|NORWICH CATALOGUE, Henderson texts|
|NORWICH CATALOGUE, Mullen texts|
|BUTTERFLIES IN THE STOMACH|
|BETHNAL GREEN PHOTOGRAPHS|
|D'OFFAY CATALOGUE 1977|
|Correspondence with Chris Mullen|
|Collage for the Mullen Family|
|Reviews and Catalogues|
|HENDERSON, PAOLOZZI AND THE SMITHSONS AT HUNSTANTON|
IMAGES (CM archive)
|THORPE LE SOKEN|
|BLOCK HEADS (CELLS)|
|THE 3 PANEL SCREEN|
|SINGLE WORKS, SAILING TO THE SANDWICH ISLANDS|
|SINGLE WORKS, Butterflies in the Stomach|
I want to collate all this material that has built up over thirty years at the time when I am nearly at the exact age Nigel was when in 1983 we stood in the Serpentine Gallery in front of his Headlands work. He was not happy despite the efforts taken by the Gallery with his work. One of his best friends had died at the age of 65 and he suspected he was similarly doomed.In fact he was to get an extra three years.
I had just conducted an Artist meets the Public event with him at the Serpentine. Oriole Mullen was there in support. My sister-in-law Emma Kirkby had heard I was in town and sweetly swelled the audience with several members of the Consorte of Music. Nigel had been at his most benevolent and reflective in the first ten minutes. I asked about his association of green and dead flesh in the Single Heads. He talked about working on a Baroque portrait with the chief restorer Helmut Ruheman at the National Gallery London in 1939, to find the underpainting for the flesh tones was realised in green pigment, its complementary colour. The audience hummed with interest. I found it odd this fascinating aside had been concealed until long after I could have used it in the catalogue.
Then the saloon doors swung open. Eduardo Paolozzi appeared at the back of the room, completely throwing Nigel. After years of collaboration, fascination and mutual delight, their relationship had fractured and soured for reasons now pointless to probe. Nigel glared at his old friend who had unfurled a large Tube map in the back row and was pointedly scrutinising it in the company of a young man with wire framed glasses. Nigel now refused to string words into sentences and I was left blathering as sweat slowly rolled down my flanks. Paolozzi left before the end of the event so I didn't get to discover what I had got myself into.
What the fuck was that? I asked Nigel.
The Cunt, he said through gritted teeth.
The Serpentine show Headlands,with its emphasis on Landscape offered him the opportunity to strut his stuff in the Metropolis, and its critical failure deeply wounded him. Only now, re-reading texts and subsequent critical response do I see how much his heart was broken. He was a hard man and the disappointment had to be managed carefully.
How had this all started? Nigel had agreed to a major show at the Norwich School of Art to be held in 1983. He had been Head of Photography twice there, seemingly drifting in and out of administrative duties. I was a visiting lecturer in what was called Complementary Studies, known for my florid and persistent lecturing. I had dropped in from time to time on studio lunches with Derrick Greaves and Nigel when fine wines and food sustained visitors during most of the afternoon. I loved the campy patois of sudden cries of "Dommage..." and "Quelle Elan.." Terribly Rive Gauche I thought. Nigel's studio was less attractive being in the basement, next to the Boiler Room and giving the impression of being underwater, the River Wensum lapping at his sill.
So Lynda Morris curated, Bruce Brown designed the catalogue, Bill English wrote the standard introduction. Derrick contributed a gem of descriptive prose on Nigel's disfiguring the printed pages of his books. After a few weeks of guarded interchange, Nigel decided he would enter into the spirit of the exhibition and answer questionnaires I sent to him. This was the breakthrough. He was at his best in this considered and rounded response. I went over to his studio on several occasions, once with Oriole. Then on one occasion when I was promised access to the tea chest of unshown work in the studio. I had a hangover of huge proportions and went for a walk instead when I threw up on the Dyke and not in the tea chest. Janet Henderson was a source of constant delight in our meetings , with an amusing glare as Nigel's claims of ownership of the garden and its contents became increasingly inflated.
I thought I had done the decent with the exhibition texts for Norwich, our outings to the various points of call of the exhibition through provincial art galleries (being what he called the Prisoner's Friend at Southampton, Colchester as well as the Serpentine) and the film for Cologne TV. We had got on famously, and he trusted me to be part of his options when the call from posterity came calling . Only he (and probably Paolozzi) knew how much he had accomplished, how much he had guided and inspired others particularly a slightly younger generation than his in the post-war period of austerity and cultural conservatism.
By the very nature of his working practices during the later years he was isolated and in many ways believed the work was good enouigh to make its own way without his active interventions. By the time he realised that he was being just too fastidious it was too late, He knew he was going to be relegated to the Lower Divisions of the Hierarchy in Brit Art. What a fate.
The next time I worked with Nigel was a reprise of the role of the Prisoner's friend. Tim Rayner was a film director operating out of Norwich doing a series of English language films for Cologne TV. By clever editing it appeared Nigel was a Norwich lad with a studio round the corner from the Art School whereas he was two hours away by train on the Essex Marshes. Nigel and I were seen in solemn conclave in the Norwich Art School Gallery in front of Duchamp's Dust Breeding which had been such a key influence on the young Henderson. I remember Nigel's cut-off line about his attitudes to art, "No scholar I." Such timing. Such economy of effort.
Another day's shooting has been arranged at Nigel's studio. Neither of us could work out how we were to be paid. At the end of the shoot the Sound Man opened his wallet and did the decent. Nigel was superb. He was articulate and measured in appraising his own work. He talked to camera but his eyeline directed to me out of shot. How far his performance was an aid to the teaching of English as a Foreign language I cannot say. He certainly taught me a lot that day - at home- surrounded by his works, the talismans and tearsheets of his obsessions. He teased sections of Satie's Gymnopedies out of an old piano. He perched on a high stool in the milky studio light. They filmed him striding out with dogs in the landscape. I was shocked he'd even allowed himself to be filmed without his top set of dentures, gurning into the camera. More informatively he'd even hacked up a photograph of a section through a red cabbage, cutting into a large photographic self portrait to allow a glimpse into his collage techniques.
We did another Box and Cox for Robert Short and the Norfolk and Norwich Contemporary Art Society on its acquisition of Willy Call Up.
But I didn't seem to see Nigel much after the Serpentine show. Who rang ? I can't remember but I was told that Nigel had come down to breakfast at Landemere Quay, prepared a full English breakfast and dropped dead. What seemed like weeks later I was in a car heading for the Ipswich Crem with Lynda Morris, Derrick Greaves and Mel Clark. How I found myself hosting the funeral is already here at . The success of my schtick can be judged by repeat performances at the funerals of Grahame White and David Watkin. I became what Phil Beard called the Jack Dee of the Funerary Experience.
There is no point making claims for Nigel and his art. No revival of interest flared after his death, or after Victoria Walsh's book and exhibition in 2001. I make available here for the first time his questionnaire responses from which you will gauge for yourself the fizz and originality of the Man. Ultimately it means little that the art world underestimated him. I delighted in his company. He enjoyed the interchange of collaboration, despite his hermetic leanings. His ear for language and calculation with words was unique and I treasure memories of him.
He would thrust an image across the table. "What do you make of that?" His pleasure was that, no matter what association or narrative I discovered, he always claimed it was nothing he hadn't already pondered. And I believed him.