Monday, 23 May 2011

Spencer Murphy / Trashscapes

Last Saturday I popped to the National Portrait Gallery for my customary nose round – and was surprised and delighted to see they’ve bought some photographic portraits by my friend Spencer Murphy. Indeed, I was so incredibly excited to see a friend’s work there that I interrupted an elderly couple who were mumbling lovely things about his portrait of Benedict Cumberbatch (above).

“It’s great isn’t it!” I gushed breathlessly, probably looking like a bit of a nutter, “And guess what, my friend did it...!”

It just so happens I’ve been looking for an excuse to re-post an article I wrote about Spencer a few years back for the Association of Photographers journal - this does seem like the ideal occasion.

First, allow me to set the scene a little. It was 2006, and Spencer had been awarded the AOP bursary to pursue his interest in waste sites. He’d become very interested in making ravishing, moody photos depicting dumping grounds of various descriptions - and the bursary gave him the chance to cast his net a little wider. He knew that (as my visual diary will attest) I’ve got my own fascination with finding beauty in unlikely places. He also knew that his first destination, Scotland’s so-called ‘Anthrax Island’ had long been on my list of places-I’d-love-to-visit. He came up with the suggestion that I could come along and provide a bit of company, plus help with some low level assisting (which generally speaking amounted to holding an umbrella or carrying an occasional bag). When we got back, I wrote this little piece about what we got up to...

1.

The Multimap printouts bundled in the glove compartment of Spencer’s car promised a tour of Britain’s most beautiful scenery. Yet the schedule notes scribbled in their margins told a different and parallel story; an often embarrassing catalogue of waste disposal sites and nuclear dumping grounds set at the most conveniently sequestered corners of the UK.

Take our first destination, Gruinard. This tiny yet sheltered island near the coast of Westeross, north Scotland, had been selected by the MOD in 1942 as the site for a number of top secret germ warfare tests. TNT bombs, detonated on the crest of the island, spread anthrax spores over a flock of unfortunate sheep restrained nearby in wooden crates. Scientists carefully observed the symptoms and efficacy of various concentrations of poison on these animals, as they perfected their embryonic biological weapons. The flocks of infected sheep, now a midden of corpses, were burnt to ashes then sealed up in a cave.

The MOD had finished with the island - but Gruinard could not be returned to the people. It was contaminated with invisible and deadly pathogens, destined to lie dormant in the soil for hundreds of years. The island’s fate became the focus of local and national debate. What on earth could be done with it? It remained ring-fenced in miserable barbed wire and forbidding red MOD warning signs, before an eventual clean-up operation of mind-boggling expense was deemed the only solution. Every inch of the island’s topsoil was burnt, then soaked in formaldehyde and bleach.

Although declared safe, the locals still clearly felt a measure of mistrust. When Spencer and I booked into our B&B, the face of our pleasant host turned thunderous at the very name. Gruinard was a blot on the local landscape that clearly embarrassed and pained him in equal measure.

“You’re not actually going out there?” he asked incredulously. Spencer told him we’d chartered a boat for the following day and briefly explained the nature of his project - though it seemed to cut little ice.

“Be sure you take your boots off before you step back across my land”, he said threateningly.

The next morning, we waited in the B&B. The atmosphere was tense and troubling. Spencer was silently worrying through the practical details of today. Undeniably it was a risk. He’d driven the entire length of the UK, to charter a boat at great cost from someone he’d never met before, carrying his irreplaceable equipment out to an island no-one visited – an island until only recently contaminated by an aggressive, fatal disease. We sat in silence watching a replay of the previous night’s Big Brother.

At three PM we parked the car in Dundonnell to meet our ferryman. He was a cheerful red-head in a thick black jumper with a firm handshake, who explained that he was also the local builder, the proprietor of the village coffee shop, owner of the nearest B&B and – should we have call for one during our brief stay – the undertaker.

It was a lovely calm, sunny day as we clambered into the boat. A fresh wind roared through our ears as we powered off. The route from Dundonnell was circuitous, taking us the entire length of Loch Broom before moving into open waters. Finally the engine cut out a short way from the shore of Gruinard, which loomed large and dreadful before us. So there it was. A dark brown island with two long tapering shores and a hill at its centre.

The water was getting rough as we jumped down into a small motorised dingy. We sped to Gruinard’s rocky, forbidding beach, then turned off the engine. Our guide explained it was best to wait for the choppy water to throw the boat naturally onto the shingle.

