Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Category: Artists

Patrick Caulfield: Death After Lunch

The first time I saw it Patrick Caulfield’s After Lunch caught and held my attention and it continues to do so whenever I visit the Tate Gallery. The cartoonish, black outlines of the deserted restaurant, tables, chairs, the half obscured fondu set, the bored waiter staring across empty space, are suffused with an eerie blue light. Then, in contrast, from the wall at the back of the restaurant strident colours blaze out, a picture within a picture, a photomural of the Chateau de Chillon. In front of this but barely obscuring it Matisse-evoking goldfish swim around a plastic castle in an aquarium.

Clearly it is not a Swiss restaurant, more likely one of those themed restaurants which enjoyed popularity in the England of the sixties and early seventies. I have no idea what first drew me to the painting save that I wanted to know where and why, and what happened next.

After graduating from Chelsea Art School in 1960, Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005), visited Crete where he was inspired by the hard bright colours and fascinated by the Minoan frescoes. Later, looking at the postcards he had bought, he realised that the printer had added black lines around objects in the frescoes. Intrigued, he began using similar black outlines in his own work.

He developed a graphic style, depicting everyday objects – lamps, glasses, clocks – with deceptive simplicity in flat, bold colours: the banal rendered intriguing. At first he used household gloss paint on board, later oil paint, and finally acrylic on canvas.

But it is always the larger stylised interiors of empty public buildings, offices, and restaurants, which attract me most. I am fascinated by the saturated planes of colour bound by heavy back lines  contrasting with the photorealistic landscapes on the walls. They hold me spellbound, transfixed by the unease with which I might regard a snake charmer. For although I find them alluring there is also a sense of foreboding  about them. The anonymity and melancholy  with which I feel quite comfortable in the works of Edward Hopper, here seems sinister and menacing.

When Caulfield died, William Feaver’s obituary recalled  a discussion about famous artists’ epitaphs. Someone had asked  Caulfield what he would put on his own gravestone. The response: “DEAD, of course.” And that is exactly what it says on his grave. Designed by Caulfield himself, the curt monosyllable is laser-cut through a block of granite like a  child’s letter puzzle. Eye-catching amidst the crosses and angels, open books and obelisks, it brings me to a halt as my first sighting of his painting did. And I am not alone, for the arresting design exerts a magnetic lure over amused visitors. The distinctive grave has become one of the most popular in Highgate East.

Patrick Caulfield’s Grave in Highgate East.
A Contrast with the Angels, Crosses, and Urns

Perhaps people empathise with the blunt statement, welcome its frankness. I recall a friend who, wearied by delicate, well meant, euphemisms said crossly, “You don’t lose people. You lose your keys. People die.”

It is a view with which I sympathise and by all accounts Caulfield’s funeral was a joyful celebration of the life which preceded the death. And yet, fascinated  as I am by the memorial, its stark, bleak message chills me, fostering the same disquiet which I experience when I stand in front of those rather threatening interiors.

Another Grave which makes me Smile: Norman Thelwell

Norman Thelwell (1923-2004) produced talented landscapes in watercolours and oils. He was better known however for his prolific output of cartoons; some poked gentle fun at human foibles, but it was the Thelwell Pony which brought him lasting celebrity and gave pleasure to generations of children and adults. The pony cartoons were born in the 1950s when, in a field viewed from his studio, Thelwell observed two fat, hairy, bad tempered ponies called Thunder and Lightning. In his autobiography he wrote:

They were owned by two little girls about three feet high who could have done with losing a few pounds themselves. They would arrive to collect their mounts in yellow pullovers, tiny jodhpurs, and velvet safety helmets. Thunder and Lightning would pointedly ignore them, but as the children got near, the ponies would swing round and give a few lightning kicks which the children would sidestep calmly. They had the head collars on those animals before they knew what was happening. I was astonished at how meekly they were led away, but they were plotting vengeance – you could tell by their eyes.

There followed a lifetime association with the trademark plump, stubborn ponies and their equally plump, determined riders. The comic strip  Penelope and Kipper featured in the Sunday Express, and the collections of cartoons  came out on a regular basis, delighting not just Pony Club Members but  a whole spectrum of children and adults.

On the hundredth anniversary  of his birth this year two exhibitions celebrate the work of Thelwell: one at Mottisfont, a National Trust property near his home in Hampshire, the other at the Cartoon Museum in London. The latter features his work alongside that of other cartoonists and environmentalists in an event in support of climate recovery and carbon neutrality. Entitled Norman Thelwell Saves the Planet, it pays tribute to the prescient  concerns raised in  his work The Effluent Society (1971), a humorous but heartfelt plea to take better care of the natural world.

