The Vivid World of Paul Waplington
I’ve just come from spending a few days with Paul Waplington at his home in northern Portugal. ‘Homestead’ might actually be a better description. It’s an old word which means a small house in the country, a bit bigger than a cottage but nothing fancy, surrounded by a patch of land not ample enough to sustain a fami1y, but useful for growing vegetables and fruit, keeping chickens and perhaps a few sheep and a cow. Paul also has a couple of noisy and nosey geese which roam the arc of terraced slopes that spread out westwards from his old, low granite house. You don’t find many homesteads nowadays, not even in this out-of-the-way part of Portugal. There are still numerous small working farms, but most of the older properties with a little land have been smartened up as holiday homes, with terracotta doves perched on the pantiles and swimming pools sunk into the vegetable plots. Paul’s place resists all this. It’s a bastion against prettiness, a hymn in praise of use, a bit ramshackle but totally functional. The rickety fences and gates might not look smart, but they keep the foxes out and the chickens in quite effectively. In a large cage under a lean-to near the house, dapper collared doves fill the air with their soothing calls. In summer the oaks and fruit trees, many of them planted by Paul and his wife, Fatima, surround them and their livestock in a barricade of green, and it seems as though mankind and nature can still live here together in unsentimental harmony. But it was late winter when I visited. The trees were bare, and through their branches you could see the renovated houses creeping up the hillside and across the valley, and the new road on the other side of the river taking lorries past the village.
I was there to catch up with Paul’s latest paintings and take notes about his life for this article. Our four days together were packed with pictures, stories and memories. His brilliant rumbling, grumbling conversation – always tinged with irony – would sometimes well up with sudden anger, then just as quickly subside into calm. He often broke into song or poetry, which he can remember by the ream – everything from elegies to raunchy limericks, always telling, usually pointed, often hilarious. It was as if the presence of someone from Britain had turned on a tap in his mind, letting gush a rich seam of experiences. Painting is a lonely pursuit, all the more so in a country not your own, although Paul now speaks Portuguese. The range and quality of his reminiscences and condemnatory running commentaries on everything under the sun – from urban street lighting to the failure of the Left, or the pernicious spread of eucalyptus trees – are the abiding memories of anyone lucky enough to spend any time with him. Switch him on and he starts his rundown of all the problems human beings are bringing on the world, in every direction and in every dimension: he’s a curmudgeon, but one of the most entertaining and omnivorous ones around.
What image of him do I take away with me? Most typically, I see him leaning against the door of his cowshed. He has one cow, named Boni, a beautiful young Barrosã (the breed he so often paints) with golden flanks, a square, blunt head, large dark eyes and wonderful curving horns. She was born seven years ago, in that shed. Every morning he goes to let her out, his last treat after he has opened all the chicken pens. He has several breeds of hen, including the large, bizarre-looking Brahmas, which seem to be wearing pyjamas, and the attractive but aggressive Copper Marrans. First, he opens the top half of Boni’s door. The cow looks out, and they gaze into each other’s eyes with a strong, warm, mutual concern. It’s not an eye contact an outsider can share. Paul swears the cow is intelligent and knows what he’s thinking. Then he has to tie down the latch on the lower door, because she’s taught herself how to open it – as he says, when it’s raining, she’s got nothing else to do all day but stand there, peer down and work it out. After their greeting, Paul likes to lean on the door with his back to her, blocking her view, amiably chatting on about how beautiful the day is. I caught him doing this once, and he laughed. ‘’It really annoys her’ he said. ‘See, she’s trying to shove me out of the way to get a look’. At breakfast the next morning, he came in with the year’s first tiny newborn chick tucked into his fist. It poked its beak out. His wife, Fatima, was thrilled. As he opened his palm he said, ‘You can see why a chick is a symbol of new life,’ and his eyes shone.
Several images of his paintings stay with me. I’ll describe many later, but one in particular remains as a self-contained classic. Viuva de Panque – Sra. Torres is a portrait of a widow who is herself self-contained. The painting is not large, about a yard wide and half a person high, with the whole of her figure filling the frame. I’d seen an illustration of the painting before, but its physical presence added a new dimension. The technique is Paul’s own, a rougher version of Rembrandt’s. He lays the paint on thickly, as if carving within chunky silhouettes. Then when it’s dry, he covers the corrugated surface with thinner translucent glazes which allow the substructure to show through. So, the substance of the picture is sustained – the massive forms of the old woman’s body, her waistcoat barely stretching over it, her great hands that have done so much work, her spreading knees and heavy feet which have carried her so far and now bear her weight so slowly, all as massively solid as the stone bench on which she sits and the brightly painted granite houses in the background. All this faces out at you, as if the wall had been moulded into a living form. But then you see the woman’ s face, her sad, quivering, strong, knowing smile – how can one shaded line say so much? – her nose, flushed with age and wine and, higher up, her tiny eyes, one unseeing, sunken, sliding sideways like a faded sunset, the other as sharp, dark and searching as a pin. A whole life’s experience is there, carved in flesh. Paul told me he had great difficulty with the face and erased it again and again, leaving an empty oval in the picture. He only got it right after the old lady had died, working from memory as he mostly does. The painting is her monument, and a monument to all those people, fewer by the year, who have wrought a living out of the tough granite hillsides of northern Portugal.
