Sidebar Menu

I got to know Michael Fussel through Stephen Cohn. I admired his work and his wife Evelyn Williams’ work very much. I bought two or three of their drawings and a big painting by Michael “The Sea at Night” it must be somewhere around but I haven't seen it for a long time. It used to hang in my studio, where it was sometimes mistaken for a blackboard as it relied on shine to appreciate the texture. It was almost entirely black paint. They came to Sheepdrove once or twice as well. He was appointed head of fine art at Wimbledon some years later and to my surprise he invited me to join the staff there. I was delighted because I like teaching and it gave me a foothold in a profession where my lack of qualification was a distinct disadvantage.

Wimbledon was in the throes of reapplying for degree status, we had staff meetings every week in order to try and trash out a new curriculum to submit to the Coldstream committee. Again to my surprise, I seem to have more of the ideas finally included in our submission than any of the more experienced staff. The application was successful but I must admit I was horrified to see what happened to my ideas in the hands of these more modern teachers when they were put into practice. Nonetheless I continue to teach at Wimbledon for several years mainly teaching drawing and sculpture but also  creating a foundry there.

I finally left of my own accord because I was constantly asked to teach life drawing with most incompatible comrades. Michael believed that one shouldn't enjoy teaching and that was his reason for putting me with such co-workers. Michael died of a brain tumour a few years later. The Wimbledon experience had done a great deal for my confidence and had prompted me to make two discoveries which were important: the Hadrian analysis and Rembrandt’s use of of live models and mirrors. One could say it was the making of me as a demon detective in art history.

I also made many friends there. My first article “A Case for Figurative Art Today” was written with the help of Peter Lloyd Jones who was an editor of Leonardo, a modern magazine for the arts. It was Bastien Gomperts a family friend, however, who pointed out that I had discovered a new key to Rembrandt and persuaded me to write it up. That history will get another chapter. Through Michael I was invited to show in an exhibition related to the Labour Party called “Clause 42” in which people like Jack Smith and George Fullard we're also showing I met both through Michael, both of whom I admired. I knew George Fullard’s work partly through the Royal College where he had been a student and Andy Tittensor had a very good portrait of himself done by George. Jack Smith I knew through his shows at the Beaux Art Gallery. He was the leading figure of the Kitchen Sink Group, so called because of one of his paintings of a mother washing her child in a kitchen sink. I think he was the best of a group showing at the Beaux Art Gallery run by Helen Lessore. Michael was a member of that group and I saw his work first in the gallery. I would have liked to show there but they didn't show sculpture alas. It was always my first stop when I toured the west end galleries often guided there by John Berger’s reviews in the New Statesman.

The gallery closed down very soon after I met Jack Smith and he re-emerged completely different in the Marlborough Gallery doing abstract writing. The new work had absolutely no interest for me. George also changed it was the early 1960s when the CIA’s money was changing art radically for the worse.

It all happened incredibly quickly. Surprising promotions and much more money was involved. Francis Bacon was receiving a retainer of £750 at the Hanover Gallery but £5000 on transfer to the Marlborough! Several other artists got the same. Wolly (Wolmark) told me he had been approached by the Marlborough but he did not like the people. He showed insight but from the point of view of his reputation he would have done well to accept. Everyone changed style when they joined the Marlborough stable. Michael himself underwent the same radical change from an austere landscape painter to a completely abstract manipulator of materials; in fact from the black painting I bought he changed to painting entirely in white by dipping huge areas of  handkerchief paper in white led and spreading it over the canvas. He was promoted to the Hanover Gallery where splendid sculptors such as Marino Marini, Giacometti and Manzu showed. It was the swiftest change of direction in art that has ever taken place. I was not impressed. Liz Frink was among the very few well known artist who resisted conversion.

I had no established reputation then but after two months of abstract experiment I too became a resister. I found myself more in sympathy with the old staff at Wimbledon than with the new, whose job it was to replace them. Freda Skinner the head of sculpture became a particular friend, we cast a big figure for her at East Kennet. With the special interest in female artists today she deserves promotion; also Joy Finzi, both excellent wood carvers. The life’s work of so many talents have been squandered by the advance of abstraction. The disappearance of connoisseurship in the visual arts has had a shocking toll that will be felt for years to come.

Next Chapter