Letter from London: Bringing It All Back Home

Photo by Dan Cook

To begin the latest of the artist’s new series of acrylic works, first she sets down a large sheet of thick white paper on the studio floor, ensuring that by securing the sides with tape properly it is perfectly flat, thereby avoiding too many small lakes of paint. Then she puts some music on, latterly American singer-songwriter Chappell Roan. Next, she looks at the colours in her pots, gets her brushes out, and fills some old take-out food containers with water. Then she begins the work in earnest, finally putting down some colour. With the latest piece the first colour was red, flame red. Once the following five or six initial conjoined elements are dry, the piece is attached to the studio wall, again taped at the sides, upright this time. Now the artist is truly ready. She will not be seen for hours. Even then, only sparingly. For days, weeks, it is an untethering of the self. Frontier stuff, really. Abstraction as precision.

The two young musicians of the house are presently writing, recording and producing in their third country in as many weeks. For me they are on fire, though their fierce modesty protects them from hyperbole. For my part, still awaiting an operation, I return between other tasks to a book I am attempting to write. There are three intertwining first-person narratives to this, each representing a different period of the narrator’s life. I honestly don’t know if it is any good but I am determined to finish it — proverbial wolves at the door permitting. There is an old clip of the late Paul Auster remonstrating against anyone wanting to write a book. Watching it last week after his death had the desired effect. Immediately I was at my laptop again revisiting the protagonist’s first arrival in New York after he determines to find happiness there: “Was it really because of the Declaration of Independence that the pursuit of happiness was so burned into the American psyche? (Independence from us Brits, I had to remind myself.) Didn’t their very own Benjamin Franklin once say that the Declaration of Independence only gave them the ‘right’ to pursue happiness but that they had to catch it themselves? Either way, I knew I wanted what they had.”

Early mornings we often like to walk. (Separately the artist likes to swim but together we like to walk.) The fresh green leaves looked defiant against the dense blue sky at the Ignatius Sancho Café last week. It was impossible not to think of the many innocents not here with us, killed instead every day elsewhere in the world, and the havocs therefrom. As for the story of Ignatius Sancho, it was no walk on the park. He was born in 1729 on an Atlantic slave ship sailing from Guinea to the Spanish West Indies, both parents enslaved Africans on their way to be sold. His parents died when he was a baby, his mother from disease and father through taking his own life. As a two-year-old orphan, Sancho was brought by the plantation owner to England and presented as a gift to three sisters living here in south-east London. They were said to have been treated him as ‘a subhuman toy’, the three sisters even refusing to teach him how to read. Only through regular visits to the nearby sanctuary of the benevolent Duke of Montagu did Sancho become literate in the end, later working as a butler there where he began a secret diary in which he said ‘a fear of those who looked like me — a fear that they would judge me — for not suffering? — had kept me from making any deep friendships with the Black servants I had known since Duke John had rescued me.’ This was when he felt that proverbial spark to his bones and he discovered a lasting love of poetry, music, painting and writing, as well as later bodysurfing in true party style across the up-raised hands of decadent London. Reflective again, he grew involved with the British abolitionist movement. He was also the first known black Briton to vote in a general election. On the cafe wall, as we took our coffees outside, his creative genius urged us on. Ignatius Sancho died in 1780.

The artist straight away acknowledged a growing resentment among one or two artists for an art market increasingly usurped by the lifestyle industry. Art writers still maintain a stiff upper lip on this — Lynn Barber for instance related merrily last week to wonderful encounters with eccentric artists in the past — but those good old days are, well, good old days. Nor are there many rebellious artists out there, and content no longer seems to be king. It is mostly colour coordination and slick framing — art as a convenient afterthought for champagne parties given by increasingly squeezed champagne houses. It may even be possible that no one is actually buying contemporary art anymore, not over a certain price, and of course no one would wish you to know that. ‘All I can do is go to my studio and do my work,’ admits the artist. ‘That is all I can do. I don’t have to justify myself to anyone about anything. But it is hard for people.’

The brilliant 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen was constantly having to ask for money. He taught us that individual conscience and notions of liberty are far more important than the insistences of society. He also reminded us of the extraordinary perseverance, close attention and vitality required in continuing to make great art against the odds. ‘The majority is always wrong,’ he wrote. ‘The minority is seldom right.’ It is simply not fair to equate survival of the fittest thinking to the success or not of a uniquely important visual object or experience made purposefully somehow through an assertion of prowess or ingenuity.

Come five o’clock the next morning, I am working on another of my protagonist’s three intertwining threads, this one dealing with war, which our narrator encounters before his pursuit of happiness in New York: “I was thinking that the very first time I heard Soviet gunfire in Afghanistan, I placed myself in the foetal position, hoping that by doing so, it might make it go away. I just crouched there, sweating, my eyes covered, my body cowering in every way like a child, as the mujahideen’s DShK heavy machine gun quickly responded. A few days later, overlooking a broad stretch of the River Kabul, a much heavier assault opened up and I realised at once that by doing the foetal position and eyes closed all over again, I was all along placing my life in far greater danger, as I could no longer see what was incoming, or catch sight of any of the Afghans if they were urgently signalling to me. As a result, I developed more vigour and awareness in those few seconds than in a lifetime. Every nerve in my body became like an antennae. In fact, it got me thinking how we never see anything in life with our heads buried, and that the darkness we see is so often our own. That said, as a final thought, if I woke up the next day with too much vigour, I’d get my head blown off anyway.”

Peter Bach lives in London.