Patrick Procktor, who died ten years ago, studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, and came to immediate prominence in the spring of 1963 with his first exhibition – just in time to immerse himself in the colourful melee of artists, musicians, designers, photographers and socialites who would comprise the cast of ‘swinging’ London throughout the 1960s and early ’70s. Doomed by alcoholism, however, Procktor would subsequently suffer a succession of personal disasters, from a devastating fire at his flat in Manchester Square, to periods of imprisonment and residency in a hostel.
Curated by Ian Massey, author of the recent biography Patrick Procktor: Art and Life (2010), this persuasively selected retrospective revealed its unfairly neglected subject to be an artist of beguiling singularity and deeply felt emotional range, who at times achieved tantalizing flashes of greatness. It divided a survey of Procktor’s work, by medium, across three rooms: paintings, watercolours and prints – with a supporting selection of works by the artist’s peers. And while Procktor is perhaps better known for the elegance and glamour of his poised and charming watercolours (depicting friends and acquaintances such as Mick Jagger, Derek Jarman and the model and would-be glam rock star, Gervaise), it is his paintings which seem to make the strongest claim for his achievements as an artist.
The sense of a major talent is immediate in the earliest works, showing a formidable gathering of confidence. Thus, Miss Leahy II (1961) is a forceful but dutiful portrait in the approved ‘Euston Road’ style of the period – a subdued and pasty palette, not without atmosphere, but somehow redolent of a lingering, pre-Pop joylessness. By contrast, The Beach: Figures in Red and Black (1962) appears alive with vigour: the big canvas dominated by two rectilinear sections of fiery orange, between which a seeming passageway of marble-like blackness provides a portal for a central figure. All is sinewy and urgent, touched with traces of purple, verging on opulent; the colour shouts, as though to announce the dawning of a new era.
Procktor’s claim to occasional greatness comes to the fore in Lunacharsky Street (1965) – a view, in fact, from the artist’s flat in Marylebone (the work’s Russian title was most probably prompted by his National Service in the 1950s, during which he trained as a linguist and interpreter). Its left-hand side a broad vertical area of dazzling whiteness, blushing to delicate rose pink in its upper half, the painting’s audacious use of space seems to anticipate the aesthetic modernity of Richard Hamilton’s collage The Beatles (1968). With deft certainty, the right-hand side of Procktor’s elegant painting presents an enigmatic conflagration of sooty blackness, centrally delineated in a ragged downward blade, spreading horizontally rightwards through a trailing black form to what might be the squat, rust-coloured edifice of a terrace end. Utterly assured, Lunacharsky Street seems to show Procktor discovering his brilliance and originality as a painter, following his subject into surprising, enigmatic but richly poetic new forms, imbued with a harmonizing balance of muscular blackness and deeply romantic light.
Less successful is the monumental 6AM at Heaton Hall (1966), with its feel of an abandoned and ill-constructed stage set. Here, the later comparison with Hockney’s faux-naif interiors might seem justified, and the inclusion of the painting was interesting in that regard. Its effect, however, was to heighten just how well Procktor could paint when he hit the right combination of subject and mood – as evidenced by Rain Paint (1970) and Inside Old Holloway (1974). The former, painted in India, presents a gorgeous surge of temperate blues and greens, freshened into exuberant life by the scatter of scarlet flowers on the foliage in the middle distance, and the precise intimation of vertical rain bouncing off an artist’s palette in the foreground. Inside Old Holloway might be the reverse: a sparse institutional interior, dourly British, and for the artist chillingly prophetic.
A late painting, Copt (1999), presents a disturbing vision from the darkest depths of Procktor’s alcoholism – right down to the violent flick of red paint that spatters in a bloody arc, across its left-hand side. In grey, white, black and scarlet, a group of sinister and prettified figures appear to gather, listless, arbitrary yet intent, around a crouching male whose bared back is marked with bloody lacerations. It might be a biblical scene, as re-imagined by Jean Genet or Kai Althoff.
To a contemporary audience, some of Procktor’s portraits in watercolours might bring to mind the pop-hip portraiture of Elizabeth Peyton. The sense of informality and visual chic is perhaps on a similar frequency of ease. But this seems secondary to his accomplishments as a painter in oils and acrylics, in which – at his best – he combined rare lucidity with a poet’s depth of feeling.
First published in Issue 152