terça-feira, 10 de junho de 2003

T. Behrens by T.Behrens

Lucian Freud, “A painter”, oil painting, 1962
(model: Tim Behrens)


The decision to write this piece in Spanish, not in English, has shown me a way to begin it. I’ve got no memory of having drawn or painted as a little boy, but I do remember my first Latin lessons. My parents sent me – I can’t think why, since I was only 5 – to a private teacher, a certain Miss Wheatfield. The concept of a language in which verbs are conjugated and all objects have a gender struck me as funny, and therefore I learned quickly. From then on Latin, later French and Greek too, were always my favourite subjects at school. It seems to me now that languages, until my discovery of the concept of art, were useful to me as s creative escape valve. And now I prefer writing in Spanish because it reminds me of childhood.
After the war, when I was 9 or 10, my father started collecting pictures and I started painting. But, because he and I always got on badly, it took me half a century to recognise the obvious connection between these 2 beginnings.

I wasn’t interested in drawing. I painted awkwardly with impetuous, rather brutal brushstrokes. I admired Matthew Smith, a great English painter, whose work I could identify with because of its strong colours and apparent disregard for classical draughtsmanship. My father had several of his pictures.

My mother was proud of my paintings. One day – I was away at boarding school – Matthew Smith visited our house. My mother plucked up the courage to show him my oils. A man of few words, he looked at them for a bit and said, “he should carry on”.

We had a painter friend called Bateson Mason. Although I also liked his work, I loved him as a person and as an example. He was a Bohemian, the only one we knew. He didn’t have much money and didn’t mind. My mother collected his paintings. My father, on the other hand, remarked about him one day: “he’s got nothing to say but he says it very well.” I was adolescent by then, and I thought this piece of rudeness had been caused by jealousy of the painter’s relationship with my mother. I decided, unfairly, that my father was a bad judge of painting. I also decided to be a painter, meaning a man like Mason.

On Saturday mornings in the holidays my father took me round the West End galleries. In those days they exhibited, for sale, not only the School of Paris – Braque, Juan Gris, Miro, etc – but also the Impressionists and the Barbizon School, at the beginning of the 50s London was almost completely under thumb of Paris. My father bought, among other things, a late Corot, a Forain and the Balthus called The Card Game. This last picture was to have a great influence on me.

At public school I went on painting whenever I could. It was a school of more than a thousand boys, of whom less than 20 painted regularly. Thus painting was a marginal activity, and “modern” painting, which is what I tried to do, was actually laughed at. There was one teacher, all the same, who was very encouraging. Thanks to him I sometimes won the annual painting prize.

Mason, the Bohemian painter friend of the family, seldom painted the human figure. His pictures were landscapes with architectural elements. I took refuge in his example to cover up my fear of the figure, but subconsciously I knew that such a state of affairs couldn’t last for ever. Meanwhile I went on doing big pictures of quaysides, factories or train stations that I’d sketched in the holidays.

At 16 I was fed up with public school. In defiance of my father, who wanted me to go to university to continue with my specialist subject, classics, I took my recent pictures to a London art school. Surprisingly – it wasn’t the right time of the year to apply – they accepted me. I was going to be the youngest student of the famous Slade School of Fine Arts.

The new students had to draw ceaselessly from the plaster cast, which isn’t exactly the human figure so much as a representation of it. It was a hard and boring first term and I only passed the test. But at least I’d made some gradual progress towards exorcising my nightmare, the figure, without the disturbing presence of flesh and blood.

The Slade was historically considered the headquarters of drawing, particularly of academic life-drawing, but it was in a moment of transition. The Professor, William Coldstream, was a prudently progressive man. Of this star students few adhered to the traditional style and some were pure abstractionists. We accepted that, in order to be someone in the world of painting, we would have to arrive at an unmistakable personal style based on an academic apprenticeship. I never mastered the way of drawing, loosely based on Cézanne, in fashion at the Slade. With time, all the same, I was losing my fear of the human figure.

In the summer a friend and I went hitchhiking to Italy. We were researching the obligatory figure composition that we’d hand in for the autumn prize giving. I was amazed by Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation. In Venice I sketched a group of men playing cards in a bar. Back home I used the sketch as the basis for the prize composition.

I painted the picture in the basement area of my parent’s house, with 78 records of a Bach concerto on the wind-up gramophone. I remember feeling euphoric, for the first time conscious of a germ of creative potency. The picture didn’t come out as a pastiche of Piero, which is what I’d intended. It came out mine.
My picture won the 3rd prize, but it also brought me something much more valuable. In the second year we were allowed to paint what we liked in the corridors. While I was working there one day, a visiting teacher, Lucian Freud, approached me. After telling me that he’d liked my picture, he asked me if I’d sit for a portrait. Very honoured, I told him yes, of course.

Lucian, the youngest of the teachers, was also at once the most admired and most criticised by us. At 33 he had the reputation of being gambler and womaniser; he sometimes appeared in gossip columns; 2 pictures of his were in the Tate.

He became one of the fundamental formative influences of my life, along with my parents and Mason. For 8 years we saw each other practically every day, not only as painter and model but as intimate friends outside the studio too. I now imagine that he needed a protégé as much as I needed a protector.

I used to go drinking with Lucian in Soho, which, for many artists of that time, was more a school of ideas than the drunken red light district it seemed to the outside world. I learned much more about what it means to be an artist there than at the Slade.

Michael Andrews had left the Slade the year before I arrived, but people still talked about him as a prodigy. Lucian introduced me to him in Soho, and we immediately made friends. Our relationship was more evenly balanced than mine with Lucian, partly because Mike was closer to my age.

We decided to paint each other a portrait. Our studios then were about 7 minutes walk apart. For a few months we shared our mornings. First he’d pose and I’d paint for a couple of hours. Then the short stroll and the process in reverse.

Mike was at a rapidly changing stage of creative development. He was an intellectual who questioned everything, a thinker-painter. Cautious, almost neurotic, he was capable of watching the picture for an hour, like a cat with a mouse, waiting for the precise moment to pounce. I’d never before been in contact with that sort of seriousness, and was always hoping that some of it would rub off on me.

I left the Slade with a diploma but without distinction. In my 4 years there I worked less than in any other comparable period of my life, and one only learns by working. But I did make 2 friendships which have lasted to this day – with the painter Craigie Aitchison and the cartoonist Nicholas Garland. And quite a few of my fellow-students pictures stay in my mind: people like David Storey, Tyzack, Paula Rego, Margaret Evans, Elliot, Norris, Anne Norman, Barry Hirst…

As soon as I was out in adult life, everything changed. I got married. My painting got stronger. I began a long series of pictures of my domestic surroundings, mostly nudes and portraits. It was rather brutal stuff, like the work of my childhood but with the figure. Lucian, who always encouraged me to the limit, introduced me to Helen Lessore, who ran the Beaux Arts Gallery. Auerbach and Bacon, Soho drinking friends, had already showed there, so had Aitchison and Andrews.

I had the first of my 3 one-man shows at the Beaux Arts in 1959. It was then the only “serious” gallery in London that specialised in figurative painting. Very serious, like Helen, the incorruptible protectress of her artists and scourge of well-off clients.

Lucian was a friend of Helen’s, but had never shown at her gallery. She was uncharacteristically misled by gossip about his private life into seeing something frivolous in his work. But Lucian laboured away for up to 18 hours a day. He was ambitious enough to want to emulate Rembrandt, but modest enough to despair of ever doing so. He wanted the intensity of his effort to compensate for what he himself called his lack of natural talent.

I was astonished by his physical and mental energy. After all those hours of work he still managed to have time left over for fun. Sometimes he even wasted time. He taught me about time, in fact, but he was never doctrinaire. He never seemed to notice the extent of my dependence on his attitude towards life, a mixture of harsh self-discipline and an aristocratic disdain for what people thought about his behaviour. As far as I could I modelled myself on him.

I tried at all costs to keep visible influences out of my work. At that age I was unsure of myself as a person and as a painter. I painted violently so that people wouldn’t notice.

Lucian was a well-known painter. I spent most of my free time with him, either in his studio watching him paint, or in the bars of Soho listening to him talk to Bacon, say, about painting. In my little orbit everyone knew this, so I had to prove I wasn’t his disciple, still less his slave.

He himself was humbler, in spite of his powerful personality. After each session in the studio he’d ask my advice about what he’d just done, and, even stranger, change some passage or other following my suggestions. For him it was a question of common sense, since he lacked the sillier sort of pride. Having earned his independence, he was free to concentrate on doing a good picture by whatever means presented itself.

I rented an attic room in a slum in Mornington Crescent, near where Rimbaud and Verlaine had lived. Now Frank Auerbach was my neighbour. Quite often we met in the street, and sometimes we visited each other’s studio. I admired him a lot. Once we were in my attic facing a picture that was giving me a hard time. I asked him whether a technical trick I was considering trying would work. He answered: “Anything’s all right as long as you do it with love.”

A maxim which encapsulates the Beaux Arts spirit. (Frank used to go out with his face dripping blood because he shaved as passionately as he painted). Aged 24 I believed him heart and soul, and even now it doesn’t sound at all bad.

