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. 

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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