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Larger than Life

Peter Batten muses about Art…

James Middleton was a large man, large in size and large in personality. Once a Cornish rugby player, he won an MC in World War I. At St Olave’s School in Southwark he was my Art teacher.

It was my good fortune to meet him at a time in my life when I needed a role model. Also, I was beginning to discover what interests in life I might enjoy. Without ever showing feelings of self-importance, he possessed a quiet confidence and dignity. I soon began to admire his talent. As a founder member of the Wapping group of artists he spent most of his spare time painting the many ships and barges to be seen along the Thames near St Olave’s. [A few schoolboy jokes were made by the obvious pun connecting his size with “Wapping”] Above all, he taught me about Art. Because I had so much respect for him, I felt that Art must be something I should learn to admire and enjoy. He told us about various schools and periods, always with practical illustrations. I vividly remember his imitation of the stained-glass-like paintings of Rouault and his demonstration of the way in which a modern portrait painter might start to develop a painting. By the time I left school I was making regular visits to London’s many galleries.

The Red Earring by Matthew Smith (1928)

The Red Earring by Matthew Smith (1928)

I soon began to realise that, despite the great achievements of Turner and Constable, British Art was hardly the equal of that produced by many of our European neighbours. At that time, c1950, Henry Moore was beginning to stand out and would go on to achieve international status. But he was a sculptor and somehow sculpture never quite roused my enthusiasm. Perhaps Graham Sutherland would prove our champion? But as his work became increasingly static and abstract I began to feel that he would never achieve the international respect I was looking for. My headmaster, Dr Carrington, had assured me that Matthew Smith would come to achieve the stature of a Botticelli. Although I came to enjoy Smith’s work, I never thought him anything more than an excellent minor artist. Then, gradually, I became aware of something different. I began to see more and more work by Francis Bacon. His vision of the world, ugly but sensual, frightening but hypnotic, brutal yet attractive, began to confirm and enrich my own response to being alive. As the years went by his work spoke to me ever more forcefully. I began to realise that his achievement was quite beyond the scope of other British artists. He was the great master I had been hoping for.

Girl with a white dog

Girl with a White Dog

But then another artist began to arouse my interest. From the first time I saw it I was strangely stirred by a painting entitled “Girl with a White Dog”. The artist was Lucian Freud. Over the years I was able to watch his work develop. His output was enormous and as the paintings piled up I knew once again that I had met an artist whose work both stimulated and enriched my experience of life. For years I used as a bookmark one of his powerful female nudes. But then I discovered the several paintings of Leigh Bowery. These are, for me, the epitome of Freud’s Vision. Now Lucian has gone and Francis went several years before him.

The words which I have used above are quite inadequate to describe either of these artists and what they have to say about human experience. They far surpass all the other British painters of the last 50-60 years. And I have lived through these years, when Britain produced not one, but two artists of international stature. It may seem very strange to those for whom, sadly, Art is not important, but I feel very proud to have been alive during this time, to be able to witness such superb achievement and to have my own sense of life’s awful mixture of beauty and ugliness, the meaningful and the meaningless, deepened and made more complex by two such masters.

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