What is your earliest memory of art?
In about 1953 or 54, I met a marvellous man called Keith Critchlow when we were both doing national service [in the RAF]. He had gone to art school and was a very good draughtsman, and he decided to paint my portrait.
He introduced me to the museums and galleries. We used to visit galleries in Cork Street and then go to the National Gallery, the Tate – which is now Tate Britain – and I was very struck by the British painters like Constable, Turner and Gainsborough, whose marvellous touch I was very engaged by. And the painters who were around at the time: Leon Kossof, Frank Auerbach, people like that, I felt a kind of affinity with. I was very keen on writing because I kept hearing from people that I had a story to tell… But once I started visiting the art galleries, I got hooked on painting.
It was just a kind of happenstance, and what was amazing about Keith was that during the time he was having me sit for him, he caught onto the fact that I was fascinated by painting and was doing it on the sly by myself without tuition. So he got a big mirror and he used it to show me what he was doing.
How do you know when a work is finished?
Well I often don’t – I often depend on Rachel to tell me when to stop!
The canvas comes in a certain size, three metres. I work on part of it, cut it, keep trying to deliver the material onto the surface… When it’s covered all over and there’s no more adjusting and tightening up the tonalities, often at that point I stop and eyeball the thing and decide on the shape.
When I was working just simply by myself, the actual shape of the canvas would be dictated by geometry, by measuring the angles, and of course by the space I was working in, my studio space. But now there’s not quite as much to-ing and fro-ing and cutting and putting together again. Eventually the surface is saturated with the material until it’s sort of ‘giving back’. Then you know that it’s done. Suddenly the painting is looking like your estimation of what you were trying to do.
When did you find out you’d been elected an RA?
Michael Sandle RA approached me one evening at some soiree in the Tate gallery, and asked me if I wanted be an Academician. There had been several attempts to get me in from about 1966, and it never seemed to happen. But then suddenly out of the blue, this very nice man and gifted sculptor asked me would I like to be put forward again, and I said yes. It was 2005 and we were in New York, and out of the blue he rang up one day and announced that I’d got in. I was overjoyed.