Drawing by Peter Fuller
Almost a generation on
For some hidden agenda of Peter’s I wrote an article on the market in Auerbach, Kossof and Freud for the back page of Volume 1 No 1 of Modern Painters in Spring 1988. I guess that gives a poetic symmetry to my introduction here.
I had a dream last night in which I heard the endless pounding racket of his typewriter. It reminded me that Peter Fuller was pre-desktop and pre-Google. Has art criticism moved on as much as the technology? There should be a way to find out. In 1988 the RA hosted the launch of Modern Painters. Peter wrote the catalogue for Norman Adams Keeper of the RA’s exhibition, and an essay for the Henry Moore catalogue. At the grand openings I remember his crazed I-told-you-so smile. If the RA would put on an exhibition from its collections of painters whom he wrote about, to mark the passing of a generation after his death, we could read what today’s critics have to say, and feel the void.
I was at school and university with Peter. He was one of those special people who would try to throw you out of your own house after you had eaten dinner together. There is an etching by Richard Rowland of him shrieking at me pointing a camera at him when I was second-best man at his second wedding in Perth Australia in 1985.
Epsom College had been a misery for contemporaries Graham Sutherland and John Piper, and when we were there over 50 years later there was a consolation in the agonised yet soaring spirit of our art teacher Dennis Barnham. He had survived a breakdown while he painted the bombing of his beloved Crete as an aviator war artist, and subsequently he had given up art to provide for his beautiful wife and family. It was unheard of that, after studying all of European Art and Architecture, we moved on to Chinese Art. Robert Irwin the Orientalist and novelist was another schoolboy in our select class, a rival and a friend. Peter was obsessed by Swinburne’s ‘O splendid and sterile, Dolores our Lady of Pain’ and Baudelaire, and for a decade painted his hermetic semi-erotic series of the Queen of Sheba – an early unrequited girlfriend or universal whore? But what was this - an art critic who painted? Ruskin came soon after, spurred on by Peter’s fascination with the historiography of Effie’s pubic hair. Were these reflections of Peter’s father who in middle age had led a schismatic walk-out in mid-service from his Baptist congregation in Eastleigh near Southampton, or his urbane Uncle George the goatee-bearded bon-viveur and restaurateur in Bath?
At Cambridge, Peter was taken up by the Peterhouse right-wing groomers Maurice Cowling (1926-2005) who six years later was Michael Portillo’s tutor, and inter alia in 1978 founded the Salisbury Group conservative think tank, and the younger Martin Golding (now the second longest-serving Fellow) who later wrote for Modern Painters, and since has written echoingly about art and psychoanalysis.
After Cambridge Peter was as broke as the rest of us, and moved in to share our lavish free apartment at 10 Gloucester Gate Regents Park, underneath Adrian Berg’s studio where David Hockney with Peter Schlesinger, and Patrick Procktor were often passing up and down the stairs. In contrast, the luscious Jasmine would regularly visit from Paris to go out with all of The Marmalade until her gonorrhoea became insupportable. It was also the time of revolution. After learning the trade with Larry Lamb’s capitalist City Press Peter started Seven Days, the hard left tabloid broadsheet with writers like Anthony Barnett, Patrick Cockburn and his son Alexander, Tariq Ali, Fred Halliday and John Berger. Interviews ranged from scoops of IRA bombers, coprophilia, Eve Escort Agency and other Soho and provincial corruption, to the £1000 racing pigeon. We fly-billed Fuck Capitalism posters around London.
His Revelation, which transformed him into an art critic, was suitably bizarre. He was steadily supplementing his meagre income by betting on red and black at roulette while being manipulated by cleavaged croupiers, when one night he returned shaking. He had lost £20. He decided that there was only one remedy - to go to Gamblers Anonymous. After hearing others stand up to confess their losses, he found himself adding a few zeros to his own to keep up. It was clear that he had a complicated problem and so, on the National Health, he attended several courses of psychoanalysis. In inspired leaps he applied his Freudian analysis to dead art and then to live art. He found himself slightly ahead of the thinking public and even established art critics. He moved on to post-Freudian Melanie Klein analysis where our love of damaged sculpture like the Venus de Milo was equated to violent resentment against the eventual denial of our mother’s breast. He kept his arcane philosophies ahead of his resonating public as his tide of books enjoyed acclaim. The critics and the establishment in general hated him for it, but lacked the words to finish him off. He was passionate, outspoken and articulate in debate. He lived in a grim maisonette in Graham Road in Hackney where nightly unpleasant things happened at the bus-stop outside his front door. There is no Brown Plaque there yet. He was much more famous in Australia, or in the US where he rubbished Neo-expressionist Julian Schnabel, than in Britain. He never got a decent job on a main newspaper until the Sunday Telegraph hired him in April 1989. At the same time he was sworn at by some artists who believed that what he wrote could change the price of their work, and that was years before the Saatchi purchasing effect.
In retrospect there was little time left. He had strange physical death traits. His pet axolotl lizard never moved; his goldfish had thyroid bulging eyes; he could walk forward with his feet pointing backwards; he was double-jointed yet his spine was solidifying with spondylitis. After he died of a burst spleen in that weird car crash on the M4 where in the front of the Volvo his teetotal chauffeur fell asleep at the wheel at about ten in the morning, they found that in any case he was marked to die shortly if he didn’t seek medical advice, from heart valve failure. He appeared to have found a Wordsworthian happiness when he moved to Bath and Stowlangtoft, as he had long before, briefly in St Cergue les Montaignes. At the same time, as an atheist he befriended the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and as a life-long leftwing activist he became close to Thatcher’s professor of aesthetics, Roger Scruton. Almost his last work was an inexplicable panegyric pamphlet on Thatcherism, written in strange new company, for Chatto and Windus.
I have a small collage painting of his, where cigarette ends are stubbed out on torn ‘adult’ magazine fragments. It’s sitting there in a drawer, still waiting to be hung, next to the Seven Days archive and the decayed rude posters of revolution, and Synthesis, our first and only poetry journal. In 2001 he must have turned at the hollow irony when his portrait by John Bellany, whose work he liked, sold for, was it, £17,000, double its estimate, at Phillips in Edinburgh.
His obituaries read like rave reviews. I went to the packed funeral in Suffolk with Robert Irwin, perhaps his best friend who after a long feud had just missed a reconciliation. It’s illogical, but we both still feel cheated out of a part of our lives. In odd moments we are still having random rows with his eternal bellicose spirit. I continue to meet people who miss him, the bastard.