This is not our finest hour.

This is madness.
What is going on?
I make no apology for the absence of paintings in the following.  As the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote: “what place poetry in a time of catastrophe?”
This piece is about racism, assumptions and my despair at finding so much of the former still festering in the country I call my home.  And yes, it is still about the studio because it is about two men who put me on this path, gave me the conviction and skills I needed and about whom I still think.  Every day – especially when things get tough.
If  I tell you that two men who have most influenced me and given me most are an Irishman and a black man…what do you think?  What picture comes to your mind?
Let’s start with the Irishman.  My father.  An ‘off-the-boat’ Irishman.  You might think navvy, you might think building site? You don’t perhaps think lonely, asthmatic, dyslexic orphan.  A boy who lied about his age to get into the Royal College of Art, who then made television sets for the likes of the Beatles and Shirley Bassey.  A three dimensional genius who could literally make anything.  Who, by the end of his too-short life, employed in excess of 50 people, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Architects.  You probably think, “Catholic”? Wrong – Church of Ireland but actually many of his 12 aunts were theosophists and one, Greta, was the first female circuit judge in India.   Our assumptions are almost always wrong.
I have memories of going out with my father as a very young girl and seeing signs on pubs that read:
No Blacks
No Irish
No Hop-pickers
This must have been in the late 1960s or early 1970s.  We lived in Farnham in Surrey and I had no idea what a ‘black’ was.  I knew my father was Irish because we went back at least once every year to visit family. As only a small child could, I rather liked the signs, as ‘we’ were on the same list as the ‘hop-pickers’ and I liked the hop-gardens that filled the fields around our house.
My father told me I could walk through walls if I wanted to badly enough.
When I finished school, my dad – immigrant that he was – said, ‘well if you want to be an artist, you’d better go to Paris.’  And that is how I met the second most important man in my life.
A black man.  A very black man. 
So what are you thinking now?
Patrick Betaudier was born in Trinidad. Of West African origin, his skin was blue-black.  Like my father, he was devastatingly good looking and – like my father – for his own safety, he had ‘acquired’ an English accent.  Patrick, confusingly, sounded like the actor James Mason. 

Betaudier was a Catholic – his father was a Knight of the Vatican.  Bought to England from Port of Spain with some kind of colonial education program,  he went to Cambridge and served in the RAF before attending St Martins and the Royal College of Art.  
He left London in the 1960’s for a life in Paris, because London was a ‘racist city’.  At 17 I had no idea what he meant and was mildly offended at the suggestion.
He taught me everything I know about painting and more about European cultural history than my expensive education had come close to.  Married to a French woman with Jewish ancestry, they had been in the thick of both the American civil rights movement in Southern Illinois and  the student riots in Paris 1968.  He could recite T S Eliot at length and cooked food the like of which I had never tasted.
My learning curve was steep.
And from this man, in the long, long hours of the Atelier , l learned how to mix colours from all over the world, I learned the secrets of perspective (Greek/Arabic) and the highly esoteric oil painting technique of Van Eyck .  Jan Van Eyck  (Flemish 15C) is widely credited with ‘inventing’ oil painting – the pinnacle of European culture.  Certainly he mastered it but it is known now that there were monks in Afghanistan mixing oil with pigment as early as the 9C.
Returning from Paris to England in 1982 to take up a place at Oxford, (both men were so proud) I heard, for the first time in my life, people refer to ‘wogs’  and ‘darkies’.  I have never felt less at home.
 2016.  There are no words to say how much I feel we have let down both those brilliant men and many others,  who worked so hard, faced down so much hatred to follow dreams.  For the first time in my life I’m glad neither one is alive to see what is happening now.
Where do you want to send people back  to?  How far back do you want to go?

Today I had lunch with my dealers;  a second generation anglo-Indian, ( father was church of Scotland,) and a white woman who grew up in Africa. My husband’s mother is French, my children consider themselves Europeans and have friends and colleagues from all over the continent.

Do you want to unpick everything of our fabric?
How do we justify the idea that it is apparently alright for us to have spent centuries going to other countries and helping ourselves to whatever raw materials or knowledge we desired but it is not ok for the citizens of those countries to come here – even if they are bringing the badly needed raw material of their labour and knowledge?
And – just for good measure – if we close our eyes while our government exports weapons of war beyond the curve of our horizon, do you not think it inevitable that the poor people of those countries, bombed out of their homes and their livelihoods, will seek refuge beyond the curve of their own burning horizon, in our beautiful, safe country?
As President Obama has said this week in the Canadian Parliament – We were all  strangers somewhere once. 

Patrick Betaudier 1928 -2008
David Gillespie 1936 – 1998  (and me)

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2 comments on “This is not our finest hour.

  1. Sharmon Davidson on

    I feel much of the same dismay you so eloquently voice here. It’s bewildering, to see so many societies taking what huge steps backward instead of forward. As if Martin Luther King never lived, as if Johnson never passed the Civil Rights Act, as if the KKK is acceptable in our society. As if our own ancestors were not immigrants. It seems, at times, unbelievable, surreal, like a bad dream. It’s the same confusion I felt when, as a child, my father told me that in Alabama, where he had just finished basic training for the Air Force, black and white people could drink from the same drinking fountain. It just defies logic. and I feel that if I don’t say anything, I’ve failed in my responsibilities as a human being.

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  2. Kateri on

    Thank you for this thought-provoking writing.

    I was born in America in 1964, grew up in Arizona and Texas (never have much desire to return, except to see my family) and left for Europe as soon as I graduated high school in 1982. This was the greatest fortune of my life…to see other parts of the world and to deeply realise how very similar we really are, and yet how different life can be and also how wonderful a world it is to have so much diversity.

    Today, I am often ashamed of the politics, the government, the socio-political climate of my country. I despise nationalism. I was born in America, hold an American passport, but I am more than anything else a citizen of the world. In my country, as well as other Western countries, it feels like we have taken a thousand steps backwards. I get so angry. I find myself incredulous of what entire groups of people can actually believe is truth and rightness. And yet at the end of the day all I can do is VOTE, raise my voice, and do my work. Because my work spreads beauty. And Beauty is slow and real and takes time. And what is slow and real and takes time nurtures love and compassion and has the ability to cause us to pause and really see. I teach people how to see. And I believe in this. I believe that beauty will save us like nothing else can. We have to keep teaching people how to see, and not just blindly accept. It’s all I can do to not curl up in despair.

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