Another painting keeps coming to mind – a large, unfinished white rectangle on the easel in his studio. Tucked at the edge of his plot as far as possible from the house, this glass-walled haunt is littered with piles of drawings, old battered folders, faded brown posters, a broken stool. It looks abandoned, but it isn’t. Paul has no patience for tidiness unless it’s purposeful. Unkempt corners harbour growth. And there it is on the easel, the beginnings of a magnificent magnolia tree, branches bending over, laden with heavy-bosomed purple blooms. A half-sketched woman lifts a branch while above her a man is coppicing a nearby oak, both of them framed by twigs which give the blossoming magnolia a sudden depth and glorious, close-up presence. And below this, worked over and scrubbed out many times, rise the curving necks of complaining geese, like pale grey shadows of the dark branches bending over above them. A picture is beginning to dance. Seeing it at this incomplete stage was like watching a play in rehearsal. This is what Paul Waplington is about, in his painting and his conversation, his singing, jokes and teasing, and his jibes at shady politicians, wide-boy business men and chancers in general. This is what he chucks at them all: the corporeal, down- to-earth business of being, human and animal in a continuum, forming in the act of painting, the only fresh start in the universe, glorious. unblushing, no-holds-barred act of praise. Where did this joyous painting come from? Why this subject -matter – and why Portugal?
Art is an unpredictable business: it pops up in the most unlikely places, like mushrooms in manure, the mix that feeds its magic buried deep in the mycelia of life. Paul Waplington had, what many would think, an inauspicious start in life, especially for an artist. His paternal grandfather Walter, a handsome upright fellow who sported a magnificent military moustache, became a goldsmith in London, but then returned to Nottingham to manage the City Creamery on Friar Lane. (Cattle have had a continual presence in Paul’s life). In those days the dairy was still producing ‘beastlings’, very rich milk streaked with blood, pulled from the cow’s udders just after calving and extremely good for puddings. It wouldn’t be allowed today, now that the strictures of Euro-cleansing have taken hold. Walter Waplington married and settled with a family, but then had an affair with his beautiful secretary. The son from this relationship, also called Walter, was farmed out to peasants and brought up in the country. But when he was twelve his father’s wife died. And so, his father married his mother and the young Walter was suddenly plucked out of a loving home, which he remembered fondly, and taken to live in a large house in the centre of Nottingham with his half-brothers and sisters. Then, within months, his mother died, and the young Walter withdrew into his shell. Walter Waplington proved to be a most unfortunate name for a shy boy who stuttered and stammered. He worked at the dairy, then during the war became a fitter, and later a later a storeman. He married the daughter of miner, and they rented rooms in Bulwell where their son Paul was born in 1938, later moving to a council house on the Broxtowe estate on the north – western edge of Nottingham.
Broxtowe was a rough housing scheme, typical or those times, packed with families cleared from slums like the notorious Broad Marsh area. Paul was once hospitalised after being kicked in the head by a boy wearing the wooden clogs that were still common then. Football and boxing were the main masculine pursuits. There was virtually no art in this environment, nor was there any at home. One day a schoolmaster, who was fond of reciting The Fighting Temeraire, turned to Paul and asked, ‘Waplington. are you fond of fighting?’ ‘No sir’. said Paul. ‘ Why not?’ the teacher enquired. Paul explained. ‘Because I always lose sir.’ Cue for general laughter. But that didn’t stop the master from putting him in the ring to fight a hulking gorilla of a lad whose head was always shaved because of lice infestation. The match was declared a draw when a blow from Paul caused a nose bleed in his opponent. He was big and strong, but he got picked on because the others sensed he was different. And they were right.
One of Paul’s earliest memories is of watching a Punch and Judy show, sitting cross-legged on the grass, riveted. He was irritated by the other children shrieking, ‘Behind you!’ and giggling as Mr. Punch squeaked, ‘That’ s the way to do it!’. They were all enthralled by the story. But Paul wasn’t interested in who killed the baby, or whether Punch would or would not put his head in the hangman’s noose. What fascinated him was the imagery, the carving and the strong colours. He’d never seen anything like it, but it spoke to him as if he’d always known it. Though he’d never seen a hunchback, he was fascinated by the curve of Punch’s back, and his nose and chin almost meeting at a point – like cattle horns, he said, as he remembered. He began to make his own puppets and was determined to put on shows on the back lawn. He put up posters in the street, but his first attempt at public entertainment ended when the booth, made with the help of his dad, collapsed on to the kids in the front row. Paul now says that if he had his time over again, he would be a puppeteer, without a doubt.
When he was seven, he suffered some sort of nervous breakdown, and was sent to convalesce with his maternal grandparents in Warsop, a colliery village in North Nottinghamshire. The streets and houses were still gas-lit, and he remembers being rudely awoken the first morning by a pole tapping on the bedroom window. It was the ‘knocker-up’, doing the rounds to wake up the colliers whose shift it was. The village was still rural, and his uncle taught him how to set ‘snickers’, snares for catching rabbits. His grandfather was an Irish immigrant miner and, like most of the other ‘ pit yokcrs’, grew his own vegetables, and reared and killed his own pigs. This rural life had a deep attraction to Paul’s imagination, and remained much on his mind when he went back to live on the council scheme in Broxtowe. Because of the war, building work was on a hold, and the planned extension to the estate was in abeyance. The result was that the countryside started at the end of Paul’s road.
A mile away, tucked in a fold in the hills, was the feudal village of Strelley, a fossil from the past with a blacksmith’s shop, a farm and a manor house. The ancient Miss Edge ruled the village with a rod of iron, hobbling around her terrain with a stick. She hated boys from the housing estate, and one day tried to chase off Paul, who was always hanging about watching the animals. He backed away bit by bit, fixing her with his eye, waiting for her to catch up, then backing away again just out of reach. After playing this game for a while, Miss Edge smiled. Paul had won. Visiting Strelley again recently, Paul, not normally prone to sentiment, was in tears, seeing how it had been smashed apart by a slip-road to the M1, with only the dilapidated remains of an old tithe barn and a few scattered vestiges of field and hedge patterns visible.
