Gerald Wilde at the October Gallery

I don’t think I have visited Old Gloucester Street before. It isn’t an obvious route anywhere. It has something about it which screams “typical Central London back street”. There are many such streets north of Oxford Street for example. It contains many types of buildings, shuffling rather uncomfortably together, the mix a result of post-War planning decisions maybe a little helped by some bomb damage. There are some tired old 18th c former houses, as there always are in these central postcodes. They are evidence of the huge building growth in London in the 18th c. Not really gentrified, they show the same exhausted feeling which they would have done at any point in the 20th c; some are divided up, some have office use, some keep some or all of their old sash windows. Some have a bit of all of the above. Other buildings are low-grade 19th and 20th c offices and a converted Victorian school which turned out to be where I was going.

Inside the delightful October Gallery is a show of Wilde’s work which exceeds in quantity and quality any such show I have seen and which may remain the apogee of Wilde retrospectives, on the assumption that larger art galleries will not have the courage or motivation to do a larger show.

The main room is where many of the pictures hang, although one’s attention is a little challenged by the overpowering smell of the adjacent kitchen; it is as if it were still a school and the children have just eaten their lunch. The other room, where the eating has been taking place, has more pictures, but one can’t really see many of these without rudely craning over people sitting at their tables. This is a design fault.

What is the overall impression of the pictures on display? There is no doubt that Wilde is a “hard” painter to appreciate. He makes the viewer work hard to seek to understand  what he is trying to achieve. Occasionally one feels that one has begun to understand. I personally prefer the earlier works from the 1940s. I prefer their intensity of expression when contrasted with the lighter tone of the later work. I find the earlier works easier to place in a context with work by other artists.

It is a mistake to treat Wilde like a great outsider; he had plenty of formal training and was shown in different ways and with varying degrees of success pretty well throughout his career. His work can also be related to that of other artists in a way which prevents an interpretation of him as a loner. And yet, he was not successful in any meaningful way during his long life. The  pictures appeared, but nobody bought them; some significant critics praised him at various times, picking up on features which they happened to like, but it didn’t make any difference. So far as I know, the art market has never taken up Wilde’s work; his reputation languishes in comparative obscurity. Perhaps, as we are so often encouraged to believe about “forgotten” artists, we have all been wrong for a very long time. Perhaps Wilde is another Bacon; it is just that we are too stupid to realise it. But I don’t think that can be right. I think we can place him well enough. He was an interesting artist wrestling in his own way with the issues about life which preoccupied him inbetween drinking and trying to make ends meet. He was a “genuine” artist unconcerned with the commercial reality of day to day life. He achieved in his own way a vision of the world which was hewn out of his personal experience. There is no need to put his achievement any higher than that: it was more than that of many other artists at work in 20th C Britain.

A word about the October Gallery is called for. I cannot praise too highly what they have done here with regard to Wilde. I have in front of me the catalogue for this show and their catalogue for the 1988 show. Both do the gallery enormous credit. There are serious written contributions in both, together with excellent colour reproductions of many of the works. They put to shame the failure of many better-known West End galleries to produce any catalogues at all.