Dame Elizabeth Frink Remembered

DAME ELISABETH FRINK REMEMBERED THROUGH FILM AND FRIENDS

A half day event organised by Jeremy Barker and the Friends of Sherborne House.

Chairman: Brian Phelan
Guest Speakers: John Hubard – Ann Christopher – Ken Cook.

on Thursday 23rd March 2006
in the Lecture Theatre, Bonhams
101 New Bond Street, London
1.30 – 6.30pm

Opening Address

LIFE ON THE FULHAM ROAD IN THE LATE 50s & EARLY 60s

By BRIAN PHELAN

In this first film you will see Lis leave her studio in Park Walk to do her shopping in the Fulham Road and so, I will attempt to give you a flavour of what that part of London was like in the late fifties and early sixties.

I first lived just off the Fulham Road in Cranley Gardens in a house that now you would need many millions of pounds just to cross the threshold. My brother, who was and is a painter, and I shared the large back basement room with a coke boiler that provided heating and hot water for the five floors above us and for tending that stove we got the big room with a small kitchen off for a reduced rent of twenty five shillings a week each. It was a snip, even in those days but of course health and safety regulations would not allow such an arrangement to-day. More’s the pity.

We had seen the card advertising the room in the newsagents opposite South Kensington station and we were interviewed by a rather blowsy middle aged woman with bottle blond hair growing from distinctly dark roots and we did wonder how she came to own so salubrious a house even if it was split into rentable rooms and small flats.

When we had been there a while she confided to us that she was really Vera Lynn; ……… she claimed that in the late thirties she was the band leader Ambrose’s first choice as vocalist but then she got the flu and he took Vera Lynn instead so that was why she was rightfully the real Vera Lynn. To this day I do not know if there was any truth in the tale or whether it was just pure fantasy. Certainly her ownership of the house was just that as I learned later.

I worked as a dishwasher in the Norland coffee shop on the Brompton Road checking in at 5pm and leaving at 2a.m. having not only washed dishes all night but when everyone had left I washed the floors upstairs and down and for this I was paid the princely sum of one pound a night. I was a young actor then and this arrangement left me free for auditions in the day and also allowed me a late lie in each morning.

One such morning the door to the room crashed open and a harridan entered wearing a silk dressing gown that had seen better days. The apparition was supported by two walking sticks and demanded what a healthy young man like myself was doing still in bed at eleven o’clock in the morning. This vision, it turned out, was the real owner of the property.

She was Anglo-Irish and her family had lost their big house and estates during the Irish civil war leaving them only with their London town house in Cranley Gardens. She was eccentric verging on do-lally. The housekeeper, who was of course Very Lynn, had to wake her every morning with a cup of black coffee and utter the words, “You’re not dead yet Maam” and then pour her a glass of Irish whiskey which she sipped while Vera ran her bath no doubt singing the odd ditty in 2- 4 time.

Frank Morris, a young Irish sculptor lived in the basement front room and used the space under the front steps as a small studio. He specialised in “direct” wood carving but at one point he started experimenting with lead relief’s. Full of excitement about this new material he lectured us late into the night on the aesthetic and artistic qualities of lead. You could drip it, drop it, mould it, pound it or simply roll it. It was a material disgracefully neglected by all the major artists in history but he would change all that. At that moment, in the middle of that night, it was awesomely clear to my brother and myself that Francis Morris was a genius. The only problem was that lead was bloody expensive so that his reliefs were necessarily miniatures which were deeply frustrating for him.

The following Sunday evening he was nowhere to be seen and at about ten o’clock a policeman knocked on the basement door and enquired………..

“Did a Frank Morris reside at this address?

Instinctively we denied his existence; if he was in trouble the authorities would get no help from us; we were a band of artistic brothers united against the establishment and in denying his existence we were proving our loyalty to him and the general integrity of artistic revolution. If the law wanted him we would not give him up. We would go to the barricades together.

The policeman left but returned an hour later again insisting that Mister Morris did indeed live at this address. He was not in a good mood and furthermore it was raining and he was getting wet but we could not let him in as the corridor was full of directly carved wood shapes with the name Frank Morris clearly cut into them. We assured him that he had got it all wrong and he went away mystified but convinced we were telling him the truth.

Late the next morning we were turfed out of our beds by an irate young sculptor demanding to know why we had abandoned and denied him, not once but maybe thrice in his hour of greatest need as he sat petrified in a Fulham police cell charged with attempting to steal lead panels from the roof of a small abandoned church off Fulham Broadway.

He was the first in court that morning and was fined ten shillings but his real indignation and our ultimate betrayal of him was that the court had recorded him as a…. “person of no fixed abode” . That really offended him. He lectured us that while an artist must and should be an outsider he was never a VAGRANT, even the travelling storyteller was a journeyman with a place by any fireside as long as his tales engaged his listeners but he was never a vagrant of “NO FIXED ABODE”. His incarceration became a story he would have dined out on if any of us had ever dined out in those days.

When I married he presented us with a beautifully carved torso in beach wood. He returned to Ireland and became an important teacher and influenced leading Irish artists such as Michael George Warren who was apprenticed to him and who remembers Morris’ methods of teaching, comparing woodcarving to peeling an onion, the sculptor removing layers of wood in order to uncover an ` essential form’ at the heart of the timber. He died an untimely death at age 42.

