interviewed by Rob Van Beek 2
We were exact contemporaries at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham in the 1970’s but I can hardly remember seeing you then. So where were you and what were you doing?
I did my Foundation Course in London and my girlfriend lived there. I used to come up to Nottingham for a week and spend three weeks in London and do my painting there.
I never worked in the studios at the college.
When I started on the degree course I became very aware this wasn’t going to be like my Foundation Course. On my Foundation Course I felt I was taken a bit more seriously.
I got into Trent Polytechnic on the basis that my work wasn’t trained and that I was a self-taught artist. However when I got there I found some of the lecturers more or less put me down because of it. They belittled what I was doing.
So how did you get into painting and art if it was a not a part of your background in Northern Ireland? You were working as a technical draughtsman for Rolls Royce at Derby?
I don’t think I’d been near an art gallery before the age of twenty. My first contact with art were the paintings on the silk banners that were carried by members of the Orange Lodges. I loved those as a child. I did no art at school.l
No, my decisive contact with art came by chance when I met an American photography student at Derby. I lived in the same house as him and his wife. One day he showed me some of the drawings he had done. I was just so impressed. They were almost psychedelic. He was also a fantastic photographer.
I thought “I want to do that”, it was as simple as that. It was A Road to Damascus thing!
You and I have lived in central Nottingham for thirty odd years. We’ve had families and in a way we’ve had small-scale, local lives, living close to the city and quietly got on with developing our respective kinds of work and interests.
Over that period of time there have been striking changes in the ways you work. Your early works were extremely tight ink drawings and acrylic paintings, which had a markedly ‘naive’, ‘self-taught’ manner. Whereas the works you make now are oil paintings which are, by comparison, quite expressionistic.
That’s big change but it has taken thirty years to get from one position to the other. What does that say about you and what does that say about the body of work you’ve produced?
People tell me I’m a very cautious person. But I’ve always wanted to develop my work. When I started at art college I just didn’t know what I was doing.
My early pictures (and all my pictures come to that…) are the best I could possibly do at the time. I’ve learned as the years have gone on. It’s been a very slow process. I was aware from the start that there were younger people who were always going to be more sophisticated than me.
It took me a long time working out perspective. It took me a long time to reach the point were I could draw without photographs or images for reference.
But colour is the toughest one. The most difficult thing has been colour, understanding colour and understanding how to use colour in a painting.
In spite of this technical and stylistic change, all your work stays very ‘Robinsonesque’.
I’m not very aware of that. I see changes and I also see points where I feel it dips off…and I think I should have done nothing then. I should have just gone out and enjoyed myself.
There are a number of themes or threads that run through your work and which criss-cross in various ways.
For example there is a thread that celebrates the tensions of domestic life, there is a thread of social satire, there is a thread dedicated to satirising artists and to self-mockery.
Then there is an allegorical strand in your work and a strong element of the grotesque. In fact some of distortions you visit upon your subjects seem to go beyond the grotesque into realms of ghastliness that we hardly knew existed.
There is also a rare and fine strand of work that is more personal and which links you now with your Northern Irish background and culture.
Finally, where is a strand of work which is closer to photo-realism.
So how do you move from working in one idiom to another? What makes you turn from one way of working to another, or return to a particular theme or way of working?
Sometimes it just comes down to reacting to what you have been doing. If I’ve been doing a lot of small pictures, I start thinking that I want to do a big picture. If I’ve been doing a lot of paintings with distortions in them I will feel like sitting down and looking at something carefully. From there I will drift off again, back to distorting things.
I think there’s a kind of rebelliousness in the distortions - against doing things in a naturalistic, realistic way.
I did half a dozen really distorted heads and I always imagined them lining my halfway and stairs the way that posh people might have portraits of their ancestors (laughs)…
Looking at your work I can see family resemblances to some very good artists like Goya, Dix, Grunwald and Cranach. However, I’m often surprised when I come up to your studio, because you’ve got a book out on artist I never expected you to be interested in.
There are artists you have close affinities to but you have obviously got time for some artists who seem to be from off your patch?
There’s no one of whom I can say ‘I don’t like their work’. I always manage to find something of interest in other artists work.
At the moment I’ve got a book out on Paul Klee and another one on James Ensor. You can see the connection with James Ensor, but Paul Klee?
I just like looking at pictures.
I know you’ve always collected found objects, often pieces of wood that have been weirdly stressed or malformed. A few years ago you started to make assemblages from these. Was that again a reaction to doing too much painting?
I had all those pieces of wood that were nicely shaped and you could just set them about the house. Then I began to combine some of these and found it gave them a new energy.
I made one piece of sculpture and the others developed from that.
A lot of your work is very strong stuff. It can be very sad, very funny, very anxious, very violent. You’ve struggled with some quite severe psychological states. How do you see the relationship between how you are feeling at a particular time and the work you produce?
With some of the earlier work, they were made over a long period of time. I would start at one corner and work across the picture. I would finish a face then the rest of the picture would develop from that for example. There mightn’t be an overall idea for that picture apart from the face.  
Although there often isn’t an overall plan, the mood or atmosphere that builds up in a painting does directly relate to me at that time.
There seems to me a contrast between the process of making these pictures, which is often slow, controlled and maybe calming, and the content of the imagery which is hot and emotional. There seems to be a slow fury at work, a calculated rage?
People usually say you must be a very patient person but I’m not really. I’m sitting there. Yes, it is a very, very slow process but I’m actually getting very, very impatient!
I know in my head what I want. I can feel it. At the same time I know this is going to mean months of work. Months spent dotting, cross-hatching or dabbing.
Slowly I wait for something satisfactory to emerge.
Even then, when the work is as complete, I don’t think I’ve ever been entirely happy with the finished result.
You have now developed a form of expression which is more direct. Was that the motive for the stylistic change? Did you want to work a bit more quickly, a bit more directly?
That’s right. I always thought there was an expressionist element there.
When I was a student there was a visiting lecturer, I don’t think it was Stuart Brisley (laughs), who suggested expressionism might be my direction but he said I wasn’t going to be doing it for a while (laughs).
 I didn’t know then it going to take thirty years…(laughs)
Nottingham, April 2009
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