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Ian Collins, author of Water Marks, Art in East Anglia on Art in North Essex

PUBLISHED: 11:01 25 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:40 20 February 2013

Ian Collins, author of Water Marks, Art in East Anglia on Art in North Essex

Ian Collins, author of Water Marks, Art in East Anglia on Art in North Essex

North Essex was the last Bohemia for a group of great and wild modernist painters. Ian Collins, author of Water Marks, Art in East Anglia, shares his insight into this special time in Essex history...

Genius at work


A short Ken Russell film from 1959 opens with a dramatic, sky-dominated East Anglian scene. Across the crushed terrain, a farmhand is riding a horse and pulling a cartload of canvases. As the wagon passes, we see the painters Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde sitting on the tailboard. They look as blasted as the landscape.
Russell, a London art gallery assistant turned photographer and amateur film-maker, was making his professional directorial debut with the BBCs Monitor arts programme. Decades later he would tell his biographer: I was able to make a film of those two distant, dark heroes of my early gallery days, MacBryde and Colquhoun. It lasts ten minutes and is the most enjoyable film Ive ever made. They were great guys, the last of the real Bohemian painters.

A decade earlier, the two working-class Scotsmen who had met at Glasgow Art School, and then stuck together for good or ill, had been among the great hopes of British modern art. It all went awry well before their energetic and elegantly coloured line in semi-cubist figurative art, that owed so much to Picasso and also depended on each other, was all but eclipsed by abstraction.
Soon after moving to London during the war, MacBryde was confined to bed with what he called pernicious partyitis and while they drank for pleasure among the early patrons and purchases, the Roberts drank for escape when troubles grew.

In the end they just drank Colquhoun dying of an alcohol-induced heart attack, aged 47, in 1962; MacBryde being killed by
a car on leaving a Dublin bar four years later. In 1947 the writer Elizabeth Smart, whose affair with poet George Barker produced four children and the prose poem By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, had begun renting Tilty Mill between Great Easton and Dunmow. She sub-let from Surrealist poet Ruthven Todd, who left behind his precious books and pictures. Now a single mother and magazine journalist, she needed help with childcare while working during the week in London. As if asking for trouble, she turned to her Soho chums Colquhoun and MacBryde.
But Georgina, Christopher, Sebastian and Rosies adored minders were soon regarded as surrogate parents. Affectionate, amusing and intensely inventive, they showed that life was a great adventure. Even after late-night rampages they took care to clear up the debris in the morning. Todds later complaint that the pair had wrecked and plundered the place recalling an impression of a house gone blind due to broken windows was disputed by loyal witnesses.
In three years at Tilty, Colquhoun worked on drawings and monotypes inspired by his surroundings farm animals, gypsies and their dogs. He also produced the major 1953 oddity Figures in a Farmyard (long unsold but now in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art), subverting the conventional portrait of a family group into an old man, a young girl and a leering pig trampling a sunflower. Bohemian Essex could be dark indeed.

But all had seemed so bright when, early in May 1945, close to the peak of their powers and the height of their fame, the Roberts had visited Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller in Wivenhoe. Here they drew River Colne scenery between frequent pauses for refreshment and one big party on Victory in Europe Day.
Attending a fireworks display in Wivenhoe Park later the site of the University of Essex the four artists had nabbed a dingy and rowed into the middle of the lake for a better view. Leaping up to raise a toast, the kilted MacBryde then toppled overboard and his companions feared an imminent drowning. But as Wirth-Miller told the Roberts biographer, Roger Bristow, he soon bobbed up, encircled and supported by the kilt floating on the waters surface.
Wivenhoe, the old port of Colchester turned college village, can lay claim to being East Anglias truest Bohemia boasting a creative community which had Wirth-Miller and Chopping, Denis and Dickey, at its fractious heart until the latters death, three days after his 91st birthday, in 2008.
Richard Wasey Chopping was born into a Colchester milling family. After studying at Cedric Morriss East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, he produced the book Butterflies in Britain (1943) and worked for seven years with writer Frances Partridge on what was to have been a 22-volume encyclopaedia of British wildflowers before the publisher uprooted the project on cost grounds when the collaborators were still dug in on the letter C.

Meeting in 1937, Chopping and Wirth-Miller had lived for a time at Daffodil Cottage in Wormingford where the formers harsh view of three young siblings belied his later success as an author and illustrator of childrens books. But he was to be best-known for trompe loeil watercolour images of beauty and death forming the dust jackets for nine of Ian Flemings James Bond novels, starting with From Russia, With Love in 1957.Not that he cared for the stories, once he got round to reading them. He concluded, I dont mind a bit of sex, but there is enough violence in the world without needing to make it more glamorous. That must have caused much mirth in Wivenhoe where the two Bohemians the first couple to register a civil partnership in Colchester in December 2005 staged legendary rows which Margaret Drabble likened to, the kitchen scene, with dough and utensils flying, in pantomime.
They had bought their quayside house in 1944, but war-time restrictions meant that they moved in the following year. Here Wirth-Miller (who died last October) worked on peaceful marshscape panoramas and, reputedly, in the 1950s, collaborated with visitor Francis Bacon on several pictures. Lodging in a pub or with his friends, Bacon prompted further merry mayhem. In the early 1970s he acquired his own working base in Queens Road the street name amusing him.
Wirth-Miller once took Bacon to see Wivenoe bird sculptor Guy Taplin, but they never actually met. Taplin was detaining two Jehovahs Witnesses in lengthy debate at his front door, when the painter friends, having entered by the back door and waited in the kitchen for as long as their patience could bear, emerged from the side alley before vanishing down the street.
Pointing at Bacons departing head, Taplin told his evangelical canvassers, There goes the Jesus Christ of art.

Get the book
Water Marks: Art in East Anglia by
Ian Collins is published by Black
Dog Books and is priced at 30

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