I suppose this could be seen as an example of that most mind-shunning habit, name dropping. So instead, look upon it, if you will, as my three unsuccessful bids for those fifteen minutes of fame to which, according to Andy Warhol, we are all entitled. My three near-brushes with fame. I shall take them in chronological order.
The first, I have blogged about before, so if it's old hat for you, my apologies. It is the one most indelibly engraved upon my memory for all the wrong reasons and goes back to those far off times when I was an art student. Again, for all the wrong reasons (you may feel) I shall give it the lion's share of the post. The school's sculpture studio, which doubled as the pottery studio, was located in the basement and was reached by a steep flight of plaster-encrusted stairs which Health and Safety would condemn out of hand these days. I had signed up for sculpture periods on two weekday evenings. These were shared with part-time students that we ego-inflated souls dismissed as amateurs. They came, as often as not, in lounge suits or decent frocks (we used the word in those remote days)! They chatted (gossiped) more than they sculpted or potted, and they generally contrived to look and sound like people who were not interested in what was supposed to be the point of the exercise. They, for their part, regarded us as Bohemian. That, I need hardly say, was meant as a term of abuse. It meant that we operated outside the normal social parameters when it came to the decencies of life: washing, dressing, sexual behaviour and morality generally. Their one justification for this that I could see was that we dressed (on the whole) in ways generally regarded as Bohemian. (I, for example, would typically wear blue corduroy trousers, green suede shoes, red shirt, orange tie and green pork pie hat. (Well, I had a position to keep up, didn't I?) We (the two sides) would be friendly enough towards each other if we met in the street or the restaurant, for example, but down in the basement we treated each other with disdain.
On the evening I now describe I had arrived early, being anxious to get in as much work as possible on my latest project, a plaster construction freely based on the skeletons of two cocks fighting. For half an hour or so I was alone in the room. Then came the sound of footsteps descending the stairs and the appearance of a man I did not recognise. Obviously an evening school student - damn it all, he was wearing an expensive suit. (Expensive in terms of an art student's budget, that would be.) I ignored him. The unfinished models and pots were all on turntables, which in turn were mounted on tripods. Some works were covered by damp cloths to keep the clay moist. He went up to one and removed the cloth. The hairs on the back of my neck began to rise. His attitude was nonchalant in the extreme; one foot on the bottom rail of the tripod, leaning back to examine the model, spinning it with one hand. Eventually he looked in my direction:
You know the person who's doing this? (This was an elaborate design of shapes derived from sea shells and marine animals.) Wally (not his real name) had been working on it for weeks, building it up by the gradual addition of small pellets of clay until it was by that stage, several feet from b base to apex.)
Absolutely, he's a friend.
Does he do much of this?
Cor, does he? He's always at it! Knocking them off so you wouldn't believe! Two or three an evening when he's in full swing!
The conversation continued in this vein for a short while longer, he asking his questions and me giving him my inane answers. Then:
That yours, then?
Well, I ask you. I had been working on it! Yup! Guess so!
Do you normally work that way? (Presumably meaning modelling as opposed to carving.)
Whatever comes! I'm not too fussy. Just as the mood takes me, I guess.
You don't have a preference?
No, it's all the same to me.
Just then a shadow appeared at the top of the stairs, darkening them appreciably. A voice called down them, the voice of Mr Henke, the lecturer.
Are you down there, My Epstein?
Coming! called out the visitor - and disappeared up the steps at a rate of knots.
Later, with the session now formally under way, Henke asked me:
What the hell did you say to Mr Epstein? and before I could answer:
He wanted to know who the bloody idiot was who had been irritating him .
But no, it wasn't the Mr Epstein, but his brother. Some relief... but even so, he was a well respected sculptor of some significance who had come specifically to gave a second opinion on the work being done.
My next brush with fame occurred not long after the first. I and a friend were having a day in London, doing the exhibitions and museums. Quite out of the blue he took me along to see Feliks Topolski in his studio under one of the arches of Hungerford Bridge almost opposite the (then) recently built Festival Hall. This actually is another example of synchronicity at work, for I had got to about this point in my post when I read in the newspaper that the trustees of Topolski's estate are archiving as much of his work as possible and creating a museum to his memory in the studio which he made so famous. A retrospective exhibition is also planned. They are, therefore, anxious to trace as many of his works as possible and are appealing for anyone with information to come forward. The former studio is n ow open to the public, so I may well soon be retracing my footsteps to make a somewhat nostalgic visit. Details can be found on the official websitehere
My friend, I discovered, knew Topolski in some connection. How closely, I never did discover, but at any rate it was close enough to get us an entry and to see the great man at work for a short while. I was bowled over by the energy of the man and the energy emitting from his works. His drawings sizzled as though a powerful electric current was crackling through them. Below is a charcoal drawing of looters at work in Germany.
He was a one-off. I can think of no other artist even remotely like him.
If my first encounter is the one most indelibly engraved in memory, this third one is the one most fondly remembered. It was another day out with a friend. Not the same friend. By then I was at college and my fellow pilgrim - for that is what it was - took the day off to travel to Cookham on the banks of the Thames, the home of Stanley Spencer. I'm not sure what we were hoping for; perhaps just to get the atmosphere of the place that had been his domain for pretty much the whole of his life, with just the exception of his days at The Slade School of Art and a few years as a war artist.
We made (I think first of all) for the church and entered the church yard. And there he was, sitting beside his famous pram loaded with canvases, paints and all the paraphernalia of his work. The scene might well have come straight from one of his paintings. I expected Christ to appear in some guise at any moment, perhaps with his disciples (all villagers, of course).
Below is Spencer's work: Shipbuilders Christ's Entry into Jerusalem.
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