The waves, to my horror, were big and seemed to be growing. I can’t swim, and feel scared of water deeper than the bath. Out here with no-one to see us, I felt sure that if our boat went over we’d quickly drown. Spencer clutched his camera bag, meanwhile, in a different kind of horror, praying that a wave wouldn’t soak it and ruin his treasured kit. We came close to the beach for a second, as the front of the dingy momentarily dashed the stones… but in a second the tide threw us back even further. After a moment it threw us in again - nearly there, then back out with a woosh, like some aquatic fairground ride. Finally our guide took a chance and vaulted over the front of the boat. He was knee deep but standing safe by some miracle on the shingle of Gruinard with the rope in his hand, tugging with all his might. Spencer leaped over the front of the boat and lent me a hand as I finally emerged somewhat more pathetically, my confidence dented and my trousers soaked.

Here we were, then. Spencer and I watched with some measure of trepidation as the speedboat, complete with our ferryman, disappeared from view. We had five hours completely alone on this island. For a few moments, we enjoyed the sheer thrill and novelty of this situation and stood there cackling like naughty schoolchildren.

After calming down, I took some time to wander off alone and examine the ruins of crofting cottages on the shore, before starting a slow ascent of the island’s steep central hill. The carpet of brown scrub looked deceptively flat and smooth, but underneath it’s surface lay jagged rocks, interspersed with deep sodden bog. Every step threatened a sprained ankle. I finally made it onto the brow of the hill, to be joined moments later by an exhausted Spencer, who emerged from the other side faltering under the weight of his heavy camera apparatus. I greeted him with a smile and we sat down on the rocky ground to eat sandwiches and drink our flask of coffee.

Spencer explained he’d done a circuit of the whole island. Aside from looking careworn and barren, the MOD had been careful to leave no trace of their encroachment upon the history of this place. There were no leftover warning signs, no obvious bomb craters, no sheep graveyards. I toyed with a rabbit skull at my feet, noticing that there were rabbit bones everywhere.

“We’ve probably got anthrax on our hands by now…” I said jokily as I took a hearty mouthful of my sandwich. This was a strangely modern wasteland, unique in Spencer’s itinerary. It was a place that kept its threats well hidden, its horrors locked in the soil amidst beguiling Highland splendour. It was rather easy in any given moment to forget that we were sat on the site of the very first deployment of a biological weapon. This humble rock had therefore played a role in the history of modern warfare, effecting a paradigm shift from firebombs and smoking craters to the subtle microscopic viruses capable of wiping out generations with black necrotic skin ulcers, vascular leakage, and respiratory collapse. I brushed the breadcrumbs off my coat and screwed the cap back on the flask.

Spencer set up, while I sat absently watching him. To his tripod he fixed an old fashioned plate camera complete with a bright red hood to keep out the daylight. He quickly snapped a Polaroid to check the light.

“Far too bright” he said, “and I don’t like that sky.”

I’d already seen Spencer’s techniques at work the previous autumn. We’d been sent together on a magazine assignment to Western Ireland – illustrator and photographer paired up by an eager editor. Despite my initial cynicism, it soon became clear that Spence was, like me, introspective and self-questioning in the face of the complexity of the world and how to represent it. Till I met him, I must say I’d thought a lot about how to represent landscape in my own work and never come up with a good answer. Landscape photography, too, had never done anything for me. Mentally I’d long since dismissed the idea that the enormity of landscape could ever be summed up in a photo. The power of a moment’s experience, involving every sensory organ, could in it’s photographic version surely only be seen by the viewer as a mere slug trace of the original?

One morning on that Ireland trip, however, we’d driven out to the seashore before 5am, in total darkness. I sat drawing a picture of the car dashboard while Spencer hurriedly set up his tripod precariously atop a slipway down to churning, threatening ocean. It was so dark I couldn’t see a single thing outside. Spencer set off long photographic exposures lit only by the tiny first rays of dawn, a daylight so spare we could barely even make it out. That’s when the truth hit me. He wasn’t capturing his firsthand knowledge of the landscape via his camera, he wasn’t validating the experience of his eye by replicating it on a negative.

The camera was experiencing a completely parallel version of the moment with him. The final prints were real/surreal images, their lapping waves reduced to smoky spectres, the scene revealed gradually in a form the eye alone couldn’t realize; lit across long stretches of time by tiny morsels of light. His photographs held their own unique discoveries and delights, and like all the best artworks, heaped an extra layer of feeling onto raw experience.

Spencer tried another Polaroid.

“Not quite there yet” he said, sitting down beside me to wait some more. The old cliché seems to dictate that photographers work best fast and snappy, thriving on bright light, but for Spence the opposite seems true. A single Spencer Murphy photo will often be the end result of hours spent waiting for the brief periods of semi-darkness at either end of the day, often at the most inclement times of year and in the most exposed places.

