Alumni in Profile: Alan Halliday
Alumnus Alan Halliday (BA 1973, MPhil 1975) interviewed by Rex Harley
Since graduating Rex has worked as a teacher of English and, occasionally, drama; has designed and constructed a few small gardens; and has, over the years, filled his house with a collection of books, pictures and objects d’art. His published writing includes works of fiction, and criticism of both music and the visual arts.
RH: Some of us flounder around, possibly for years, wondering what we want to do with our lives but I suspect that you always knew. I might even suggest that, for you, being a painter was never really a choice, but rather a compulsion. When did you realise you were an artist, and how?
AH: I have a good memory. I remember drawing before I could walk or talk: not childish scribble but reasonably acceptable drawing. Unfortunately, the family reaction to this was not so much child prodigy as child freak. Then, when I went to grammar school in Lancashire and at the age of thirteen began to sell my oils on canvas with a certain degree of seriousness, the family stepped in and tried to stop it. But many artists have encountered family opposition: it seems to be all part of the call. Luckily, there were two teachers at school who perceived my predicament: Norris Harrison who taught me art and art history; and Philip Holland who coached me to audition for the National Youth Theatre in London which I joined in 1968 at the age of sixteen. Acting small parts in London during the swinging sixties made me grow up fast. And on foreign tours, there was the added bonus of access to major picture galleries in Hamburg and West Berlin or wherever in Europe the NYT happened to be performing. Meanwhile, in my bid to escape south my art teacher suggested I should apply for a place at the Courtauld Institute of Art for which I was interviewed and accepted when I was eighteen, (far too young in my opinion). I did not apply to art school because my parents were convinced they would have to support me if I became an artist, and they were not prepared to do that. It was a widespread prejudice at the time.
RH: Given that, why did you still opt to study the History of Art, rather than head straight for one of the art colleges? And having made that choice, do you feel in retrospect that it was the right one?
AH: Looking back now, and it is forty-six years later, I think I should have gone to art school first because art schools gave students crucial professional contacts in Cork Street and the international art world. After art school, I should then have applied to the Courtauld for the MA course, (as some of my Oxford friends were to do). But financial backing was always going to be a problem which I managed to solve by teaching commercially (private tuition), especially when I transferred from the Courtauld to St. John’s College Oxford in January 1975 to make a start on a D Phil (which was awarded in 1982).
RH: We both opted to specialise in the art of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Something you helped me to do, as a slightly younger student, was how to look at a painting. I mean really observe it not merely for its subject matter or its iconography, but as a physical object. Specifically, you took me to task for dismissing Stubbs as ‘a horse painter’ and made me look at the delicacy of his draughtsmanship and his handling of paint. Looking back, which of the artists you studied at that time has made the most lasting impression on you, would you say?
AH: It’s generous of you to say that, but I really don’t remember opening your eyes to George Stubbs, Rex! Nonetheless, I think his powers of picture-making are still underestimated, especially abroad; and this applies to Joseph Wright of Derby too. But I can’t help the painter in me declaring that the primary source is the work of art itself. Luckily, this belief coincided with Courtauld teaching at the time. John Shearman taught us Raphael in front of real Raphael drawings in the Print Room of the British Museum. Robert Ratcliffe taught us Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in front of real paintings by Manet and Monet, Gauguin and Cezanne at the Courtauld Galleries, which at that time were housed in a crude modern building in Bloomsbury, next door to the Warburg Institute in Woburn Square (also known as Warburg Square). Similarly, in the National Gallery we were astonished to see grains of sand clinging to the oil paint on Monet’s plein air canvas, ‘La Plage de Trouville’. Of course, the new art history has its place in establishing a historic context for works of art. But when the artefact itself is ignored or even feared (as it was at Oxford in the 1970s and ‘80s) in my view, the new art history is just the old social history.
You asked about the artists who made the most lasting impact on me in the special period 1750-1830. They were Turner, Blake, David, Friedrich, Goya, Gericault, Delacroix and the Constable of the oil sketches. It’s tempting to quote Auden at his most acerbic:
“All Cezanne’s apples I’d give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier”.
Auden jumped out at me once in Christ Church Hall. David Hockney had just been drawing him. Strangely enough, it’s the carpet slippers I remember.