When he was ten, Paul contracted scarlet fever. He had to spend five weeks in hospital, and after missing crucial classes, failed his eleven-plus. In those days of selective education in Britain this exam sealed the fate of children at the age of eleven. The ones who passed went to grammar school. The failures had to cope with the stigma of going to a secondary modern, where academic achievement was not the order of the day. Paul still remembers with pain his father telling him, ‘You’re on the scrapheap now. What am I going to tell my mates? The best you can do is be a delivery boy for Marsdens (a quality grocer) – if you keep your nose clean you might get a job in the shop’. Paul was convinced that was going to be his fate. One teacher, however, did try to encourage him. Jeff Bowley taught English and made the class read Macbeth out loud, line by line, explaining every meaning as they went along. He produced the school plays and made papier-mâché masks. He tried to encourage Paul, telling him always to ‘be a doer, not a looker”, but to little effect at the time. His condemnation still rings in his unresponsive pupil’s ears. ‘Waplington! Am I ever going to be able to knock some sense into that block of rather unseasoned oak you laughingly call a head?’ Paul left school at fifteen. He didn’t want to go down the pit. With his mother ‘s encouragement, and through the contacts of her fellow cleaners at the technical college, he got a place as a trainee lace curtain draughtsman. Soon afterwards he was taken on as an apprentice by Lace Textile Designers, a trade shop producing patterns for the industry for the weekly wage of two shillings and sixpence (twelve and a half pence in decimal money).
Nottingham has surfaced twice in history. In the Middle Ages, with its castle perched high on a rock, surrounded by Sherwood Forest, its wealthy citizens were fair game for Robin Hood, the legendary outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor. During the Industrial Revolution, rich seams of coal were found in the surrounding hills, and Nottingham became a great manufacturing centre. Lace, along with bicycles (Raleigh), cigarettes (Players) and pharmaceuticals (Boots), was one of Nottingham’s major products. Fortunes were made there: the lives of the rich and the bourgeoisie contrasted vividly with the traditional cultures of the poor working classes. The friction between the two is celebrated and dissected in the great novels of D.H. Lawrence (1855 – 1930), the son of a Nottinghamshire miner. In Paul’s youth social classes were still rigidly set, and with them traditional dress codes – his boss at Lace Textiles wore spats when it was raining, and stiff starched detachable collars were de rigueur. Like most peripheral housing scheme, Paul’s was notoriously poor and deprived, and though things had begun to look up after the war, there was still a lot of violence there.
Paul rapidly became politically engaged. He began to read voraciously, and joined the Young Communist League, though not, in the end, the Communist Party. He felt more attracted to the Labour Movement; his socialism was instinctively home-grown, springing from exemplars like William Morris. the Levellers and John Ball, the itinerant priest who was one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in 138I. He rejected anarchism because he thought people needed structures. And there was indeed a side to him that his young fellow Comrades didn’t like. He was a Scout Master, wearing a uniform and taking troops of kids off at weekends to camp in the countryside. He loved every minute of it, and can still sing the rousing songs: ‘We’re riding along on the crest of a wave / And the sun is in the sky…’
Music and song are never far from Paul’s thought or lips. He often pouts in a quirky way, pursing his lips as if ready to play the cornet, or to blow something between a raspberry and a mocking kiss. This he does with a twinkle in his eye, as if to say ‘come on, don’t take it too seriously, you know it might never happen’ – the game, whatever it is goes on. At any turn his conversation is likely to swing into a snatch of song, aptly remembered, and if his accordion is to hand, he’ll regale you for hours with folk songs and scurrilous ditties lodged, often to his own surprise, in the recesses of his mind. One of his finest paintings, Basford Hall Silver Prize Band (1975), is a group portrait of the colliery band he used to play in. So gloriously is the composition orchestrated, in a forward, lurching, flowering curve, that you’d swear you can hear the music’s blast echoing off the factory walls. Paul has a host of hilarious tales of their escapades, such as when they managed to lose the rest of the marchers in a solemn parade for Remembrance Day that they were leading through the village of Warsop. The parade turned left but their band in front, gloriously oblivious, went marching straight on into the open countryside.
It came as a surprise to Paul that he loved draughting lace. He discovered that he had a natural talent and could work out the extremely complex reverse-repeat patterns that were required to produce lace of the highest quality and intricacy. He soon found his talents were appreciated. He also loved the machines, the huge elaborate, cast-iron looms which needed such fine-tuned adjustment to make them work. Later, when he first became an artist, some of the best drawings he made were of their workings. He understood their gears, shifts and eccentric cams and earned wide respect for being able to fix them when they played up. For the first time in his life he was in demand. But his earnings didn’t reflect his skills. He realised that the designs he was getting twenty pounds for were being sold by the firm for ten times as much. Then the company began to ‘modernise’. The antiquated hierarchies went out and a Manager of Personnel appeared on the scene. He recommended that Paul’s job should be axed, apparently not realising that lace actually had to be designed by human beings. A new Sales Manager arrived. The first question he asked Paul when they met wasn’t ‘What job d’ you do?’ or even ‘What team d’ you support?’ but ‘ What car you got?’ A recession was beginning to bite; the old machines that Paul had mastered were being scrapped. In 1959, at 21, he found himself redundant. Realising that the lace business held no future for him, he began to look beyond it.
