My drawings were all framed in the simplest possible mounts and mouldings. I was worried by the glass which in some cases was very green. It spoiled the quality of the pencil work and different kinds of paper had quite definite colour and gave the pencil colour too, all of which was lost behind glass. But I didn’t like to make a fuss about it as the framer was charging so little and taking the work to the gallery for me.
The Goupil Gallery was in Lower Regent Street. It had a big reputation and introduced to the public many artists now famous like Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler and John Nash.
My drawings were to be hung in the first room through which everyone had to go to get to the other galleries. The large one was filled with landscapes by H. H. Newton who became a great friend of mine and upstairs were paintings by George Bergen.
It was pointed out to me by the director that they usually charged an exhibitor twenty pounds for the publicity and printing but as it was understandable that I could not pay them this sum down, they would deduct it from the first sales after which their usual commission would come into operation. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if there were no sales. One of the staff had just been telling me that the painter who had the large room last has not sold a single picture. There was in fact panic all round. The great crash on Wall Street was imminent and artists were in a bad way. It was certainly the worst time possible for a mere student to be introducing himself.
After the director had told me the depressing facts and mournfully wished me well he remarked that he supposed he would be seeing me at the preview. Well as a matter of fact I wasn’t sure whether I ought to turn up or not. I might be in the way. My presence was not of the kind that immediately inspires persons with banking accounts (I hadn’t one) to bring out their cheque books in my favour.
I had heard dealers giving their customers the most extravagant accounts of a painter whose work was on view. He sounded like a film star with a chateau in the south of France and on intimate terms with the great of every nation, painting their portraits (if he was inclined that way), in fact people were fighting for his work which was going up in price by leaps and bounds - whereas the truth was that the artist was an insignificant little man always half dressed, who went off to a tumbledown cottage in France partly to escape pressing debts, partly because it was cheap.
The director on hearing that I had doubts as to my turning up opened his eyes very wide and assured me it was the done thing, that people would be disappointed if I wasn’t there. In fact that is what a lot of them came for and so on.
The day arrived and I sauntered along to the West End in an apparently casual way, dressed in a double breasted black suit, black tie, slightly off-white shirt (Mother’s make and my own laundering) and black shoes very down at heel. When I arrived in Lower Regent Street I hastily glanced along the pavement to see if a queue was forming outside the Gallery but there was no sign of excitement whatsoever. I walked slowly up and down, at last stopping to look in the window as there was a single painting on view. It was by Walter Greaves of the river at Chelsea. I thought it was remarkably good and wondered why there wasn’t a rush to buy it.
Then I looked down the long passage which led to the Gallery’s premises at the back. There was a glass door at the far end. On opening it you usually fell down a step you didn’t know was there and faced a pompous secretary, at a distinct disadvantage. I couldn’t see that there was anyone in the place at all. It was about lunch time. My friend at the Treasury had said he would come at this time so I waited until he arrived and then sheepishly walked down the passage with him. We tried our strength on the panelled door, nearly broke our ankles on the step and gazed round the room. The Times had published a good notice and the secretary remarked that in the old days a notice like that could have brought people to the gallery in hundreds. Someone else pushed the door open but it was an artist who wasn’t looking at the pictures, only getting the dealers to know his face. One or two friends popped in saying how nice the show looked without having looked at all.
Then a stately lady in black came in (they never seem to trip up over an unexpected step) and floated towards me explaining that she was Mrs --- who had condescended to come as I was a friend of one of her late parishioners. I had been warned that she was very wealthy and might be persuaded to purchase a drawing. So I looked at her hopefully but didn’t get much encouragement. She glanced round and then seemed to shiver slightly remarking that she thought people wouldn’t want to buy black and white work in November, it was colour they wanted at this time of year. She shook hands with me again in a chilly fashion and I didn’t have to hold the door open for her as I noticed the young cockney, who was the odd job man about the gallery, on the other side of the glass panelling doing his stuff with an exaggerated flourish. So I had succeeded in frightening my first customer off.
