Issue Number: 113
Over lunch at Bocca di Lupo, Basil Beattie RA tells Sarah Greenberg about the doubt and decision-making behind every painterly mark.
Basil Beattie RA is often referred to as a painter’s painter. He has long hovered under the radar, recognised by his fellow artists and former students - he taught at Goldsmiths from the mid-1960s to the 90s - more than by the general public. That may be about to change with a retrospective of 25 years of his work this autumn, featuring some of his large paintings.
The artist, known for his painterly abstraction and hieratic forms, likens the process of painting to the ‘corridor of uncertainty’ in cricket. ‘The great cricketer and commentator Geoffrey Boycott describes the moment where a batsman, facing a ball coming towards his off-stump, is unsure where the ball is going to bounce and how it will swerve. It’s a difficult judgement and easy to get out. I feel that way when I am facing a canvas. I even called one painting Corridors of Uncertainty (2005).’
Basil Beattie RA in Bocca di Lupo restaurant in Soho. Photo © Julian Anderson. We meet to talk about his art and life at Bocca di Lupo, a wonderful Italian restaurant in Soho, a brisk ten-minute walk from the RA. Beattie requested Italian food because it reminds him of his first trip to Italy – an artistic and culinary awakening when he was on National Service in the 1950s. ‘I’d spent five years at art school and had to do two years of National Service before I could enter the RA Schools. I was stationed in Germany and we could travel free to the border. So I went down to Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome and Assisi, which was fantastic – better than coming home. I’ve never fallen out of love with Venice – my favourite place there is Tintoretto’s Scuola di San Rocco.’
In a way, a meal at Bocca di Lupo provides us with a mini-tour of Italy, as the restaurant specialises in regional dishes and wines from all over the country. The chef/owner is Jacob Kenedy, a Londoner who is clearly besotted with Italy and has travelled its length and breadth to bring the best of its local cooking to the table – and to give us the recipes in his gorgeous new cookbook (not for the faint-hearted). In the dining-room hung with paintings by the chef’s mother, Haidee Becker, our meal begins with sharing plates of Roman fried street food, including carciofi alla giudía (crispy fried whole baby artichokes), baccalà (salt cod enrobed in breadcrumbs), mozzarella rice balls, and olives stuffed with minced meat, all as delicious as they are unhealthy. We then share a seasonal speciality – fresh porcini, shaved raw with celery, parsley and lemon, drizzled with olive oil.
It is difficult to choose from the tempting menu offering small and large plates for almost every dish, but finally Beattie orders the daily special of langoustine risotto, while I opt for the grilled John Dory, doused in flavourful juices, with a side of my favourite seasonal dish: puntarelle – wild raw chicory hearts tossed with anchovy and olive oil. As Beattie prefers red wine, we order a 2007 Pinot Noir from Trattmann Girlan, a tiny vineyard in the Alto Adige, which could compete with a fine Burgundy.
Beattie only joined the RA relatively recently, in 2006. For years he was reluctant to join because he felt it was tainted by the infamous 1949 speech of Alfred Munnings PRA, when he mocked Picasso. Nonetheless, after National Service in the 1950s, where he saw Picasso’s Guernica in Cologne during the 1955 Picasso show there – ‘It made my eyes water’ – he attended the RA Schools, the first member of his family to pursue higher education.
'My father was a signalman on the railways in Hartlepool. We never had any art at home but somehow drawing was the only thing I was good at, and I couldn’t imagine going down the mines or working in the shipyards. When I was ill with bronchitis for weeks at a time during secondary school, I started to draw a lot. Then I got a grant to study at art college. After National Service and the RA Schools, I got a job teaching at Goldsmiths.’ His parents never came down to London to see his degree show. ‘It’s a bit sad. My mum went to art history classes because she was trying to keep up with what I was doing – she realised I was putting more and more distance between us. But my father didn’t engage with any real discussion of art. He had fixed views born of not knowing anything about it.’
Formative moments for the young Beattie included the Tate’s 1959 ‘New American Painting’ show, where he came face to face with Abstract Expressionism for the first time: ‘You can’t appreciate these images and their immersive quality in reproduction.’ This show – and especially the 1961 Rothko show at the Whitechapel Gallery – opened his eyes to new possibilities in art: ‘These works were abstract but they had an emotional depth that I liked. When I looked at a Rothko, I sensed he was making a painting about something invisible – he wasn’t abstracting from nature – and he was trying to write a new language that made it visible. He was expressing human experience but not necessarily what you saw through the eye. He was drawing from something that didn’t exist. It was a feeling.’
Over a dessert of gelato and rum-soaked amaretti in a dark chocolate syrup that he describes as ‘so good I can feel it doing me harm’, we discuss his forthcoming show. What has he learned by looking back at his career? ‘The more you know, the less you know, the more difficult it gets,’ he laughs. ‘The image has to be fought for. There is a sensual quality about paintings – there are tender moments in them and there are aggressive moments. These things are not in the front of my brain. But when I put the brush down and look at the painting, there are all these different possibilities. The unnameable aspects of the paintings are just as important as the nameable parts. The journey in the painting is to try to make it into an experience that is as vivid as possible. Anyway – come to my show and look!’