Patrick Procktor: Art and Life, Ian Massey, Unicorn Press, 224pp, £40 (hardback)
Patrick Procktor was one of English art’s brightest young stars of the 1960s. But the brightest so often burn out the soonest, and even by the end of that febrile decade, the questions already hovered over his reputation: with so much promise, what had happened? Where had it all gone? Though he would continue active, even prolific until the sad decline of his final years, and remain ever conspicuous by sheer force of personality and physical presence, those questions would never go away. With his every exhibition, they would rise again: and again his loyal, anxious friends and critical apologists would enter every special plea. And though he would never openly address these doubts himself, let alone resolve them – for he would do whatever he could to deflect or avoid them – at a deeper level they assailed him almost from the start, and were perhaps the principal agent in what we can now see as a great personal tragedy. While he provides no answers to them, Ian Massey in no sense shirks them: indeed they are the essential substance of his book.
Procktor had decided to become a painter comparatively late, having been frustrated, by a collapse in the family finances, in following his elder brother, Richard, to the University. The disappointment was keenly felt, for there is no doubting his intellectual powers, nor that he would have much enlivened stuffy 1950s Oxford. But no thought was given to a cheaper alternative, so he left school at sixteen to take up, bizarre thought, an apprenticeship with a Builders’ Merchant in Holloway, from which National Service eventually provided an escape. Called up in 1954, into the Royal Navy, he was sent to the Joint Services School to train as an interpreter in Russian, for which he proved to have a particular gift. Russian, and Russia, would remain life-long interests, which for a while seemed to suggest a path to follow; but, National Service done, his application to continue in some related capacity with the RNVR was turned down.
At Highgate School he had shown no especial talent for Art, but the artmaster, Kyffin Williams, himself a successful painter, had encouraged his more general interest, and the habit had grown of visiting galleries, and painting a little on his own account. Thinking now to apply for the Slade, he asked Williams for a reference: ‘He came to see me, and he brought his drawings. I could give him an A, which meant this man’s a genius, B, which is this chap’s all right, or C, this man’s bloody awful! Well, they didn’t look like genius’s work to me … so I gave them a B. And he got into the Slade on the strength of the B I think. And then five years later he had a one-man show at the Redfern and sold the lot before it opened.’
He entered the Slade in the autumn of 1958, when he was already twentytwo, to find himself effectively a novice among more experienced contemporaries, in having had no grounding whatsoever in the technical disciplines, most especially of the life-room, that were then the staple of every art school. And free to choose between the close dot-and-carry objectivity of such as William Coldstream, the Professor, and the freer expressionism of followers of David Bomberg, into which contrasting schools the Slade was then divided, he chose the latter.
Here perhaps was sown the seed of his enduring difficulty. As a draughtsman, he would never be anything but hit-and-miss. The hits could be charming enough, but awkwardness, inaccuracy and arbitrary distortion would always be there – which Massey’s direct and admiring early comparison with David Hockney (an old, close friend against whom he would come to set himself in increasingly resentful competition) unfortunately makes all too embarrassingly clear.
Ever resentful of criticism, he would come to counter such inadequacies by developing a manner of working in watercolour, or oil paint or acrylic, with a fluid and open, unpremeditated immediacy, often to most seductive effect. But with such an approach, mere adjustment of the image becomes difficult, if not impossible, let alone any radical re-thinking or change.
The result is to be taken as it is, as the mark of the artist irrespective of accuracy or likeness, or indeed intention. To criticise on such grounds is to miss the point, as he was always the first to point out.
Yet Procktor flourished at the Slade, if not so much in the development of the work, though that of course did come on, then certainly in his increasingly active social life, that soon spread beyond the Slade into London’s wider fashionable art society. Immensely tall, thin, good-looking, blessed with a quick and mischievous wit, and ever more flamboyant in his address, he was simply impossible to miss. And by then he had also recognised, if not altogether come to terms with, his essential homosexuality. It was into that world in particular that he now moved.
