Neil Shawcross

SHAWCROSS

 

 

In 1935 Allen Lane stood on a platform at Exeter railway station, looking for a good book for the long trip back to London. He had met with Agatha Christie, and must have left empty handed. The stalls overflowed with fiction, but too lurid and low brow for the eclectically well-read Lane, who was an enthusiastic admirer of James Joyce’s Ulysses, an enthusiasm not shared at Bodley Head, where he was managing director.

He hopped onto his train, and set out on his 200 mile return journey in disappointment. But a seed had been planted.

The birth of Penguin Books was Lane’s solution to his conundrum that day in Exeter and a riposte to the anti-Joyceans: proven and quality literature, such as Ulysses, cheap enough to be sold from a vending machine. He wanted his books to look distinctive, to stand out from the crowd, and he was adamant that innovative and good cover design should be no more expensive than bad.

On a July morning in 2017, the light is filling the Belfast studio of William Shawcross, a resident of the city since 1962. He is sitting at a round table close to the window, where he can survey works in progress, walls festooned by art – by him, by others – and a life time’s curating of spectacularly colourful bric-a-brac and ephemera. The effect, irrespective of where you look, is phantasmagorical.

However, what has peaked the artist’s interest is a large canvas behind him, and not in his line of sight. Shawcross describes it forensically, as if his picture memory has its own braille. It is The Fox in the Attic, Richard Hughes’ 1961 novel, yet it is not the content between the paperback covers which occupies Shawcross’s thoughts, but the bold monochromatic design by Ceri Richards.

Richards has plundered from the vaults of German Expressionism to create a book cover which is bold and Freudian. His fox, emerging from a cellar, is a fantastic element, rigidly captured within stark contrasts. Anyone acquainted with the novel’s subject – the rise of Nazism – will recognize the deliberate nightmarish mise en scene by Richards.

Shawcross has reimagined the Ceri Richards cover: his touch is precise and clearly identifiable. He pays homage to the original by deftness and subtlety, yet the technique of Shawcross is his own. He reconfigures the original design by liberating the typeface from the parallel lines.

The Fox in the Attic is by no means a representative of the classic Penguin cover – rectangles of bold colour and line drawing – with which Shawcross would have been familiar growing up in Lancashire, nor is it similar to the original Penguin cover designs. Lane’s concept, which was later perfected by the Bauhaus-influenced Jan Tschichold, was the personification of simplicity itself:  three simple horizontal bands, with the title and the author’s name dead centre. There was no image, except for a Penguin or Pelican, at the bottom.

The design, in a sense, became a slave to the marketing strategy by Lane: high quality writing (and not lurid fiction) for a low price – sixpence for a book, no more expensive than a packet of Sweet Afton. Because he was disinclined to use an image, Lane needed to distinguish fact from fiction, poetry from prose, and his solution was both ingenious and revolutionary: the top and bottom bands were colour coded.

Orange for fiction, cerise for travel (Flying Dutchman by Anthony Fokker), red for plays, yellow for miscellaneous (The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton), violet for essays (Civilisation by Clive Bell), grey for world affairs (The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism by Bernard Shaw), green for crime fiction and dark blue for biographies. Woolworths ordered 63,000 books, sold them, and Lane and his new publishing house never looked back.

Indeed forward thinking and the utilizing of new ideas – modernist design principles – allowed Penguin to keep in step with the times which were, as we know, a changing: peruse some of Tschicold’s fabulous covers in the aftermath of World War II (Caesar The Conquest of Gaul by S.A. Handford, Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet by Tschaikovsky) and the bridge spanning the cool pragmatism of Lane and the dramatic expressionism of Ceri Richards, is ripened by a European vernacular.

Tschicold was succeeded by his German compatriot Hans Schmoller, one of the last species of typographers with a profound background in the history of types, and the evolution in design is almost immediate: the cover of Mary MaCaulay’s The Arts of Marriage by Schmoller, continues Tschicold’s  experimentation, and abolishes completely the strict adherence to bold colour and line, and prefigures the cinematic inventiveness of the Polish artist, Romek Marber.

Marber, who survived both the Plaszow and Auschwitz concentration camps, transformed the Penguin crime series – still colour coded green – with an avant garde, German Expressionism bent. He had three colours to work with: green, black and white, and achieved more with less, thus adhering to the original design philosophy of Penguin. This is part of the background to Shawcross’s imaging of the Penguin book titles, which gild the walls of the National Opera House: decades in the making, the Penguin iconography was an important and seminal visual statement for the young artist growing up in England (he was born in Bolton in 1940), and his love for the rational, functional and yet radical design, has never wavered.