Paul began to wonder if he could make a career in art – not that he knew anything about that world in those days. Art was a chimera, luscious and rosy, beyond the horizon. His success as a draughtsman had made him realise he was good with his hands and could create things that pleased the eye and attracted attention, and his ability with machines showed that he had a clear grasp of form and understood how things worked. He’d been given his first lessons in aesthetic judgement by older designers in the factory. Arthur Cooper had told him, ‘If a line gets too long it gets boring,’ and Harry Rhodes had taught him to avoid even numbers of flowers – three or five always looked better than two or four. But he knew that what he was doing was two-dimensional, essentially mechanical and decorative. It was emotionally thin, lacking humanity and the fullness of the human form. Above all, it was in monochrome -and Paul wanted colour.
The visual world had always fascinated him. His earliest memory is of a wooden object, a blue, red and white shape. He can’t see its form clearly now, still less make out what it was, but he knows that he used to think it was the most beautiful thing in the world. Then, when a very young child, he fell in love with a hand-painted wavy-edged wooden dagger decorated with flowers, a piece of folk art which the parents of the boy next door had somehow acquired. After days of yearning, and cajoling, he persuaded the lad to exchange it for a vicious bayonet blade that Paul’s father had acquired during the war. The magic talisman was his for a night before the neighbours banged angrily on the door. The only painting he knew, from a reproduction in the doctor’s waiting room, was Constable’s Flatford Mill. He loved it because he wanted to be that boy under the trees. It never occurred to him then to paint.
He was inspired by the work of Edward Seago, the son of a Norwich coal merchant who became an immensely successful painter of landscapes – a sort of high-keyed Impressionist Constable and a dab hand at brushwork. Paul learnt from him that paint could represent a physical thing like stubble, and still be paint. He began to sense that he had a feeling for the medium. He took a canvas and some paints up to Strelley and painted the ducks on the pond, with ripples. It sold for three pounds. He had begun.
One sunny Sunday afternoon, sitting outside a pub with his mate Dave Bullers, Paul was watching a group of women he had known as schoolgirls, pushing prams and surrounded by their kids. Suddenly he saw his life stretching out before him, living in a council house, tied to a wife and family, and he turned to his mate and said, ‘Let’s pack up and make off’. They hitched down the A1, crossed the Channel and started walking through France, sleeping in fields and drinking pond water. Eventually, after Paul had suffered a bout of delirious illness, they got to Brussels. Sitting in the railway station, down to his last penny and wondering what to do next, Paul noticed a man walking up and down reading a book. When he wandered off, Paul decided to see where he was going and followed him down little side streets to a café Paul went in and ordered a beer with the last of his money. There were paintings on the wall and some musical instruments stacked in a corner. He was about to leave when a tall American invited him over and bought him a drink. ‘Hungry?’ he asked. Paul explained his situation. The American, who turned out to be a well-known folk singer called Derroll Adams, ordered him some food. A lean man sitting nearby asked, ‘You broke?’. Paul nodded. The man emptied all the contents of his pockets on to the table. He separated the folded notes and coins from the detritus and heaped them into a small pile. ‘That’s all the money I have in the world,’ he said. Dividing it in two, he pushed one half of the pile over to Paul. ‘Half for you and half for me.’ ‘Don’t you want to count it – for when I pay you back?’ Paul asked. ‘You don’t pay me back.’ said the man and got up and left. This turned out to be Herman Minner, an established Belgian painter, mainly of nudes.
Paul had found his way by chance to the Welkom Café, a haunt of radical lefties, artists and musicians. It was a centre for Belgian nationalism and Algerian resistance to France. Years later he discovered that the police compiled a dossier on him at that time; they photographed all the habitués of the Café. He stayed for the rest of the summer and returned for the following two summers, earning money as a pavement artist. One day, while Paul drawing a Last Supper on the pavement near the cathedral, Herman Minner came and sat next to him and asked if he could help him for half the takings. He did, took his cut and disappeared. That was typical of Minner. When he got any money, he was liable to go on a drinking binge for days. On one occasion a man appeared in the Café and gave Minner a bundle of notes in exchange for a painting. A couple of hours later, taxis arrived to take all the Café regulars to an extremely expensive restaurant outside the city, where they feasted all night with Minner as host.
One day when they were all sitting in the Cafe. Paul’s mate brought in a painting that Paul had been working on – a Constablesque landscape. ·’Now this is real art’, he announced. ‘ Thank you very much,’ Paul muttered under his breath, deeply embarrassed. Minner looked at it. ‘Very good,’ he said, and gave Paul some advice. ‘ If you want to be a painter, throw away your watch, eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, and have sex whenever you can- otherwise you’re one of ‘them’. Until he got to know Minner, Paul had never met any ‘real’ artists in the flesh. At that time Minner, living in a dirty flat where naked women posed for him, was Paul’s ideal – and he wore clogs. But Paul couldn’t go down that path and abandon everything to lead a totally free and irresponsible imaginative life. That wasn’t him. He’d always had one foot in wildness, but the other he kept planted firmly in reality.
So, a new rhythm of life began for him, working as a freelance designing lace and spending the summers painting and drawing in the countryside. He married, moved into a terraced house in the Nottingham suburbs, and soon had a young family. As ever, he kept chickens in the garden. Once a neighbour, a massive lorry driver, who had painted his section of the brick terrace white, complained about the cock crowing in the morning and took Paul to court to make him have it put down. Paul fought back and drummed up local support. One of his witnesses said he liked hearing the cock crow, but when he had to ask the magistrate if he would mind speaking up, it became obvious he was deaf. Nevertheless, Paul won the case. with costs charged to the police. He briefly became a national celebrity, as a champion of a way of living that was to be the subject of his art in Portugal.
