The past few months have been busy for Jock McFadyen. Substantial commercial shows of his work have been held in London and Edinburgh, he has been elected a member of the Royal Academy, and a retrospective of four decades of his painting is currently on view at the Fleming Collection in Berkeley Street, Mayfair (until 17 October). Although Scottish by birth (he was born in 1950 in Paisley and brought up on the outskirts of Glasgow), he has lived most of his life in London. All the men in his family worked in the shipyards, but his father took a job in England when McFadyen was 16, so he came south in 1966 and stayed on to become an artist. He made his name in the 1980s with a brand of tough Hogarthian realism that focused on East London low-life. Since those heady days of popular success, McFadyen has been less visible on the gallery scene but no less active in making art, and today is painting some of the most interesting pictures of his career.
We talked in his studio at London Fields, Hackney, above the barking of dogs from nearby kennels and the crash and judder of heavy machinery from adjoining industrial units. McFadyen had just returned from his holiday home in France, where he does most of the figure sculpture he has shown intermittently since 1991. His latest venture is to make sculptures of the landscape from earth and wax, a project still in its early stages. We look at a group of some 80 small paintings done over the past couple of years inspired by an exhibition of Walter Sickert’s Camden Town nudes at the Courtauld Gallery. Sickert is one of his heroes, and the long series of people-less landscapes McFadyen has painted since 1992 meant that his focus had shifted away from the figure. He thought it was time to reconnect with his old figurative concerns, so began this extended series of Sickertian erotic intimacy, not yet exhibited. The humour and inventiveness in these small panels are typical of the artist, and also animate our conversation as McFadyen launches into favourite topics.
He stresses his allegiance to Sickert and his place in a wider cultural context. ‘Broadly speaking, the two strands of sensibility in painting are what are loosely called the Northern Tradition of Dürer, Cranach, illustration and misery, and the Mediterranean Tradition — or French painting in the south of France, Arles, van Gogh, Matisse, luxury, beauty, pleasure. The Northern Tradition comes through via Scotland, Scandinavian deathbed paintings by Munch, Lowry, Sickert, Whistler actually, and paintings about London.
‘London has every damn right to be a centre for painting, as it always has been, but because of the English complex about Johnny Foreigner always being better at culture, they’ve always preferred British painting that looks like foreign painting. Even the heroes of Modern British art like Roland Penrose, who went over and made friends with Johnny Foreigner and brought him back here (Picasso being met by Graham Sutherland and taken to the Savoy) – all this courting of French Mediterranean colour and the mysterious things that foreigners knew about like cooking and wine and shagging; all this meant that Britain was inferior though very good at engineering.
‘I think differently. If you didn’t have Sickert, who was using photographs before any Pop artist to find ways of painting the world around him as it accelerated through the 20th century just out of his grasp — Edward G. Robinson, the King, all that stuff that the media was taking away from painters; if you didn’t have Sickert you wouldn’t have grainy British realism and you wouldn’t have Coronation Street. The British are great at broadcasting and writing because they’ve got Shakespeare rather than Piero della Francesca in their history. Sickert is really important because of his relationship with English literature and the theatre — of course he started as an actor, which is easy to forget — and I’m interested in that thread of connections. I’ve always preferred German painting to French painting: Otto Dix rather than Matisse.
‘When I was in art school, it was a dirty word to be graphic or illustrational, because everyone was abstract and talking about field, colour and texture. I was taught by abstract painters — Ian Stephenson principally, at Chelsea School of Art. In the Seventies, if painting existed at all it was non-figurative. Then in the Eighties, it flipped over to figuration and it was our turn, and then we were swept away by the YBAs in the Nineties…and that’s the way the world goes.’ McFadyen sees himself as a painter rather than an artist, a maker of realistic images in paint who nonetheless revels in the abstract possibilities of form, rhythm, surface and colour. As he says, ‘I’m just a painter, involved with coloured dirt which I try to make sense of and which I’ve been doing since I was 16 or 17.’
In the intervening years he has gone through a couple of sea changes. ‘When I was at Chelsea, my paintings were schematic and witty and self-referential. They were about the problem of painting, and painting as a kind of joke against itself. My contemporaries were people like Anish Kapoor and Helen Chadwick, not painters; my heroes were Bruce Nauman and Mark Boyle, people who were making work which wasn’t painting. All that got knocked out of my system when I got made artist in residence at the National Gallery in 1981. After that I thought, “I can’t go on making jokes about art all my life” — you need a subject and you need to hang on to it and see where it’s going to take you. Then I started making pictures of what I’d seen, the bleak pre-Canary Wharf East End. So that’s my first gear-change: from being schematic and witty to trying to paint the world.
‘My next change was when I designed a ballet for Kenneth MacMillan [The Judas Tree staged at the Royal Opera House in 1992]. In my paintings, the figures had been getting smaller and the backgrounds had been getting bigger and I thought I’d see what it was like not having figures at all. And then I realised that probably all the time I’d been painting a place – which was funny because I thought I’d been painting people. That hadn’t occurred to me: I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.’ Since then, McFadyen has painted large dramatic panoramas, of urban architectural dereliction, French supermarkets, Scottish seascapes, even the bombed buildings of Colonel Gaddafi’s home town, Sirte. And most recently, the sex scenes inspired by Sickert.
McFadyen’s work has long appealed to writers of the calibre of Iain Sinclair, Will Self and Howard Jacobson, all of whom have written texts to accompany his images. As he says: ‘My work is subject-led and I find myself sharing it with someone like Iain Sinclair, who writes about the road and travelling and locations, or someone making TV programmes or making music. I think country-and-western is landscape music really. I feel closer to someone who’s desperate to describe something as best they can than to painters. I don’t really know what other painters are on about a lot of the time.’ That independence of outlook helps to sustain the originality of McFadyen’s vision.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 September 2012