Tucked into the crook of Newington Butts and Walworth Roads, just south of the Elephant and Castle, is the old cobbled estate of Peacock’s Yard. Its workshops were once a hive of Victorian industry, but the artisans gradually gave way to artists, and now council rent rises have driven almost all the artists out. But one survivor recently received a surprise boost to his campaign to stay when he learned that he had been elected a Royal Academician.
Frank Bowling RA Frank Bowling RA Frank Bowling RA photographed by Eamonn McCabe
Frank Bowling’s road to the Academy has been a long and winding one. Born in 1936 in Guyana (then British Guiana) to native Guyanese parents — his father was a district paymaster in the police, his mother a dressmaker — Bowling never thought that he would become an artist.
The white sharkskin suit he had made for him at the age of thirteen suggested other ambitions: ‘I thought I was going to be a swank around town,’ he recalls.
But after coming to London to complete his schooling and being called up for National Service in the RAF, Bowling fell in with a group of artists who encouraged him to paint. By the late 1950s, his work had caught the eye of Carel Weight, who persuaded him to try for the Royal College of Art. He got in at the second attempt in 1959, joining the generation of David Hockney, Allen Jones and RB Kitaj, now famous for launching the British Pop Art movement.
However, Bowling’s heart was never in Pop Art. His personal style of abstract figuration, rooted in memories of his Guyanese childhood, was initially closer in mood to Francis Bacon, though after a move to New York in the mid-1960s the figurative elements faded from view. Recurring images of his mother’s store were replaced by more generalised maps of the Caribbean diaspora, themselves later absorbed into a pure abstraction, in which painterly gestures bent the rules of modernist geometry.
It’s a cold, rainy December morning when I meet Bowling in the snug, first-floor flat that he shares with textile artist Rachel Scott in John Islip Street, a stone’s throw away from Tate Britain. Before leaving for the studio, he pulls on a heavy black cord jacket, black woollen scarf and trademark black trilby. The combined effect looks dapper but warm; when we get inside the studio, I see why.
Peacock’s Yard is a workplace, pure and simple. Racks of paintings crowd the walls on either side of the entrance, a large colourful canvas is propped up opposite, five of Bowling’s ‘white paintings’ adorn the end wall, and a work in progress occupies half the floor. Otherwise, the space contains two chairs, two stepladders, a large cardboard box overflowing with all the usual studio clutter, a bubble-wrapped map painting returned from the 2003 Venice Biennale, and two fan heaters battling the cold — and losing — from opposing fronts. The studio floor, to my surprise, is spotless. ‘I don’t want it to compete with what I’m doing,’ says Bowling. He has cleaned up his act since his early New York days, when multicoloured paint dripping through the floorboards used to summon his angry neighbour from downstairs.
It’s hard to believe any floor could compete with a Bowling canvas. His picture surfaces are packed with incident, much of it embedded in the paint. Polystyrene packing chips, strips of foam, the curly plastic seals of vitamin bottles — everyday objects, ‘basically, part of my life’ — are bound into the paint surface, like memories, with the aid of an odd assortment of everyday tools: a house painter’s brushes, a dressmaker’s pinking shears (a memory of his mother), and a plasterer’s toothed scraper for scoring wavy lines. His only standard art materials seem to be acrylic paint and gel, purchased in industrial quantities. When his fellow Royal Academician Anthony Eyton came to visit, he asked: ‘Where’s your palette?’ Bowling doesn’t own one; he mixes his paints in empty jam and vitamin pill bottles.
Like most artists’ studios, the space doubles as a store, each slot in the racks containing a slice of 45 years of painting history. Now a selection of Bowling’s work is going on show in a retrospective at his new London gallery, Rollo Contemporary Art, to be followed in May by an exhibition, ‘The White Paintings’, in the New Forest. But despite his success in New York — where he still keeps a studio — recognition in Britain has come late to this Caribbean-born painter, steeped in the Western tradition. As a writer and contributing editor for the American publication, Arts Magazine, in the late ’60s, Bowling helped initiate the critical debate on black art, but nowadays — he’ll be 70 this year — he prefers to let his paintings do the debating: ‘If inspiration doesn’t come out of my work, it’s not going to come from anywhere.’
To the inevitable question, how does it feel to be the first black RA, he replies with a smile: ‘I like the idea of being the first of anything.’ But if the British media are expecting elephant dung, they’ll be disappointed. Bowling’s paintings may be packed with associations, but he’s determined to keep them uncluttered by issues of race and identity: ‘Those things touch on my life but, for me, they’re extraneous to my painting. I don’t see how you can hang your distress on the wall: how you can hang up your hang-ups,’ he says firmly in his soft Caribbean burr.
‘I don’t think you can escape race, but I want to keep it out of my studio.’