, in the Bohemian world of artists, poets and writers, including the Notting Hill studio of artist Ricky Prelati. The novel was rewritten from an unperformed play, The Metal Flower Blossom, 1951