I got divorced and remarried. The Beaux Arts Gallery folded; Helen, the most inspired gallery owner of her time, was never such a good businesswoman. Before closing for good she succeeded in placing Frank and Leon Kossoff with Marlborough. I too negotiated a contract with them, but for one reason or another it fell through.

In one sense the end of the Beaux Arts was a relief to me. My work had been gradually changing over the years towards a less martyred style. I felt suffocated by the obligation, tacitly instigated by Helen, to become a saint.

The break-up of my friendship with Lucian was much more painful. He had taught me more than anyone. To give just a few examples: the importance of giving emotional life to every square centimetre of the picture and of working to the limits of your strength; the close, intelligent interaction between the life of an artist and his work; the continual study of selected great painters of the past… Now I was on my own. I was going to have to grow up again.

Lucian vigorously rejected the concept of narrative painting; I was attracted to it. For him Italian art, with exception of late Titian and Michelangelo, lacked the necessary danger; I loved Giotto, Piero, Masaccio… I don’t believe my decision to move with my family to Italy would have been possible under his patronage.
We sold our house and bought a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside. I took advantage of this radical change to make an equally radical one in my work. Industrial acrylic paint instead of oils; subject matter taken from dreams, with a tendency towards surrealism; on one hand the influence of Duccio, who I saw as the mediaeval equivalent of a film director, on the other a record of modern Italian street life; all painted smooth and flat without visible brushstrokes.

During the first year I felt very isolated. I frequently wrote to Mike, the only one of my friends with the qualities necessary for understanding the creative schizophrenic I was going through, but he never answered my letters. It appeared that he too was in a crisis and has hidden away. Our mutual friend Craigie Aitchison told me that Mike was now a recluse. We all ended up accepting it, but not without initial puzzlement and sadness.

I think my stylistic switch-about resulted from the desire, which now seems shameful, to paint more in the spirit of my time. Only history can be the judge of these things.

Helen came out to visit us, forewarned about what to expect from my recent work. Always forthright, she said: “You know, I don’t dislike them as much as I thought I would.”

I decided to look after my career. I began exhibiting, with no success at all, in the big Italian cities.
But those years weren’t entirely negative. Although I don’t like the pictures I did then, perhaps it was necessary for me to do them. Buried inside every artist is the solution to his own contradictions and he can only find it by experimenting, taking risks.

Classic and romantic. Apollonian and Dionysiac. Perhaps we’re all born with both tendencies. Which one later comes to the fore depends on lessons, conditioning, chance. I always knew that, if I were to paint a decent picture one day, it would be thanks to reconciliation between my polarities.

Bit by bit the source of the dream pictures was drying up. I wanted more reality. I went on painting acrylics with a smooth surface, but on canvas instead of board and with more domestic subjects. I took refuge in sensuality.

I showed these new pictures in Barcelona, selling quite a few of them. The relative success of the exhibition gave me plenty to think about. I’d been to Spain several times before. My friend and patron, the decorator Jaime Parladé, used to buy my pictures sometimes. I loved Spain. I thought perhaps I’d made a mistake, that of the Mediterranean countries Spain had more to offer me than Italy. In the Barcelona show a florist round the corner from the gallery bought 2 big pictures. The Town Hall bought another. I thought: what’s going on here? My love was being requited.

My recognition of Spain coincided with my second divorce. I had nowhere to live, an awkward situation for painters, who depend on spatial stability. I travelled around with a girl I was now with, staying for periods of 2 or 3 months in rented flats in Cataluña and Andalucía. The most fruitful thing about that time was the development of my professional relationship with Jaime.

In 1981 my girlfriend bought a flat in London. There I decorated a room with a mural composed of pieces of painted plywood glued to the wall like a jigsaw puzzle. The next year Jaime visited us and liked it. He commissioned me to do another mural, on slatted blinds, for a house in Miami. This I painted in a hut near Jaime’s place in Andalucía. Then we shipped the 17 finished blinds to Miami, where, as far as I know, they still hang.

Jaime hadn’t forgotten the jigsaw mural. Next he commissioned one in the same technique, but far more ambitious, for a bar in Marbella. It took 5 months of hard but rewarding work.

Meanwhile I got married again. When the mural was finished we went back to England. I found that, after so many murals, I was incapable of adapting to normal-sized pictures. I had the idea of a “mural without walls”, a series of 8 big pictures using the jigsaw technique, but with the pieces glued onto board instead of the wall. The next stage would be to look for a client with walls, and then paint, still in jigsaw, an architectural framework related to the proportions of the space available. But this time Jaime was out of luck, or else this ideal client didn’t exist. I ended up exhibiting the 8 pictures first in La Coruña, then in Marbella a few months later.

The Coruña exhibition was a flop, but a Galician friend in England had lent us his house near town. There I fell in love with Galicia and painted my first Galician picture.

Something unthinkable happened in 1986. I stopped painting to write a book, got addicted to writing and didn’t pick up a paintbrush till 1990. When I started painting again, in oils, we had already made the difficult decision to emigrate to Galicia. Just as difficult was relearning to paint, but little by little I gathered momentum. If painting is a whole universe, we painters are very small stars. Painting made me suffer for my defection to a rival art.

Recently, it appears, I’ve attempted to merge the tendencies, both technical and thematic, of the various stages of my career. I say “it appears” because I certainly haven’t done so intentionally. I paint as I do because that’s how it comes out. I’ve never had the reserves of control to be able to pick and choose.

In front of me on the wall is an unfinished picture. Or rather… for me it’s unfinished. My wife, a good painter and a good judge of painting, tells me not to touch it. I’ve been ages painting it. It’s exhausting me to look at it, let alone go on with it. My wife isn’t wrong, but neither is she right. In painting there’s no right and wrong. I’ll go on with it because I wouldn’t sleep well if I didn’t.

Michael Andrews used to say: “A picture of mine is finished when someone takes it away from me.” With his existential, almost Zen refinement, he worked so that each brushstroke should represent a step forwards. Hence the hour-long wait – each mark had to conform precisely to his vision of the truth. I’m not like that. I paint blindly; I never know what I’m looking for until I find it. A picture of mine is finished when I’ve surprised myself.

I start off with a subject that stimulates me. Sometimes – a nude or a portrait – the stimulus comes from a single image, but more often from the fertilisation of one visual idea by another, or others. The search for the point of departure nearly always gives me a lot of anxiety, because it has to be robust enough to take the weight of, say, 100 hours of work.

What I like best is being in the middle. I’m aware that I’ve chosen a playful, pleasurable, childish way to live. I try to prolong this stage as much as I can. But inexorably the picture itself begins to boss me about, while I struggle to understand its mandates. It knows better than me where it wants to go.

Now it’s nearly finished, but only nearly. I’m aware that I’ve chosen a tough, grave, shattering way to live. Why isn’t it finished? I don’t know. And now the picture has stopped giving instructions. I’m on my own. Painting, in the end, is abstract; we’re dealing with a purely subjective balance between shapes, colours, tones, adding up to a whole which involves a spatial interplay. The picture isn’t finished because the balance isn’t yet there.

Every so often some unknown person asks me: “Aren’t you the painter from the School of London?” Well, no. It’s been a very long time since I lived in London, and when I did live there we didn’t have the title “School”. Here we’ve got magnificent painters: Carpo, Nitodavila, Encinar, Peteiro, Cabanas, Alfonso Abelenda, César Otero, Xoti, Cruz, Laureano Vidal, Diana Aitchison, Chelín, Correa Corredoira, Espona, Julio Sanjurjo, Anne Heyvaert... I prefer to belong to the School of La Coruña.

Copyright © 2003, T. Behrens

The Colony Room school

Lunch at Wheelers: L-R: Timothy Behrens, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews.
Photograph © 1962 Estate of John Deakin.

T. Behrens and the so-called School of London (an interview)


António Cerveira Pinto (ACP) – what does the following list [2] means to you?

        Michael Andrews (1928-1995)
        Frank Auerbach (1931)
        Francis Bacon (1909-1992)
        Lucian Freud (1922)
        R. B. Kitaj (1932)
        Leon Kossoff (1926)

T. Behrens (TB) – It means friends I don’t see any more. Mike and Francis are dead, and Kitaj I never even met, I can’t think why, since we had a good friend in common, the playwright and poet Harry Tierney. I don’t think Kitaj went to the Colony Room, at least I never coincided with him there. Leon Kossoff didn’t go very often either.


ACP – quotation:

    ”...So many frequented The Colony Room that a self-contained movement, ‘The Colony Room School’ arose. Essentially a subject of R.R. Kitaj’s ‘School of London’, its nucleus comprised a group of friends and contemporaries: Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews. The latter’s painting, The Colony Room I, 1962 sets at least two of them in their milieu (all 23′ x 12′ of it): Freud stands off-center facing out, and Bacon sits to his left with Muriel Belcher on her stool dividing them... ” [2]

Question – Are you depicted in this painting? What did the Colony Room mean to you and to your art activity?

TB – No. I remember being rather offended that Mike hadn’t put me in. I asked him why, and his answer was typically intelligent. He was painting the Thyssen portrait at the same time. He said that he had at first considered using me as one of the characters, but changed his mind because he thought that to do so would divert or dilute the emotional energy he needed for the portrait. I could easily identify with that sort of thing, and felt ashamed of the childishness of my initial reaction.

