Saturday, 20 November 2010

Images and Ideals

It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

A FEW YEARS AFTER MY FATHER VANISHED I dragged one of our dining room chairs into my mother’s bedroom, placed it in the doorway of her cupboard, climbed onto it, stretched out my arms, and pulled several items down from a shelf that had been well out of reach until that moment. I’d have been, perhaps, seven or eight.

In a box was a very large fishing reel. I don’t recall my father, or my mother, ever fishing. I’ve never seen photographs of them with rods and reels on boats or on the coastline. There was no line on the reel, and there was nothing else that might have some connection to the sport.

In another box was my father’s hand-gun. I recognized it, I recalled Dad shooting lizards on one occasion. Lizards on our bougainvilleas. The large, bright green Warwick lizards did no harm, and probably ate bugs that we’d be glad to see the back of. Why did he shoot them?

On the shelf in the top of the cupboard were also large, white sheets of paper. Artists’ paper. I pushed the fishing reel and the gun back onto the shelf and pulled the rolled-up pages out. I knew that my father had painted watercolours of landscapes, and sometimes cartoonish characters. These pictures had been given away as gifts. My father had also painted a large mural on one wall of my sisters’ bedroom. This depicted Snow White and I believe it owed a good deal to the Disney organization. For some reason the mural was short-lived, painted over. Looking back, it occurs to me that I’d have loved a mural related to my favourite book “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” in my small box-room.

The sheets of paper, when unrolled, revealed studies of female nudes. Somewhat more astonishing than the gun and fishing reel I’d rejected. I have some memory of these paintings, which depicted a sort of idealised woman, nobody I knew (or that anybody knew). Rather, a somewhat animated depiction of the perfected human form. The sort of cartoon females one might find in Playboy Magazine, though I did not appreciate this when I was seven years of age.

I was interested in painting. However, I was not permitted to use my father’s many tubes of watercolour paints which he kept in a drawer in the kitchen. I was given a box of Lake District coloured pencils, the sort that one could dip in water and get interesting results.

For some reason, some years later, my father abandoned original art and became a fanatic follower of the “Paint by Number” school. I remember the unpleasant smell of the oils to this day. One or two large Paint by Number pictures were framed and hung in the house where Dad lived with his second family. I believe they disappeared as he moved on to his third family. Towards the end of his life, my father collected paintings by one of my cousins, a professional artist. That cousin still paints, and lives not far from me. He has a portrait of my father (his uncle) hanging in his Northumberland home.

When I was young, my father would take photographs of me and my two sisters. We’d all be under ten, pudgy kids, out for a Sunday half-day with the usually absent parent. Dad had a theory about photographs: one must never look at the camera, but off into the distance so that the picture was always a side-view. It was also important that we formed a line, by height (so, by age). If possible the picture of the three children had some sort of setting that framed them. For example, a moon-gate or a wide doorway. In one home that Dad rented there was a very large fireplace, and one might be posed so as to be below the mantelpiece and within the sides, sat on the hearth itself.

Dad took slides rather than print photographs. We’d have shows from time to time using his carousel-type projector. I heard just the other day that my youngest brother has got his hands on what I believe are these slides from the 1950s and 1960s. He’s working at getting them into his computer, so I’m rather hoping to look at them soon, after forty years.

I took art classes at Warwick Academy. In fact, we all did until we were about thirteen. After that, one had to choose between a science and art & religion. Both art and religion. Art might have been fun, but the attached religion was off-putting. I went for Chemistry. In the art classes I had before the switch to the lab, we used cheap powder paints which we mixed in the aluminium foil trays from TV Dinners. Our art mistress, apparently, survived on Swanson’s rather unpleasant heat and serve meals. My father also ate these when he was between wives. Frankly, the art mistress was no better at her artwork than at food preparation.

At home, I collected the “Betta Builda” plastic blocks with a passion. If I could find the shilling, I’d buy another small box of blocks, windows, roof tiles. One might construct buildings suitable for a toy train system. I longed for a train, but never got one. However, I had a great many blocks, enough to build more than little railway stations and cottages. I was building churches and then cathedrals, offices, shops and museums and galleries. And here’s something curious: Almost fifty years later I dream of my Betta Builda blocks, my buildings. I still, some nights, snap so many bricks together and create places to house my imaginary people. I still don’t have a train, not even in my dreams.

Along with the plastic homes and villages, I assembled models from kits. Usually aeroplanes (of course, I had a “Spitfire”) and sailing ships (of course, HMS Victory).

At the Medway College of Technology I studied engineering drawing, and passed the course. I never took that any further.

In my late teens I had a go at painting again. In fact, I took part in a group show. I wasn’t too good at creating pleasant pictures and had the good sense to abandon this. Years later I had a go at being an art critic for a newspaper. I know what I like, and simply rated things on my personal scales. Now I have a go at photography. I have Photoshop installed in my computer this winter and hope to learn how to use it.

I have met another Eldridge Family artist recently, a cousin’s son, who is an animator, who makes films using puppets. This lad looks so like my father at that age (early 20s) that I was quite taken aback.

I keep paints and artist’s brushes in the flat. Now and then I dab a bit of watercolour or acrylic in a book. I'd love to have my Betta Builda blocks back from my dreams. One of my sisters dumped the originals, and the toy company that made them sold out to Lego (which was an inferior system, in my opinion). In truth, I prefer to build, sketch and colour with words.

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