Thus it was that in this fine tradition we stood stock still on the crest of that island for the remainder of our stay, beginning to feel the bite of the wind turn icy, and watching the unwanted sun gradually descend below the brow of the hill. These were strange, in-between hours. Occasionally Spencer took a light reading or a Polaroid or – even more rarely – an exposure. As the day became silvery and our shadows disappeared we finally heard the sound of a speedboat powering back down Loch Broom, coming to fetch us.

2.

Seascale was a town without motion, a bedridden pensioner. Our hotel was clean and cosy but its chintzy carpets and loud wallpaper belonged to a different era. The clock had stopped here decades before.

“Well… we bought this place in 1980”, the manager explained as we signed the register, “and it was still fairly bustling then, I have to say. People even used to come here on holidays. But of course that all changed in 1983.”

That year, he explained, there’d been a discharge of radioactive material from nearby Sellafield, onto Seascale beach. A Greenpeace investigator had died, and soon there inevitably followed a swathe of tabloid features about “The Village of Death”. Seascale’s already ailing life as a family resort was killed stone dead in that moment.




Sellafield was founded in the 1940s. It was Britain’s first weapons grade plutonium production facility, built in an era when progress was valued far higher than safety. Its early actions were born of the same Cold War thirst for weaponry that had quite happily showered Gruinard island in anthrax. In 1957, a fire in the reactor had spread radioactivity across the surrounding countryside, necessitating a massive cull of livestock at local farms. Worse and more unbelievable – for nearly twenty years the nuclear waste produced by the plant was simply diluted and discharged quietly, day after day, through a pipeline into the Irish Sea.

“You won’t get anywhere near the place” warned the manager when we told him we’d come to take photographs. “They’re on amber alert after the London bombings. You won’t stand a chance.”

Spencer dropped me at the Sellafield visitors centre and drove off to have a look at the nearby nuclear dump at Drigg. We arranged to meet a few hours later.

I wandered into a huge warehouse building, greeted by a friendly lady offering me a range of leaflets. This, she explained, was the only part of the Sellafield complex open to the public. Through the double doors I could learn all about the delights of nuclear energy. I wandered round a lurid interactive display, aimed at demystifying Sellafield for children and parents alike. It was a bizarre maze of audio soundtracks and strange buttons that lit odd displays in vain attempts to deconstruct terrifying terms like “vitrification” – a well-meaning, yet over-zealous and rather intimidating museum. I quickly gave up on it.

In the shop on the second level I bought Spencer a stick of Sellafield rock as a joky souvenir, then paused at the head of the stairs. An enormous window offered a delicious panorama of the entire power station, the first time I’d seen it. It looked like the crazed imagining of some 18th century paranoiac visionary, a city’s worth of weirdly shaped buildings dominated by vast towers. It was incredible – both beautiful and terrifying. I grabbed my sketchbook and dashed out the front door of the centre, determined to get closer.

Outside there was a car park and a road leading back to Seascale. There was no obvious path in the other direction. I forced my way through a few hedges and came to another road. I followed it for a while and reached a huge, imposing gate. Vehicles and personnel were being searched as they came and went through generously manned barriers. I decided to make a few sketches from the safety of the public footpath outside.

A chap in a suit strolled past and gave me a shifty glance. I knew it had to be a significant look. It was the sort where you don’t even turn your head, you just flick your eyeballs. As he surveyed me, his eyebrows raised a little. I saw his pace quicken and he produced a mobile phone. I sensed threat. My mouth went a little dry, and for a second I considered retreating through the hedge. Almost instantaneously, I heard the scream of sirens. The barrier flipped up and a van marked “Police Dogs” tore up to me, halting almost at my feet. I nearly laughed out loud at this excessive reaction to little old me – a bloke in a rather silly jacket, armed with a clicky pencil.

A bespectacled policeman sidled up to me.

“Good afternoon sir. Can I ask you what you’re doing please?”

Minutes later, I sat in the van, glumly trying to explain about Spencer’s Wasteland series.

“Well… err… I’m with this bloke. He’s not with me right now actually…”

The policeman produced a stop and search form, and asked if I would co-operate by supplying my name and address. It was all over very quickly. He gave me a copy and suggested I head straight back to the Visitor’s Centre.

“You didn’t break the law,” he assured me kindly, “but it’s our job to watch people.”

Spencer picked me up at three. We both agreed that the story of my encounter with the police was a hilarious and exciting new development. Eagerly, we parked back in the town and resolved to approach Sellafield from the other side this time, down Seascale beach. I’ve visited my fair share of dank off-season resorts but Seascale takes the award for most forlorn and godforsaken. Litter decorates the grey shoreline like a shameful carpet. The sand is gritty, punctuated by tufts of scraggy black weed. A single lonely railway line runs parallel to the shore. In the distance rises a vast and ominous citadel of exhaust funnels, industrial buildings and cooling towers.

