My father was a quiet man – on the surface.
He was a sensitive boy growing up with an explosive father and a puritanical Quaker mother, and learned early on to cover his sensitivity in order to survive in the world.
He could draw, and this impressed his schoolmates, and this spared him from the bullying which he might otherwise have been subjected to. He was an observer of life, absorbing all the sights and sounds of the outside world, taking them in, and in time recreating them in near-dreamlike images. Some are gentle and reflective, some almost savage, but all unconscious. When asked about his work he invariably stepped aside, refusing to claim any understanding of how things had come about, even declaring that he didn’t remember having made some of his paintings.
We can only look at the outside, and just get glimpses of this inner life. On the outside there was the master of self-control, highly intelligent, very cultured, steeped in literature and music, with a quiet humour and a gentle manner that endeared him to everyone. Our mother had a great respect for him but also found him frustrating. She had to learn to control her own feelings too, and lived instead a rich imaginative life which she shared with us children.
This is how it was at Appletreewick, a world of its own. On the surface it was secure and safe but underneath teeming with subconscious feeling, which could be beautiful and dangerous by turns. It was hard for us to leave, but this was where our parents lived for over 60 years creating a mythic environment, which lives with us long after their death.
This inner world of our father comes over strongly in the best of his work. The early paintings are a sort of narrative seen through the lens of his childhood experiences, full of detail and clarity. They are popular with the public, maybe because there is nostalgia there, or maybe because we can get caught up into the story and fuse it with our own.
The war paintings are not an expression of the horrors of war, but more a statement of how things were. The nearest he got to allowing his feelings to surface was in “Survivors of a Torpedoed Ship” showing men clinging to an upturned boat, wrung out by their experiences, almost dead, awaiting rescue. The seagull is the only apparent sign of life. This painting was suppressed from public view as it was considered it might affect public morale, but in later years my father got letters from men saying: “That was me.” It was true.
As we children came on the scene my father reconnected with his childhood, the stories, particularly myths and legends. Also the Worzel Gummidge books where inanimate objects come to life and create havoc in the ordinary lives of human beings. There were reflections of the Renaissance, particularly of northern Europe: Hieronymus Bosch and Brueghel, again on a subconscious level.
People look at the work of the 60s with some bewilderment. The paintings seem so different, so loud and colourful, so broad in treatment, and unlike the tightly controlled work of earlier years. But remember, my father was affected by what was going on in the outer world, absorbing it through his pores, so to speak, and recreating it in his own imagery.
He was going up to London weekly, teaching at Camberwell school of Art and the Academy Schools, just as Carnaby Street and all its manifestations burst upon the world. It was a time of colour and openness and sexual expression as had not been seen before. To my father this all seemed brash and irresponsible. His natural instincts had been sublimated in the care and love of animals. He had loved to cuddle his rabbit, feel its warmth and unconditional love. Sex was natural and unobtrusive, but he couldn’t escape what was in his face out there.
Also in this decade there were changes within the family. He witnessed his three children falling in love, marrying, and the birth of the first two of his grandchildren. From the safety of his maturity he could relive the sexual excitement of young love and the sense of adventure as we moved out into the world. We cannot know what he felt but I know he enjoyed the roving eye of our admirers and maybe, maybe this engendered this explosion of apparently uncharacteristic painting. There is no doubt about it; it has the vigour of youth and the excitement of experience, almost like a midlife crisis. The paint is rich and the colour hot.
As we grew up and left home, he was able to retire from teaching and dedicate himself to the quiet life at home. The untimely death of Crispin and also Philippa’s husband Manfred forced him more into himself. To cope with the grief he sought the solace of the sea, his great love, not the big seas of the ocean but the quieter sea of the Solent and its shipping. Variations on a theme abound: beach, sea, sea and the Isle of Wight, bait diggers, regattas, figures on a beach.
Again there is a story in each one, a very quiet story and these invite the onlooker to step in and share the story. Gone are the hot colours and the wild paint. If anything his palette is even more reduced, very subtle, and the texture is fine. The images have become a meditation bubbling up from deep inside, the need to be calm in the face of life’s hardships and sadnesses. But there is joy there.
As always, the outside world and the observation of it have been his nourishment, and through him and his expression of it, a nourishment to us.