The sharpness of Ruskin Spear

Ruskin Spear (1911-1990), Patients waiting outside a first aid post in a factory. Wikimedia Commons

Humankind: Ruskin Spear

Tanya Harrod, Studies in Art, The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing and Thames & Hudson, 2022, £35

PHILIP WARD-JACKSON remembers an unpretentious but greatly gifted artist

‘This is not a full-scale biography’ apologizes Harrod, lamenting the dearth of diaries and letters left by her subject, but it is the closest approximation to one that you are likely to get for some time. A huge array of oral and other forms of testimony is deployed to formidable effect and a man who was derided in his final years by some of the movers and shakers of the art-world as a populist and a tabloid pet, stands revealed as a brilliant painterly recorder of the London scene. As a portraitist he was ready to accept sedate formal commissions, but was perhaps happiest capturing his subjects in action, as in his Poet Laureate Afloat of 1974, depicting John Betjeman as a boater-wearing oarsman, or his Brightly Shone the Moon that Night, in which Ted Heath conducting Christmas Carols becomes a cosmic event.

Some of us had known that this book was impending. Its appearance was finally announced by the author herself in a puff which appeared in the Spectator of 22 January under the amusing title ‘Bring me my Spear.’ Like the apology already quoted, this puff seemed to hint at an unwarranted diffidence. Only the baffled response to requests for it from some major London bookshops, happy to fill their windows with the latest products of the inexhaustible Francis Bacon industry, testified to the need for such self-promotion.

It was the Spectator editors who came up with that snippet from Jerusalem. After initially thinking it clever, on further thought it began to look like a misnomer. There is a distinct lack of ‘pleasant pastures’ and ‘mountains green’ in Spear’s world, and none of that mystic pantheism which drew contemporary neo-romantics to William Blake and Samuel Palmer. His world is resolutely urban, including seaside breaks.

Spear was born in Hammersmith in 1911, son of a coach painter and a one-time domestic servant. He was affected by polio in early life, which left him with a weakened left leg, but didn’t deter him from painting at the easel without the mahlstick, an article of faith where he was concerned. Only action painters and chimpanzees mucked about on the floor. He studied at Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts and at the Royal College. In fact Hammersmith and the Royal College, where he was later to teach, are the backdrop to the greater part of his creative activity. 

Spear achieved a degree of public recognition during the 1950s, mainly through his exhibits at the R.A. Summer Show. His son Roger Ruskin Spear, who played in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, was one of the people who made London swing. The musical talent was passed down, Spear having been a skilled jazz pianist, but the father’s view of London has a distinctly post-war look. In some details representing London buses, posters, pub brasswork and flowers, and most appositely in the case of one small pub canary who makes multiple appearances, the colours sing out from an overall tonality which is sombre to the point of despondency. The beauty resides in the ways in which the paint is put on, and the variety of Spear’s brush marks is staggering. When it comes to the draughtsmanship, or, as was increasingly the case, drawing in paint, Spear alternates between a strict perspectival rendering of his subjects reminiscent of contemporary Euston Road painters, and a freer, illustrational, at times caricatural style. The latter is much in evidence in the portrayal of his signature cast of seasoned bar-flies of both sexes, street hucksters and assorted Hammersmith denizens.

Harrod gives us more of a look at the pre-War period than an earlier biographer, the painter and writer Mervyn Levy, whose small monograph on Spear appeared in 1986, four years before the subject’s death in 1990. Work as a war artist, carried out in defiance of his own pacifism, seems to have brought Spear out of a domestic shell, most of his earlier work having been centred on the family home. These early figure subjects indicate an awareness of the work of the French intimistes, Bonnard and Vuillard. Not a much travelled man (foreign jaunts seem to have been limited to a Mediterranean stag cruise before marriage, and a trip to Russia in 1957, accompanying the exhibition ‘Looking at People’ to the Pushkin Museum), Spear’s knowledge of the impressionist and post-impressionist scene would have benefited from his apprenticeship at the Royal College with William Rothenstein, who had rubbed shoulders with Degas and Lautrec. All of this rather calls in question the assumption of early commentators that Spear epitomised the Englishness of English art.

Another of the book’s strengths is its situating of Spear in the various social and artistic circles, with which he interacted over the course of a lifetime. Some of these are new and unfamiliar. There is fascinating documentation, for example, concerning early patronage by the well-connected Essex dilettante, Jack Brunner Gold, who organised an exhibition of Spear’s flower paintings in his home, Little Codham Hall in 1935. The combination of Spear’s portrait of the man in country-gentleman pose, and the teasingly de haut en bas quotes from Gold’s letters vividly summon up an all too familiar picture of the connoisseur attempting to shape a young protégé. Then there is the colourful network of relationships, sometimes friendly and symbiotic, at others thorny, with fellow-teachers and students at the Royal College of Art between 1948 and 1975. Spear taught such luminaries of the next generation as Peter Blake, David Hockney, Frank Auerbach and Ron Kitaj. Alongside the happy memories of some, are those of students who remembered Spear as a bullying bastard. A painting by Spear entitled Young Contemporary, which caricaturally represented one of his students sitting looking confused in front of one of his own action paintings, does seem to infringe pedagogical proprieties. On the other hand Spear’s debunking of art-world pretensions must have come as a relief to many outsiders who felt bamboozled by colour field abstracts and piles of bricks.

The panjandrums of the art world do not take kindly to seeing their hot air balloons deflated. Spear had in 1952 and 1954 depicted public bemusement when confronted by works of modern sculpture by Henry Moore and Reg Butler. Other pictures made plain his sentiments with regard to minimalist and painterly forms of abstraction, leading the future director of the Tate, Sir Alan Bowness, to classify his work as ‘vulgar’. In 1984 came what looked like a particularly brutal act of critical cancellation, when Spear was omitted by Richard Morphet, self-appointed high-priest of post-modern figuration, from his Tate exhibition, ‘The Hard Won Image: Traditional Method and Subject in Recent British Art’. Tanya Harrod suggests that Spear’s work was excluded because it gave so little indication of struggle. A lifetime of painting and observation had enabled him to achieve a rare degree of articulacy and pleasurable virtuosity, in which he could express his likes and dislikes with regard to the world around him. There is perhaps one thing that needs clearing up here. Was Spear in fact excluded, or, alive and kicking as he then was, did he decline to have his works shown with that rag-bag of figure painters, even though it included some of his own closest friends and ex-pupils?

This is a most attractive book, whose illustrations and text both call for and repay the closest attention.

This review first appeared in The Jackdaw, an independent review of the visual arts edited by David Lee, which has been called ‘the Private Eye of the arts world’. To subscribe, please click here.