Spencer and I sat down to eat on the garbage strewn beach. The wind began to howl, blowing sand onto our food as we passed a cold, uncomfortable mealtime. Half-way through, Spence cast his sandwiches aside to start photographing an oil soaked bird corpse.

Continuing along the outer perimeter of Sellafield, we met enormous fences decorated with yellow signs, promising that guard dogs would deal swiftly with interlopers. The railway line split. One track proceeded up the coast, while another went ominously inside the gates. The complex has its own freight station to dispatch waste along the passenger rail network to disposal sites across Great Britain. The Greenpeace website offers a “nuclear rail timetable” to demonstrate the scary frequency and predictability with which this deadly radiation crosses our countryside, unguarded. If breached by terrorists, the freight containers, many of which pass through London only metres away from domestic buildings, would spread radiation for miles and cause mayhem. Spencer and I were about to discover that this most silent section of the Sellafield perimeter was, precisely for this reason, the most jealously guarded.

I wandered off to the far end of the fence. In front of the security gates I found a passenger railway station for employees. I sat down and started to sketch it, in a world of my own. Moments later I heard the sound of a vehicle on the tarmac. I turned my head, in mild annoyance, to see another van marked “Police Dogs”. A young WPC strolled over to me. I closed my notebook.

“Are you a trainspotter, love? What brings you all this way down here?”

I smiled and gave her a quick lowdown on myself and Spencer. I was getting used to this. I showed her my previous “stop and search” form and she examined it closely.

She couldn’t seem to get her head around the idea that someone might want to come and photograph this place for aesthetic reasons alone. Presumably previous trespassers had been journalists or activists with an agenda to push. To her it seemed ridiculous, funny even, that anyone would come to Sellafield without some seditious intent. She smiled and wandered off, but I was left to continue thinking this one through in my own mind. Why was Spencer here? I don’t think that even he could answer that one himself, at least not with a neat soundbite. Obviously there’s an environmental aspect to his Wastelands project. It’s a relevant topic in these times of enhanced sensitivity about our impact on the planet. Yet I think it would be an insult to say that environmental comment alone is what the project “is” – for that would reduce it merely to a collection of documentary evidence. If Spencer had conceived his series with a pre-existing “green” agenda, then the scenes of waste would be presented in a more detached, perfunctory manner surely – not luxuriated in, nor treated so well by his lens. The care and delight with which the pictures are lit and photographed provide their own manifesto, for although they may be places of confusion and uncertainty, to Spencer they are also places of beauty which first and foremost excite his enthusiasm, regardless of their strange and sordid origins.

I began to make my way back down the perimeter. Rounding the corner, I noticed Spencer’s distant figure talking to a man in uniform. To my left, through the grille of the metal fences, I noticed that the WPC in the van was driving alongside and keeping eye contact. Every so often she spoke into her radio. It was reassuring in a way to think we’d raised such concern. Tonight I could rest safe in the knowledge that Sellafield was seriously well guarded.

When I reached Spencer, he was alone again and cheerfully waving his own “stop and search” form. We began to wander back. Before we crossed the railway tracks we allowed ourselves one last look back to the power station. The strange vista of Sellafield overlooked a golfing green, in a ludicrous juxtaposition of recreational space and forbidding industrial architecture. The clouds, no longer fluffy and floating, had formed into solid objects with their own threatening weight and shadow. The natural light was starting to dwindle, the skies were promising rain and here we stood in lone appreciation of the twisted beauty of Sellafield. I smiled inwardly and imagined telling my hairdresser what I’d done on my holidays…

All photos by Spencer Murphy. www.spencermurphy.co.uk

Friday, 20 May 2011

Rock Family Trees... and other stories

After yesterday’s post, with my mind full of Suede recollections, I thought it was high time I looked out Pete Frame’s Suede-themed ‘Rock Family Tree’. I’m a massive fan of his band line-up trees – appealing as they do to the diagram-geek in me, and no doubt a subconscious influence on my own ‘Saliva Tree’ diagrams. All things considered, then, it’s probably one of my life’s big achievements to actually be featured on one (albeit only riding on the coat tails of a friend with genuine musical talent!). Nothing can detract from the fact that I was once the lead singer of a band only four degrees of separation away from Morrissey...


On Wednesday I blogged about Artmagic, yesterday I blogged about Suede – so today I thought I’d complete the circle in unashamedly self-indulgent and reverse chronological fashion by mentioning my old band TED, aka The Electric Daffodils.

