John Bird: Far from the election madness, a day with Ned Kelly

Take a break from the world and its problems; lose yourself in some masterpieces.

The Pallant House Gallery in Chichester has become a favourite of mine because of the beauty of the old merchant’s house, the new gallery, and the exhibitions that they put on.

But also because of their incredibly innovative use of artists and art to spread support into the community through their projects. I shall be writing more about that in a few weeks because the way that they have used the creative arts for social justice and opportunity deserves a whole story.

I went last week to meet Gordon Roddick and his granddaughter at the gallery, and to look at two exhibitions that are worth the train journey into the Sussex hinterlands. It’s 50 years this year since Gordon and I met in an Edinburgh pub and 26 years ago that we founded The Big Issue; and radicalised poverty through ‘turning the handout into a hand up’.

Gordon has still got his hair, and by the looks of it mine as well; certainly there is scant evidence of my earlier life when I looked like a handsome version of Russell Brand. After the usual insults, that are always in place of compliments that passes for badinage now that we are into our antiquity, we fell to discussing the plight of the world. And then went to look at the works of Australian painter Sidney Nolan.

What an eye-opener. I had only seen a few of his works over the years. He was very popular in the ‘60s with his paintings of Ned Kelly, and I got zonked out with the same images. But art did not stop for Nolan, and he went on to paint large works of desert and nature, desolateness that really do take your breath away.

Ned Kelly was an outlaw and took on the state and the British Empire’s local Australian representatives, in a land chock-full of ex-convicts. Or so they would have us believe. Ned Kelly made himself very popular, and has probably almost become the only patron saint that Oz had produced.

Nolan, like all the best of art is inexplicable. The frames are also nice

It is difficult to describe Nolan with his big washes of oil paint out of which he fashions a sense of emptiness. And aloneness. He is one of those artists that you need to shut up in front of, and just look at. Any description falls flat, so I won’t even try. Just visit and drink in the power of Nolan’s take on nature.

That may seem a bit of a cop-out, my inability to find words that are not the turgid words of art historians, but that’s all you’re going to get out of me. Nolan, like all the best of art is inexplicable. The frames are also nice.

But the Pallant hosts also the work of Victor Pasmore. This exhibition shows the sudden conversion of an artist fully
in control of his work, who mid-career throws out his figurative style and goes for broke. Which was to suddenly become an abstract artist.

Pasmore was a posh boy who went to Harrow, then when his dad died had to go out to work. And never got to art school. But he carried on as a Sunday painter, and eventually became a founder of the Euston Road Group. This really important school of grubby painters who carried on painting depressed and unhappy grim scenes of London life showed artists turning the run-down into the art subject. There’s a book to be written about this grey-minded group of painters whose work was of course carried on by the great pastichist Lucian Freud. He whose work sells for millions and millions now, each painting a kind of deliberate attempt at seeing the world as uglily as possible.

But the Euston Road, and Walter Sickert and the French were all doing it before the late great Lucian Freud, who a bit like his granddad Sigmund saw the world through shit-coloured glasses.


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The Pasmore won’t bowl you over like the Nolan, I venture to guess, but they both stand as formidable exhibitions that must be seen. I particularly relate to Pasmore and all the early greyness of his work. And then his sudden change to squiggles and bits and pieces of paint stains unrelated to objects may well make you contemplative.

Anyway, here we are in the middle of an election campaign and I have been saying so many sane and serious and sensible things lately I thought I’d jump on the train and disappear into England’s greenery; hence the lack of mention of Trump, May, Brexit, or rotten things about Jeremy.

One of the most abiding memories of my trip though, in the nature of the weirdness of memory and human cognition, was the young man sitting on a wall exposing his rear crevice; complete with the largest array of spots and boils I have seen since the 1950s when we all seemed spotted and boiled up.

Not being a GP I did not intervene; but if he does recognise the above portrait of himself I reckon he should get round to the surgery and get those impurities traced to their source within his dysfunctional system. Prevention, by the by, is the best medicine. The large bottle of Coke he was guzzling might not be helpful.