The Pig In Art
When asked about the meaning my work, I usually excuse myself by explaining that I am the late offspring of old country folk with old country ways. My education was generally agricultural and my reading owed more to the instructions on pigeon corn sacks than to the children’s library. I was advised early in my arts career that I should draw and paint subjects that I knew about. I knew a little about a lot of things, but I knew a lot about Pigs.
At dinner time in our house when I was a boy, I always asked my father, nervously, what sort of meat I was to have loaded onto my plate that day? There in the black crockpot would poke up a tail or a toe or an ear or a head from the dark stew of ‘things.’ My father’s reply to my question never changed, ‘Pig’s arse is pork, sheep’s bottom is mutton. You are what you eat and you eat what you are?’ According to that mantra I thought myself to be a good part pig?
In terms of my subject matter I can only tell you this, if it were possible that the artist’s choice of genre and image could be ordered or influenced by the genes, then my genetic palette from an early point leaned towards the colours of feather and fur, blood and soil; of Bacon, streaky and Francis. My subject was more trapped than created, a catapult was as important as a pencil to the creative process?
In my experience of them, pigs are not disagreeable like humans and most artists. With few manners they will fight just as much over a rotten potato as a female. Pigs rarely behave like this? What I truly love about pigs, they know no bounds. Just throw a murder victim into a sty and the evidence will be eaten down to the buttons. Gone, not even the wishbone!
In idle moments of abstract porcine thought, thoughts which I rarely share with others, I occasionally ask myself questions about the concept of Pig Truth? Does Truth mean anything to a pig? Or in Pig Thought is Truth the nothing shape at the bottom of an empty stone dinner trough? Who said that an empty stomach never lies? If truth were a bucket of ripe red cherries, the fat pig would gobble it down, without a thought, stones, bowl and all. The Truth reduced to a cherrified pork belch?
Through my long association with them, I believe that pigs share our deep sense of wonder. Watch them, they will raise their heads from the thick philosophical muckstraw of their existence, question the air with quizzical snout and then wonder; ‘Why? What is the meaning of it all? Did God create the Earth and all its things? All things which roam, creep and slide over it?’
In its reverie the pig pauses to scratch its rump against a rough stone wall. He stares into the distant blue hills, visible over the prison wall of his sty and slowly concludes, ‘If God did create us all, why then are we pigs singled out by some bearded human creeds as filthy, unholy, inedible swine?’
‘Good question?’ I answer. Look at the blessed human thing which presides over the Earth and all its things? Now that thing is really, really greedy and properly filthy? And that is God’s Truth whether God likes it or not?
As a shambling, 66 year old, tea-totalling misfit, I root about in the dust and straw of my own studio floor in search of the grand idea, which so far has eluded me? Whilst painstakingly running a glass over my unturned corners for the clues, I chew and cogitate the close parallels between Art and the Sty? On the walls of this former weaving shed, you will see the graphic evidence of those cogitations, the PIG IN ART. Hold your nose!
In the summer of 1975, I was invited with a group of colleagues for a weekend with my old friend and sometimes mentor, Harry Greenaway, then Head of Typography at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington. He owned a cottage near Whitstable on the Kent Coast. This cottage was sited on an ancient Kentish farm where nothing had changed since the Norman Invasion. Following a riotous night of beer and skittles, I rose early and took a summer walk around the farm. As I was leaning on the walls of a pig enclosure, the farmer, a man of very man shaped stature, joined me. I politely noted the bailing twine tied around his corduroy breeches, (this to stop the field rats running up his trouser legs) and said ‘Good Morning.’
Replying with a comfortable Kentish accent, he eased his cap onto the back of his head as farmers do the world over when studying livestock. Together we watched his prize boar as he lay, hippopotamus like, in the last cooling pool of drying mud. In a scene of picturesque contentment, Lovis, for that was the animal’s Christian name, rolled a blue engineering brick around in his mouth to the sallow calls of Herring Gulls and a distant tractor.
The farmer and I viewed this scene in quiet reverential worship. As we did so, a young female pig trotted out of her pig cottage and stepped coquettishly into the puddle shared by old Lovis. Rolling his pink pig’s eyes, the boar ceased brick gnawing and lifted his head in the direction of the young pigette standing so invitingly near his mudbath. Father had told me as a boy that a pig enjoys a sense of smell two thousand times more sensitive than our own? Whatever the level of olfactory joy which Lovis felt as he lifted his head from the mud I could only guess, but it caused him to mightily raise his 25 stone pinkness out of the mud and to weightily trotter his wobbling frame across towards his little pigwife. She was a nameless sowlet, but I recall naming her in my mind. I called her Nadine as an instrument of memory to help with the picture I felt inspired one day to paint. Had I ever got round to that painting, it would have been titled, ‘A Portrait of Lovis and Nadine?’
I shall not dally on the refinements of pig love making but only to describe the heavenly grunting and squeals of delight as Lovis performed the corkscrew rumba. Other pigs came out to witness and pay homage. Having performed his procreative duty, our hero returned to the comfort of his mud puddle. He sought out his brick and gently laid his great self down to concentrate fully on his day of contemplations.
With one voice the farmer and I grunted, ‘That’s the life?’
That small signal event of nearly forty years ago became one of my life’s important waysigns…….. how to properly live ones life according to nature? Alas, that exact method has not always been possible, much though I tried in those early years. However, I do still hold an earthy relationship with muck and with poetry? And I do gnaw stones before sleep.