In lieu of commonplace angels  sounding the last trump, Thelwell’s gravestone in St. Andrew’s churchyard at Timsbury, Hampshire features  two resolute little girls with herald trumpets blasting the peace of the graveyard undaunted at being bounced out of their saddles by their recalcitrant ponies.

Thelwell’s gravestone

Saying Hello to Joan, Alfred, and Lowry

It was a Sunday afternoon of penetrating,  unrelenting, rain interspersed with  claps of thunder when, shivering as the chilly water trickled under my coat collar and down my neck, I took refuge in the  Wren Gallery in Burford. Here was warmth, light, and, magically appearing in front of me, a platter of smoked salmon sandwiches. Surprised but delighted I took a sandwich whereupon a tray appeared bearing glasses of white wine. “Please” said Gill Mitchell “eat as many as you can and have another glass of wine. Our exhibition is opening today but, in this weather, there won’t be anyone  to eat all these sandwiches.” Happy to oblige I munched and sipped my way around the gallery and there discovered the wonderful world of Joan Gillchrest. She was a member of the talented Gilbert Scott family of architects, and after studying art in Paris and London,  driving an ambulance during the war, and an exotic post war life as a model, she  settled in the Cornish town of Mousehole in the 1950s. Her captivating paintings reminded me of  the works of  Alfred Wallis and LS Lowry: small, bent people struggled against the winds outside grey Cornish chapels, mines, and engine houses; they  walked dogs on beaches and  attended  weddings and funerals under louring Cornish skies. Other paintings were  suffused with the sunlight of a golden summer’s day: there were lighthouses,  seabirds, ships in  Mousehole harbour, ladies drinking sherry in the Lobster Pot Hotel. Views of the sea seen through the glorious tangle of plants in Joan’s greenhouse  also featured  her succession of rescue cats who formed the Titus dynasty  peering through the foliage.

I returned to the gallery the following week  to buy two small paintings, promising myself that in the future I would  buy a larger canvas, but as my finances improved  so did the value of Gillchrest’s work. So instead, I have shamelessly  treated the Wren as though it were a public gallery where I have viewed  ever-changing exhibitions of Joan’s work, and when, after Joan’s death, Gill Mitchell published  Joan Gillchrest: a Life in Pictures   I enjoyed a wider range of the paintings.

In Paul churchyard above Mousehole a  rough-hewn granite stone marks Joan Gillchrest’s grave and sleeping at the base of it last time I visited lay a small, stone, black and white Titus concealed behind exotic blooms which I moved to one side for the photograph before tucking him back beneath them.

Joan and one of the Titus dynasty
Titus asleep
Joan Gillchrest

In her book  Gill Mitchell  comments that although Joan never knew Alfred Wallis she was open about his influence on her work and would visit his grave in St. Ives to “say hello to Alfred,” indeed  her painting “Saying Hello to Alfred” features the  grave at Barnoon cemetery overlooking Porthmeor beach and Tate St. Ives, home to some of his paintings. The Cornish fisherman  sold little in his lifetime. He began painting as he said “for company” after his wife died, painting his ships, harbours, and lighthouses  on old pieces of cardboard and grocery boxes. Even after Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood  and Jim Ede  discovered and promoted his work  he lived in poverty and died in Madron workhouse. The artistic community of St. Ives paid for his grave which is one of the loveliest I know, the tiles designed by Bernard Leach portraying a lighthouse, which Wallis might have painted himself using the same subdued colours, with a small figure clambering up the steps.

Barnoon Cemetery with Alfred’s grave in foreground
Grave of Alfred Wallis
Detail – Grave of Alfred Wallis

I have found no reference to any influence of Lowry on Joan Gillchrest but since her hunched figures  battling the elements reminded me of his, come north with me, far from the  lighthouses, rocks,  bays and boats of Cornwall . At the Manchester School of Art LS Lowry  studied under Adolphe Valette whose own large impressionist canvases of industrial Manchester seen through a smog- filled haze occupy a magical room in Manchester Art Gallery. Lowry  famously worked as a rent collector while caring for his widowed and bed ridden mother in Pendlebury, painting at night after she was asleep. Today  the largest collection of his work is  displayed at the Lowry Gallery in Salford Quays but to “say hello to Lowry,” I took the bus to Manchester’s Southern Cemetery in Chorlton-come-Hardy. At the largest municipal cemetery in the UK, I anticipated a daunting quest, but in the lodge the custodian supplied me with a plan and focused my search by pointing to a photograph on the wall of his own daughter standing beside Lowry’s grave. In the serried rows, a conventional white cross marks the grave of Lowry’s parents with his own name added inconspicuously on the side of the base. But I might have spotted it  without help, for in front of it, in lieu of the usual vase of flowers, was a pot full of paint brushes.

Lowry family grave
Lowry grave with paint brushes
The two small paintings by Joan Gillchrest which I bought from the Wren Gallery: Sherry Time and Magpie

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