The Journals by Josef Herman, edited by Nina Herman; Ceri Richards by Mel Gooding; Kenneth Rowntree by John Milner

The Journals by Josef Herman

edited by Nina Herman, Peter Halban Press, London 2003, £25, ISBN 1870015 819

Ceri Richards

by Mel Gooding, Cameron & Hollis, Moffat, 2002, £39.95, ISBN 0-906506-20-4

Kenneth Rowntree

by John Milner, Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2002, £25, ISBN 0-85331-850-6

Josef Herman was a Polish painter who came to England via Belgium (where his work as an artist picked up the influence of Permeke), Scotland and Wales. He wrote a great deal and quite a considerable amount was published by and about him during his lifetime (he died aged 89 in 2000). For example, he published an autobiography in 1975 (Related Twilights): a book about his time in Scotland and Wales in 1984; and another book about his time in Wales in 1988 (Notes from a Welsh Diary). Now comes a volume of his Journals.

These are effectively diaries kept at certain points of his life (others having been destroyed). The periods covered are random and this adds to the difficulties of reading any diaries: the themes which can be made to emerge from a series of diaries are inevitably interrupted here.  Nevertheless, there are themes. Herman was clearly it contemplative artist, writing regularly and extensively about his own and others’ art (Courbet, for example). He thought about the process of creating art and was clever enough to reduce these thoughts to the written word. Those parts of the Journals which focus on this process are welcome and interesting. For example on 29 July 1987, he wrote ‘The image is the meaning not a device for an ulterior meaning. The meaning is in the totality working towards its own end and through the whole process and it cannot be treated as a puzzle… Images cannot be read as a sort of hidden truth. Images should not be read at all… Drawing is not a form of writing. Nor is it a way of codifying symbolic messages.’ There have not been many 20th-century British artists who have had the inclination or ability to write like this. (Bacon,  indirectly through the stage-managed ‘interviews’ with Sylvester, was made to seem as if he had coherent thoughts about the process of painting, but how many others did? Paul Nash and Patrick Heron are some of the few I can recall.)

There are, however, two problems with Herman’s writing: he wasn’t a particularly distinguished painter, and therefore while his thoughts on the painting process are interesting, they are less convincing because they don’t seem to have led to a corresponding degree of enlightenment in his work; and his thoughts on life generally are neither more nor less profound or interesting than those of other amateur thinkers. It is unfortunately the case that he was not trained as a writer and the diary format allows a formless narrative to smother the occasional moments of insight. He writes, increasingly in this book, as an old man, ponderously reflecting on a long and difficult life. He also often writes in a staccato and non-literary fashion (typical of a diary). It doesn’t make for easy reading; indeed it is virtually impossible to read more than a few pages at a time.

My suggestion is that those students who are researching Herman – and there may not be many more of them – will find this book helpful: those curious to analyse the way in which painters approach their work will definitely be grateful for this, for on that level it works best. For all others, who are not already convinced of Herman’s greatness as a writer, this book will not convert them.

In writing about Ceri Richards, Mel Gooding has already assumed his greatness and worthiness of close study.  There is no hint of criticism; nothing could have been done better; no attempt is made to compare and contrast Richards with other British artists of the time.  (Richards was born in 1903, the same year as Sutherland, Piper, Bawden, Ravilious and Barbara Hepworth.  Not a bad year for British artists!).

The task which the author has set himself is to describe in detail, and with the benefit of the most gorgeous illustrations, the development of the artist’s work.  And that is a worthy ambition, whilst leaving unsatisfied the historian’s wish to categorise and grade.  Someone at some time has to explain why he believes that one artist is more important than another (even if the attempt to do so may end up saying more about the writer than the artist).

Whatever the book does not do – and it also doesn’t act as a proper biography – it does make a superb argument for the defence.  It puts forward what is surely going to be the best possible case for the quality of Ceri Richards’ work.  There can be no doubt that Richards was a great draftsman; profoundly reflective and thoughtful as a painter, studying the work of those artists whom he admired and developing his own work in a deliberate and careful fashion.  He was clearly a talent of considerable significance in that plethora of British artists of the 20th Century who have not yet found their level amongst the still-shifting sands of critical reputations.  Nevertheless, at the risk of provoking anguish in Mr Gooding, here are some points from the prosecution’s case.

His work breaks down into some loose groupings.  The illustrations to Dylan Thomas’ poetry are beautiful, clever things, but they are ‘merely’ illustrations; the original trigger of artistic creation has been pulled by the poet first.  The works tinged by surrealism are unusual in an English context, (it would have helped me if the author had compared Burra – born 1905 – or Agar, 1900), but they are derivative in their inspiration.  There is a heavy dose of Ernst about them.  Then there are works clearly influenced by Picasso and very beautiful work perhaps inspired by Matisse.

Later there is a difficult ‘series’ of works, based on Debussy’s ‘La Cathédrale Engloutie’, in which the artist tried to show in paint the way in which music influences the senses.  These are not entirely satisfactory pictures.  The artist has had an idea, based partly on reading Kandinsky and partly on his own love of music, and he has tried to intellectualise that idea in paint.  He does not succeed; not perhaps, because he fails where others succeed, but because the idea cannot be transferred to this medium.

But let me end with a paean of praise.  This is a beautiful book about a fascinating and important artist.  Seen as a whole like this, it is impossible not to be impressed by the stature of the life’s work.

Kenneth Rowntree was born in 1915 (a lesser year for British artists than 1903 – I have only been able to find William Gear and Terry Frost).  Although not therefore an exact contemporary of Richards, there were overlaps in their careers.  Both had spells teaching at the Royal College of Art in London; both produced reliefs as well as paintings (in Rowntree’s case, for a large part of his career); both got commissions from Colin Anderson for the Orient Line; both were friendly with Victor Pasmore.  Rowntree also loved music, and it is informative to compare the way in which he sought to put his interest into paint compared to Richards.  For example, the book illustrates a small Vermeer – like picture of a man playing the harpsichord.  The foreshortened instrument stands on its frail legs in the middle of the picture.  The man’s face is not shown and neither are his hands, nor the instrument’s keyboard.  His bulk compares with the delicate structure of the harpsichord and it is easy to imagine the light sound filling the small dark room.

Nevertheless, there are many more differences between the artists than similarities.  Rowntree’s really great strength was in teasing out the character of places.  Many of the pictures of places are carefully simplified studies of the essence of those places.  Rowntree’s eye was very perceptive, his colouring fine.  He later became more experimental, whilst teaching at Newcastle University, coming under the influence there of Pasmore and Richard Hamilton.  Now even the landscape works were reduced into barely recognisable hieroglyphics, Venice for example surviving only in a symbolic triangular form.

This is a slight book, cleanly and simply written without affectation, and its presentation may lead towards the conclusion that Rowntree was only slightly important.  But this would be too glib.  Whereas Richards is probably less important than Gooding tries to make him, Rowntree is probably more important than he appears here.  John Nash, Bawden and Ravilious are Rowntree’s peer group and no-one should dismiss their quality.