The late 50s and early sixties were a time of great artistic energy and real excitement. Change was taking place, Mary Quant had opened her shop on the Kings Road and the straight jackets were coming off in every sense. Working class voices were being heard in literature and in the theatre and this was also being reflected in the new television drama. Peter Cook opened the Establishment club in Soho and ten minutes walk away from Cranley Gardens the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square had shaken the middle class sensibility and complacency of the West End. At Stratford East Joan Littlewood was shaking it even further and I was fortunate enough to work at both theatres in plays by Wesker and Beckett. It was also at Stratford, some years later that I co-presented Tom Murphy’s play A Whistle in the Dark before its transfer to the West End.

In the film you are about to see presented by Laurie Lee, there is a sequence, as I have said, where Lis leaves her studio to do her shopping on the Fulham road, in the butchers, the green grocers, all in the village high street. For Fulham and Chelsea were villages then lived in by artists of all kinds, painters, sculptors, musicians, composers, actors and at John Sandoes bookshop in Blacklands Place you could buy a book and eavesdrop as John shared his immense knowledge with many of the most interesting writers of the day who came to him for their reading matter.

You will also see Lis and Laurie stop in the Queens Elm for a drink which is served by the landlord Sean Treacy. Sean started in Finches further down the Fulham Road and then moved to the Elm. Both establishments were focal points for the artistic community. The American painter John Hubbard told me recently that having lived in Cornwall for a while he decided to go to London and was told to go to Finches if he wanted to know what was going on.

Sean had literary ambitions himself and did, in fact, have four books published. He was a breed of landlord that is now mostly extinct. He had a large personality, was a great talker and spent most of his time on the customer side of the bar moving from group to group telling stories and very often starting arguments and then moving on. He created an atmosphere where conversation was paramount and I suppose, a great deal of rubbish about art was aired but sometimes a passionate statement of truth or commitment would be made to be accepted or disputed. If the conversation had to continue after hours the Chelsea Arts Club, founded by Whistler, was five hundred yards down Old Church Street.

His regulars were an eclectic mix that included the Liverpool playwright Alun Owen who wrote seminal plays for television such as “Lena oh my Lena” and “No trams to Lime Street” and went on to write the two Beatle’s films. Johnny Speight who wrote “Till Death us do Part” and of course, Laurie Lee and many others. There were the painters Norman Stevens, the Canadian William Thompson, the sculptor Bill Redgrave and Lis who, even when she lived in France, would call in when she was in London. The painter Richard McDonald who became one of the greatest art directors in film designing The Servant, Accident, Far from the Madding Crowd, Jesus Christ Superstar and countless more. Sean Kenny who revolutionised theatre design with his sets for Lionel Bart’s “Oliver”. The Evening Standard cartoonist Jak set many of his cartoons in the Elm with Sean featuring in various guises and the walls were festooned with Jak’s original drawings. Actors Michael Craig, Stanley Baker, Ronald Fraser, Dudley Sutton and the great Beckett interpreter Patrick McGee, directors Guy Hamilton who made the Bond Films and Alexander McKendrick who Directed Whiskey Galore, The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers and the great Sweet Smell of Success. Such was Treacy’s mix.

A very different but equally, if not more important, figure in this mix was a man called Ron Richardson. He came in from the suburbs every morning on a commuter train and returned home each night to his own world miles away from what I have described above. He was a quiet and, in many ways, a nondescript kind of a man who would have a half of bitter with his lunchtime snack in the public bar of the Elm and then return next door to continue his duties as Manager of the Fulham Road branch of the National Provincial Bank. Mister Richardson liked the arts and artists but claimed no special knowledge of either but he was an excellent judge of character who could sort the genuine artist from the phoney, and the Fulham Road was filled with people with paint spattered jeans carefully arranged to attest to their creative life in their non existent studios and the small man from the suburbs could smell them from a mile away.

For the genuine artists like Norman Stevens and many more he was the Fulham Road Medici listening to them as they explained they had an exhibition in a year or 18 months time and in the meantime they had to live, pay the rent, buy the canvasses and materials to produce the work and he would grant them loans with no other security than his faith in their desire to struggle as hard as they could to produce good art.

When he retired the Financial Times, at the instigation of those he had helped arranged a photo shoot in the Elm of Ron surrounded by the large group of artists he had helped over the years.

Can you imagine a local bank manager to-day being allowed to exercise his taste and judgment without referring up to some central planner with no personal knowledge of the Norman Stevens’s of to-day who would turn down the loan on a statistical assessment;

“Mister Stevens has an unreliable record of earning and his employment prospects in any respectable profession are non existent. Application for loan refused.” Bang.

The Queens Elm went on to become a very famous place which had to be visited even by Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon and his signed photograph to Sean was duly framed and mounted on the wall the next day.

In the late sixties one of the regulars, it is not recorded quite who it was, coined the saying “Treacy’s dilemma” and this was it –
Sean came into the pub at noon on a Saturday and he looked into the public bar and there was Elizabeth Taylor. He turned and looked into the saloon bar and there was the Pope.

Tracey’s dilemma was
Who did he say “Good Morning to”…. first?

He irritated me very often, he could be prejudiced, ignorant, intolerant and downright disagreeable but I remember him, that part of London and that time with great fondness.