Robin Muir says that at least two of the group of friends are represented in the picture, meaning Lucian and Francis. But Mike himself told me that he intended the chubby seated figure to be an ambiguous mixture of Francis and Dab Farson, another habitué and friend of ours, who wrote a gossipy but affectionate and brave biography of Francis after his death.


ACP – Ron B. Kitaj first referred to the School of London in his catalogue introduction to the exhibition titled The Human Clay at the Hayward Gallery in 1976. Kitaj noted that “while abstraction, happenings and transformations were triumphant there was a special trend towards figurative painting as well as a kind of obsession for the human figure among most London painters” [2].

Question: This description could also apply entirely to your artwork… don’t you think?

TB – I disagree with Kitaj. The figurative tendency, the obsession with the human figure was decidedly not shared by “most” London painters. There were weak, traditional figure painters, who behaved as though Paris had never existed, but I assume he’s not talking about those. The great majority of ambitious or “good” or “real” painters were abstract. It would be tempting to say that the painters of the so-called School of London were locked in heroic, defiant rebellion against abstraction. Speaking for myself, though, if I can include myself in the group, there was never any choice. I didn’t understand abstract painting. It seemed so one-sided. Figurative painters deal in abstraction too, after all. The excitement, the challenge, lies in making sense of abstraction on one hand and representation on the other.


ACP – quotation:

    “Each of these painters instilled a personal style in their works dissecting reality and the morphological attitude of models, expressionist and violent for Auerbach, hallowed with dream and mystery for Andrews, coloured and graphic for Kitaj while Kossoff seems much attracted by thick materials. Francis Bacon was much concerned by human condition using derision to depict human figures always shown distorted so as to express anguish and solitude. Contrary to Bacon’s nudity of the soul, Lucian Freud seems fascinated by the nudity of bodies and proves to be a master in expressing sheer intimacy with no restrictions.” (Ron B. Kitaj) [2].

Question: Could one refer to the specificity of your paintings, within the esthetical mood defined by Kitaj, as something less sharp, less analytical, less expressionist, less concerned by morphology, … and more holistic, more poetic and more de-dramatized, being notwithstanding a very personal approach to subjective realism?

TB – I find it very hard, if not impossible, to see my work objectively compared with that of other painters. I paint the way I do because it seems to me the most direct or logical way of communicating my personal set of visual preferences. I know I haven’t really answered your question, but I’ll try another approach. You use the word poetic, which I can never understand in reference to painting. I want to paint pictorially, not poetically. That’s why I write poetry, in order to exploit that other side of myself. However, I was recently accused of painting short stories.


ACP – quotation:

    “I hardly know why I agreed to buy pictures for the Arts Council. I should have stayed in bed like Oblomov. Anyway, the shutter banging in the wind did not defeat what became a labor of love and I’m glad I did it. I told them I would only buy pictures representing people . . .? (Ron B. Kitaj) [2].

Question: How central is a sculptor like Henry Moore and he’s drawings about the war as an inspiration for a generation to which most of the modernist optimism was already gone with the deadly wind of two world wars and several million of victims?

TB – Henry Moore was the English modern artist for my student generation. One day I found myself in a smart Hampstead drawing room with Nick Garland, Francis Morland and Eduardo Paolozzi.

Paolozzi picked up the phone and said in his Scottish accent: “Hullo Henry”. He sounded a bit apprehensive, but Nick and I, both 18, were extremely impressed that he should be on Christian name terms with the great man at all.

Afterwards there was a fairly fierce, generalised reaction against Moore. I can never understand the impulse to shoot down people who are genuinely grand and have become famous through merit, rather than ambition. (It’s now the fashion to denigrate Bacon too).

I’ve just done a picture, based partly on a photo by Alfonso which contains people sleeping in the Madrid metro during the Civil War. It’s only now, answering your question, that I realise I owe the image to Henry Moore, who did a famous series of drawings of the London version of the same subject.


ACP – quotation:

    “The singe human figure is a swell thing to draw. It seems to be almost impossible to do it as well as maybe half a dozen blokes have in the past. I’m talking about skill and imagination that can be seen to be done. It is, to my way of think and in my own experience, the most difficult thing to do really well in the whole of art.” (Ron B. Kitaj) [2].

Question: Landscape painting and portraits are a very well known trend in British art, and I can imagine the so-called School of London, very impressed with such powerful artists like Constable, Turner, Gainsborough, Reynolds, John Sargent, William Blake and Whistler. In times of delusion, requiring new attention to the human soul and body, but also to the precious environment of life, photography (now under the control of information age), probably seemed not enough to your generation. Painting had, so to speak, another chance to prove its innocence and wit. Is this a fair judgement? What was the hard talk of those times in relation to the future of art? Was there any sense of future in your perception of the evolution of contemporary culture? Or was it only a matter of dealing with the present… and painting?

TB – I hate the term the School of London. I don’t blame Kitaj for coining it, because if he hadn’t someone else would have done. But it takes an effort for me to pronounce the words.

Constable was the only English painter you name who was influential then – and only to Lucian, I think. It was rare to hear people mention English painting of the past, neither was I interested in it myself. Lucian was obsessed by Rembrandt and Francis by Velásquez. The setting for Mike’s picture The Deer Park came from Velásquez too. I spent years studying Breughel, Vermeer, Goya, Michelangelo, Courbet, Delacroix…

I’m a painter of people. Occasionally I do an unpopulated picture, but unless it contains human traces – an unmade bed or an interior – I can’t work up the enthusiasm to carry it through. I have done landscapes, specially when I was very young, but I never thought much of them.

“What was the hard talk of those times in relation to the future of art?” In Soho there was very few places where you could drink through the afternoons. The Colony Room of course was one, but there was also a bar next door called the Club des Caves de France. It was a tougher sort of place with a more heterosexual atmosphere. Muriel Belcher could be quite strict about bad behaviour, and the drunkest people of all, who weren’t always welcome at the Colony, were tolerated at the Caves. One of these was Roger Hilton, a pioneer abstract painter of my parent’s generation. One day, practically on his knees with exhaustion and whiskey, he whispered in my ear: “Kid, the future is yours.” It wasn’t a reference to our respective ages. He meant he thought that abstract painting was finished. This was exciting, coming from the headquarters of the theoretical enemy, because we were outsiders, whatever Kitay says. The paintings of Hilton’s last years were dancing nudes.

Writing that anecdote down suggests an answer to the rest of your question. People like Roger Hilton belonged to some ism or other. They were politically minded and thought about the future of art, that art had a predictable future. We – the Colony Room School or the Beaux Arts Gallery School, to avoid that pretentious expression for once – were anti-political, anti-School in fact. There was a feeling in the air of aristocratic scorn for expressions like “the future of art”.

A dandyish feeling too. Bacon had something to do with Oscar Wilde and Lucian perhaps with Baudelaire.


ACP – As far, you have been totally erased (or self-erased…) from the so-called School of London, with the exceptions of two portraits where one can testify your early association to the core of the Colony Room Group: Lunch at Wheeler’s, a photograph, produced like a ‘tableau vivant’, done in 1962 by John Deakin, and a portrait of yours done by the painter Michael Andrews, belonging to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection (now in Madrid). What did really happen at the time to your relation with the future School of London? [3]

TB – What happened was that the Beaux Arts Gallery closed, my friendship with Lucian dissolved and I left the country. It was like the end of a chapter. You say I’ve been “erased” (or “self-erased”) from the School of London. I think I was more of a desertor, and desertors don’t get easily forgiven.


ACP – You have been working a lot in the last decade or so. Could you tell us a little more about this silent work?

TB – I’ve always worked a lot. It’s just that lately I seem to produce more pictures. I don’t think I can tell you much about what you nicely call “this silent work”. I hope it speaks for itself, in silence that is.


ACP – Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach were born in Berlin, Bacon was an Irish from Dublin, Kitaj was a native from Cleveland, Ohio. Where are you from? This so-called School of London and their relations with British realist painting tradition may have, in fact, a more diversified cultural background. Don’t you think?

TB – It’s true that the School of London is short of real Londoners, but so was the School of Paris of real Parisians. Picasso spoke French with an atrocious Andalusian accent, Matisse was from the Belgian frontier, Modligliani was an Italian Jew, Chagall and Soutine Russian Jews…

Lucian was born in Vienna, Frank in Berlin, Paula Rego in Lisbon, Bacon in Dublin, Mike in Norwich. Craigie Aitchison was born in Edinburgh. It mystifies me that nobody talks about Craigie in the context of the School of London, far more than it does that nobody talks about me. Craigie has lived and worked in London for 50 years. He’s one of the 4 or 5 best known English painters, both to general public and to specialists. He was an intimate friend of Mike Andrews and Euan Uglow. His work fits perfectly well into the stylistic disparateness of the so-called group. Almost most importantly he was Helen Lessore’s favourite of all of us.

And yet nobody outside England has heard of him.

I was born in London, but my fairly recent ancestors were Hamburg Jews. There was a lot of Jewish blood in my London circle of friends: Frank, Lucian, Kossoff, Helen Lessore. Kitaj is Jewish too. Frank Auerbach, Lucian once told me with the air of having just made an important discovery, comes from a long line of rabbis.


