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?’
‘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”.