William Feaver

The English El Greco

Talk about ‘enemies of promise’. Talk about ‘enemies of promise’. In the March 1942 number of Horizon magazine there appeared what could be a heartfelt illustration of the whinger’s conceit propagated by Horizon’s editor, Cyril Connolly, to the effect that life stifles artistic ambitions. Plate 2, ‘Dreamer in Landscape’ by John Craxton, is a pen-and-wash

Another form of segregation

N.B. This review was published without its final two paragraphs in the 18th December 2010 issue of The Spectator. These paragraphs have been reinstated for the online version below. These volumes — four for now, and a further six to come — are saddled with a title redolent of lantern lectures delivered in Godalming, say,

Dilly-dallying romance

Translated to Borsetshire, John Constable’s courtship of Maria Bicknell would provide more material than any script editor could handle without straining audience impatience beyond endurance. Nine years it took, from initial yearnings and tacit engagement to get them to the altar at St Martin-in-the-Fields and even then, in October 1816, it was the quietest of

Trademarking the ordinary

Lecterns have been installed in some bookshops enabling customers to flip through the 625 tabloid-format pages of what must be the largest volume ever devoted to a single modern artist. Andy Warhol ‘Giant’ Size is Warhol the Lot, a bulk buy, a gross amplitude of Warhol the Simple, Warhol the Smart and Warhol the Resourceful

A backdrop of beasts and losers

There’s this cow nuzzling a bunch of roses though floating belly up over a matchwood village where smoke springs from every blessed chimney and a po-faced couple issues forth, poised either to sink back among the onion domes or zoom to the far corner where the Eiffel Tower teeters on two legs in moonlit snow.

Ego trip with excess baggage

Readers may sympathise with Tracey Emin. Her big mouth and huge appetite for self- advertisement make her a ready target; she’s so shameless and yet, by her own account, so abused. (‘And then they started: “SLAG, SLAG, SLAG.” A gang of blokes, most of whom I’d had sex with at some time or other…’) Life

‘Seeing by doing’

William Feaver explains how his book ‘Pitmen Painters’ inspired a new play at the National ‘It means knaaing what to de.’ This is Jimmy Floyd speaking, his Ashington accent spelt out, his words — more dialect than dialectic — written by Lee ‘Billy Elliot’ Hall. In Hall’s The Pitmen Painters, newly transferred from Live Theatre,

Lashings of homely detail

Norman Rockwell’s the name. You’ll know it of course. Rockwell the byword. It wasn’t simply the perpetual air of impending Thanks- giving that gave his Saturday Evening Post covers such appeal. Rockwell covers were cover stories really; that was their distinction. Others, John Falter for example or Steve Dohano, delivered similar eyefuls of graphic cheer

A tasteless ham from Parma

Girolamo Francesco Mazzola was born in Parma (hence the tag ‘Il Parmigianino’), and died in 1540 aged 37. At some point he dropped the ‘Girolamo’, maybe round about when he painted ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, a startling little picture in which the smoothy-chops young artist demonstrates a mastery of optical distortion, his face polished,

Shaggy dog story

Until 1970 when he got his first Weimaraner from a litter in Long Beach, California, William Wegman was just another West Coast conceptual tyro, doing regular doubletake stuff like spelling out the word WOUND in sticking plaster stuck to the face. He loved the way the puppy asleep looked like a dropped sock. That gave

A free spirit in Philadelphia

‘Eakins errs just a little — a little — in the direction of the flesh,’ Walt Whitman observed in the late 1880s. Ideally he would have had the Frenchman Millet do his portrait, but the painter of humble peasants was already dead. Eakins made him a flushed old soul in jovial mood. Sidney Kirkpatrick’s account

From dumb to singing pictures

Patrick Caulfield’s paintings look specific while giving us tantalisingly little to go on. Where are we? Seemingly, a spotlight moves, the disc of dislocated brightness slithering over tablecloth, tankard, swirly-plastered wall and simulated half-timber. Could this be a Vermeer-themed hostelry for the discriminating guest? Details punctuate the ambience. Take a pew, why don’t we, and

Not a matching pair

Horny black hills on red grounds and exposed roots clawing the air like scary glove puppets are typical of Graham Sutherland in his prime. Teeth and thorns, the odd crucifixion and Somerset Maugham perched on a rattan stool with a jaundiced tortoise look on his face are typical of him soon after, in the Forties,

A true poet of war

‘On a hazy day Jerry comes droning over, three miles up.’ May sound Biggles-ish now, but it was OK for then, November 1940, in the commentary for Humphrey Jennings’s brief film Heart of Britain. Nine minutes is all it takes to cover the Lakes, Lancashire, the Pennines and Sheffield, homing in on aircraft spotters, air-raid

Never short of an answer

People, that’s to say some critics, just don’t get it about R. B. Kitaj. They dislike the way he paints, running things past us in dead heats, so to speak, drawing things together with a Huck Finn-like disregard for propriety. He’s bookish, it seems, and full of himself, which annoys them, and he can be

The usual Soho suspects

When John Moynihan was three and living with his painter parents in a flat off Primrose Hill he used to be terrified by nocturnal howls and squeals from the Regent’s Park zoo. Wetting himself, desperate to be ‘rescued from the labyrinths of an unspeakable jungle’, he was soothed by whoever happened to be around, sometimes

Very trying indeed

Ralph Steadman has always employed graphic spatter. The pen jabs, the ink spurts and – yoiks! – how the victims suffer. Eyes popping, they retch, they convulse, they become pinstriped roadkill. The projectile handling has extended from cartoons to illustrations (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) to caricature-biographies of Sigmund Freud and Leonardo da Vinci.

A set of linked doodles

The niceties of Saul Steinberg’s cartoon drawings are doodle-related. Figures begin at the nose, become elaborately hatted and shod and strut like clockwork toys; words are transformed into free-standing objects; horizontal lines denote runways or table edges. Often, it seems, the draughtsman’s pen went on automatic, pen-pushing the same old absurdities, perplexities and double-takes on