Issue Number: 110
Tony Bevan RA, who is best known for his uncompromising self-portraits, talks to Fiona Maddocks in his south London studio which was once part of an old propeller factory. Photograph by Eamonn McCabe
The long stick – tethered to a pulley running to a cleat – that hangs from the ceiling of Tony Bevan RA’s south London studio might baffle anyone but an artist. It looks too slim to support much weight. Could it relate to the building’s original purpose in the 1920s as a factory making wooden aircraft propellers?
No. Once Bevan describes his working method for his often enormous, spare, figurative canvases, the mystery is solved: ‘I like to work on the floor,’ he explains. ‘So first I fix the canvas down to the plywood that covers the studio’s concrete base. But at a certain point, to avoid distortion or foreshortening, I need to hoist it up high so I can see it vertically. I have long felt the need to work on a large scale, so I had to find a solution. This device does the job nicely.’
Bevan’s studio is one of 50 in this Deptford building run by ACME, the London-based charity that helps artists locate affordable workspaces. Diffuse light comes through two big, east-facing windows. He usually spends seven days a week there, creating potent images – a head, or an architectural structure, buildings or towers, constructed from rust-red, layered striations, with minimal, intense use of colour. He usually remains there all day, making his lunch in the back room, sometimes listening to the radio as he works, before driving home to Blackheath, where he lives with his partner and student-aged daughter.
The doors into the studio double as a pin board, crammed with postcards and dog-eared clippings. ‘I regard them as memory aids. They are things I like’ – a Holbein, a Géricault, or newspaper articles, now rather yellowing. Five pairs of paint-encrusted plimsolls are also nailed to the door. ‘They’re markers: the shoes I have got through in 20 years. I like the thin soles.’
Brushes, pots and little paper sacks of pure cadmium pigment crowd the surfaces with a hint of careless good order. Bevan’s eyes positively gleam when he talks about charcoal, which, mixed with acrylic to make a coarse, hard velvety finish, is his preferred medium. A tray piled high with black shards of the stuff is vital to his armoury.
‘It is an elemental material. I am fascinated by it because no two pieces are alike and they’re also different colours: brown or blue, as well as the tones of black. The colour depends on how it’s burned. I use poplar, vine and willow, from all over the world – Australia, America, Germany. I found one kind of vine charcoal that came in huge fat sticks, which was ideal for me.
I was very disappointed when the supply dried up. But I go on searching.’
Several of his self-portraits, dating back to the 1980s, hang on the white walls, in preparation for his forthcoming show at the National Portrait Gallery, which will feature five of them. One of Bevan’s particular obsessions is Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, the eighteenth-century German-Austrian sculptor, the subject of an exhibition at the Louvre this spring. He is especially interested in the sculptor’s hyper-expressive ‘character heads’, which explore the interior and exterior structures much as Bevan’s own work does: ‘I’ve been intrigued by these sculptures since I first saw them in 1973.’
His own self-portraits, some of which he titles as ‘after Messerschmidt’ are highly confrontational even if the gaze is turned away, head upturned, neck exaggeratedly long, tendons bulging and urgent. The quietly spoken, affable Bevan could hardly be more different from the visceral work he creates. ‘It’s not so much to do with the face,’ he admits, ‘as with the head as a whole, and the neck, tendons, vessels and nerves that connect it to the body. It’s the vulnerability that interests me.’
Bevan (b.1951) has mostly lived in south London since he left the Yorkshire of his childhood to become a student at Goldsmiths College in 1971, missing the Swinging Sixties. ‘It was the tail end of the hippy era by that time and punk was just beginning. It was a lively time and a far cry from Bradford.’
During the 1980s he divided his time between London and New York. He has hardly been back to Bradford since. ‘We lived just outside. You could look down on the city and see the mills all around. The air was thick from the chimneys. Now it has all changed. The air is cleaner, the factories have closed and the city centre looks very different. I probably wouldn’t recognise it.’
He remembers being ‘a very shy child who spent a lot of time drawing, as entertainment for the imagination. And we did life drawing at primary school, which was very unusual in what was otherwise a pretty straightforward academic education’.
Yet at home he found encouragement through his grandparents, who had plenty of artworks, including many African artefacts, in their house. ‘My grandmother was what you would call a keen “Sunday painter”. She copied well-known pictures and painted landscapes. I remember as a child coming across canvases, and folding stools, and wooden boxes full of paints.’ And the African objects? ‘My grandfather was a trader and explorer who spent years at a time in Africa. The things he brought back were quickly recycled by my grandmother, who didn’t like them much and put them in the saleroom before he came home with another lot. But I realise now how much they inspired me.’
Bevan was elected an RA in 2007 and now serves on its audit committee. ‘I have been fascinated gradually to get to know the full extent of the Academy’s activities, from its exhibitions and the books it produces, to the RA Schools and the fabric of the building. As an artist I run my own small business, so I am enjoying seeing how a big organisation does it.’
Back out in the south London street, yellow-coated parking attendants are patrolling. ‘It used to be very quiet here but now, at least on a Sunday morning, it’s buzzing with activity.’
The cause is an all-singing evangelical church glorying in the name of the Ministries of the Pillars of Fire. This peripatetic organisation moved into the adjoining warehouse six months ago. ‘Sometimes I can hear the singing and clapping,’ Bevan says. He looks momentarily anxious. ‘Occasionally, I worry that with a name like that, the whole enterprise might combust!’ He is smiling as he says this. As long as nothing interrupts his work, he has no complaints.