There are very few artists or writers whose career bookends both the beginning and the end of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but that of Neil Shawcross does: he came to Belfast in 1962 to teach at the Belfast College of Art, and never left, even during the decades of mayhem and bloodshed on the streets of Belfast. The city, its cultural and social life, slowly subsumed him, and the love affair between both has never been breached. “I have had a great life here,’ he explains. ‘The Troubles did not impact on my lifestyle. The department I worked in was bombed, but we were not bombed. It was an abandoned car bomb. Our building went up in flames but fortunately we all got out in time. Over the years, some of the students were injured, but nothing stopped what I wanted to be doing, or to be going.’

Weaned on Fauvism – ‘I love primary colours, black, white, red, red and green together,’ – and inspired by the portraiture of Graham Sutherland, Shawcross came of age as an artist at a time of immense international flux in art, as one movement, born overnight, seemed to overtake another. ‘Sutherland’s portrait of Somerset Maugham would have been a big influence. It has the excitement of drama. It’s theatre. I like his Helena Rubenstein. I find the female portrait quite difficult. Out of my 70 or 80 portraits, there might be six or seven females, which are among the best, and I put it down that they are so striking, that there was something extra special that got my attention.’

Disinclined to be categorized – ‘I sometimes think I am a bit of a butterfly’ – Belfast provided the ideal social milieu for an artist whose eye was forever drawn to the theatrical and even the extraordinary among the randomness of everyday life, as fodder for his portraits, such as a moustouche, or fiery red lips, or a fluorescent coat worn by a pedestrian patrol man outside his granddaughter’s school. ‘I have got to be interested in the character of course, and I hope that comes through, but I need to keep my interest from head to toe.’ As a consequence, Shawcross chooses his subjects rather than accept commissions, and paints from real life. As a portraitist, he doesn’t bother with background, and can complete the cycle of a work, from start to finish, quickly.

‘The very best ones were in one session because there was something going on there. I don’t want to analyse it too much because you could screw the whole thing up. But I am in a certain mood and so is the sitter, and you cannot recreate that again. I can do it quickly but there has been a lot of preparation. I think there is something going on that I am not aware of, but it’s there. It’s an intense, emotional experience.’

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Kumu

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The Eesti Kunstimuuseum, or Kumu to you and me, in Tallin in Estonia, is hosting The Savages of Germany,  a typically poor translation into English of Der Blaue Reiter, which is worth seeing if you are knocking around the Baltics, with some interesting asides by Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Wassily Kandinsky and a few locals, Konrad Magi and Ado Vabbe. In the permanent exhibition space there is too much propaganda dross, but an exception is this room (see pic) by Mare Vint and Jaanus Samma.

Ward at Kelly’s

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It is tempting to view the arc of Caroline Ward’s development as meteoric, as she took to painting relatively late. Something in spate was lurking: the lava of her imagination was waiting for an eruption, as Byron might have said.

What was the catalyst? A gift as pressing and as defined and as articulate as hers’ cannot be suppressed indefinitely. Each still life in her first solo show at Kelly’s Resort Hotel will never elicit the same response. A Caroline Ward still life is a state of poise which runs deep. For, in this collection, these are paintings that you study.

Why is that?

The mackerel on the plate, evidently gutted, are at the end of their line. Memento mori perhaps? Yet we don’t inhale the stench of death. The sensation, at first, is purely visual.

Perhaps we marvel at the unobtrusiveness of their existence, irrespective of their condition. The egg is an open invitation to a response that is visceral: something so fragile, and yet so tactile.

The assembled bottles are a theatre of visual relationships, with the intensity of perfect harmony. Her interiors might appear as a distinct genre in this show, but the invitation by Caroline is the same: each work is the synthesis of her inner experience.

I think curiosity and questioning explains Caroline’s love of abstract art, for example, but still life is her calling. It is her duchas and her duende.

I believe it is a folly to define an appreciation of her work as solely clinically detached or calculatingly forensic, like planets with their own orbits.

Her paintings are rooted in her inner experience. Which is what, precisely?