ACP – Most of the work we are going to see in your first retrospective ever was done in Spain in the last two decades. Before this period you have been in Italy. How do you see the relationship of your art, done outside the environment of the Colony Room, with the so-called School of London? As I see it, there is still a very strong connection with the principles that made that Lunch at Wheeler’s the vortex of a decisive de-construction of the modernist tendency to abstraction…

TB – I often wonder about this myself. I chose to live in Spain and not in England, surrounded by Spanish rather than English people. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else I’ve lived, and my youngest son grew up Spanish. Painting is a means of communication. In as much as painters paint “for” anyone, I’d like to paint for the people I see every day, who are Spanish people. To put it another way, I’m conscious of a great debt to the Spanish, which I’d like to repay in my favourite coinage, painting. But on the other hand one can’t deny or escape the overwhelming heritage of the formative years, until 25, say. The other day I asked a friend: “Do I paint as I talk, with an English accent I mean?” When, after some thought, he said no, I was pleased. But the way you phrase your question suggests you disagree.

Copyright © 2003, António Cerveira Pinto


  1. This interview was done between january and april of 2003 for the book published on the occasion of T. Behrens retrospective, curated by António Cerveira Pinto, which took place in Madrid, A Coruña and Lisbon, in three different flavors. 
  2. As referred by Robin Muir in John Deakin: Photographs; selected & essay by Robin Muir. The Vendome Press, New York, 1996. 
  3. It is almost impossible to locate any reference to T. Behrens as a member of the Colony Room group of artists that made this pub so famous, and it is even more difficult to find any of his artworks in any of the many exhibitions related to the so-called School of London. Here is some relevant data collected from the Internet when I was trying to discover how far this erasing process has gone.


The Human Clay Exhibition (1976), curated by Ron B. Kitay

  • Michael Andrews (b. 1928) 6* 
  • Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) 4 
  • Francis Bacon (b. 1909) 1 
  • Adrian Berg (b. 1929) 3 
  • Peter Blake (b. 1932) 3 
  • Frank Bowling (b. 1936) 1 
  • Olwyn Bowey (b. 1936) 1 
  • Stephen Buckley (b. 1944) 3 
  • Rodney Burn (b. 1899) 1 
  • Richard Carline (b. 1896) 1 
  • Anthony Caro (b. 1924) 1 
  • Patrick Caulfield (b. 1936) 1 
  • William Coldstream (b. 1908) 1 
  • Richard Cook (b. 1947) 2 
  • Peter de Francia (b. 1921) 4 
  • Jim Dine (b. 1935) 1 
  • Sandra Fisher (b. 1947) 1 
  • Lucian Freud (b. 1922) 6 
  • Patrick George (b. 1923) 1 
  • John Golding (b. 1929) 1 
  • Lawrence Gowing (b. 1918) 1 
  • Maggi Hambling (b. 1945) 3 
  • Richard Hamilton (b. 1922) 5 
  • Nigel Henderson (b. 1917) 1 
  • David Hockney (b. 1937) 4 
  • Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932) 5 
  • Allen Jones (b. 1937) 3 
  • R.B. Kitaj (b. 1932) 1 
  • Leon Kossoff (b. 1926) 1 
  • Helen Lessore (b. 1907) 1 
  • John Lessore (b. 1939) 3 
  • Kenneth Martin (b. 1905) 1 
  • Robert Medley (b. 1905) 4 
  • Alexander Moffat (b. 1943) 2 
  • Henry Moore (b. 1898) 2 
  • Leonard McComb (b. 1930) 3 
  • Eduardo Paolozzi (b. 1924) 3 
  • Philip Rawson (b. 1924) 4 
  • William Roberts (1895-1980) 2 
  • Tony Scherman (b. 1950) 1 
  • Peter Schlesinger (b. 1948) 1 
  • William Scott (b. 1913) 1 
  • Colin Self (b. 1941) 1 
  • Stella Steyn (b. 1907) 1 
  • William Turnbull (b. 1922) 1 
  • Euan Uglow (b. 1932) 2 
  • Elizabeth Vellacott (b. 1905) 1 
  • Carel Weight (b. 1908) 2

(*)Numbers represent the works exhibited by each artist.

GROUP EXHIBITIONS (related to the so-called School of London) 

— Recent Trends in Realist Painting; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1952) 

— Dunn International; Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Frederiction and Tate Gallery, London (1963) 

— British Painting since 1945; Tate Gallery, London (1967)
— Recent British Painting from the Peter Stuyvesant Collection; Tate Gallery, London (1967)
— Helen Lessore and the Beaux Arts Gallery; Marlborough Fine Art, London (1968)
— British Painting and Sculpture 1960-1970, an exhiition organized by the Tate Gallery and the British Council, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (1970-71)
— Drawings of People; Arts Council of Great Britian (1975); Serpentine Gallery (1976)
— The Human Clay, an exhibition selected by R.B. Kitaj; Hayward Gallery, London; Arts Council of Great Britian (1976)
— European painting from the Seventies: New York by 16 artists; Los Angeles County Museum (1976)
— Peter Moores Liverpool Project 4: Real Life; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (1976)
— British Painting 1952 to 1977, The Royal Academy of Arts, London (1977)
— The British Art Show, The Arts Council (1979)
— This Knot of Life, paintings and drawings by British artists; L. A. Louver Gallery, Venice California (1979).

        – Part I: William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, Euan Uglow.
        - Part II: Frank Auerbach, Franics Bacon, Peter Blake, R. B. Kitaj, Leon Kossoff.

    — “The urge to create art movements has almost become compulsive. The general confusion we have experienced in the art world of the Seventies has been the result of the art critics and museum curators desire to comfortably package newly found artists, and some of the barren products they have made during the past decade, into groups of related ideas. Now that their haste has succeeded in creating chaos, perhaps it has also afforded a period for the healthy reassessment of certain artists’ work, and of aritstic values too hastifly abandoned. . . In Britain, in spite of all the changes of fashion dictated by the art world itself, certain consistent ideas have prevailed. This exhibition brings together a group of British painters who are preoccupied with making pictures that explore the figure and human landscape. The influence of these artitsts has been birmly felt in Britian. To a generation of art students during the Sixties, their work was in many respects a guiding light. To a generation in the Seventies, their influence has been a thorn in the side of the argument that painting is dead. There are some great painters working in Britian. I have selected ten of them for this exhibition . . . I am very grateful to Ron Kitaj for agreeing to reprint, and edit, his essay entitled The Human Clay, which was written to accompany an exhibition her curated in 1976...” – Peter Goulds. 5 October, 1979. Forward of catalogue This Knot of Life.

— Narrative Paintings; Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1979-80)
— Eight Figurative Painters; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT (1981). Artists: Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, Patrick George, Leon Kossoff, Euan Uglow.
— Exhibition at The Colony Room Club, organized by Michael Parkin (1982). The exhibition which showed works by members Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Eduardo Paolozzi.
— Hayward Annual, Hayward Gallery, London (1982)
— The Hard Won Image, Tate Gallery, London (1984)
— The British Art Show; Arts Council of Great Britain (1984)
— A Circle: Portraits and Self Portraits by Arikha, Auerbach, Kitaj and Freud; Marlborough Fine Art, London (1984)
— The Proper Study; The British Council (1984-85)
— The British Show; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; British Council (1985)
— A Singular Vision; Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter (1985)
— The Human Touch, 50 years of British Painting about People; Cornerhouse, Manchester (1985)
— Forty Years of Modern Art; Tate Gallery, London (1986)
— British Art in the 20th Century: The Modern Movement; Royal Academy of Arts, London (1987)
— Current affairs: British Painting and Sculpture in the 1980s; Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and The British Council (1987).
— A School of London: Six Figurative Painters; organized by the British Council for: Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art; Museo d’Arte Moderna, Venice; Kunstmuseum, Dusseldorf (1987).

    — “The idea for this exhibition arose from a discussion between the Paris-based art critic, Michael Peppiatt and the American-born aritst, R. B. Kitaj. . . this will be the first time that foreign audiences will be given the chance of seeing together a representative selection of work by some of the leading figures in what both Kitaj and the writer, Lawrence Gowing and others have chosen to dub the ‘School of London.’ Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, R.B. Kitaj and Leon Kossoff; at first glance, it would seem that the members of this group possess little in common – certainly only one of them can claim to be a Londoner by birth, yet they all share an attachment to the city. The strongest link between them is their commitment to painting and to the figurative image. Their sustained dedication to an artistc ideal has resulted in a body of work of astonishing power and diversity which has been developed individually, and has remained largely unaffected by successive post-war artistc movements. . .” (from the catalogue). Jenry Meyric Hughes. Director, Fine Arts Department. The British Council.

— Exhibition Road, Painters at the Royal College of Art; Royal College of Art, London (1988).
— The Pursuit of the Real, British Figurative Painting from Sickert to Bacon, Manchester City Art Galleries, The Barbican Art Gallery, Glasgow City Art Gallery (1990).
— The School of London and their Friends, The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Menains, Yale Centre for British Art, Newberger Museum of Art (2000-01).


The School of London and their Friends: The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians. 2000-10-11 until 2000-01-07. Yale Center for British Art. New Haven, CT, USA.

The finest and most comprehensive collection of paintings by the School of London are currently owned by New York collectors Elaine and Melvin Merians. For the first time over seventy masterpiece paintings and drawings from this collection will be exhibited publicly at the Yale Center for British Art. The School of London and their Friends: The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians will offer a fresh introduction to contemporary figurative painting in England and reveal the range and quality of the Merians activities as collectors over the past twenty years.

