I paint my own places best; painting is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate my ‘careless boyhood’ with all that lies on the banks of the Stour. Those scenes made me a painter and I am grateful – that is, I had often thought of pictures of them before ever I touched a pencil.

John Constable
‘The Conductor’
(Acrylic on canvas)

Photo by EP

As a Bradford lad, had I got more than English Language and Art in the O Levels of 1952, I might have applied to the Bradford Regional College of Art. Mr Green, my Art master, said I must sit more subjects or I would never be able to teach. I told him that I intended to be an artist not a teacher. Mr Green said nothing in reply to this piece of sixteen-year-old arrogance. In the event, I left grammar school and went to the local drama school, and so as far as Fine Art goes I am, in Constable’s words, ‘a self-taught artist’ who ‘is taught by a very ignorant person indeed.’ I have, however, in recent years, taken myself to Life Drawing classes.

Northern Theatre School. EP centre

Everyone wakes at some point thinking, if not singing, ‘I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls’. In some very real way the dream came magically true for me when, after an excruciatingly long wait, the Royal Academy of Arts informed me that they had finally accepted and were going to hang a painting of mine  in their marble halls for this year’s Summer Exhibition. The painting: ‘The Conductor’, my portrait of older brother Bill on point duty outside the Bradford Alhambra, circa 1946. Amazement jostled with delight. It still does several days later.

Photo by EP

Varnishing Day on Monday will be the first and exclusive chance for us painters to see how far above or below ‘the line’ we have been hung (the eyeline of the average viewer, that is) and to find what delight we can in the adjacent paintings competing for the attention of the crowd.

I thought I might ‘make a splash’ on Varnishing Day by actually taking a small bottle of varnish and a brush. And I have wondered about my dress: should I attend this traditional event, at which I am sure no artist wields a brush as of old, dressed nevertheless in paint-stained working clothes (I have, in fact, a costume, a paint-bespattered white suit left over from a one-man show I did called Slap Dash).

Self-portrait at the RA by EP

Not the thing my instincts tell me, though one imagines it would be difficult to be transgressive even in the Royal Academy these days. Don’t we remember, just a few years ago, red candle wax being shot in great gobbets from a cannon? Yes; but the most famous transgressors of the last half century have been Sir Alfred Munnings and Sir Tom Stoppard. In his valedictory presidential speech at the 1949 Royal Academy banquet, Munnings dared to deride Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse as distorters of nature and corrupters of art. In 2001, Stoppard used his keynote speech at the Academy banquet to castigate the Young British Artist movement for being artless, soulless and self-indulgent, at one point developing his argument: ‘It is but a hop, skip and jump to Tracy’s knickers.’

Photo by Marilyn Kingwill

I acted in Tom’s Artist Descending a Staircase five years ago and set myself the exercise of actually painting the painting that my character, Donner, works on throughout the action, which one of my fellow painters in the play describes as ‘a naked woman sitting about a garden with a unicorn eating the roses’.

I had a card of the finished painting printed and sent it to Tom. What was Tom’s phrase in his note of reply? ‘I didn’t know you were “a proper” painter.’

‘The White Fence’
(Acrylic on canvas)

I would like to dream for a short season that the marbled halls of Burlington House, Piccadilly grant me that status, dubious though it may be these days. Mr Green would be impressed for one thing and, if you could walk up the road in my painting – the road on the right of the Bradford Alhambra in the late 1940s – you would soon come to the stone nonconformist chapel converted into an art school where Life Drawing and Perspective were taught (and still should be, insists alumnus David Hockney).

L. Bradford Regional College of Art.
R. Artists John Loker, Norman Stevens, David Oxtoby and David Hockney
in the College common room in the 1950s

I often wish I had taken that road. ‘O, had I but followed the arts!’ as Aguecheek laments in Twelfth Night.

Detail of ‘Seer and Yellow Leaf’
(Acrylic on canvas)

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition opens to the public on 9 June and runs until 17 August. Tickets can be booked online.

  • Kate

    Been wondering what you'd had accepted at the RA since I saw a tweet about it. One of your best. Congratulations. I especially like the street scenes you're preparing for your new book. Parallel careers are always nice. Why choose?

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