Sunday, 16 January 2011

Giclée print for Summer Show: The Return Of The Native


This is an updated introduction, and I'm really happy to say that the Royal Academy has been by far the most effective selling space any work of mine has ever occupied. I must do it again, if they'll have me.
It's in Room 1 – the print room – high up and out of the way so you can marvel at Tracey's calligraphy and Humphrey Ocean's little dog etching, but just visible enough to make out the subject. Also, I've had emails from satisfied customers telling me of their connections with the liner, or various officers. Someone was once a neighbour of Roger de Grey, the last captain of the Royal Academy; under whose stern eye my big painting of the Modern Jazz Quartet, The Ministry of Jazz, failed to get sea room in this illustrious people's palace. But times change.

You might have read this before. It hasn't...

This is one of my first memories brought to life. They're gone forever now, the giant, heavy ships built with a billion rivets and stuffed with the posh pamperatti of the day, ploughing the Atlantic between the wars. Cruise liners today aren't the same;  they aren't built to take a sea;  the Queens and the Normandie were over-specified in every way; they were solid sea-going hotels where half the crew would labour by firelight below the waterline to keep those huge propellers churning at full speed for three thousand miles of deep water. 

Living as we did, very near the sea, we took them for granted, and though their time was nearly up, you still saw a lot of very grand traffic. My Dad once told me that when he was a kid he heard that the Mauretania came through the Solent a tad too briskly after winning the Blue Riband, and just before powering down to take the corner into Southampton Water, she created so much wash that Cowes got flooded. News like that does tend to stoke a ten-year-old's imagination! 

They had so much mystique, these quiet leviathans, and maybe none more than the Queen Mary; for some reason the most popular liner of them all, even though not as chic a Deco fun palace as the Normandie, or as new as the Queen Elizabeth; she saw service as a troopship during the war. Painted grey and crammed with thousands of GIs, she swept to-and-fro across the pond with almost brutal impunity. There's no way a U Boat can snare anything, even a small city when it's travelling at 40 miles an hour.

Some time in 1953 or 4, I was sitting with my mother on a bus looking down at the vast empty beach of Ryde. When the tide's out there's a good half mile of sand; I could see a tiny figure at the water's edge who was probably digging for bait but I didn't understand what Mum and her friends were saying. I was about 3 years old and what I found disturbing was the sight of this huge red-funnelled ship, luminous in the thundery light, going so close to this oblivious, industrious figure – bending, digging and probably smoking...

I've given Ryde Pier the luxury of a couple of paddle steamers as they shuttle between Ryde and  Southsea laden with trippers and luggage, augmenting the diesel ferries by a healthy and quite an aesthetic margin. Gouts of smoke show a fresh load of coal's been shovelled into the boiler as the paddles serrate the green channel, getting briskly underway to give the passengers a close up of a looming national treasure.

A warship hurries West, raising spray – (another early memory I have is of a destroyer blowing up depth charges, near another horizon, then sending a boat to the beach at Bembridge which picked me and Dad up and other nosy sunbathers to have a look round. I think it was the Vigo...) occasionally you heard their siren whips as they came and left Portsmouth Dockyard. How comforting that aggressive, shepherding racket must have sounded to a nervous merchant seaman on the way to Murmansk, crawling slowly across the crosshairs of a periscope,  You want some? 
I used to wonder at the life on board the liners, the people and their wealth; trying to fathom their infinite happiness at being where they were, being who they were...

I think somewhere on board, lighting a cigarette with  the last black coffee of the day cooling on the teak rail, squinting at the shore, is a very famous Hollywood actor, coming back after an absence so long he feels apprehensive and tense, not only from too many piano bar martinis, but at the thought of setting foot ashore in England once again, the place of his birth.


  1. I love it!

  2. Love this! The contrasting focus is rather wonderful too.

  3. jeepers jb, truly lovely and you know why I say that! those fellas digging for bait, touch..

  4. Thanks nipper! I used to be hynotised by 'em, standing by the huts near the pier.

  5. Mystic, wonderful dream / memory evocation - this is great stuff!

  6. Thanks Jules. That's exactly what I want to convey. Do you think the RA would like it for the Summer show?

  7. Love it Johnny - reminds me of the deck chairs & bowling years - Mike OB x

  8. Perhaps I should stick a few chairs around the place. What was the name of that slightly tragic ticket man with the cap? With dreadful tales of life 'tween decks? Dave? Thanks for the comment. x

  9. Was there also a forty-something bleach boy going by the hugely unlikely name of Jazzer? Ryde. blimes.

  10. Lovely job, Johnny! Everything seemed HUGE then. Around the back of the Wight the sea is taller, with very few boats. I can remember going out in a speedboat to see one of the Queens (not Jazzer) up close off Ryde, and riding on her unbreaking bow-wave like an early Beachboy.
    We used to catch razor clams on the foreshore at Ryde by sprinkling salt (Cerebos, no doubt)on their little keyholes and grabbing them when they ventured out thinking the tide had come in.

  11. Lovely story Brian! Could be another image. Do you remember ole Jazz?
    There's so much to get off my chest and down on German etching paper. Funnily enough, just thinking of you as Leo is booking a squalid hotel with sea view for the Gretschfest on the 19th. See you then. Poor old razor clams!

  12. Loving all these tales Johnny,I can remember my sister Kay,aged about six in the early fifties was so impressed with the Queen Mary on a day out at the beach, that when we got home she crayoned a picture of her on the living room wall! Father went ape shit as we were in rented accommodation.When asked why she had done it,she explained it was the only surface big enough for it. You can see her point.

  13. And now you, or maybe it's Kay, are sitting on the sand, not paying much attention!

  14. JB I love this picture. About the time you were talking about - 1953/4 - I was on hols in the IoW - Gurnard. Long trek from Manchester in those times - seemed to take days. I think one of the Queens was in Southampton as we sailed, or maybe I've gilded the memory.

  15. I remember this too, and also we used to time one half an hour, after she had gone by, and everyone had to pick up the deck chairs and go back up the beach, as the wake came in.

    Lots of memories - we now look out at it in the distance from Langstone Harbour. Not much has changed.......