By Tanya Harrod

Thames & Hudson. 277 pages. £35. ISBN 978-0-500-97119-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Have you seen a Ruskin Spear painting recently? At one time they seemed to be everywhere, if not in galleries then reproduced in the pages of popular newspapers such as the the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the London Evening Standard.  The “posh” papers tended to ignore him, or at best grudgingly acknowledge his skill with topics of cheerful vulgarity. Tanya Harrod quotes the then well-known critic Eric Newton saying, in 1946: “Great art cannot survive the full process of democratisation. It is essentially aristocratic. It requires to be removed from the world of half-pints and dart-boards”.  It’s uncertain whether or not this was a barb directed particularly at Ruskin Spear, but it could well have been. He wasn’t a limited artist, in terms of his subject-matter, but he did paint many pictures with pub settings.

Spear was born in 1911 in Hammersmith. His father was a coach painter, his mother a housewife. He had four sisters, all of them older than him, and it’s suggested that they made a fuss of Spear to the extent that he was spoiled and often expected women to provide support of one kind or another during his lifetime.  He was afflicted with polio when he was a child and it left him with a “gammy” leg which caused him to have to walk with the support of a stick. But his childhood also saw him learning to play the piano. This was to stand him in good stead in later life when he could always earn money performing with jazz groups and local dance-bands.

In 1926 Spear won a scholarship to Hammersmith School of Art. The teaching there was “rigorous”, and long hours involved “drawing from casts and learning anatomy and perspective”. He became friendly with Carel Weight, a fellow-student. Spear’s skills were quickly noted, and he was allowed to enrol in the life drawing class when he was sixteen. He was only part-time at Hammersmith between 1929 and 1931, and earned money to get by with “Free-lance commercial work including lettering, wall decoration, window-display, cut-outs, etc”, not to mention playing the piano in pubs and other places. In 1931 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art (RCA). There’s a painting of his father, dating from 1932, which points to his proficiency, and what can be seen as the influence of Walter Sickert.

The Principal of the Royal College of Art was William Rothenstein who, Spear later recalled, was “about the best influence a young painter could have had at that time”. It was also while he was at RCA that he met Mary Hill, who he was to marry in 1935. It’s worth quoting, at this stage, Harrod’s comments on Spear’s attitudes and ambitions : “His approach was entirely remote from the interwar move to abstraction among older artists…..This lack of interest in abstraction went hand-over-hand with Spear’s desire to show at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, achieving this in 1932 while still a student”. Spear believed that the Royal Academy was a “meritocratic institution” and the Summer Exhibitions provided an opportunity for anyone with talent to have their work accepted and appreciated by a wide public and not just an elite of critics and wealthy buyers.

Spear never became an overtly political artist but joined the Artists International Association (AIA) which, in the 1930s, was a left-wing organisation. A couple of Spear’s works were included in AIA : The Story of the Artists International Association, 1933-1953 produced for the touring exhibition of the same name which I recall seeing in Bradford in 1983. One of them, ‘We Can Take It’, dates from 1942, and its picture of a group of young children standing beneath the slogan chalked on a wall points to Spear’s ambivalence about the war. He was a pacifist and supported the Peace Pledge Union which was formed in the 1930s. His commitment was still evident in 1963, when CND activity was often in the news, and his paintings, ‘The Peace Ship’ and ‘Ban the Bomb’, are evidence of it. They are not first-rate paintings, but serve their purpose as propaganda. Spear was known to the authorities for his views, and MI5 maintained a file on him.

He was not a communist, but in 1957 he went to Moscow with Paul Hogarth and Derrick Greaves for the exhibition, Looking at People. which, Hogarth later said, seemed to be an example of “how realist art could be accessible while possessing a sound aesthetic base”. The trip was monitored by MI5, Hogarth having been, until 1957, an active member of the Communist Party, and in Spain with the International Brigades. Harrod is of the opinion that Spear’s canvases were not always appreciated: “In Soviet terms Spear’s imagery might have appeared grotesque – the unattractive couple in ‘Success Story’ and the colourful distortions of ‘The Candidate’ were remote from realism as defined in Soviet Russia”.  It could have been that Football Pools winners, celebrities, and competition prizes of cars, were too much of a British obsession to mean a great deal to Russian viewers of the paintings in 1957. Life was still restricted in many ways in the Soviet Union.

In Britain Spear’s satire was often aimed at non-figurative artists. He mocked Henry Moore’s large sculptures, and did a painting of the American artist Barnett Newman standing in front of one of his colour field paintings (the kind with a “zip” down one side to break up the monotony of an otherwise single-colour canvas). He even lampooned William Walton’s Symphony No 1 by showing a group listening to it on a radio with their hands over their ears.  To Spear it was “pretentious or incomprehensible art”.

Spear taught at the Royal College of Art between 1948 and 1975, and opinions about his teaching methods and attitudes towards students seem to have varied, if the interviews that Harrod had with several people are anything to go by. He appears to have approved of those like David Hockney, Peter Blake, and John Bratby, who were firmly committed to figurative painting, but was less generous with anyone who showed an interest in abstraction and other approaches to creating works of art.

