From the Autumn 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
For a feature entitled ‘In the Studio’, Brian Catling RA was never likely to be a straightforward subject. Elected as an Academician in 2015, he says he doesn’t really have a studio. In an email he explained that while he has places in which to make things, most of his real work is done in his head, so his studio is a “floating one that exists between imagined audience and venue logistics”. When I quoted this back to him, in his worker’s cottage in a corner of old industrial Oxford, he guffawed loudly. A big bear of a man, with high forehead, jowly chin and huge hands, Catling (b.1948) is larger than life and twice as exuberant, with a bellowing laugh and strong, gravelly voice.
His work is hard to categorise: sculptor, poet, novelist, film-maker, installation and performance artist, happy to play ferociously on invented instruments, pull mad faces for the camera, or drape his head in a plastic inflatable stag head (check him out on Google images). His fantasy novel The Vorrh (2015), speaks of demons and angels, warriors and priests. “I’ve always been peculiarly drawn to the dark, to the mysterious.” His black braces, accordingly, are decorated
with skulls and crossbones.
Catling was educated at Walthamstow School of Art – after failing his foundation course at Maidstone “where they thought I was a rogue, and an unruly and dangerous influence” – and at the Royal College of Art. He later taught there, and at the Royal Academy Schools, before becoming Professor of Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford. He loves teaching: “I like the idea of giving something back, of getting students to be themselves. No prisoners, no disciples: it’s their imagination that matters, not mine.” He grew up off the Old Kent Road in south London – mean streets in the 1950s and 1960s – and thinks of himself as a true Cockney, though he looks more like something out of a Norse saga.
Born, then, within the sound of Bow Bells? “Ah, well that’s the nub of the matter. I have no idea. I am adopted. Or a foundling, as I prefer to think of it. I have never wanted to know. I don’t think I have a very English-shaped head – whatever that is [laughs]. I never looked for my birth parents. I had a wonderful, working- class childhood and my parents gave me love, support, wisdom. I couldn’t be luckier.” His father was a caretaker, his mother a housewife.
Catling has overcome, but still shows signs of, the stammer that he attributes to a well- intentioned primary school teacher persuading the left handed-child to switch to right. At comprehensive school in Walworth he was “seriously dyslexic” though no-one used the word. “I had great teachers – a weird lot of non-conformists. Fantastic. The school was full of yobs and thugs. I was in the gutter stream but they found me in the library reading Rabelais while everyone else was doing woodwork, preparing to be policemen or criminals… I was saved by my imagination. Art got me out.”
When not in what he calls “the hutch” (pictured), a space at the Ruskin – “It’s purely a workshop. Total chaos. Not the kind of studio where I go in, make a cup of tea and smoke a pipe” – he works at his dining table in the conservatory by his kitchen. An array of objects lines the window ledge: nodding plastic Buddha, sheep’s skull, a Burmese sabre “for cutting wood and people” and an olive tree stump. “This is where it all happens. On a laptop. Though I do little egg tempera paintings here too.” Several tiny canvases, vivid, wispy, delicate, are propped on bookshelves laden with encyclopaedias and contemporary poetry. He is a fan of Blake, whose small tempera work The Ghost of a Flea (1819–20) is an inspiration in these paintings. “I really enjoy the process. You can add layer on layer of paint, and yet the luminosity shines through. It’s an obsession.”
By the table, a leather attache case packed with brushes, pigment pots and a single raw egg stands open on a 1960s laminated hostess trolley. “I’ve never owned a home. Never learned to drive. Don’t have many possessions. You see this is my studio! I can wheel it anywhere, set up shop and begin. Maybe it’s because I’m a foundling. Or, better, a cuckoo in the nest of the art world.”