Derek Mace, Tony Keeler and Emrys Parry at the Yare Gallery. The exhibition ‘Now and Then’ (run recently) features artists and ex-students from Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design. Derek Mace, Tony Keeler and Emrys Parry taught me before I went to London.
In 1969, a year after the Tet offensive began, the skies over East Anglia raged with American military aircraft training for Vietnam. At Tilney St. Lawrence County Primary School we couldn’t hear each other as pairs of McDonnell-Douglas Phantoms screamed towards Holbeach range on their strafing runs.
Each evening Reginald Bosenquet announced that ‘American B52 bombers had attacked the Ho Chi Minh trail’. Simple graphics cushioned us against the violence unfolding thousands of miles away, simultaneously condoning it.
At night B52s flew over our house. The ground shook. Night ops at Holbeach meant my bedroom was lit by exploding ordnance a few miles away. It was a ‘righteous war against the evils of Communism’. At least peasants in Norfolk weren’t on the receiving end of US imperialism but the reality for Vietnamese people must have been hideous.
The UK was fortunate to have Harold Wilson as Prime Minister. Unlike his bloodthirsty counterpart Tony Blair, he kept the nation out of a war that wasn’t ours. Which meant my dad could take his family on holiday to a caravan park in Hunstanton!
At the caravan club house, I was dancing ‘the twist’ when a young couple showed appreciation for my abilities. Unbeknown to our family, Tony Keeler (TK) and his wife Christine, briefly made our acquaintance. Later, we passed by their place in Hunstanton for a chat.
Seven years on, Keeler became my art teacher at the Norfolk College of Arts and Technology (NORCAT) in King’s Lynn. TK was responsible for about two thirds of the curriculum we followed, I never shared his enthusiasm for Art History, finding the subject boring. At the end of studies, Keeler persuaded me to attend Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design (GYCAD). His aesthetic, based on grammar school, GYCAD and Leeds Poly was subtly imposed on us.
Like Tony Keeler, Derek Mace hailed from Great Yarmouth. They became friends at grammar school, did foundation studies at GYCAD and went on to a DipAD (Diploma in Art and Design) at Leeds Polytechnic in the early 1960s. Both came back to work as teachers on behalf of the Norfolk Education Committee (NEC).
Leeds is a great city. I went there in February to do some research for a painting. Leeds Poly gained a ‘red-hot Lefty’ rep in the 1960s. The photo below is of Leeds lecturer, Robin Page performing ‘Junk Yard Happening’ circa 1967.
Jamie Wagg and Paul Setchell followed the same college circuit as myself before they went to Leeds to study Fine Art. Jamie and me were drinking together at the Fermoy Arts Centre in Lynn; we talked about Keeler. Jamie said: ‘Oh him, jumped-up Surrealist’.
Keeler admired Surrealism. His proto-Pop hybrid of the two (Surrealism & Pop Art), might have looked sophisticated to A-level students but ….. in recent years the Leeds creative marque has been more effectively expressed by actor Leigh Francis (aka Keith Lemon) in his early TV work. ‘Bed-time with the bear’ surpasses any amount of ‘high art’.
Keeler’s ‘pictorial language’ if it may be called as much, is arcane. He knows the secret! We must work to decipher the meaning in his paintings. Beyond his unassuming exterior, an ego craves power and control. He once said to me ‘painting is a bit like having a wank’ (self-indulgent). Perhaps the exhibition should be titled: ‘Creative onanism for one’?
These artists could make a better job of the the human figure and face. The people we see are mawkish, wandering about in a colourful but bleak no-man’s land. More 2D than 3D. The sort of ‘environment’ many of us inhabited post-Art school; there is a lack of modelling.
At least Mace makes an effort to deal with formal painting issues. His ‘Self-portrait with still-life’ shows a preoccupation with pictorial space interpreted through colour. His teaching started me on that road, though for all the years at esteemed institutions, there was no follow-on, except for my own endeavours.
Derek Mace, Tony Keeler and Emrys Parry don’t get involved in the visceral aspect of painting, whereas someone like Rembrandt did. Neat, clean, designer-esque. Self-conscious. Illustrative. Not risking much. Flat surfaces.
The colours are vibrant and joyous as if from a sweet-shop interior. I really like this about Mace’s work in particular. If only the people in them were as cheerful! Both his and Keeler’s work can appear like a less versatile Eric Ravilious on LSD. Mace’s work owes a debt to Pop Art which must have influenced him as a student in the 60s.
Did any of them make sales? I recall Mace discarding a set of transparencies in a bin after an unsuccessful trip to Cork Street in London. Being ‘talented’ is only half the battle. Marketing your work is the real challenge. Remember none of these men were/are professional, full-time artists, first and foremost they were/are teachers. At least they made an effort to do something other than teach, but Mace did it a bit too much on college time.
The crazy, surreal World we see here resonates with a particular period in British history. Perhaps in the fullness of time their work might be better appreciated. Applying Schopenhauer’s criterium: does this exhibition stimulate a greater involvement with life? Eh? Or is it just a magic lantern show for ‘those in the know’? the Fabian elite of the flat-lands.
The Leeds/Yarmouth legacy translates poorly into the agrarian community of East Anglia. Champagne Socialism aside, you still have to earn a crust. Stick to tractor driving. At least it will keep the wolf from the door and you can kick it’s lazy arse from time to time.
Photos of artworks by Nigel Moody
Photo of GYCAD by Nick Ward
Emrys Parry Collage from Mandell’s Gallery, Norwich.
Phantoms (Photo by PPH2 BRUCE TROMBECKY – USNavy) Warbird News
B52 courtesy RAF Mildenhall
Pic of Robin Page from ‘The Look of London’ magazine