As Richard Oakes’ wikipedia page correctly points out, we in fact started life (embarrassingly for me) as ‘PIPATED’ aka Plug-in Peter and The Electric Daffodils. The origin of this is lost in the sands of time, it was all a big joke. At this stage, aged 13, the entire purpose of the band was to meet round each other’s houses and make stupid noises into microphones. In the year that followed we recorded classics like ‘Uncle Doug’ (screaming into microphones), ’30 Seconds of Noise’ (screaming into microphones), ‘PC Thirty One (a truncated Beatles cover that ended up with us screaming into microphones) and... well, you get the picture.

By 92, we’d dropped the ‘Plug-in Peter’ and decided to get a bit more serious. Richard and I had become obsessed with PiL and The Cure, and started to flex our songwriting muscles. He wrote tunes, I wrote words – so I became the singer by default.

We lived in a strange little world, gently exploring the private fantasy of being in a ‘proper band’ – in my case ignoring the fact that I genuinely possessed not one iota of musical or singing talent. We met round our friend Colin’s house to record what we thought of as our ‘debut album’ – 30 original songs. Lyrically I didn’t confine myself to the usual teen fodder... ‘Pretentious’ could possibly just about cover it. ‘Jupiter and Thetis’ was inspired by an Ingres painting. ‘Last Days’ was about the death of Picasso. One song, ‘The Empty Upper Victorian Modernism’ had lyrics which I improvised on the spot (with the net result that they were shit). All the songs were strictly one-take wonders, usually with Rich being note perfect and me off key and off tempo like a first-round X Factor reject.

To give us our due, though, looking back these bedroom based rehearsals were just sheer fun – a completely safe environment to mess about. It speaks volumes that I was happy to sit in a room and sing my most embarrassing teen poetry to Richard and he never ever laughed. I like to think I also gave him a bit of space to try out some songwriting ideas.

When our ‘debut album’ (entitled ‘Sod It!’) was ‘released’ we recorded several copies and gave them to classmates to listen to. Most people were mildly impressed with Richard’s guitar playing, but less enamoured of my opaque lyrical mumblings. This was best summed up by a class-mate who re-christened our band ‘BOB’ – aka ‘Bunch of Bollocks’

Undeterred, we started work on our difficult second album. I wanted this to be even more serious and introverted – a statement of drab teeny angst called ‘Outside’ with twelve tracks thematically linked. We moved out of Colin’s bedroom and started to rehearse in various church halls in Poole.

Our attempts to rehearse with live drums and bass proved difficult – several school colleagues came and quickly went, but eventually we found a regular drummer – a 13 year old friend of a friend called Phil. I took on the bassist role for want of any alternative.

Around this time we played our first and only gig at the ‘Alf a Crown Bar’ in Poole. Amazingly we still have the entire thing, including the soundcheck, on cassette tape. Our rehearsal of the song ‘Tondo’ is memorably stopped mid flow by an angry man with a strong Dorset accent who storms in to complain about the noise.

The gig was a family party, a context for which our music was crashingly inappropriate. This is best demonstrated by the cover versions we foisted on grannies and kids that evening – ‘Pornography’ by The Cure, and ‘Four Enclosed Walls’ by PiL. The latter garnered nothing, not a single solitary smile or handclap. Needless to say we never got to do our encore.

Undeterred once again, we booked into a local studio to launch our assault on the mainstream record industry – with a taster demo of our ‘Outside’ album.

‘Sally’s Studio’ was a makeshift recording facility run by a young guy called Jason from a house in Poole. Richard, Phil and I rolled up on the big day somewhat unprepared. He wanted to lay down the TED rhythm section first and overdub vocals and guitar later – not realizing that Richard’s guitar was the only trace of glue that held our performances together. We had to hurriedly crouch on the floor and write out song structures – yet still, several takes later, Jason announced there was “little he could do” about my lack of rhythm.

Richard stepped up and delivered four beautiful, first-take guitar overdubs whilst Phil and I turned green with envy.

“Wow, that was really, really good!”, enthused Jason. He was clearly finding the disparity in our abilities difficult to fathom, a feeling no doubt exacerbated when I came to put my wispy, frail, weedy vocal overdubs on the four tracks, ‘Outside’, ‘Parsifal Song’, ‘Doomed Man’s Smile’ and ‘Secant’.

The demo tape was (as you might expect) rejected by all the labels we sent it to – including Suede’s parent label Nude. A year later however, Richard sent the band a copy of the tape as evidence of his own songwriting. I gather they thought it was quite good – although as Suede manager Charlie later said to me “the singing was shit”.

Richard did come close on several occasions to re-using Sod It and Outside era TED bits for Suede songs – although admittedly the only time a TED fragment actually made it to disc was when the melody for ‘Outside’ became the bridge section of the Suede b-side ‘Together’.

One day we’ll unleash our third album. The world had better watch out…

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Suede in Brixton... and other stories

As the new Artmagic EP, featuring my cover design, launches this week, I’ve been rifling through the cuttings archive – and have found the very first mention (inauspicious though it is) of my artwork in the national press.