Summers were spent along the southern English coast, because Paul had heard that that was where artists went to live and work. He spent the first summer in a Devon fishing village, at a time when there were still real villages with fishermen, and Devon was a real place with its own accent and traditions. A bit later, when he was thinking of going down there to live, he came across a village where the houses were much cheaper than usual. ‘Oh, I wouldn’t advise buying there,’ the estate agent warned. ‘That’s a dirty village. ‘What do you mean by dirty?’ asked Paul. ‘They’re still farming,’ the agent replied. Dirty working villages are what Paul now celebrates in his art.
One summer he settled in Ilfracombe and painted cliffs and the sea and did portraits of visitors in charcoal for ten shillings a time. He got to know Bob Lynn, a painter from Peterhead in Scotland. and together they set up the Combe Studios in an old pub to sell their work. He also made the acquaintance of two large families who regularly holidayed there together. One day when he was drawing all their portraits, he said to the youngest boy, ‘I know who your dad is. I can tell from the eyes.’ He had unwittingly identified the right father, but from the wrong family. The families disintegrated before his gaze. Bob Lynn encouraged Paul’s painting, and introduced him to the vigorous brushwork of Scots artists like Peploe, Cadell and Fergusson. In acts of purist bravado, Paul disciplined himself to paint what he could see in front of him, straight on to the canvas with the minimum of strokes, without changing anything afterwards. He aimed for what he called ‘a straight slab of reality’ and learnt how to make waves appear to have weight, and to recede. Around the local marina he earned a name for himself doing ‘portraits’ of expensive yachts.
Fishing boats were of course more up his street. Paul’s early sketches of them show his interest in rendering how things worked. The engines, lifting gear, nets and boxes are strongly articulated, as is their big-bellied shape. But he was dissatisfied with his painting of human figures. He couldn’t get them to sit or stand in the picture space; they were a bit like tourists, floating through. He wanted his figures to be tied to their environment, to live in it. It was a hunger he felt more broadly in his own way of life, with the ecological politics that he was beginning to formulate. Bob Lynn told him again and again that he’d never get anywhere unless he learnt to draw the figure. So back in Nottingham, in the winter, he joined a weekly life-drawing class run by the Nottingham Society of Artists. That was where he really began to draw, with uncompromising vigour and directness. He was gaining in confidence and mastering the skills. But he had yet to find his subject matter.
It came to him very simply that he wasn’t painting what he was living: he wasn’t painting his own life. And that life, as he looked at it became more vivid. He started to see the terraced streets around him and the factories where he worked as if for the first time. He’d been trying to get out of what he cheerily called ‘this horrible place’ all his life, but might it not after all be a subject for painting? Why was it that, though people spent most of their time at work, there were hardly any pictures of people working? Reality was, he felt, being papered over with pretty landscapes and bright holiday images. He had sat in the countryside and painted trees. He’d been to the seaside and painted the sea. He’d become competent at it and had got all he wanted to get out of it. He was, quite simply. bored with it all. Moreover, he was bored with the dropout life, and had come increasingly to think of it as cowardly and unrewarding even in its own tenets. There was, of course, a political aspect to his thinking. He remembers with embarrassment how he once tried to paint a political satire. He called it ‘The Decay of Capitalism’. It writhed with snakes, men with girders on their backs, rotten teeth and crosses spewing out of arses. He sold it one night for a fiver and didn’t repeat the experiment. He knew about Social Realism, the art advocated by communist regimes in the Soviet bloc and China, but it didn’t interest him. These paintings were full of gestures aimed at things outside the picture, which for Paul flawed them immediately, because they made him want to look away. They were works of propaganda, not painting. He never regarded himself as a ‘Socialist Realist’: he was just a socialist trying to paint from his own working-class experience. Painting was a job like any other, and the paintings themselves had to work.
Paul’s paintings of working-class Nottingham didn’t serve a political agenda, but flowered within a political view of life. They contain no hint of triumphalism. None of his figures are treated as heroes of the working classes raising themselves up by their own labour. Once, a middle-class left-wing acquaintance of Paul’s was talking to an old right-wing friend of his from the council estate. ‘ You must be proud to be working class, Seth,’ he said. Seth looked at him in disbelief, ‘ You’ re bloody joking!’ Paul has no rosy view of the life he depicts. He neither looks down on nor up to the working classes, but just looks at them, all around him. That’s why he twists perspective in the way he does, he wants to take you right into the scene, so you’re surrounded by it, feel what it’s like to be in, and know how it works. He sees the wholeness of it, and the painting has to be contained within its boundaries. That is the challenge. Paul wants his life and his art to be bound up in one reality – he’s always pursued integrity. Painting is a way of contemplating that; that’s why he finds it so intriguing.