Like Ed Hopper and Vilhelm Hammershoi, Caroline is a fellow traveller of how their subjects are harmonised with feeling.

There is naturally an obsession with the engagement of realism, but what is emphasised is separateness, not common ground.

The single mackerel on the plate offers two narratives: is Caroline stablizing the impression, or recording its transience? Be warned. To own a Caroline Ward is to engage in an eternal conversation about the meaning of still life. However, the means will always justify the end.

Ironically, what we can find in her depiction of the ordinary is how the discontinuities of everyday life must be matched by the consistencies of the artist. Often drawn to the unremarkable, Caroline inhabits the space between tranquillity and the tautness of a moment: within and without each painting is a continuance of an ancient tradition, the artist beckoning us to question our assumptions about the work.

It is curious that when I bracket Caroline with other artists, they are not Irish: there is the Dane, Hammershoi, the Italian Morandi and the Americans Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. Still life is a discipline that is unforgiving, where every stroke of the brush is a gamble. Your eye will not permit a mistake.

There is in a still life the momentum of tension: the fruit and the mackerel are in a state of repose, but nature is always about conquest.

If you can avoid the temptation to view her work as images of visible fact, then you can enter the atmosphere of the artist, and grasp her capacity to perceive.

Caroline is equally interested in what is not immediately visible, or discerning: the profound depth of the unknown outside and beyond the two windows in the bathroom interior. Providing a portal to what is not visible is an enduring strength of Caroline’s interiors, where light has more than a walk-on role. It defines space.

How refreshing that in the age of the confessional, Caroline is an anomaly. Her collection as a whole is the poetry of silence. The restrained elegance of her movement does not dampen its quiet power. Her work is the flotilla of a storm passing on the horizon.

Her emotional range is broad, from the poetic suggestiveness of what is beyond the interior, to the smouldering lightness of being of the objet trouve, such as the study of a bowl, or the bottles, or the tonal subtlety in depicting the domestic flotsam of everyday life: familiar, yet stripped of identity.

Her subjects are therefore not intended to be remarkable – not dressed to impress – but they are a reminder that the definition of still life is always rooted in the Italian, natura morta: the sound phonetically mirrors the meaning.

Whether it is fallen fruit or dead fish or a lemon suspended in water, the handling of the paint has as much contemplative importance as the inspiration. We can only imagine the long gestation of the synthesis of her inner experience, before the brush is summoned, and the easel fixed.

A falconer’s skill depends on their dexterity with the thin leather jesses: we see the bird, but the trick of the falconer is pretending not to be there. So too with Caroline Ward: we are surrounded by her presence, when the artist has long since left the room.

The quality of her natura morta, therefore, is ageless.

Bayntun’s

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In the age of the kindle, bibliophiles must constitute a dying breed, and yet their favourite haunts are, in some cases, easily a century or two old, and still flourishing. I have spent cherished afternoons hunting in O’Gara and Wilson in Chicago, in Hatchards in London, in College Street Boi Para in Calcutta and, most recently, Bayntun’s in Bath, one of the world’s leading antiquarian bookshops. It is in the labyrinthine basement where I have found poetic jewels in the past, and this time was no exception: first editions of Cal Lowlell’s The Dolphin and Theodore Roethke’s The Far Field, for just £5 and £10 a piece. And, because it is Bayntun’s, in excellent condition

Improbable Renditions

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American photographer Ming Smith is better known for her portraits of Nina Simone and Alvin Ailey – black cultural figures in American at a time of widespread social unrest  (what has changed?) – and a snippet of her forty year career, with the subjects captured in a state between distortion and definition, can be seen at The Serpentine Gallery in London. If you make it, why not saunter after to the nearby Frank Hurley exhibition in The Royal Geographical Society.

And creatures dream

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Segueing several decades of visual art in Wexford are veteran Gillian Deeney (left), now decamped to Tinahely in the wilds of South Wicklow, and Serena Caulfield, decamped from Rosslare to the wilds of Ballyhealy. They are pictured examining three original Caulfields in Wexford Co. Council at the excellent two venue show, comprising 13 artists, curated by Catherine Bowe and Helen Gaynor.

Conor Cafe

 

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A war artist who seems somewhat to have been sidelined by recent centenial commemorations of the Great War is William Conor, although the Ulster Museum has the single biggest collection of his work. That’s good news if you happen to be in Belfast, and peckish. Opposite the Ulster Museum is the actual studio Conor worked in for almost 15 years, and it is now a café, illuminated by the light from the lantern roof. Conor survived the Great War and indeed lived until 1968, but it is the work of another Belfast institution, Neil Shawcross, which currently adorns the walls of Conor Café.