Its patronage would serve him well. As early as 1961, Keith Vaughan, a tutor at the Slade and a widely influential painter in his own right, had introduced him to another power in the art-world, Bryan Robertson, the brilliant director the Whitechapel Art Gallery. He would remain a lifelong, if increasingly long-suffering friend, and he it was who, early in 1963, shortly after Procktor had left the Slade, suggested to Harry Tatlock Miller that his gallery, the Redfern, might give him a show. It took place that spring. ‘A word in the right ear,’ noted the critic, Edwin Mullins, in an otherwise supportive review, ‘the names of a few impressive buyers discreetly let slip; a gossipy piece in an evening paper … and finally critical attention …’ The Redfern would remain his gallery to the end.
While Procktor’s homosexuality is clearly a major issue – and we are given chapter and verse throughout – Massey nevertheless makes rather too much of the earlier social context. I don’t know how old he is, but the late fifties and early sixties were neither so grim nor quite so bleakly intolerant as he suggests. Certainly in the art, theatrical and social worlds through which Procktor moved so easily, homosexuality was openly acknowledged, notwithstanding its technical illegality. And what prosecution there was stemmed more from blackmail and tabloid exposure of public figures, than any general persecution. The central issue, rather, is of Procktor’s temperament and disposition, ultimately so self-destructive, of which his homosexuality was but a partial, though highly visible expression.
Even so, he was attractive to, and attracted by, women. His relationship with his widowed mother (his father had died of TB in 1940) was always problematical, at once confrontational and obsessively demanding on both sides. But his marriage in 1973, to Kirsten, the restaurateur Peter Langan’s widow, by whom he had a son, though a surprise to many, was no less surprisingly successful, if only for a while, in the stability it seemed to bring him. But it could hardly have lasted, undermined as it was by his continuing affairs, and his increasingly aggressive drinking. In the event, it was cut short by her sudden death, in 1984, from a heart attack. His alcoholism, always incipient, only increased as he grew older, and his erratic temper with it, especially so after the dreadful fire in 1999, which destroyed his flat in Manchester Street, his home for more than thirty years, along with much of his life’s work.
A wit, which could turn from teasing banter to outright aggression in a moment, can so easily turn on itself, and it would seem from Massey’s account that Procktor was never truly reconciled to his apparent homosexuality. For camp exaggeration can in truth be a form of ironical rejection, especially so when taken to an extreme. And Procktor could certainly be extreme in his provocations – which he once took to the brink of actual arrest, not only of himself but of his entire, and straight, company, in demanding to be frisked by a French policeman (an incident not given in the book).
The final chapter, with his life collapsing around him, as he moved from pillar to post after the fire, his circumstances ever more straightened and he ever more dependent on his friends, makes for difficult, and, to those who knew and liked him, harrowing reading. He died in the summer of 2003, at the age of sixty-seven, of a blood clot that had incapacitated him for some time, and had finally moved from leg to lung.
It is a personal story that, from first to last, Massey tells well, for all that he is not the most felicitous of writers – intuit and showcase as verbs not the least of his sins against the language. As a critic of the work itself, however, he is far less convincing, his analysis at times jargon-ridden to the point of impenetrability, technically unsound and too inclined to value the achievement at a level Procktor himself, and perhaps all of us who followed it through its many phases, would have wished it to merit. It is an account of a real talent, but of one ultimately unfocused, and unresolved. Could he have been very good? Yes. But the hard fact is that, for all the promise and the evident talent, he wasn’t. If he proved a disappointment, it was most of all to himself.
Yet for all its faults and shortcomings, perhaps by virtue of them, the work was always intriguing, surprising, with much to admire. His luck was to be the golden boy in a golden generation among whom he was the very first to shine and against whom he would forever after feel a competitive need to measure himself. It was luck that proved to have served him ill.