The term School of London was coined by American-born painter Ronald Kitaj in order to draw attention to the extraordinary range and power he found in contemporary British art after the Second World War. The expression called attention to a common trait shared by half a dozen of Londons most prominent artists: their fascination with the human figure as well as the environment–whether it was the interior of their studios or the grimy streets of London. Lucian Freud serves as one of the original members of the movement together with Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews, R.B. Kitaj, and Euan Uglow. Through their commitment to portraying the human figure, the landscape, and the cityscape, the School of London has influenced a younger generation of painters.

They are represented in this exhibition by Christopher Bramham, Peter Doig, Tony Bevan, and others who are united by their engagement with the immediate world–from rich, dramatic depictions of the human form to crowded urban landscapes.

As a school they are a potent reminder of the tradition of modern British realist painting that extends through the twentieth century to such important artists from Walter Sickert and the Camden Town School, back to Matthew Smith, Paul Nash, and Wyndham Lewis. For many, their roots in London and London studio practice are strong and self-evident. For others removed from the London scene, such as David Hockney, there still persists a grip on the immediacy of place. The painters live and work off of the environment. The relationship is strong and unbreakable.

The collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians is of exceptional interest and quality as the foremost collection in America and Britain devoted exclusively to the School of London. It is the breadth of the Merians vision and the depth of their relationship with each artist that the Yale Center has sought to capture in this exhibition. Melvin Merians commented, …We have gotten to know most of the artists over a period of time. One of the great things about collecting contemporary art, I feel, is to know and have a relationship with the artist. It gives a greater insight into their work and one has an opportunity to ask them all sorts of questions.

Indeed, the Merians are collectors whose sharp focus on the School of London has given them an intimate knowledge of both the works of art and the artists who created them. The exhibition includes multiple works by nearly every featured artist including, for example, three paintings by Lucian Freud, five works each by R.B. Kitaj and Frank Auerbach, six paintings by Peter Blake and nine by Euan Uglow.

The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians is important for its comprehensive overview of the School of London. It is equally important as a vivid reminder that artists in Britain have continued to produce work of the highest quality no matter how the winds of fashion have blown. This collection demonstrates powerfully to the viewer that the tradition of painting and drawing as a deeply humanist art persists to the close of the twentieth century.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with an essay by Richard Cork, art critic for The Times (London) and author of A Bitter Truth (1994), Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age (1977), and Vorticism and Its Allies (1974). The publication will also feature an interview with Elaine and Melvin Merians and a detailed description of their collection. Together with the exhibition, the catalogue will make a substantial contribution to the knowledge and understanding of 20th-Century British art.

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Peter Campbell

Michael Andrews was born in 1928 and died in 1995. He didn’t produce many paintings (although the ones he made tended to be large). In the exhibition at Tate Britain, until 17 October, the full range of his work can be appreciated for the first time. Andrews followed a route which depersonalises the act of looking. He was taught by William Coldstream, and said: ‘Bill gave me my first enlightenment. He persuaded me of the paramount value of looking, of appraisal and, in transcription, of direct statement, of which he said: “Just write it down.” It was so simple and unforgettable.’ The little lines and crosses which show through the paint in Coldstream’s pictures record intervals meticulously (sometimes obsessionally and even destructively). In paintings by Sickert the grid which allowed a squared-up drawing to be copied to canvas sometimes shows through the paint. There are paintings by Andrews in which remnants of construction lines serve a double purpose: they are a necessary scaffolding, but also marks which demonstrate effort, in Andrews’s case that which has gone into transferring the details of an intermediate image – a postcard or photograph – to canvas. Like the hallmark on a piece of silver, they can work only if they interfere with the surface which they authenticate.

The use of photographs as a substitute for personal observation is a drastic distancing tactic, particularly when they are commercial images taken out of the context – newspapers and magazines – in which their usual meanings are generated. It was a move Sickert used: you can compare a row of painterly little portraits of pop stars by Andrews in this exhibition with Sickert’s picture (taken from a newspaper cutting) of Peggy Ashcroft in Venice, which is currently hanging in one of Tate Britain’s thematic displays. Andrews moved from this kind of reinterpretation of mechanical images to a Rauschenbergian use of over-painted screen-printed photographs and then to a much more meticulous copying of visual artefacts. Making his pictures of Ayers Rock in Australia in the 1980s, Andrews worked from collages of coloured photographs; another series was painted from photographs he had taken of himself deer-stalking in Scotland; a picture in which he is teaching his daughter to swim is based on a snapshot. Throughout his career he painted small portraits from life – they are not particularly distinguished, but convincingly modest, and provide a continuing test of another, direct, way of seeing.

In English painting, even recent painting, an autobiographical engagement with people and places is common. You find it in the work of Freud, Bacon and Spencer. Freud’s interrogation of the flesh, both intimate and unloving; Bacon’s use of imagery which takes its force from a willingness to do violence to the look of friends and lovers; Spencer’s exposure of private life and private parts in his search for intimate truths – are all typical of English uses of painting. Things seem to have been done differently in France. Matisse’s nudes are not also portraits, and Picasso’s women, even when they are recognisable, are depersonalised and turned into players in more general mythologies. Vuillard and Bonnard made pictures of the places they lived in and the people they lived with, but do not require one to guess at more than the picture shows. Although you can’t generalise – Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach make pictures of ordinary North London without seeming to imply stories about the scenes they record – there is an English tendency to find the first impetus to picture-making in personalities and narrative, rather than in formal values of tone, shape and colour. Even an abstract painter like Howard Hodgkin can assert that his pictures are rooted in particular experiences and represent significant moments. Sickert, and those English painters who tried to follow his lead, proved that painters might find their best opportunities in ordinary rooms, common streets and popular entertainments. The narrative element in Andrews’s pictures is unusually complicated. His early subjects are mundane and suburban (family in back garden, the beach, a dull block of flats); then there is the shabby glamour of Soho bohemia (The Colony Room). Stranger, invented, exotic parties follow (The Deer Park, All Night Long) peopled by figures taken from pictures in magazines. Then there is a group of mysterious scenes in which elongated figures, based on pictures of singers and stars, stand like ragged clothes-pegs in front of a modern building with palms and a pool which might be a resort hotel. These canvases are called Good and Bad at Games.

Seven pictures – Lights I to Lights VII – show seaside piers, a suspension bridge, traffic at night, a skyscraper at night and the shadow of a hot-air balloon. The balloon, shown or merely implied by the height from which the view is taken, links the images. They have a dream-like strangeness in which the contrast between the snap-shot facts and the aesthetic implication of big canvases and carefully applied flat paint plays a part. You see the balloon, you see from it, you see its shadow. That there is a meaning intended (a communicated emotion, a non-verbal comment on the nature of our relation to the real, seen world) is confirmed by accounts of Andrews’s thoughts about his work. In this case the idea is freedom: ‘to be released and unselfconscious – how wonderful that would be,’ Andrews noted on a scrap of paper. But he also believed that the verbal and visual could tangle negatively. In the exhibition catalogue,* William Feaver records an exchange from an interview with him: ‘There’s such a marvellous difference between ideas and imagery. I mean you can’t paint ideas; you really cannot paint ideas. Pictures which are based on ideas are the ones which founder.’

Andrews’s pictures are like disturbing dreams. It’s not just the intrusions – such as that of curious animal-masked figures in the foreground of views of the formal gardens of Drummond Castle. There is something grey, threatening and unexplained about his blandest landscapes. Ayres Rock is a discomfiting presence despite the bright desert light; the water in which he teaches his daughter to swim is threateningly black; in the stalking pictures it is the distant deer that first catch your eye, the prone figures who hunt them hunt you too. These effects are made stronger when you see the pictures together because Andrews employed no recognisable single way of making marks which would let you live, as it were, in the painter’s hand and eye. There is air-brushing, neat small-brush painting and, sometimes on the same canvas, there are broad painterly strokes – like the ones in A View from Uamh Mhor which describe the nearer hillsides. On that canvas and on Edinburgh (Old Town), streaks of thin paint drip down the picture over bare patches which look as though they are waiting to be finished (but which would resolve things altogether too much if they were). There are small studies close in appearance to Constable sketches. Sometimes the canvas is primed, sometimes bare brown linen shows through. His life’s work reads as a calculated attempt to avoid a style which would have a life of its own, and you finish up not knowing who, as a painter, he is.

There are some early photographs in the catalogue of Andrews with Soho friends like Lucian Freud and Tim Behrens (whose portrait is in the exhibition). Andrews was excited by parties: he looks at once charming and shy. Other painters of his generation impressed their personalities on their time by finding identifiable ways of making pictures. Andrews’s unrepetitive, very memorable series of images are the closest our times are likely to come to painterly anonymity.

Peter Campbell is the LRB’s [London Review of Books] art guru and a typographer.

in http://www.lrb.co.uk/v23/n15/camp01_.html


David Choen

This is a reworked article from 1998 which was dropped from publication at the time due to a dispute concerning photographic reproduction rights.