Pride isn’t part of Paul’s make up, but belief in humanity is, as he let slip in our conversation. ‘I can live without God. I can live without money – well, without much. But I can’t live without hope. And since I don’t believe in that any more, I don’t like to think about it.’ Paul’s early paintings blaze with hope, but not of a political kind. His sympathies were socialist, but he had long had a suspicion of the left, thanks to the wartime experience of his father, who was ostracized by the union for painting tanks when not a qualified painter. The result was that the vehicles weren’t ready in time to be shipped to the Soviet Union, an incident which could have cost many men their lives. Paul used to encourage others to start painting by telling them that not only could they buy the materials for the price of a couple of pints, but there was no union that could stop them – art wasn’t a closed shop. He could, of course, rally to support a cause. He designed badges for the miners’ strike of 1984-5 .as well as a fine banner for them to march behind. A Davy lamp, given to him by the miner’s union in gratitude for his support, hangs today above his fireplace. But if his primary motivation had been political, he would have become a politician. In fact, he’s come to despise the breed. ‘Hasn’t everything been great since the Wall came down?’, he muses wryly. Paul’s early paintings glow, not with hope for political change, but rather with the warmth of humanity.
This warm glow was hard won. He taught himself to draw what he could see around him. His approach was methodical, almost ritualistic. For eighteen months in 1967 -8, he left the house first thing every morning with his conté crayons and sheets of cheap paper clipped to a board. He would walk a hundred yards, alternating directions, then stop and draw whatever happened to be in front of him – a mother pushing a pram, a car on a street corner, a distant view across the valley. The important thing was to have the decision about what to draw made for him. By this method he taught himself not only how to draw anything very quickly, but also how to see freshly. He found more and more of interest in his immediate environment, and at the same time developed the skills to convey it. Turning the crayon on to its long side, he could rapidly block in walls, roofs and windows to give an overall impression of massed buildings in rows catching the light. Pivoting the crayon on its corner or point enabled him to define contours and edges of people in movement. He became an Impressionist of the urban streets, his touch as versatile and skilful as Manet’s draughtsmanship.
What caught his interest more and more was not just the light but the space. He began to paint at home, blocking in the composition as he’d done in his drawings, but now using brushes loaded thickly with colour. He was recreating the feelings he’d had outside. What he wanted to communicate, as he still does, was the sensation of being in the space he was painting, standing looking at the buildings rising around him, the streetlamps looming overhead, a valley of rooftops opening at his feet. And he didn’t convey just the sight of these surroundings, but also the sense that the viewer could walk through them. His landscapes roll around you, just as moving through the real world makes it appear to move. He paints you into the picture. What’s even more remarkable is that the space in these paintings changes direction and stretches as it would if you were looking around them in reality. In Alfreton Road (1979), you get a sensation of vertigo leaning over the balcony looking down to the ground below, then as you lift your head the townscape rises with you, in a great, sweeping arc up towards and finally over the horizon. There are few skies in Paul’s work. He’s always been more interested in what’s going on down below.
In the life classes he became fully familiar with the workings of the human figure, and could soon sketch with great facility people walking, running, skipping, playing, hanging about and just living in their environment. The thousands of drawings he has produced are liberally sprinkled with lightning portraits, mostly of kids who’ve stopped for a moment to watch him at work. His streetscapes are rollicking, and a bit drunken at times – Paul enjoys a pint. Few artists have ever created a townscape so vividly lived-in. Paul was still regularly attending classes when, rather to his surprise, he was invited to teach life drawing at the Nottingham College of Art. This was a natural home for him, for it had originally been established by the lace trade to encourage good design. But by then trendiness had hit the college and the tutors were happy to leave life classes to an entertaining, self-taught local lad with a talent for representation, while they scaled the lofty reaches of abstraction and conceptualism. Fred Bazler, hot from a background folk- singing in America, championed Albers-like pop abstractions in sweet mint pastel shades, while Sheffield-born Victor Burgin had returned from teaching in the U.S. advocating making posters with political slogans, like ‘What Does Possession Mean To You?’ slapped across an image of an embracing couple. Paul had had an earful of middle-class political theories, and didn’t see what it had to do with art. As for formalism, he’d had enough of that in lace design. It was cold and thin. Art, for him, had to be much richer and multilayered, with emotional depth and, above all, humanity. When he first saw Mondrian, he couldn’t conceive what all the fuss was about. He’d seen the results of Modernism in the lace business, when Victor Pasmore was commissioned to produce some designs. They were a failure: sloppy, lopsided spirals which had Paul’s fellow craftsmen in hoots of laughter and were withdrawn when they didn’t sell.
What interested Paul was human content. He taught his life-class students not just to draw the body as an object, but to try to capture the feelings of the sitter. The people in his paintings had to have real personalities, no matter how summarily they were sketched. You can sense that every kid hanging on the frame in his great triptych, View Over Sneinton Dale (1983) has a home. This painting is a masterpiece. It isn’t just the extraordinary articulation of shifting perspectives, the whole landscape dizzy with the children swinging high above the streets, parked cars, slate roofs and backyards. It also evokes, poignantly, the foreboding atmosphere of that time of rising unemployment. The horizon is too high for these kids: none of them can see over it, no matter how high they climb. Without laboring the point, the painting asks what future they have during the rapid decline of this once rich industrial city.
Paul’s pictures soon began to attract attention. In 1970 his painting Boys on the Locks -a powerfully blocked image of industrial locks and lads slumped over them – won the Holbrook Trust Prize; he took pride in the fact that a previous winner, in 1930, had been D.H. Lawrence. Around this time, he got to know the Liverpool poet and artist Adrian Henri, jamming with him in boozy pub jazz sessions. With Henri’s support, in 1975 Paul applied for and was awarded an Arts Council bursary, to paint images of the lace trade. Looking again at a life he had loved and intimately understood, a fabulous series of paintings and drawings poured out of him. Lace Draughting Room (1977) is the most direct celebration of his own work. He’s tipped the picture up so that you can see exactly what the men are doing and get a real feeling for both the skill and the tedium involved, as well as the magnificence of their production. The plates of paint are explosive oases of freedom in this expanse of finicky precision. The era is set by the young man’s sideburns and kipper tie, which give an inkling of his life outside work. An older worker warms his hands by the stove to ease his fingers: those factory floors were cold. Past other palette plates perched on the sill, a vertiginous view through the window reveals rows of women sewing, segregated in a lower floor across the way. You know exactly what it was like to work there.