Now to stand all alone in a gallery waiting for someone to turn up is an experience I have undergone many times. The pictures which have been produced with love and sweat begin to look very odd. Faults become numerous and the few virtues they seemed to possess when seen in the intimacy of a home have completely disappeared. There is nothing I can do about it and when a complete stranger comes in I pretend that I am looking at the drawings. But in all probability he will notice I haven’t got a coat or hat and will come to conclusions. Unlike a secretary, I can’t sit down at the desk and toy with a pencil or nervously finger the telephone. Sometimes a stray critic or journalist comes in belatedly (they are usually invited for the day before) and stand in the centre of the room looking round in a lost or hopeless way. If he doesn’t beat a retreat after that, he may suddenly make a dart at one picture and glare at it with undisguised hostility. After that he turns round and catches my eye. He looks through me as he would at a waiter expecting a tip after having served him a perfectly disgusting meal. At last some friends come in. They have fixed their most friendly smiles and tell me how pleased they are to come and other preliminaries and then they take a deep breath and look at the walls. Their faces change: some look determined to say the right thing; others find that a constant reference to catalogue numbers and titles gives them a breathing space in which to come to their senses. Some are quite bare faced about it and never look at the pictures at all (which is probably the most sensible thing to do) and take the opportunity to chat gaily with other friends, occasionally turning to me and asking 'What does it feel like?' 'Have you sold many?' they say. When I say 'No' they look as though they had perhaps said something rude and then hasten to mend the situation by saying 'Oh but you will, you’ll sell the lot' and make a dive for the door muttering something about sending so-and-so along or that they would certainly come in again.
I turn round into the centre of the room again and on doing so my eye perceives something unfamiliar. I have noticed when out walking in a landscape well known to me that if the smallest thing is different, such as a pole thrust in the ground quite a long way off, I am aware of it at once. So in this case I was aware of a small red spot stuck in the bottom corner of one of my drawings. 'First Blood' says somebody in my ear. It was four guineas off the premium to be paid.
Gradually those who had bravely read their way through the catalogue came and smiled once more and said how much they had enjoyed it and I said how good it was of them to come and we parted on good terms. As two of them struggled with the ‘try your strength’ door I heard one of them say 'But why does he draw women like ...?' and the door shot to behind them, the remainder of the enquiry being heard in the passage beyond.
I was well hidden in a friendly group when one of the directors elbowed his way in and told me in a hushed voice that Lady Lavery would like to meet me. My mind immediately turned to the famous Ladies’ Lavatory story but quickly turned somersault when I beheld the lady in all her glory. She was overwhelming. I didn’t know where to look. The make-up of her face was like a mask. I vaguely penetrated it to see a friendly soul beneath. Her manners were beautiful and I had no ready answers to her questions and comments. I was too startled and found myself gazing at an incredible flower perched on her bosom. It must have been an orchid of some kind with various bits of maidenhair fern and other escorts to keep it company. Her tired face looking through its mask with this foreground of exotic growth trembling and brilliant was infinitely touching. I was awakened from my stupor by her escort. He was an elderly man-about-town in full dress, top hat and all. A rose with the inevitable maidenhair fern adorned his buttonhole, his hair was beautifully curled and his exquisite white gloved hand held a silver mounted cane. But he was bent on entertaining the company and it took a form quite new to me. The innocent subject matter of my drawings was being interpreted as an orgy of sexual perversion with reference to some notorious novels then in fashion. An architect friend of mine, when he heard the lewd talk protested sternly, and the ‘gentleman’, realising his audience was not with him suddenly looked old and crestfallen and shabby. With a poor effort at being gallant he turned to me and pointing to a young man said 'Well at any rate you might as well know a fellow artist of the name Wood' then took his lady’s arm and shuffled out of the gallery. I turned to the young man with great interest as I had much admired recently some water colours and drawings by Kit Wood which showed a vision of almost child-like clarity combined with draughtsmanship of undoubted mastery. So I asked if he was Christopher Wood and he replied that he was. We talked for some time about each other’s work and then he too left the gallery which became less populated as the afternoon was nearly over. In less than a year he was dead.
After his death his prodigious output was revealed and his outlook had a profound effect on my work; for here was a young man who tried out all manner of fashionable styles before emerging perfectly free and uninhibited to paint what he loved.
This may seem a strange discovery for surely painters paint what they love. But this is not so. Ridiculous still life groups painted with no love or curiosity for the objects portrayed, jostled landscapes of every country except one’s own on the walls of our exhibitions. Portraits of persons the artist did not know and did not want to know stared from the same walls. We were told by critics, who had already started their campaign of moulding the course of art, that here at last was real painting as it had never existed in England before. But it is now all forgotten and whenever one of these masterpieces turns up we wonder what on earth we could have seen in it, so dreary and so drab and shoddy it is. While nearly thirty years later Christopher Wood’s works still have that freshness and inevitability, like a folk song, and are as haunting.