The date was 1999 and Suede were interviewed in Select magazine. Guitarist Richard, my best friend from school, mentioned in response to a question about art that he liked my stuff. Fairly innocent, right? The following month Q Magazine picked up on the story and used the quote about him ‘only liking pictures by his mate Pete’ as the punch-line for a snidey story.

On the subject of Suede, Richard is having a busy week. Last night (as mentioned in yesterday’s post) he launched Artmagic’s debut EP at the Brixton Windmill. Then tonight, Friday and Saturday he and Suede will be celebrating the imminent release of deluxe editions of their albums by playing a three night residency at Brixton Academy.


Looking at the above 1993 flyer I can see that Saturday's gig will mark exactly 18 years to the day since Richard and I went, purely as adoring fans, to see Suede Mk I play a gig at the Poole Arts Centre on their first UK tour. The first stirrings of what would eventually become depressingly known as ‘Britpop’ were reaching the provinces. Bands rarely came to Poole, so this was our chance to get a firsthand glimpse – our first live gig and we loved it. Metal Mickey became my favourite song, and Richard devoted himself to learning all their guitar licks. Typical teenage fans.

A year later we were saddened to learn that Bernard Butler had quit the group. None of my classmates could see how Suede would possibly keep going. “Not”, my friend Mike memorably quipped, “unless Richard replaced him!” Oh, how we laughed. A few weeks before, Rich had entertained us all during a free period by demonstrating his guitar skills. He was note perfect on every Suede track.

I clearly remember (the odd events of that summer 94 being etched on my memory) that Richard told me he was thinking of sending a demo tape to the Suede fanclub. They’d put out an open call for replacement guitarists and Rich didn’t see why he shouldn’t have a crack.

“You might as well!” was my advice – and I thought little more of it.

During the summer hols, Richard called to announce that he’d received a letter from the Suede fanclub requesting some original material. He popped a copy of our band TED’s demo tape in the post. Next thing I knew he was going up to London for an initial audition.

This alone was weird for me. Think about it. My best friend, latterly my songwriting partner and bandmate, was just nipping up to London to audition for a Mercury prize winning chart-topping band I loved. No-one else knew this but me and his family. I was fit to explode with the news.

Richard was typically nonchalant after audition number one – he came back with a copy of the new unreleased Suede album and told me he’d been asked to learn all the songs. His parents were on holiday in France, he’d stayed back for the audition. He didn’t seem fussed though, he just wanted to drink tea, hang out and watch Magazine videos – I couldn’t fathom his nonchalance.

The following Wednesday he went up to London one more time, and returned with the weirdest news. He’d been offered the job.

I vividly remember a week or so later, sitting on my own on the school bus en route to the first day of the upper sixth form.

“Where’s Rich?” people enquired, knowing that we were rarely seen apart.

“Ermm… Well, he’s quit school to be the lead guitarist of Suede, actually!” I giggled.

“Fucking shut up Pete, stop talking fucking crap!”

I got the ‘fucking crap’ response for about a fortnight, until the news was officially announced by a somewhat non-plussed headmaster in our school assembly. The following day, news crews descended on the school and I was forced to endure the humiliation of being interviewed on BBC South Today. Later that same night Richard made his debut on Top of the Pops, miming to ‘We are the Pigs’.

I got my own chance to meet the band a few weeks later when I went to stay with Richard. During a day-long NME cover shoot, I sloped off for fish and chips with Brett and Matt. I was super-awkward in their presence, but they made pleasant attempts to chat with me.

“We’ve got a launch party next week for the new album”, ventured Brett, “are you coming?”

“Gosh no I couldn’t possibly”, I said, visibly outraged at the prospect, “It’s a school night!”

I turned out to be an occasional, mostly very awkward, spectator on some of the odd goings on that went on in Suede-world over the years. The most memorable scene took place on a different occasion, again when I was in town staying with Richard. Brett summoned him via a repetitive drugged out answering machine message to come over to his flat straight away. We wandered by to find Brett and his mate Alan bouncing off the walls after an all-nighter on various substances. The place was a tip, the curtains were drawn and my eyes watered in clouds of cheap incense smoke. Brett made us sit down and watch a rehearsal video of ‘Beautiful Ones’ (then entitled ‘Dead Leg’). When the tape ended he commanded me to rewind it so we could watch it again.... And again.... And again.

After a good hour or two of this, Brett decided we should retire to his ‘writing room’ (a cupboard, basically) and make a new version of this video. Brett (by now shaking and glistening with sweat) pushed us into the cupboard and foisted a video camera on Alan.