A local artists’ collective, the Midland Group. ran a gallery in the centre of town. Its director, Linda Morris, was a left-wing curator who put on challenging exhibitions and organised symposia about the state of British art when the Group weren’t showing their own work. Leading left-wing critics like John Berger visited the city. Paul, who greatly admired Berger’s book Permanent Red (though he was never quite sure what it had to do with art), showed him his View from the Lace Market over Cliff Road. Berger exclaimed, ‘That’s a marvelous painting!’ but he never wrote about Paul’s work. However, the critic Peter Fuller, who also became interested in his work, interviewed him for his first one-man show at the Midland Group in 1978, and wrote an article in New Society which claimed optimistically that ‘many art world eyes are now turning towards the powerful paintings that Waplington has been producing. He saw Lace Draughting Room as ‘a metaphor for the professional Fine Art tradition where many artists have recently tried to awaken from the sterile slumber of flat abstraction and to relate their images to experience again.’Waplington himself had no such grand ambitions. What he did was much more direct, practical and natural. Jackson Pollock’ s paintings didn’t interest him in any way, but those of Augustus John, Stanley Spencer, Carel Weight and John Bratby did. He was uninterested in theory but obsessed by the business of painting what was real.
Nevertheless, Paul was briefly lauded as a hero by the leftist art intelligentsia: not only was he genuinely working class, he was highly intelligent and entertaining to boot. He was invited to sit on the panel at a conference on the future of British art at the ICA in London. The combined effects of the interminable discussion, the heat of the room and a couple of lunchtime pints sent him off into a doze on the platform. He only woke up when he was addressed by his name and invited to respond to what had just been said. His contribution was understandably brief, but it is faithfully recorded in Studio International (2/1978). He said he’d escaped the boring formalism of designing lace in order to paint and draw people in their environment because he found that much more interesting. He noted that some delegates had said that the TUC and the Labour Party might do something for art, but added, ‘I wouldn’t expect too much to come out of these people.’ Then he shut up. His career as an art pundit was over.
In 1979 the art critic Richard Cork included Paul in the British Council exhibition Uncertain Art Anglais in the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris. His main recollection is of Kevin Atherton doing a performance piece which involved him removing single pieces of clothing from bystanders as he took off an item of his own, until he was left standing naked in the crowd. By the third evening, he’d attracted most of the gays in Gay Paree and didn’t want to go on. ‘You have to -for art’s sake! ‘ said Paul. Paul’ s own paintings drew no critical comment, nor any sales or invitations to exhibit. His international career seemed to have petered out before it had even begun.
More problematically, his inspiration was beginning to dry up. He had explored the strcctscapes and lace factories of Nottingham and said much of what he wanted to say about them. He’d also produced a few paintings of miners, not as heroes emerging from the underground but, as in Snibston Mine, Coalville (1978), dog-tired, streaked with dirt and rubbing their eyes. I was then director of Art Galleries in Sheffield, and I commissioned him to do a series of paintings of the Don Valley steelworks. He produced some powerful drawings and a handful of paintings, but the subject -matter didn’t inspire the magnificent, expansive images I had perhaps hoped for. The machines weren’t the ones he’d worked on and knew intimately. He felt closer to the people. His greatest achievement in Sheffield was his four storey-high portrait of Ron Mason, a steelworker, which I commissioned for a site in the city centre in 1979. I’d had the idea for large murals made out of coloured bricks – these had been used to make decorative walls before, but seldom with any real aesthetic ambition. Knowing his expertise as a lace designer, building up images with minute blocks, I thought that Paul would be able to manage this medium brilliantly. It proved, however, to be much more of a technical challenge than I’d anticipated. Since the coloured bricks varied in size and strength. making the wall structurally sound was problematic, but Paul mastered all the complexities. For example, he was only allowed to use four bricks which were pure white: more would have weakened the structure. He used them for highlights in the eyes. The wall has maintained its immense popularity because it’s not a portentous image of a generalised worker, but a portrait of a real individual who took pride in his work. The difference is subtle but crucial. This image is truly monumental without being at all rhetorical.
The Nottingham lace trade was dying. Paul was still supporting himself and his family financially by working as a freelance lace designer, but more and more his work was destined for Spain and Italy. He began to wonder what he was doing living in a semi-detached house in the suburb of a cold, grim, northern European town. The factories that had inspired so much of his work were closing and his painting, too, seemed to be running out of steam. He had met and come under the influence of John Seymour, the pioneer ecologist, farmer and writer, staying the odd time on his farm in Pembrokeshire. For years Seymour had been warning of the dangerous effects of industrialised agriculture in causing soil degradation and air and water pollution. These and related topics are of course now very much in the public arena, but thirty years ago they were mostly regarded as the bleating of cranks. Paul’s first idea was to move to the country, but it proved financially impossible, as the wealthy were already snapping up houses at inflated prices for weekend homes. He carried on allotment gardening, and hiking and camping at weekends. mostly in the nearby, glorious Peak District of Derbyshire. Then in 1988 he finally sold up and moved to Portugal, buying a ruinous farmstead with a plot of terraced land, where he still lives. He spent the first years making good the property, rearing chickens, planting vines, learning the language and slowly immersing himself in the culture of the place. He made a living by doing lace designs but didn’t paint or draw at all.