The small oeuvre of intensely considered realist pictures left to the world by Michael Andrews, who died of cancer in his mid-sixties in 1995, has a poetry and integrity uniquely its own. His are deeply intelligent works, rooted in an understanding of the complexity of pictorial language, informed by photography but allied to observation. True, they can appear dutifully conservative at times, but in a way that just adds to their quirkiness. As Frank Auerbach once put it, “Mike does these things that at first look like old railway travel posters, but when you really look at them they are just truly beautiful pictures.” With Lucian Freud, Auerbach was a fanatically loyal champion of this quintessential artist’s artist. Although Andrews enjoyed the patronage of certain well-placed figures within the British establishment, his reputation remains pretty limited even within Britain, and virtually non-existent overseas (although one important work, All Night Long, is in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia). The combination of a small output, quiet life, uncontroversial subject matter and unostentatious painterly touch justify comparisons with Vermeer, whose reputation had to wait two centuries to be retrieved from oblivion. Luckily, Andrews may not have to wait that long. A retrospective is promised by Tate Britain in a couple of years, and in the meantime, his work can be seen, this Fall of 2000, at the Yale Center for British Art, in the exhibition “The School of London and Their Friends: The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians”.

A belated memorial show held at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in the spring of 1998 brought together the three Thames pictures which turned out to be his last. The series marked his return to London after many years seclusion in East Anglia. One doesn’t need to know they are last paintings (only two were finished) to sense their urgency of resolve. The expressive and spontaneous treatment of surface was unparalleled in his career. Not coincidentally, Mr Taylor’s Mayfair premises, in Bruton Place, once housed the Beaux-Arts Gallery where, in the 1950s, the redoubtable Helen Lessore championed British realism, exhibiting Bacon, Auerbach, Kossoff, the Kitchen Sink painters, and – for his first two shows – Michael Andrews. It was a resonant space in which to see his last works, especially as these deal with the river as repository of memories and symbol of the flow of time.

Much as Andrews deserves greater recognition, one could argue, in a bizarre kind of way, that a quiet exit from art historical consciousness would have fitted Andrews’s artistic character. A devotee of Zen Bhuddism, he actually made negation of ego one of his themes. In his haunting ethereal landscape paintings of the 1970s – the Lights series – he adopted the hot air balloon as a metaphor of selfhood. He had been chewing over the concept of “the skin-encapsulated ego” described in the writings of R.D.Laing when he was struck by a newspaper photo of a balloon which gave him his cue. He once confided to the writer Lawrence Gowing “I love the sense of homelessness and rootlessness. I’d like to die in a ditch.” He was, as it happens, buried in an unmarked grave, although at a well attendend funeral on the estate of his patron Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, on land where he was fond of deer-stalking.

Andrews was born in 1928 in Norwich where his strict Methodist family all worked for the Norwich Union insurance company. At the Slade in the 1950s he was the star pupil of William Coldstream, a realist as torturously self-doubting as he was fanatically empirical. In his own formative years at the Slade, a generation earlier, Coldstream had been torn between the rigorous observational realism advocated by Tonks and the temptations of Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, a dichotomy he passed on, in a way, to Andrews and – to a lesser extent – his other protégé Euan Uglow. In Andrews case the struggle was between the austerity of the Euston Road style, epitomised by Coldstream, and a new conception of the figure, in tune with the modish existentialism, presented by Giacometti and Bacon, although to be fair Coldstream enthused more about Giacometti among his charges than about himself.

Extistentialism won the day in the paintings which catapulted the young Michael Andrews to national attention in the Slade Diploma Examination (degree) show of 1952. “A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over” depicts a middle-aged, middle-class gent about to land, painfully, on the pavement, his besuited body twisted awkwardly between gravity and equilibrium, his expression also equally torn between perplexity, hopelessness and a frantic attempt at composure – he’s literally saving face. Much of the energy in this and other youthful works comes from its forceful awkwardness. Indeed, David Sylvester, an early champion of Andrews, identified awkwarness as his key trait. Partly, Sylvester argued, this had to do with his Englishness (think of the figures in Turner or Constable) but it also relates to “the awkwardness of almost every modern painter who has not been content to solve his problems by simplifying them…The modern artist who aims at the inclusiveness of traditional European art runs up against the difficulty of recovering that inclusiveness without embracing what have become the clichés of the tradition, and the awkwardness arises from trying to have one without the other.” Andrews’ awkwardness also had to do with the prevailing philosophical mood, however, and his temperament.

Meanwhile, the legacy of Coldstream’s example, if not advocacy, of observation would resurface periodically in Andrews’ oeuvre. A decade later he embarked on a large group portrait of his family in his parents’ Norfolk garden which attempted to remain strictly within the boundaries of perceptual analysis. His immediately preceding paintings had actually used the same garden, with its distinctive porch and pergola, as the backdrop of freely imagined bacchanals strangely redolent of Puvis de Chavannes. These featured his London friends, sunbathing or making out, in mannerist, distorted poses. In contrast, the family portrait, which absorbed intense mental energies, is sober and conservative, filial to his religiously puritan parents and aesthetically puritan master, but even so, a tension can be sensed between the competing philosophies – put crudely, existentialism and empiricism. The resulting style, as Peter Fuller described it, was of “clipped angst and trim unease”.

Still, there was more carousing to come. The 1960s were dominated by an ongoing series which explored the party theme. In violation of Methodist taboos Andrews threw himself into the drinking frenzy of Soho, keeping a sober eye, nonetheless, on the revellers at Dean Street’s Colony Room – Freud, Bacon, and a cast of hangers on, many of whom were also portrayed by Freud and Bacon – which Andrews immortalised in his famous group portrait of 1962. In another picture of the same year, The Deer Park, Norman Mailer’s evocation of orgies in the novel of that title fuses with the format of a Velasquez painting in the National Gallery, the Boar Hunt, as well as scenes from Fellini movies, in an extraordinary depiction of forced gaiety and social posturing. Bang in the centre of his image, isolated from the social throng by a billowy white couch, is a portrait of the poet Rimbaud, faithful in style to its photographic source. Elsewhere, an abstracted (in both senses) Marilyn Monroe is dancing. As much as a reinvention of figure painting and an exploration of the mood of the times, this image by Andrews belongs to the Pop canon. Indeed its collision of high culture, the vernacular, personal allusions and painterly physionomic distortion directly relates to a younger artist whose example obsessed him, namely R.B. Kitaj (pages of his notebooks are filled with comments about the controversial newcomer). This puts paid to the whingeing by self-proclaimed historical purists against the inclusion of both Andrews and Kitaj under the rubric “School of London”.

If anything, the connection between Andrews and Kitaj is stylistically safer than that between Andrews and his close friends and admirers, Freud and Auerbach. The act of painting The Deer Park was a new experience for him in that, working on board (instead of canvas) and under intense time pressure (six weeks), he escaped the “hard won” look which had characterised his work so far. He suddenly realised that the blotchiness that comes from constant revision and the texture built up by pentimenti constituted a kind of “special pleading”. As Lawrence Gowing put it, “He did not want painting to look like hard work any more; it was decadent to boast of the effort; the loaded pigment had come to seem like surplus fat.” The move later on to acrylic, and the incorporation of silkscreens, stencils and airbrush, betoken deep disatisfaction, in his own work, with precisely those tropes of angst and effort that eat away at the credibility of certain of his School of London allies.

One way that Andrews freed himself from the tyranny of observation was in his increasingly central use of photographs as source material, although images encountered in the press had rivalled observation from life and free imagination from the outset. History must judge Andrews by the beauty and poignancy of his images, not by his degree of perceptual observation, which is the means not the end of effectiveness, but it is reasonable to be aware of his varying dependendence on photography as this signals very different kinds of picture making. It doesn’t seem that he ever took to the photograph as a Dadaist stance against painting. Even his most extreme incorporation of found photographic material, The Lord Mayor’s Reception in Norwich Castle Keep on the eve of the installation of the first Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, 1966-69, with its mass of dinner-suited guests and its satirical edge, seems genuinely to be about a new kind of history painting rather than a critique of painting per se. Sometimes, in the tradition of Degas and Sickert, the photo is a way of invigorating his art by acknowledging another layer of visual language, revealing the unexpected quirks inherent in the art of depiction. Andrews himself talked about “articulate illusions”. This level of pictorial inquiry comes across in his masterful and intriguing figure composition, Melanie and Me Swimming, 1978-79 (Tate Gallery). Othertimes, though, the photograph is more of a shortcut to an easy-to-assimilate realism. And yet, one would be loathe to write-off such images for this reason. His Lights series reveal him at his most exquisite, eerie and ethereal, and yet also – technically – at his most unmediated in his use of the photograph.

This series deals metaphorically, as mentioned already, with the spiritual theme at the heart of Andrews outlook: the abnegation of ego. He believed that, in the very act of making images on the subject, he could effect his own enlightenment. To this end, the impersonal – selfless – quality of the snapshot represented per se a kind of ego-loss, letting go of an attachment to the fiction of the artist’s unique touch. The series, almost like programme music, followed a quasi-narrative sequence. The balloon, a metaphor of selfhood, at times puffed up, at others floating by magesterially, is seen crossing a noctornal Thames, then casting its shadow over a beach, and finally disappearing from the picture but presumably the vantage point still for aerial views of seaside scenes – a spa or a pier – suffused with an oceanic sense of release. But even before the series came to its conclusion, he realised that, from a Buddhist perspective, it hadn’t worked precisely because it implied a seperation of goal and journey. As Alan Watts put it in his 1957 cult classic, “The Way of Zen”, (a book Andrews read and was influenced by), “…the practice of Zen is not the true practice so long as it has an end in view, and when it has no view in end it is awakening – the aimless, self-sufficient life of the ‘eternal now’”. By a neat coincidence in intellectual history, by the way, after Andrews, inspired by Laing, painted images inspired by the notion of the “skin-encapsulated ego”, the French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu devoted a paper to Francis Bacon exploring this “painter of rents in the skin ego” (…)

Post scriptum: I could not ask for permission to reprint the above copyright material. In case their authors wish so I will withdraw these extended quotations.