“You’re the director” he barked, “Pete, you’re the lighting guy.” Richard grabbed a guitar and started playing. I stood there trying to look nonchalant. After running through ‘Beautiful Ones’ another dozen or so times, Brett turned on me in genuine rage.

“Fucking hell Pete! You’re a fucking shit lighting guy!”

A year or so later, in summer 96, Suede’s first album with Richard, ‘Coming Up’ was finally released (and, no longer a schoolboy, I finally got to attend an album launch). Most of the tracks were co-written by him, and it went on to be the biggest seller of their career, yielding five top ten hits. It’s easy to forget, I think, what a big risk the other band members took in signing an unknown seventeen year old. So many other great indie bands (The Stone Roses and The Smiths being two obvious examples) could not survive the departure of their guitarist let alone better their previous successes the way Suede did. I’m just saying...

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Artmagic - Debut EP Sleeve Design

I’m absolutely over the moon to announce that my sleeve art and design for ‘I Keep on Walking’, the debut EP by Artmagic, will be launched tonight (May 18th) at a special gig at Brixton Windmill.

Artmagic is a collaboration between Suede lead guitarist Richard Oakes and Sean McGhee, a prolific engineer, producer and writer who has worked with, amongst others, Britney Spears, Alanis Morrissette and Imogen Heap. This pairing of pop and indie might sound unusual, but it’s undoubtedly a match made in heaven. Richard was responsible for co-writing some of the most insanely catchy top ten hooks of the 90s (‘Beautiful Ones’, ‘Trash’ and others) while Sean has long hankered after a more personal outlet for his songwriting themes. The meeting place between their different career backgrounds turns out to be a set of four thematically linked, melancholy yet melodic tunes – offering a taster of the delights promised by their debut album, coming later this year.

The EP is sold in a very limited edition – available on general release from next Monday but ready to pre-order as a physical copy from the Artmagic website here.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Four Great 20th Century British Realist Painters

Just by way of a bit of fun, I’ve put together a list of four under-rated British realist painters from the last century. They aren’t ranked in any particular order – and, whilst none of them could fairly be described as ‘unknown’, where possible I have gone for less famous options – hence the absence of perennial favourites like Lucian Freud, Stanley Spencer and LS Lowry.

1. Henry Tonks

Tonks was an unusual painter – trained as a surgeon and for some time a practising doctor at the Royal Free in London. He gained a reputation as a painter of rather twee, chocolate-box scenes influenced by Impressionism. As Professor of Fine Art at the Slade he taught and inspired a future generation of great British artists.

His place on my list, though, is based on a remarkable body of drawings he produced during the First World War. During that period he worked for the pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Gillies, recording the facial injuries of soldiers. His pastel sketches document the horrendous results of modern warfare – whilst retaining a lightness of touch and a sense of compassion.

Here’s a clip of Andrew Graham-Dixon introducing the drawings on The Culture Show.

Are they beautiful, and can they be fairly described as art? Yes to both, in my opinion. Though Tonks himself balked at the idea that any spectator would be morbid enough to view these sketches from an aesthetic viewpoint, it’s tough to avoid doing so. Pastel, a soft sketching medium forever associated with polite 18th century society portraits, and the elegantly posed ballet dancers of Degas, seems a significant choice of tool – almost ironic. The rich pigments in his hands easily lend themselves to rendering the glimmers of light on recent scar tissue, his reds and pinks allowing us to really feel the angry absences of destroyed sections of face. The beauty of his handling of the colours and forms can only serve to make us feel more sickened by what we’re witnessing.

In the 1940s Francis Bacon imagined faces twisting, melting and blowing apart in a nightmare of violence – but twenty years previously Tonks had actually seen it. It was no mere dream to him, he’d stared it in the face.

2. Alan Lowndes

A gear shift from Tonks, no sign of violence in the gentle domestic work of Alan Lowndes – often unfairly dismissed as a ‘naïve artist’. Lowndes was an untrained painter whose career had two distinct phases – an early period from the late 40s through to the 60s observing the comings and goings in his native Stockport (a period of relative success, when he was collected by the Tate Gallery and other major public collections). Then a complete change, when he joined the artistic community at St. Ives in Cornwall.

His work seems at its best to mix painterly expressionism, more akin to European painters like Munch, with a quaint and eccentric viewpoint that is wholly English. Melancholy tolls like a bell through the pictures.

I discovered Lowndes’ work by chance as a young teenager – during a trip to see my great aunt in Bedford we wandered into the local art gallery and got chatting with an extraordinarily posh lady - who turned out to be the curator, Lady Halina Graham. Lady Graham was intrigued by the fervency of my devotion to art – and sent me away with two shopping bags full of old art catalogues she happened to have lying round in her office.

