'As a scrawny youth with a burgeoning interest in art I would make my way to the Municipal Art Gallery in my local town, Walsall. With a passing wink to the town's war hero, Carless VC, I would climb the stairs to the galleries and wander and wonder how this tiny place could be home to the work of so many emminent artists. Modigliani, Van Gogh, Monet, Turner, Degas, Delacroix and many others. The answer to that question was Epstein. The collection was put together by Kathleen Garman and Sally Ryan, 365 works were presented to the good folks of Walsall in 1973. Kathleen Garman was Epstein's widow. Kathleen had been born into a middle class family living in Wednesbury, a few miles from Walsall. She was the third of seven sisters, all renowned for their beauty, intellect, connections and wilful ways. Well Kathleen's collection might have contributed and I subsequently set off on my wayward artistic journey. A decade later I had returned from Gloucester Foundry with a van full of castings to Ralph Brown's studio and during the morning the conversation turned to casting editions. Ralph had known Epstein in his later years and it was intriguing to hear that after Epstein's death Lady Epstein seemed a little vague about the precise edition number of some sculptures that had been produced.The Churchill bust, for example, was cast in an edition of ten but perhaps up to sixteen are thought to exist. Kathleen popping up again.
A short time after this conversation work was slow in the studio and I was 'loaned' out to Laurie Lee for several weeks. Laurie lived in Slad, a valley or two away from Oakridge, and was an intrinsic member of the creative and artistic world focused around Stroud. A little up the road from his delightful Rose Cottage Laurie had bought another property, a very unprepossessing thirties build, devoid of any character. I was drafted in to add character, principally building faux stone alcove shelving. There were some fine evenings in Rose Cottage and entertaining lunches in the pub. Laurie was just about to set out for Spain on a memory refreshing trip for his book about his Spanish adventures in the thirties, 'When I Walked Out Midsummer Morning'. It was during a pub lunch that the name Garman popped up again, he was to visit Toledo where he had once stayed with the poet Roy Cambell and dallied with his wife Mary. Mary Cambell nee Mary Garman. This dalliance was followed two years later, by a more serious affair with Mary's sister Lorna Garman.
This wonderful painting by Lucien Freud is a portrait of 'Kitty Epstein', Freud's wife and the daughter of Kathleen Garman. Freud had previously had an affair with her aunt Lorna Gorman. Mary Garman, not letting the family side down, famously had an affair with Vita Sackville West, what tangled webs. I did not set out to troll the Garman's glamorous and complicated lives, but I would urge you to do it, it's glorious stuff. It was Kathleen Garman that had drifted into my mind and I really just wanted to mention her collection at Walsall, which had been important to me, if only for bringing Gaudier Brzeska into my field of vision.
A little like picking an irritating and ever present scab I decided to remind myself of how bad it can all be by looking again at a selection of late paintings by Howard Hodgin.
Works like these, which do nothing to enhance a painter's reputation always put me in mind of Salvador Dali putting his signature to blank pieces of paper at his dealers behest. However incautious clicking took me to a more rewarding place, instead of finding Howard I discovered his cousin Eliot.
Eliot's immaculate paintings have lost much of their impact for us, images such as these have proliferated on greeting cards, packaging and hundreds of other consumables, what self respecting book shop doesn't have racks of these tasteful and twee cards for the discerning shopper. In the 1930's Eliot was a successful established artist, known for still lives, portraits and landscapes. His immaculate, wonderfully observed and technically superb tempera paintings were essential decor for smart, fashionable middle class homes. One suspects that the cool, handsome and suave artist was also de rigueur in their drawing rooms.
During his successful career he turned down the invitation to become an Academician but exhibited around 113 paintings at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions. During World War II he worked for the Ministry of Information producing wonderful paintings of London bomb sites, with particular emphasis on the plants growing through the devastation. They call to mind with their detailed observation some of Freud's early work. The paintings resonate with Noel Cowards famous war time song 'London Pride'.
I find the still lives amazing but ultimately sterile but one is reminded of the subtle placements and arrangements of Morandi and they bring to mind some of the groupings in the small works of Nicholson. The cityscapes I love, hope within the devastation, but then I'm also a sucker for a smart trilby.
AGED AND AWKWARD