The Royal College of Art has changed a lot from what it used to be in my time. I used to be in a building on Exhibition Road, and on Cromwell Road. When they put the windows in, they didn’t put them in the right place – they put them in the east, which of course, doesn’t work because you get the sun in the morning. If you put windows in the west, you get the sun in the evening. But if you put windows in the north, you get light consistently throughout the day. I was glad to hear that when they built the new building they’d put the windows in the right place.
“I was a student at Bradford Art School from the age of 16 to 20 and was taught by people from the Royal College of Art – Frank Lisle and Derek Stafford. Back then you did your GCE (General Certificate of Education) at 16, but I wasn’t going to be put off art school.”
I was a student at Bradford Art School from the age of 16 to 20 and was taught by people from the Royal College of Art – Frank Lisle and Derek Stafford. Back then you did your GCE (General Certificate of Education) at 16, but I wasn’t going to be put off art school. I’d actually applied to The Slade, as well as the RCA, and got into both, but I chose the RCA because there were people there that I knew.
When I left school, however, I had to do two years of National Service. Others, like Norman Stevens, went straight to the RCA, but I was scrubbing hospital floors. So when I was 22 and arrived at the College in October 1959, I was very eager to get back to some proper work.
I had only visited London three or four times before that – I was very provincial, and the College was so lively. I’d left home, was living in a room in Earl’s Court and had about £100 a term to live on. You could do exactly what you wanted. You could even smoke. I remember having to sandpaper off the nicotine stains on my fingers before going to visit the registrar to borrow some money. They couldn’t be seen to be lending to fellows that smoked.
When I arrived at the College, I didn’t quite know what to do. There was compulsory drawing for a term, which was fine with me – I liked drawing. But then around the second term, they made drawing not compulsory and introduced General Studies, which were lectures on nuclear physics or something like that. It was said at the time that people were leaving art school and not being properly educated, I think that’s what started it. But for me, things like drawing, painting and learning other skills were the real serious activity.
To get myself going again – I didn’t really know what I should have been doing as I hadn’t been at art school for two years – I drew what was hanging up: a skeleton. I did a kind of academic drawing that took me two or three weeks.
“The College was a marvellous place, with very lively, lively students.”
In those years, the College was a marvellous place, with very lively, lively students. Most of us were living on scholarships. They (the tutors – Carel Weight, Ruskin Spear, Ceri Richards, Roger de Grey, Colin Hayes and Sandra Blow) left you alone, though at the end of the first year, they told us we were the worst year they’d ever had.
Most of us had had very traditional teaching methods up until that point, and when we got to the RCA we wanted to do more physical things and abstraction, which was getting big, coming from America. I think they were slightly at a loss as to how to deal with that.
I would stay in the school until about ten at night, whereas most students stopped about three and went home. I’d always go to the cinema and then come back to work when everyone else had left. On the way, I’d always have a look in Carel Weight’s office – I was a bit cheeky in picking up envelopes or letters and reading them. I got the name ‘Our Man in the Staff Room’ from that Carol Reed film (and Graham Greene novel) Our Man in Havana. I was a confident, cheeky sort of lad but the staff always liked me. I didn’t see them as antagonistic – in the end, they just ran a very lively school.
What happened in those days was that students who had left the College two or three years before would often come back and hang around. Peter Blake had left four or five years before me, but he would come back. I also got to know Ridley Scott. Although he was a Graphics student, he used to wander round the Painting studios when there was no one else around. We kept bumping into each other in Hollywood years later.
There were quite a few peers from that time I maintained friendships with: Allen Jones, Patrick Caulfield – but by the mid-1960s, I was spending a lot of time in California and ended up living here. It’s much sunnier and more temperate than New York. At the time it was sexy, I thought. And what I didn’t realise was that, being claustrophobic, I welcomed the horizontal lines of LA rather than the vertical lines of New York.
I made my first trip to New York in 1961. It was clear that, somehow, something had shifted from Paris to New York. I would have been of the generation to see that. Francis Bacon – now he’s a generation older – for him, Paris would have been the centre. By the centre, I mean of activity. Paris had been that in the 1930s and ’40s, with artists like Matisse, but in the ’60s – in my period – it shifted.
The first Abstract Expressionism started in the mid-1950s. I hitchhiked down to London to see Jackson Pollock at the Whitechapel in 1956. It was a period of transformation. I was still interested in French artists like Dubuffet and Yves Klein and more interested in depiction – depicting what the world looks like. I hadn’t really been that interested in Pop Art as such. But there’s nothing like looking back at a period and seeing it much clearer later.
Melvin Bragg did some programmes recently about class and culture. I told him that he’d missed something big: Bohemia. In 1961, homosexuality was illegal, but I never gave it a thought. The first straightforward gay men I met were at the College – Quentin Blake and Adrian Bird.
The Bohemian world was different. There weren’t people telling you off because you weren’t prim and proper or respectable. You were a free spirit and did what you wanted to do. Bohemia was classless. It’s kind of lost now. These days, even the gays, they want to get married. I’m glad that I’ve lived when I have. It was freer. I even remember airports when there was no security. Socially, it’s more boring today.
I never needed to do teaching – I realised that I could manage without and could spend my days doing what I wanted to do, but maybe I lost contact with the younger generation and the chance to influence. What if I could teach now? It’s an interesting time. There are so many things to question. I’m moving away from single viewpoints and linear perspectives. One thing we did recently was around the show at the Royal Academy. We let a TV crew go in but went back in April to shoot it ourselves with just three cameras and a tiny team – me as cameraman. We got far, far more depictions of the interior and close-ups. Why doesn’t the BBC use its cameras in such ways? The problems with depiction should be stated. Old media is fading. You can see it in that the old media is talking about the new media. I follow it all very carefully.
This interview was originally commissioned and published in the book The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art.