Tim Behrens

T. Behrens, “Chimenea” (1980)
acrílico s/ tela, 110x90cm

T. Behrens and the so-called School of London


Nobody is forced to remain in “history”. But nor is it easy to exclude someone from that same “history”, only because historiography and what has conventionally become known as ‘curatorship’ have allowed themselves to be distracted, or were in fact distracted, by the logic of everyday life. We know that “histories” are almost always fleeting tales about “power”, but even so it is hard to believe how frequently painstaking efforts are undertaken to erase facts that, had they not been censored, would have ended up attracting the attention of the general public, in the name of a description, or of some critical theory or other. For example, the surprise of discovering the work of the painter T. Behrens, at the very beginning of the 21st century, as something that is umbilically linked to the group of realists of various hues, christened by Kitaj as the “School of London”, raises some perplexing questions: does anyone know the young man sitting beside Lucian Freud in the famous photograph entitled Lunch at Wheeler’s? We know that his name is T. Behrens. But how many people have noticed that he paints in the style of a certain generation of postwar artists (1950s and 1960s), based in London, who used to frequent a pub called The Colony Room Club (1). Did he really have something to do with them?! Do in fact either his biography or art intersect in space and time with the existentialist furrows ploughed by Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Leon Kossoff or Frank Auerbach? For those who have seen this exhibition, the answer is obviously yes. Yet, in spite of this, T. Behrens, just like Craigie Aitchison, has practically disappeared from the compendia of modern art in the 20th century!

It might be presumed that such invisibility will find an immediate and efficient cause in the artists themselves. For reasons that have never been established, these two artists did little, or in fact nothing at all, to enhance their fame. Tim left the island, and Aitchison found himself stranded at some junction in London’s dense artistic network (besides the fact that the ingenuity expressed in his figures distracted the critical methodologies of that time, which were too heavily influenced by politically hypostasised phenomenologies). Yet, even so, with all the master’s degree and Ph.D. theses and dissertations that have been written in recent years, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, by students of art, art history, criticism and curatorship, how has it been possible for these two regular frequenters of the Colony Room, and “founding members” of the so-called School of London, to escape the incessant academic dissection? There is no doubt that Craigie Aitchison had a much more visible artistic career, having even enjoyed recognition by the Arts Council, who with the Serpentine Gallery organised a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1981. But the question still remains: what kind of myopia has determined this relative (Aitchison), or even absolute (Behrens), “historical” invisibility?

Let us concentrate on the case of T. Behrens, the youngest member of this group of Bohemian artists from the school of London realism, who had emerged from the great cultural disillusion caused by the carnage imposed on the world by the rise of fascism and Nazism.

Would it be honest, after Auschwitz, to speak of Art? This was the question asked by Adorno in such great anguish. It was in fact very difficult, when the ashes of so many dead and wounded were still warm, to insist upon the liberating properties of futurist modernity, the oneiric visionariness of surrealism or the radical progress brought to the arts by abstractionism. After such barbarity, the age of existentialism had arrived. In European art, it was the time of informalism that was beginning (Fautrier, Giacometti, Dubuffet), the time of a “new realism”, marked by an awareness of the value of the small things in life and everyday experiences. For those artists, or at least some of them, who were to find two decisive representatives in Giacometti and Francis Bacon, observed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Gilles Deleuzes, what imposed itself was a less ambitious set of aesthetic ideas, a more modest cultural attitude, a methodically workshop-based discipline and the return to a set of perceivable pictorial languages. Although the dominant critical discourse was absorbed by the linear logic of the “progress” of Modern Art and the vanguards, having, for a long time, cast a sidelong glance at the generation of English “realists” (perhaps until Gilles Deleuzes’ essay on Bacon, published in 1981), the truth is that this apparent creative conservativeness was essential for the encounter of British art with itself, within a panorama that was heavily marked by abstract internationalism. In the interview that Tim so kindly granted me, he says that, at the time, the accepted models continued to be those of abstraction… And yet, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, etc., copied Rembrandt and Velásquez, amongst other classics! Attentive artists, such as Kitaj and Richard Hamilton, took due note of the intrinsically pragmatic patterns of this generation of painters.

Despite our belonging to the era of the technical reproducibility of images, or perhaps even because of this, there was nonetheless an opportunity for figurative painting. The “School of London” returned to it essentially as an exercise in individual freedom, observation, imagination, drawing and painting, adopting a kind of anachronistic counterposition to the dominant currents of industrial and media-based art. British pop art (Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake, Hockney, etc.) took meticulous advantage of the apparent conservativeness of this “new realism” and definitively abandoned the timid abstractionist ambitions of British art throughout the first half of the 20th century, asserting with great humour the advent of the immediate, dithyrambic figuration of the agitated times of postmodernity: pop, mega-urban, technological, television-based, hyper-aesthetic, erotic, mundane, global and consumerist. In the British Isles, even at the height of conceptualism, which logically followed on from the triumph of pop art and the more radical investigations of situationism, a landscape variant was to impose itself, ecological and figurative of this kind of iconoclastic hara-kiri of the arts (Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Gilbert&George, Art&Language, etc.). In the 1990s, the main protagonists of the so-called Young British Artists did nothing else but hypostasise the same premises of postmodern realism that had informed the (by then heretical and disdained) autonomy of the painting of Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, or T. Behrens, stretching them to the limits of what might be described as an extreme anatomy of Being. And it is, in fact, this impulse towards the meticulous and obsessive study of the interfaces of existence and death, perceived and manifested in the form of a symbolic representation, that has led Damien Hirst to return to the time-honoured Colony Room Club.

T. Behrens doesn’t like his painting being confused with literature (to which he also dedicated himself tangentially), for there is space for both of these, and they both describe reality in a way that we would call unique. Literature stimulates our vision of the world through a language that is directly linked to the highest and most abstract levels of the internal representation of things, thereby appealing to our faculty for constructing images and for feeling, based on a set of abstract signs. Painting, on the contrary, begins, first of all, by addressing itself to the lowest levels of intelligence, activated by our visual sensors. Before interpreting forms, we set up a decisive sensory exchange with the substance of the painting: its size, light, contrast, colour, morphology and pregnancies. Unlike text, all this begins by being decisive in our appreciation of the visual work, long before we decide whether the subject is a good one or if the story has been well told. Let us say that, in a certain way, the information expected from a painting is less interesting than the art that is contained within it! Or, to put it another way, what survives in the memory of a work of art is not so much its ostensible information, which, in a certain way, lies at its origin (the coronation of Napoleon, the deposition of Christ, a still life with lilies, the sensual nudity of a model, a monochromatic abstraction…), but its “form”, or, in other words, the experience of its apparition and of the way in which it has affected our sensory complex, our conceptual routine and our ideological structure.

However, we also know that the naming of forms and colours ends up instilling them with a kind of culturally conditioned pre-signification: the colour white, which in the west is understood as a message of peace, is a sign of mourning for the Chinese; the music of some cultures is no more than an unbearable noise for others; the stench of certain cheeses turns out to be extremely pleasant for some gourmets; there are few who, on first contact, can be said to appreciate the sickly taste of Beluga caviar (probably the most expensive in the world). This being the case, we can perhaps state that, in a certain sense, nothing can replace the sensory experience as the inescapable impact of reality on the sensitive interfaces of our body, since in this materiality of perception there is always something that cannot be reduced to reason. Yet, at the same time, we have to accept the fact that both the division and hierarchisation of sensations take place at a very early stage as a social, ideological and cultural construction. It is precisely in the midst of this sensory ambivalence that the persistence of painting is played out in its entirety.

Since the invention of photography, painting has lost much of its importance in the institutionalised systems of ideological imagination. Iconic representation, as a revelation of the truth, left in the hands of the sorcerer, demiurge, vicar and politician, has been greatly eroded since Daguerre and the Lumière brothers. From the moment when it became possible to find a process for mechanically transferring the images perceived by us onto supports for their representation, no painting, however realistic it may have been, could contain what Roland Barthes called the ‘noema’ of photography, the “this has been”, in other words, our capacity to convince ourselves that what is seen in a photograph actually happened, regardless of the material quality and resolution of the image. Particularly after the falsifications of the Kremlin photographs (from which Trotsky and other uncomfortable Bolsheviks were systematically erased by Stalin’s bureaucrats), it is, however, known that photography was also to be rapidly transformed into a language of social communication, repeatedly falsified in the name of the editorial policies of the respective authors. The much heralded photographic spontaneity of Cartier Bresson came to be revealed as yet another laborious construction of the image of reality.