I also recall reading Roger Fry on Turner in his 1943 Reflections on British Painting and being shocked, alienated even. Fry suggested (I’m paraphrasing of course) that Turner was all very well for young people, but you grow out of it, especially as you get older! As it happens, I did most of my doctoral research at Oxford on Turner in Paris in 1802. But now in my sixties I agree with Roger Fry. He was right! But I still think Turner’s late paintings from the 1840s are ahead of their time by nearly a hundred years.
So, to come to the artist from the special period who influenced me most, I would propose Delacroix: a master of colour and draughtsmanship and the dynamic touche. But the corollary to that is the deeply disturbing violence and morbidity which characterises so much of the painting of the period: the massacres, executions, the insane, the disasters of war, witches’ sabbaths, the Terror, the Pest-house at Jaffa, the Night Mare, the Fualdes Affair, the suicides, drugs and hallucinations – it is unrelenting, and it had a very bad effect on me at the age of nineteen. I remember Isaiah Berlin telling us that it was with romantic art that everything went wrong. Nonetheless, I nominate Delacroix. And what a handsome chap he was too. Do you remember that self-portrait in black chalk which he drew in 1830 on his way to North Africa, the one with the peaked cap and the little moustache? Very, ‘Eugene goes to Morocco’!
RH: What about those artists you discovered subsequently? Which of them do you feel you have learnt the most from?
AH: I think it’s true that since I became a professional artist in 1979, I have tended to paint in the French modernist style. It suits my taste and temperament. It’s also probably why I painted so much in France when I was in my thirties and forties. Then nine years ago, we moved to Poitou-Charente where I am happier than I have ever been. But when I was at the Courtauld, I was already attracted to modernism and for this reason I chose as my special subject European art 1900-15. Specifically, I wanted to come to some kind of understanding of Picasso and Matisse during those years. And teaching me, on a one-to-one basis, were two of the greatest art historians this particular subject has ever had. You will have guessed already, my tutors were John Golding and Christopher Green. And what they taught me remains with me today in my daily work as an artist.
It is usual to cast Picasso and Matisse as the two opposing spirits of the first half of the twentieth century. Since then, in my view, David Hockney has done the most to resolve, dialectically, their legacies and to create from them something of his own. I was able to discuss this with David when we were lecturing on the subject of painting and music in Los Angeles in 1987. David has a lot to teach us. And following his discoveries about optics, a lot of the History of Art is going to have to be rewritten. Sorry guys.
RH: I know that theatre has also played a large part in your life, both as an actor yourself and as an artist working behind the scenes. I wonder if you could say a little about the specific challenges involved in that work?
AH: Let me absolutely clear about this, I have never been a professional actor. In 1976 I was offered a contract by the RSC but I turned it down to finish my DPhil. I did act a lot while I was at Oxford. I played Iago, Toby Belch, Bottom, Prospero as well as parts in modern plays and the Oxford Revue at the Oxford Playhouse, the Edinburgh Festival and the Open Space Theatre in London. My friends and contemporaries included Richard Curtis, Mel Smith, Rowan Atkinson, Angus Deayton, and we had directors from the National Theatre and the West End. But when the RSC contract arrived and a London agent was pressing to represent me, I knew I’d reached another crossroads which threatened to take me even further away from becoming a painter.
So, my DPhil done, in 1979 I became an artist who, against all expectations! could actually earn a living from the sale of his pictures and pay taxes and VAT like almost everyone else. But I maintained my bond with the theatre by specialising in paintings of perfomers and performances, including actors, dancers and opera singers. Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir John Tooley saw my work and put me in the front stalls at Covent Garden to draw the dress rehearsals of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera which I continued to do for the next twenty-five years. Ironically, it was the RSC who first put me into the wings at Stratford-upon-Avon. And as my theatre paintings became more generally known, the National Theatre put me into the rehearsal room as well as backstage. I was then invited by companies abroad, including the Bolshoi and the Kirov. I began working with them in 1989 when both companies were still very much under the control of the old Soviet system.
