I’d loved the Art Gallery from when we first visited on a trip from school. But it had been really hard to look at the pictures with all the shushing from Percy Beak (our art master) and the giggling and pushing of the other boys in front of a naked lady with a bowl of fruit and nuts. But this was great being alone, I had the place all to myself, I felt like a King.
Then a door at the end of the hall opened, with a ‘swush’.
A lady with glasses and a grey cardigan squeaked down the hall holding a book, she walked right passed me as if I was invisible and through another door. Then immediately, she came right out again.
“You’re not in a school-party are you?” She asked, she was tall and towered over me.
“No Miss.” I said. Opening my satchel and taking out an exercise book and pencil.
“School Parties are on Thursdays. It’s such an interference. It really is! We always have to clean everything after you boys have been. Grubby fingers, dirty, dirty, little boys! Don’t touch anything, please! Look all you like, but touch nothing!”
“I am not in a party Miss,” I said. “And my hands are very clean. Personal hygiene is my hobby.” I held one hand up, the clean one. “And yes Miss I will not touch a thing. I am a big respecter of Art Miss, in fact I am doing a project.”
“Good that’s the ticket.” She stared at me like I was some kind of strange insect. “Good!” And with that she went through the door again. That was the last time I saw her.
In the galleries downstairs off from the entrance hall, there were other much nicer paintings than the gloomy portraits of old men.
In the large airy rooms the paintings shone as if with their own light. Landscapes almost as huge as the scenes they portrayed, I felt I could step right into them.
There were scenes of battles and castles and strange landscapes with tiny little cows and people standing about in fields and ruins playing flutes, and ladies running about in floaty dresses.
Others had big rearing horses with soldiers on top waving swords and in another there were ships firing cannons. If I looked at them long enough they started to come to life, like the ones in the hall.
“Keep your head down boy. Aaaagh!” Shouted a soldier who I saw get shot in the leg, (the blood was vermillion, Grandpa had a tube), “ Those damn Frenchies have got me boy.”
The blood looked very real and the battle looked exciting but as I didn’t want to get blown to bits, I stepped back out of the frame.
“I’m going to get help.” I shouted to the soldier.
The other one, the landscape was nice though, nobody was getting shot. I went up to the shepherd with the flute.
“What’s it like standing still in a painting all day.” I asked him.
“Oh it’s not a bad gig really,” he said, “It’s just that I have to keep playing the same bloody tune.”
After he had played it over several times it got boring so I stepped out again.
In the upstairs galleries there were paintings called ‘Abstracts’. They reminded me of ones I’d seen in books in the art room back at school. I liked them too even though there were no people in them. But if you looked hard enough you could see things. I imagined it was like looking into the artists’ head, he must have had a headache like my dad had in the mornings.
And fantastically, in one room standing on plinths like holy objects from another world, were sculptures by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Both of them, so Percy Beak told us, were connected to the North of England and to our town, Wakefield. I found that hard to imagine as it was such a dump. I knew their names though, they were famous, I’d read about them, they made things to go in front of banks and town halls. They were really famous in fact. And when I read on the little plaques, that the sculptures had been given ‘By the Artist to the City’ I felt really proud, like I owned them, in a way I did.
I thought it would be amazing to make something like that. Something no one had ever thought of, that looked like nothing in particular, but at the same time felt like something very familiar, if you know what I mean.
In my class I was in the minority when it came to Art. When we came on a trip from school, the other boys thought the sculptures and the abstracts were daft.
“It’s got a hole in it sir.”
“What’s it supposed to be sir?”
“I think they’re good.” I said.
“You’re as stupid as that thing with the hole in it Blunderland.”
Said Martin Cane, giving me a dead-leg, he wasn’t a respecter of art like me.
As I looked the sculptures reminded me of caves and the rounded shapes of rocks on the beach and in the white cliffs at Flamborough Head where grandad took us in his Ford ‘Pop’.
The shapes were amazing, they looked like other things too, like the bones I found in the field behind our bungalow and the sheep’s skull that I washed clean in the beck and looked inside through where the eyes had been.
That first Monday, as there was no-one else about and as the lady from downstairs hadn’t reappeared, I ran my clean hand over the surface of the Barabara Hepworth and felt the cold shine and its’ smooth curves. Slowly walking round it, I traced imaginary lines on its’ surface with my scrupulousy clean finger. And discovered that if I slowly went up and down I could see other landscapes, not just cliffs and bays and caves. There were shapes of the moors on the way to Whitby where we sometimes stopped. Where I’d wander off with Grandpa and stand by the roadside looking down into the valley below, as grandma sat on the verge on a tartan blanket they kept in the boot of the car, served ham sandwiches and tea from a flask.
My Grandpa was happy there, it must have been the fresh air. He’d take about ten matches to get his pipe going, as the wind kept blowing them out. Then when he got it going he’d say, “By gum Graham lad it’s grand. It’s a lovely county Yorkshire, makes you proud.” I stood and stared and did feel proud and warm inside, as Ann my younger sister talked with her doll amongst the pink heather.
The changing shapes in the sculptures were like fantastic lands into which I felt like I was being drawn. I was a child taken into a spell only a child could experience and feel,
“How far is it to that rounded hill asked the wind, you can never reach it my friend said the white bone stone beneath the sky, but travel on, and keep exploring, always keep exploring.”
I looked round, there was no one else upstairs, I would have heard them, so I took out my hanky, found a clean bit, (not easy), and polished off the sculptures where I’d touched. I thought it best. I was after all a Great Respecter of Art.
(Copyright John Sunderland 2009)
The artist as a young truant.