When I Was a Boy
We had a Victorian family bible, bound in iron and leather it was illustrated with glorious engravings. We also had a painting of a bunch of flowers in the hallway and a Spanish galleon embossed on a brass log box. But that was it for art in our house?
The further away I draw in time from my childhood, the more influential I realise the engravings in the family bible were to my development as a graphic artist. For, ‘graphic artist’ is how I clumsily describe myself and my practice, even if my edges are often ill drawn and too out of focus to be called‘graphic?’ The term ‘artist’ is a badge of honour, which is bestowed by others, NOT by oneself?
As a boy I would pass endless hours alone, with the bible on my bed, studying the almost magical craft of the engraver. Whether it was Daniel in the terrible dark of the lion’s den, a woman being turned into a block of salt or the head of St. John the Baptist on a dinner plate; to me the dark biblical subject matter was far more powerful and darkly narrative than any cowboy film on a Saturday morning matinee. Furthermore, for a boy of that indeterminate age, there always seemed to be a whole lot more sex simmering in the unlit corners of the temple than out there in the harsh technicolor light of the open prairie. To me, that unwashed boy, the art of the engraver was sublime and could only be God given? To my untutored mind, no mortal human could draw like that unless blessed with very special powers? When I learned later that the engraved lines were cut into copper with special engraving tools or burins (which were ceremoniously kept in ancient leather tool rolls with symbolic religious tie strings) that was it, I knew my ambition? My chosen route would be to set out to master the mysteries of art and engraving and to go on to graphically illustrate those things beyond human understanding?
Many years later when I had acquired just a few of the engravers skills particularly in terms of cross hatched pen illustration, I was able to put my abilities to work as a a sometime newspaper artist. I had a way of working which was borrowed and stolen from all the great lampooning cartoonists of the past, Rowlandson, Hogarth, Cruikshank, Lowe going back to Pieter Brueghel the Elder. My particular living hero was Ralph Steadman with whom I later became good friends. In fact if Ralph had too much work on he would pass jobs onto me. I worked for all of the British broadsheets at one point or another as well those in Germany, France, Holland, Belgium and the US.
Though I loved the picturesque culture of Fleet Street, my career as a cartoonist was short lived. I received a walloping big fellowship to live in the States for a year. On my return Wapping had happened, Fleet Street, gone. The old editors and art editors, gone. Their waistcoats and fancy snuff tins, gone. The first hand understanding of history and storytelling, gone. Inkwells, gone. Everything, that attracted me to the game of newspaper cartooning, gone. To be replaced by what? By a twenty something year old business graduate, with an ill fitting suit and a handshake like cold liver, who stared blankly at a new fangled computer screen whilst assessing your portfolio, unable to differentiate a drawing by Otto Dix from a picture of a Womble, and worst of all, whose cretinous breath smelled of Ovaltine? Nice clean young twerps who could not think their way out of a wet paper bag? Newspapers went digital and with that went many of the graphic skills and bilious ink of the newspaper artist. The skills of the Cross Hatch Kid consigned to cartoon history? And looking at political cartoonery in most newspapers today, with a couple of remarkable exceptions, I see comic ideas of inspired dreariness matched with the colours of the deepest dull and vibrant drab.
I try to spend an equal amount of my time these days between the Pennine Region of West Yorkshire and The Alpaharras of Southern Spain. Both fashioned by tough history, the first by the Mills and the other by the Moors. These very particular landscapes are where I love to live and work.
From my time at the Northampton School of Art in the late’60’s I pocketed a sturdy acorn of interest in the tradition of English Landscape principally through the work of Graham Sutherland, a very influential artist to the students of that time. I kept that acorn firmly fixed, dormant in the junk shop of my brain for over thirty years. I promised myself that one day I would fish out that acorn, plant it in earth and watch it grow. It was at a time that I had decided to attempt to teach myself the use of oil paint that I coincidentally decided to make the study of the landscape a chosen area of subject for oils. I began my change of artistic direction by painting the landscape near my home, Gloom Hall, just outside Huddersfield. ‘When rendering the Pennines, remember that they are: morose, brooding, old, very old, history upon history upon history leaching up through the strongest boot, history that smells of earth and stone and water. When painting, stand still and listen to those hills, they whisper the colours of the age of blood and iron. And what colours the Pennine rock? Why, wind coloured and water coloured, wool coloured and coal coloured, the colours of wet animal and church coloured. A very limited palette is required hereabouts, if you can mix pewter, you will have it? Stick to this list and you might one day paint like Turner. Good afternoon Young Man and Good Painting?’
These were the words spoken by passing gentleman as I stood drawing the Yorkshire Bleakscape towards Dark Hill from Meltham Cop, an Iron Age fort, late one afternoon in the autumn of 2000? At the time, I thought little of it, I never asked his name and I have never seen him since. I have told the story many times in the local pubs where I live, this along with a graphic description of my wayside adviser? They have never heard of him and say he is a figment of my imagination? Well if he was a ghost, he was a ghost who smelled of whiskey and pipe tobacco? It is worth recording that a Spanish friend, much given to ancient book reading, thinks that the man was probably my future ghost in old age advising his younger self on how to understand the meaning of landscape? You are never alone in a landscape?