8 September 2011

British Writers and British Art

On 28 August BBC2 screened the thriller, Page Eight, written and directed by the eminent British playwright and screenwriter, Sir David Hare. The film’s central character, Johnny Warricker (played by Bill Nighy), is a senior MI5 officer (a deputy to the Director General apparently). To gain any insight into the real work of the security services, it would be better to accept that Hare’s work is set in a different Realm from Christopher Andrew’s, and listen to the last three of this year’s BBC Reith Lectures. But in the film, not only does Warricker have a daughter, (Felicity Jones) described by Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent as:
an artist who paints graphic and harrowing images of Guantanamo Bay-like torture victims. (Ironically, some of her work has found its way into the Government's art collection. One of her paintings hangs in the MI5 boardroom.)
but he has an extensive art collection in his flat. This serves to demonstrate the taste and values of the last-century English patriot that Hare has in mind. Two artists get a mention: by the end of the film Warricker has given away a painting by Mark Gertler and sold another, by Christopher Wood, to an art dealer in Saffron Walden for £60,000 in cash. The dealer kept the money in an antique-looking safe at the back of her shop and Warricker takes it away in a Waitrose carrier bag. He also discovers that his daughter is pregnant after a one-week affair with a Conceptual artist (pun intended, presumably) – not exactly Warricker’s taste in art.

The film’s art department and set decorator did a good job with Warricker’s collection. (The Christopher Wood looked a bit like The Card Players from Lord and Lady Attenborough’s collection as sold by Sotheby’s in 2009 for about twice as much as Warricker could raise.) Hare, as the screenwriter, must have had his reasons for lighting on Gertler (1891-1939) and Wood (1901-1930).  

Gertler was a contemporary of Stanley Spencer at the Slade. Wood, who had trained in Paris, was in St Ives when Ben Nicholson encountered Alfred Wallis. Both died young and by suicide, in Wood’s case under a train at Salisbury station in a state of opium-induced paranoia. I did wonder how even a senior public servant, particularly with several divorces behind him, could afford so many pictures,. A Gertler might be more attainable, one of his late works, The Barn, surprisingly fetching only about £5000 last year at Bonhams.

It reminded me of Ian McEwan’s novel, Solar, published in 2010. The main character, Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, is about the same age as Warricker (and Hare, McEwan and Nighy) and has also had costly troubles with a succession of women. His latest is Melissa:
She owned a string - if three was a string - of shops across north London selling dance clothes.

Like many slobs, Beard was appreciative of the order that others created without effort, or any that he noticed. In Melissa's flat, which was spread over two floors, he was particularly happy. She lived such an uncluttered life at home. There were open perspectives untroubled by furniture. The foot-wide beeswaxed floorboards recovered from a Gascony chateau shone with dull perfection. There were no loose objects, all the books were on the shelves in the right order, at least until he visited, and the art on the walls was sparse lithographs, mostly of dancers. There was a single statue, a Henry Moore maquette.
Very nice too, but a work of that type by Moore, Maquette for Reclining Figure, went for about £25000 in Bonhams in June this year.

Obviously Melissa and Warricker were being depicted as people of taste, and their creators didn’t intend them to be case studies for amateur financial advisers. But I can’t help thinking that Henry Moore maquettes and Christopher Wood oils are more likely to be found in the handsome houses of successful writers like Hare and McEwan (in London’s Hampstead and Fitzrovia, respectively) than in the humbler dwellings of civil servants and minor retailers.


Visiting Bristol Museum and Art Gallery recently I took the opportunity to see Eric Ravilious’ tempera triptych Tennis.

The panels were commissioned to decorate the door of Sir Geoffrey Fry’s music room in London. Notwithstanding my remark above, Fry was a civil servant and a distinguished patron of the arts. He served as Private Secretary to Stanley Baldwin when the latter was Prime Minister. Fry, however, came from a wealthy Bristol family, and he and Lady Fry donated Tennis to the Museum in 1945.

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