Roger Coleman described Spear as “a bully. Conceited, frightful. He seemed to want to make you feel as small as possible”. And Bruce Lacey said that ”Ruskin Spear would love to reduce a female student to tears”. But Sandra Blow, who had been taught by Spear at St Martin’s, thought him “very encouraging to me and because of Ruskin, I had enough confidence to go on with it”. Harrod points out that Blow was then “painting in a fashion Spear would have favoured, laying in a dark ground with lighter and darker tones on top”. It’s not known what he would have thought of her later work when she moved into abstraction.

Despite his teaching commitments Spear continued to produce his own paintings on a regular basis. I think they may have been variable in quality and interest, and that was particularly true of the portraits. Some were done for Spear’s own satisfaction, others were commissioned. And a few caused controversy because of the way in which they portrayed the persons concerned. His 1957 painting of Winston Churchill was one such example. It’s certainly identifiable as Churchill, but “the dark triangular gash of a mouth” which drew attention did not please everyone, including Churchill himself. Churchill’s contemporaries were not impressed. Clement Attlee thought the painting “a disgusting caricature”, and Jo Grimond described it as “appalling”.

Other portraits, like those of Professor David Chadwick, The Right Reverend Henry Albert Wilson, and Mary Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire are professionally realised, but do not offer much more to a viewer unacquainted with the subjects. One would hardly pause to look at them if they were hung in a college corridor or similar location. On the other hand the striking portrayal of the actor Harry Locke, in costume for the role of Sir Justice Sqeezum in Lock Up Your Daughters, can’t help but attract attention. But it’s perhaps unfair to compare it to the more-formal portraits referred to earlier. And it’s perhaps right to draw a distinction when looking at the portraits of people Spear came across in the pubs and on the streets of Hammersmith. A certain amount of exaggeration, even caricature. can creep into those, though it’s not done with malicious intent. Spear could see that, even if the people weren’t famous or powerful, they had character and were individuals.

It’s worth noting that Spear, like Sickert had done in the Thirties, sometimes used photographs as a basis for his portraits. This was especially true when he was dealing with public figures. The 1959 “Catching the Night Train” used a photograph of Princess Margaret, fashionably dressed and leading several dogs, about to board the train for Balmoral, and was “deemed offensive when hung at the Royal Academy in 1960”. Harrod doesn’t see it in that light and describes it as “probably the best post-war painting of any member of the Royal Family, Lucian Freud’s small 2001 head of HM the Queen notwithstanding”, and “it gives us the vulnerability, intermittent charm and volatility of Princess Margaret in her late twenties”.

It’s the variousness of Spear’s work that appeals, in the sense that he easily switched from portraits, both serious and satirical, to pub and street scenes, and to landscapes, though not of a rural type. The seaside crept in a few times, often showing it as a playground for people from London. “Waves on a Beach” from 1965 is typical as children retreat from the water chasing them towards their mother. Its tonal quality is reminiscent of Sickert. From the same year, “Brighton Beach, East Sussex, depicts “isolated holiday-makers stranded on hot pebbles”. Harrod remarks that Spear “was one of the few twentieth century British artists to document an era in which a holiday was part idyll, part ordeal”.

Having a liking for industrial landscapes I looked at “Margam Works, Port Talbot (1956), with pleasure. And, of course, it has Spear way from his usual Hammersmith haunts. These are represented in the delightful “Summer Street Scene” (1950), with its close relationship to the work of the Camden Town painters, and “Ravenscourt Park Station” (1950) which seems simple in its composition, but cleverly balances the different aspects of the scene – a wall, a bridge, the street, and a single figure in the foreground. Referring back to the artists of the Camden Town School I couldn’t help thinking of them again when I viewed “The Tea Shop”, a 1946/47 canvas which has all the characteristics of Spear’s forerunners.

There are some other paintings which caught my eye. “Snow Scene” (1946), and especially the lovely “The Riverside” (1946) show Spear In a sensitive and delicate mood, and away from the bright lights and the noise of pubs and dance-halls. This is not to condemn his pictures of those places. His “The Swing Band” (date unknown) took me back to the days of the 1950s when, as a young jazz and big-band enthusiast, I eagerly awaited the visits by touring bands to the local dance-halls.

There are a couple of self-portraits which indicate a decline in Spear’s general health and, possibly, his mental state. In 1972 he looks robust and confident, and the painting has a good pictorial appeal. By 1982 he’s “a much sadder, more doubtful man” and the overall composition is less interesting. Spear had always liked to drink, and Harrod notes that by the late-1980s he had started “drinking around mid-morning” and would get through “well over a bottle of whisky a day”. Was he conscious of the fact that in the 1980s younger artists were attracting attention? There was an exhibition called The Forgotten Fifties that I saw in Sheffield in 1984, and Spear was included in it.  But he remained active and his 1989 picture, “After the Hanging”, featured some of his Royal Academy   companions enjoying their meal with plenty of wine in evidence on the table. He died in 1990.

Tanya Harrod has produced a well-researched and beautifully-illustrated book about Ruskin Spear the artist, but isn’t afraid to look at his sometimes negative aspects as a person. His wife, Mary, often had a lot to put up with, and seems to have tolerated his peccadillos with a great deal of patience and understanding. Is it too much to hope that the appearance of Humankind will spur some critics and art historians into a re-appraisal of his work, and a curator or two into mounting exhibitions?  I have a feeling they would prove to be a popular draw. There’s an old song from 1937 (though it only achieved some popularity around 1949 when the Andrews Sisters recorded it) that Spear the pianist might have known – “I Can Dream, Can’t I ?”.