One of these was a 1975 Crane Kalman gallery catalogue for a small Lowndes retrospective. He didn’t immediately hit me as the most sophisticated (or good) painter I’d ever come across, but as time passed that catalogue became one of my favourite possessions (and still is). I found the pictures incredibly human and evocative, transporting me to the street corners of a very recent past, forever lost.

In the early days of my interest in Lowndes (pre-internet) there was absolutely no other information to be found about him, which made it all the more fascinating. What became of him, was he still alive? I travelled to London aged 16 (sad teen that I was) to seek out some answers.

I found that the Crane Kalman gallery still existed and managed to grab a quick chat with Andras Kalman, the ageing owner. He told me that Lowndes had died in 1978. Affected by a stammer that seriously affected his communication, he had succumbed to alcoholism. I wasn’t surprised. I had always sensed the sadness and awkward isolation of a man who’d devoted his life to those strange, clunky observations.

3. David Bomberg

David Bomberg was a great British pioneer whose work didn’t start off particularly figurative. He got on at the ground floor of Modernism – painting in a Cubist idiom just a few years after Picasso and Braque had minted the style. He and his fellow ‘Vorticists’ celebrated the dynamism and promise of the mechanised age – and rebelled against the old conventions of representation. Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that Bomberg’s Cubist leanings got him expelled from the Slade by none other than Professor Henry Tonks, the first name on this list.

Bomberg’s famous canvas ‘The Mud Bath’ is a classic of early British Modernism – perennially on display at Tate Britain, and always a favourite in reproduction at the gift shop.

Just a few years later, though, anguished by his experiences in World War I, Bomberg turned his back on those radical machine-age Modernist leanings and retreated to Spain, where he led a rural existence and fell in love with the rocky, arid landscapes of Ronda. In his earlier works, figurative elements had been streamlined and reduced – their colours flattened and separated. Now they came back to the fore, bleeding into one another in a celebration of a far more direct experience of beauty, free from any doctrine. A raw delight and excitement pumped through them like blood.

Upon returning to the UK, Bomberg was bitter to discover that he had been somewhat disregarded as an artist – a large 1950s Tate retrospective on Vorticism displayed only one of his pictures. Unable to get teaching work at any major London art school (he made three hundred unsuccessful applications) he was forced to teach drawing classes at Borough Polytechnic – where his unorthodox approach helped to inspire a new movement of great British figurative artists, including Auerbach and Kossoff.

4. Joan Eardley

Joan Eardley was an English born painter who settled in Scotland. She spent much of her working life in and around the tenements of postwar Glasgow sketching the slum children there.

Eardley was particularly drawn to the Samson family – a haphazard collection of twelve offspring who lived with their parents in a two bedroom tenement, on a street called Rottenrow. Her paintings of the Samson kids are intensely lively (as the children themselves no doubt were) – painted with vigour, leavened with a toughness born from hard experience and never, ever stooping to sentimentality.

The children embody a sense of truth that shows the keeness of Eardley’s observation – for example in her painting of a young boy holding his little sister by the wrist, not the hand – a strong gesture of protectiveness that suggests, perhaps, that he acted as a surrogate parent. Her pastel drawings, too, are a revelation; little maelstroms of beautiful fevered lines, sketched directly onto that most unforgiving of drawing surfaces – sandpaper.

Eardley herself was a tough lady – with short hair, normally dressed in corduroy trousers and a woollen sweater. She never married or had children, and happily acknowledged that she was a difficult character - prone to depression, driven to distraction by severe neck pain, and eventually killed at 42 by a brain tumour. She once wrote that “If you want experience and understanding of beauty then envy me now – but if you want happiness then don’t envy me because these things don’t bring happiness.”

Monday, 9 May 2011

The Wealth Report

I recently completed a large series of pencil portraits to accompany The Wealth Report 2011 - published by KnightFrank in association with CitiBank. Admittedly I'm not sure I understand the first thing about the report itself - but then again, given that it relates to 'wealth', I can rest assured that I will never have cause to. Drawing the portraits was fun, though.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Management Today

I have been a monthly contributor to Management Today for an astonishing five and a half years now – which makes them my oldest and most trusted clients.

I started out as regular portrait illustrator of their ‘Start Again’ column at the end of 2004. I’d only just graduated and their offer of a regular gig was a hugely gratifying vote of confidence.

The style has been tweaked over the years – from the early loose pastel sketches to a more recent, smooth acrylic finish. A big change came last year after a redesign of the magazine – the column relaunched as ‘You Live and Learn’ – complete with much larger space for the portraits.

This month marks a triple whammy for me in Management Today. In addition to my regular portrait (this month - former Dragon’s Den investor Simon Woodroffe) I’m featured on their Contributors page, and my pencil portrait of former Pizza Express boss Luke Johnson makes the first of many appearances atop his monthly column.