Joe Neal

 

Tom & Joe Neal at his launch of his book The Next Blue Note in The Book Shop Wexford (Copy)

I know of few poets who are as prolific as Joe Neal. The conclusion of one volume is the stepping stone to another. He moves between different worlds so fluidly, so seamlessly.

He is deeply knowledgeable, and neither his observation nor his curiosity has been diminished by the passage of time.

Joe doesn’t forget easily, and so when this current run of books began some years ago, and this is volume number five, Joe had a treasure trove of content.

And if this trove had chapter headings, I would suggest music, nature, the past and above all, love. It is curious why a writer as gifted as Joe, with a voluminous command of the language, should choose poetry and not prose.

The answer might be in his Welsh roots, where the cadence is unlike anywhere else: swagger, pulsation, Biblical, metaphorical. I think this caution or caveat by Dylan Thomas to the first cast of Under Milk Wood in New York, ‘to love the words’, is imprinted on Joe.

Why poetry and not prose for this seducer of words? Readers demand of prose that a subject is developed completely and logically, from A to B etc. It moves like a hot air balloon.

But from poetry we demand leaping from A to Z, implying everything. No walking, but flying. No hot air balloons, but a shooting star. Explosive, and brief. And as fog leaves no scar on the landscape it invades, so too poetry.

While metre and form and rhythm are the building blocks of a poem, the blueprint, without which there would be no beginning or end, is truth. If a poem is alive and is true, it connects with the touchstone of the life within us.

That is the only tuning fork you need. Acute vision, acute memory, acute use of words.

Wallis Bird

 

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The best artist to emerge from Enniscorthy since Eileen Gray and Colm Toibin, Galbally’s Wallis Bird unleashed the full package of her astonishing vocal range before a capacity National Opera House. A homecoming for many, the concert was a magnet for aficionados of Bird, from near and far, and for whom this marked the first opportunity to see her perform songs from her latest collection, Home.

It is a measure of the synchronicity between the singer and the songwriter that Bird remains the best interpreter of her own oeuvre, which is demonstratively superlative throughout the eleven tracks of love. And though she revisited some jewels from the past (To My Bones) the concert was bookended with two of the strongest tracks from Home, the sublime Love, and Seasons, which she dedicated to the late and lamented Barry Ennis.

Bird is nakedly forthcoming as an artist, baring her soul on the sacrificial altar of love and commitment, and you don’t have to understand English to embrace her passion and her joie de vivre. And though Home picks off where Architect in 2014 left off, celebrating her relocation to Berlin, it is – by an ocean – far removed from the decadence celebrated by others who have found solace there.

Bird has expanded her emotional repertoire (none of her previous work touches the narrative arc of the title track, sung a cappella) and spontaneously segues the heart and the voice. There is an unaffected joy to the way she makes her songs gleam, and though she has the energy of a waifish dervish and can throw caution to the wind, she always has a firm grasp of the kite. Though there is nothing half-hearted or compromised from the chanteuse and writer, Bird still manages to surprise by pushing the boundaries of her craft.

Performed live, Love acts like an overture, signposting what is to come. The by now legendary acoustics of the Opera House swooned to a full throated, nuclear dawn chorus of Bird’s voice, which can soar from a standstill with the speed of a tercel.

 

From Blue Poles to Blue Posts

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As is the norm with many of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, the provenance tells a different story. So it is with Blue Poles, the stand out painting in the current exhibition devoted to American expressionism at the Royal Academy in London. Pollock was not in the habit of giving names to his drip technique paintings, so Blue Poles started out as Number 11 when it was conceived in 1952. Two years later, Pollock had a change of heart and it became Blue Poles. It was acquired by a museum in Australia in the early 1970’s, and there it has remained until it popped up in this show, perhaps the most important in the Academy since the turn of the century. It’s absolutely huge – five metres long – and is veined by every method of casting paint onto a canvas, a visual translation of a score inspired by, perhaps, Charlie Parker. This is one of those mercurial works that you simply don’t look at, but look into, and breathes the essence of Pollock. And if you like Blue Poles, you should after skip across the road to the Blue Posts hostelry for a sundowner.