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The Tenderness of Paul Anthony Harford's Drawings

An exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ, London, explores how the artist captured the piercing intimacies of life 

The seafront of Felixstowe, a mid-size Suffolk town near to which I grew up, was assembled in the name of collective enjoyment. There is a track for go-karts, a faux-Victorian bandstand, a boating lake. There is a pier that gestures hopefully out to sea.

But time has been hostile, as she is known to be, and of late the amusements have dulled to anything but. If once there was community, there is now the whistling of emptiness; if once there was vibrancy, there is now a beat hue of dusty pink; if once there was life, or an aspiration towards it, there is now something cold. On the horizon is a wind farm. When the English Channel kicks to the right, it falls from the end of the world.

Paul Anthony Harford roamed the edges of the island for longer than most. First came Weston-Super-Mare, where he was born, then Southend-on-Sea, then Weymouth, where he undertook the majority of his work, then back to Southend, where he passed away in 2016. In Untitled (Man in Seafront Shelter) (c.2003), Harford sits alone on the boardwalk, shielding himself from the day. Drawn, like much of his work, from a first-person perspective, we see arms dropped low and legs crossed at the knee. Light falls. He smokes. Smoke lifts. Outside of that, little happens.

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Paul Anthony Harford, Untitled (artist seated on bed), c. 2004, graphite on paper, 55 × 69 cm. Courtesy: the Estate of Paul Anthony Harford and Sadie Coles HQ, London; photograph: Robert Glowacki

Outside of that, little ever happens. Untitled (Artist Seated on Bed) (c.2004); Untitled (Self-Portrait with Wallpaper) (c.2004); Untitled (Artist with Electric Fire) (c.2005): in delicately rendered graphite, these drawings visualize, to the letter, that which their titles parenthesize. Whether Harford walks within the frame or we are granted access to his eye-line, we glimpse, over and again, the many mundanities that, when bound in a book and flicked through at speed, look something like a life. And they are, often, so very still. And they are, often, dulled by a peculiar type of nothingness.

But within these faded pages, held like pressed flowers, are a selection of rare curios, the likes of which only reveal themselves to those who have devoted a life to watching a life go by. Untitled (Figure Lying on Seafront with Carrier Bag) (c.2004) shows a man crumpled, kinked, across an empty coastal road, his dilated proportions allowing his heel and forehead to kiss opposing curbs. Proportions warp further in Untitled (Cleaner with Vulture Wings) (c.2002), as a lonely janitor buffs the tiles of what might be an arcade. Resting between his shoulder blades are half-closed pinions; to his right, a gigantic hand, signalling to something unseen. Untitled (Mother Asleep with Masked Child), drawn around 1999, portrays Harford’s elderly mother, reclined, in profile and peace. At one shoulder is the nestled head of an infant, its face concealed behind a crescent mask, at the other is a circular mirror and, above that, a faint, final curve of light. Collectively, the ascending bands echo a slow tulip of bubbles or the smooth passage of the moon, as if Harford were raising his mother up, up, up – signalling, again, to that which rests unseen. 

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Paul Anthony Harford, Untitled (cleaner with vulture wings), c. 2002, graphite on paper, 69 × 60 cm. Courtesy:  the Estate of Paul Anthony Harford and  Sadie Coles HQ, London; photograph: Robert Glowacki

Paul Anthony Harford, Untitled (cleaner with vulture wings), c. 2002, graphite on paper, 69 × 60 cm. Courtesy:  the Estate of Paul Anthony Harford and  Sadie Coles HQ, London; photograph: Robert Glowacki

There is something about the tenderness with which Harford coaxes these images into (or, indeed, out of) being, warping them so gently, testing their sides. When he lays his mother to rest. When he sees himself within a story, or lingers at its cusp. When he stares into silence that should be noise. It is as if Harford were pinching a film at the edges, holding a single scene in situ so as to study its every mark and memory. His drawing – both of and from life – is a demarcation of a need to know a thing, to know it with a piercing intimacy, before it falls from the end of the world once more.

'Paul Anthony Harford' runs at Sadie Coles HQ, London, until 10 November 2018.

Main image: Paul Anthony Harford, Untitled (artist seated on bed) [detail], c. 2004, graphite on paper, 55 × 69 cm. Courtesy: the Estate of Paul Anthony Harford and Sadie Coles HQ, London; photograph: Robert Glowacki

Harry Thorne is associate editor of frieze and a contributing editor of The White Review. He is based in Berlin, Germany.

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