The problems involved in being an artist in the theatre are twofold: the problem of drawing in the dark: and the ability to draw fast. No one who is about to perform is going to pose for an artist, certainly not in any traditional way. Sometimes, a performer might wait in the wings before going on (which gives me a little more time to draw), but such opportunities are rare. Back in my studio, I turn the drawings into paintings. By this stage, I am working from memory which sorts out the essentials. You remember when Ruskin told the PRB to put nothing into their paintings and leave nothing out? (I’m paraphrasing again). Well, Ruskin could not have been more wrong. It’s the very opposite! Imagination allows us to put in what we want while memory enables us to leave out all the inessentials. The alternative is to depict every blade of grass which does not interest me at all.
RH: Certain artists have done memorable work for the stage. I think of John Piper’s collaboration with Britten, for instance, or David Hockney’s wonderful designs for Parade or The Rake’s Progress. Given a free choice of any play or opera, which would you most enjoy doing the art-work for?
AH: Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner, sets and costumes please.
RH: I think there are two aspects of your work that would strike anyone, even briefly acquainted with it: the fluidity of your line, and your delight in colour. These have not been commonplace attributes among British artists during the last century. Matthew Smith is an obvious exception. Like you, much of his time was spent in France. Is this a coincidence?
AH: It wasn’t just Matthew Smith, it was Graham Sutherland too. (And Francis Bacon had his moments in the south of France). Picasso dismissed Graham by saying something like, “Of course, he doesn’t paint like us”, as if the Picasso Way was the only way. But Picasso was autocratic as everyone knows. But who else can draw like the Picasso of the ‘Vollard Suite’?!
The question is, why has France been such a liberating force for British artists, including me? It makes me think of the Scottish Colourists in Paris and the south in the 1920s; and it also makes me think of my Scottish ancestry and my own attraction to colour. The traditional answer is the light. And in my experience this is true. But when the sky is blue in France, it isn’t blue at all: it’s violet. Moreover, in rural France where I live and where there are so few distractions, there is more room to move imaginatively. I no longer paint in theatres. I live too far away from them. Instead I work from memory (as well as drawings), recalling specific sensations from years ago – like Proust’s theory of involuntary memory. And France delivers these sensations better than any other country I know.
RH: I remember reading a description of Francis Bacon’s studio as: ‘an eloquent disorder of paint, tools and pictures’. How would you describe your own studio, and its relevance to your working practice?
AH: I have two studios, the big one for oils on canvas which I call the Easel Studio and another for works on paper, the Paper Studio. With oil painting, mess is inescapable but it’s not compulsory. In the early 1990s, I used to see Francis Bacon at the Sainsbury’s checkout on Gloucester Road and it was obvious that the mess of his studio was just an affected cliché since he himself was one of the snappiest dressers in town. But here at Les Pailles, I think there is some order to be found, and I believe my studio method derives from my Courtauld training. The canvases are kept in upright stacks, an arrangement which protect them from damage. Works on paper are filed in portfolios and arranged on shelves which cover the walls and remind me slightly of the Witt! Also, when I have finished painting with them, I wash my brushes carefully. I have several hundred; they serve different purposes; some I have had for thirty or forty years, the sables especially improving with age. But loaded brushes left in jars of turpentine for weeks on end cannot be used again. And that is the simple reality of it.
RH: How did you come to paint the picture which The Courtauld Institute will be using as its Christmas card this year?
AH: This picture took rather a long time to come up to the surface. The first study was made in pastel on mi-teinte paper about thirty years ago. I was sitting in the passenger seat of the car, sheltered from the snow, drawing the local kids having fun in the snow on their sleds and toboggans, playing with their over-excited dogs. Then in more recent years, the same image became two oil paintings (one of them an oil sketch), and earlier this year, I painted the composition once again but this time in gouache on paper. And this is the picture which will appear on the Courtauld card. If at all possible, wanted the image to be one of exuberance and happiness appropriate to Christmas, and hopefully conveying that crucial sense of le bonheur de vivre which I always try to achieve, that particular state of being which John Golding first taught me in 1973, (albeit in relation to Matisse).
RH: I know you’re not the sort of person to rest on his laurels. How do you see your work developing in the future, and are there any specific challenges you’ve set for yourself?
AH: I really don’t know what laurels are, Rex. I haven’t come across any! Personally, I feel as if I have just begun. But for me, one of the saddest moments in the History of Art is when Delacroix is coming to the end of his life, only wishing he had another forty years to go.