Once the illusionist mechanism of the new medium had been explained, figurative painting was finally able to reclaim its niche of philosophical legitimacy. Pictographic objectivity, in other words the sensory factuality of painting, once again had all the time in the world ahead of it. And pictorial subjectivity, in other words the imagination constructed on the canvas, finally freed from heavy institutional responsibilities, which had meanwhile been transferred to photography, film and television, could now manifest itself amidst the giddiness of a newly acquired radical freedom.

Reduced to a merely imagetic ‘functionality’, painting was earning the right to the autonomy of its own voice and the duty of discipline in its own gestures of inscription and erasure. Yet the fact remains that, meanwhile, the pedagogy of abstraction and conceptualist iconoclasm, insistently disseminated from Paris, and then later from New York, for more than fifty years, fostered the development of an incredible cultural bureaucracy, whose intellectual superficiality and obsession with career building still continue even today to make it difficult to acquire an honest knowledge of the facts and issues.


One of my favourite theoretical exercises is demonstrating the impossibility of painting after Daguerre, Marx and Sigmund Freud. The other one is lingering over the infinite and apparently indestructible filigree of this extraordinary tradition.

Painting and Art in general have always had the ideological function of symbolically configuring the anthropological universes of societies and individuals. At a very early stage, a decisive part of this mission was linked to the need to inscribe and conserve the images originating from subjective and intersubjective processes on accessible supports, which could be shared by people and were resistant to the passage of a time that had meanwhile been divided into four scales of relativity: the individual, the family, society and the unknown.

When, for the first time, we discover our image reflected in the calm surface of a river, we also discover the reflective force that will never again desert us in the stubborn search for Knowledge. When we discover the intriguing existence of images, we develop the intuitive certainty that we are making our way not between things, but between light and shade. The very sculptures of light that we interpret, for our own convenience, as things are no more than allegories of reality. Just the protracted and patient contemplation of these, allied to the friction of life, has enabled artists, poets and philosophers, to fabricate the enormous tower of representations necessary for communicating, for making languages, for organising metaphysics and for experiencing ecstasy. And it was because we noticed that all that we are given to see is images that there was such a long and persistent attraction for mirrors and that we turned speculation into our first means of logical inquiry. We polished all of Nature’s reflective materials, we studied the broad spectrum of energy to invent lenses and membranes capable of retaining the infinite labyrinth of the world’s external and internal images, we hypostasised even subjectivity itself, in order to transform it into a diapason capable of revealing the ether of our passions, wishes and uncertainties. It was through our travelling along this path that an important part of Painting dissolved into Photography, Film and Television…

The inscription of images in representations, that mnemonic procedure of reason, has always been more urgent, in existential and political terms, than biography and the style of either the artist or the machine of representation. To interrupt the flow of time, to separate it from space, even in the illusory form of an image, this is what true representation has always sought to achieve, in the most direct and untouched manner possible. When Roland Barthes referred to the noema of photography as a this has been, he did in fact give an incisive explanation of the real strategic target of representation. But, if we compare this theory with the notion of the technical reproducibility of the work of art, advanced by Walter Benjamin, then we will be confronted with the picture of the crisis of representation that led twentieth-century painting to the enormous arc of the analytical, but also poetic and, in the end, neurotic, disfiguration of images.

Socially abandoned, and in a state of crisis, painting and modern art in general found themselves trapped between the appeal of abstraction (i.e. the representation of abstraction as a process of aesthetic research and design) and the duty of erecting a critical (phenomenological and meta-artistic) machine built on the basis of its own disgrace. The tendency to move towards abstraction and design never managed to free itself from demiurgic metaphysics, from theoretical ingenuity and even from conceptual pretentiousness. The irremediable aporias of this branch of modern dispersal are all born from the impossibility of symbolising the consistent reality of the very de-symbolisation of the world, inaugurated by the triumph of Capital, Science and Technology. The only means of escape (and exile) in the face of this historical trap became consolidated, through a great effort, as art criticism, meta-art and theoretical art. That is to say, as non-painting. However, halfway through this process of disfiguration that has been in progress since post-impressionism, and somewhere around the time of the Vienna Secession, Art timidly became aware of its desperate freedom, perceiving this not as the exclusive historical condition of its praxis, but as a more general condition of the urban, anonymous, qualityless individual. Between individual freedom and the protestant need of the capitalist world, there remained a frightened and defenceless skin, on the verge sometimes of a fit of nerves, and at other times of a brief bout of happiness. It was precisely in this interstice that Drawing and Painting lodged themselves, excavating, so to speak, the foundations of a new realist subjectivity. From this new form of painting, nobody expects institutional truths, nobody expects any ideological truth, nobody accepts systems of authority. Everyone, however, expects the intimacy of a genuine aesthetic experience. They expect this, it might be said, as a testimony to the presentiment, still kept alive in each of us, that, despite the hegemonic rationalisation of the world, there continues to be a body of sensations capable of vibrating with the rapid beating of wings of an unnoticed humming bird.

T. Behrens’ work belongs to this second category of the cultural crisis of the twentieth century. We can therefore regard his painting as an irresistible example of the aesthetic experience, arising above all from the complete detachment of his images. The theatrical constants of his compositions, so to speak, give rise to the coherent universe of his work, and, at the same time, genetically connect it to the existentialists who congregated, after the bloodshed of 1939-1945, at The Colony Room Club. The typically phenomenological presence of the flesh, as a prominent moment in the dramatic representation of the human body (Bacon’s male figures, Lucian Freud and T. Behrens’ male and female figures), the theatricalisation of the pictural pose (in which one can frequently note the representational typologies of amateur photography), and the symbolic insistence of the dogs as a cynical counterpoint to the excesses of cultural anthropocentrism that are so typically found in the man-mass, mark a whole style of criticism of the sophisticated superstructures of high culture and the hypostatisation of the right to urban marginality as both the proof of, and driving force behind, the very expansion of public freedoms, without which we all tend to yield before the undemonstrated absolute need for work, the undemonstrated absolute need for exploitation and the undemonstrated absolute need for power. Where truly is happiness to be found? This is the question we ask at each awkward moment in our lives. As we turn the corner, observing the peace of mind of a dog sleeping in the sun, T. Behrens’ paintings seem to answer us; sincerely defending the enthusiasm and illusion of a child on the day of his First Communion; contemplating the tranquil nudity of the lover still enveloped in a sleep that resists the morning light and the chirping of a sparrow that does not tire of announcing its virility; on a spring afternoon, painting a garden bench crimson red, next to the white rose-bushes that open up before us to our amazement and delight; in short, in the myriad of small things to which we do not attach the slightest importance, but which Tim’s live paintings cause to return to the world-view of each of us as proof of life, surrounded by occurrences, curiosities, memories and ghosts. Due to their photographic structure, the impact of these paintings becomes unavoidable. Escaping from the concretely epistemological moment of the Barthesian noema, the images of this kind of existentialist realism do, however, convince us, through a succession of different close-ups: the proximity of the species, the proximity of the invisible everyday things, the proximity of life, the proximity of death. Yet, if the worlds that are recreated in T. Behrens’ painting exert an irresistible appeal, this is also due, on the one hand, to the episodic, but very detailed, nature of the themes that are dealt with – a nude girl, lying on a sofa, reading a magazine, on a summer’s day, with a beach and several bathers visible through a window; men, women and dogs talking in a garden; a naked woman taking a nap, etc. – and, on the other hand, to the conceptual and sensory aspects of the style: interplays of perspective and colour. Time and again, people and dogs inhabit both the interior and exterior scenarios of his painting. These are scenes from everyday life, without a pose and without any dramaticism. In a certain sense, we can say that they are born in the image of, and with a similarity to, weekend photographs. But, in the distance that separates them from the peculiar world of Kodak realism, those representations of life reach us as the sensitive result of a perpetual coming and going between memory and imagination, between certainty and poetry, between representation and gesture, between today and tomorrow. They are both the painter’s biography and the biography of us all!

Copyright © 2003 by António Cerveira Pinto

The Colony Room Club was once again brought back into fashion by the most recent generation of “realists”, including the inevitable Damien Hirst. Through here have also certainly passed Tracey Emin, Jake and Dino Chapman, Ron Mueck, Gillian Wearing and a whole host of tourists whose enthusiasm has been fired by the “new Brit art”, which came into being during the Thatcher era, namely through the decisive strategic initiative of its greatest propagandist: Charles Saatchi.


Tim Behrens is in Wikipedia already!

The fine art of drinking at Muriel’s bar
Independent, The (London), Jul 22, 1995 by IAIN GALE
“Hello, cunty! Christ – you here again?” The words ring out shrilly across the smoke-filled bar. Although only four o’clock on a sunny afternoon, the curtains are drawn, divorcing this room from the outside world; making it, for all its foul, hurtfully acerbic language, a haven whose inhabitants are “members only”. The owner of the voice, and the bar, a severe, elegant, dark-eyed little woman perched on a stool by the door, is Muriel Belcher. Here, at the Colony Room, she presides over a drinking club which, although its decoration might be stained carpets, fake leopard-skin seats and bamboo, it can now, during the Fifties and Sixties, boast as glittering and talented a clientele as any Paris salon of the 1890s. Not least, it is spiritual home to the artists of the future “School of London”.

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Independent, The (London), Jul 22, 1995, by IAIN GALE