He discovered he was a stranger in an ancient land. European Community grants had not yet penetrated the valley where he lived, though modernisation was soon to eat into its spirit. The roads were cobbled, the buildings ancient, and many people still believed in witchcraft. One day, on his doorstep, he found a toad with its mouth sewn up, an unspecified curse, put there by someone who’d taken umbrage at something he had or hadn’t done. Myths and superstitions lingered in the air. Local people still shot owls because they were believed to be harbingers of death and took fright at salamanders for the same reason. Within a few years Paul was drinking his own wine, enjoying the warmth of his own logs burning in his own grate, with his dog Sweep at his side. Fortune had favoured him, despite the toad. He met and married Fatima, a divorced physics teacher, the daughter of a port-wine barrel cooper. She encouraged him to paint, paying for a studio to be built for him at the end of their plot. At first all he could do in it was sleep. But gradually Portugal, the countryside and its people got under his skin. He began to feel at home, and finally abandoned any desire to return to Britain. Then the paintings and drawings began to flow, in what was for Paul a new medium -watercolour. It gave him a luscious extension of his vocabulary, fluid and rich, fit for capturing the landscape of his adopted country. Triggered perhaps by memories of his father’s dairy and the beasts of Strelley. He began with cattle – the handsome long-horned, golden Barrosã breed used everywhere on the steeply-terraced hill farms. Their great dark eyes looked at him from the far distant past. He felt in touch with a continuum he’d been seeking all his life – an atavistic warmth he wanted to express that linked him to the most ancient art. He couldn’t have painted this magnificent bull, Bos da Parradella (?1998 ), in the way he did without knowing, from book illustrations, the Neolithic cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux. In Paul’s deceptively simple, rapid, glowing rendition, the earliest art of modern man seems to breathe again.
He’s painted oxen singly and in pairs, knowing their muscles, bones and odour. He’s painted them pulling wooden carts, beautiful, curved boat-shapes between great wheels, heaped with manure, logs or maize according to the season. In our journey round his artistic hunting ground, we watched two being hitched to a yoke by an old farmer acquaintance of Paul’s. It was early spring, and the cart was piled high with the rich, dark muck that the old man had raked out of the room beneath his house where the oxen had wintered, keeping themselves and his household warm. His wife brought them up the lane, her black clothes and traditional short black apron showing that someone in the family had recently died. The old man yoked them in a pair – a delicate operation. Then they jerked into action, pulling the cart up a narrow cobbled street, past a half-built new house, owned by someone sending money home from Spain, to a field over the brow of the hill. The cart wobbled and shook, and a few spatters of muck fell out. The old woman picked them up – no point in wasting it. We followed behind. Paul regaling me with a limerick: ‘A careless young farmer called Burke pulled up his cart with a jerk / His load of manure /Was too insecure / And he was up to his eyes in his work.’
The embracing expansiveness together with an intricate, inner complexity – such features of Paul’s sweeping views of the hilly suburbs of Nottingham -have found their equivalents in his depiction of the steep farmed hill sides of northern Portugal. From row upon row of red brick, slate-roofed houses and backyards, he has turned to painting rank upon rank of granite-walled green pastures and vines: from one kind of terrace to another. And as in Nottingham he painted his neighbours at work in the factories and at play, celebrating marching through the streets with brightly coloured banners and bracing bands, so in Portugal his subject-matter is the lives of ordinary people. He portrays peasants working in the fields, muck-spreading, ploughing and pruning, getting on with ordinary everyday tasks. Then there are the seasonal, communal activities, like treading the grapes in the Douro Valley, and the markets and feast days when farmers proudly bring their best beasts to show, decked with elaborate lattice-punctured yokes, as delicately designed as lace and decorated with flowers and ribbons of yellow, red and blue – like the bright colours of that indeterminate object which haunts Paul’s childhood memory. His handling of the space in these pictures is mesmerizing – the way the legs of the cattle and those of their owners are rendered in the cramped space between them is a miracle of two -dimensional spatial articulation. But these animals and people are never simply juxtaposed, as they would be in a pattern. They aren’t reduced to shapes or outlines, but are all fully realised beings with lives of their own.
The cattle are all up to something, looking round, peering out, raising their heads and lowing, each one an individual with its own personality. And the people are all busy too, weaving a bouquet, restraining a wandering animal, or resting, arms folded but ready for action. Even in the background people are active – a girl peers into a hole in a tent, a boy kicks his heels as he sit s high on a wall. Paul can’t paint a person who isn’t doing something. This is why his work is so alive: it celebrates life in action, and the overall effect is a glorious eyeful. Paul showed one of these pictures, Festival in Mixoes da Serra (date nk), to an old neighbour of his who’d probably never seen an original painting before. His reaction (unlike John Berger’s) was not ‘That’s a marvellous painting!’ but ‘Look at that herd!’ That’ s quite a tribute to an artist who began life on the streets of a Nottingham housing estate.
Paul has come a long way, but the interests in his life have remained constant, as has the inspiration for his art. His remarkable achievement has been to wring from his experience a distinctive and versatile personal visual language which, in its exuberance and richness, has enabled him to express what excites him about life, without ever, for a second, losing touch with reality. As he revelled in the lace manufacturing and working-class culture of Nottingham before they disappeared, so he is celebrating the traditional peasant life of Portugal before it, too, vanishes forever. He is the only artist to have done so, and through his work, his celebrations of lives will go on breathing life into our own.
Julian Spalding (2010)