In the studio with John Carter RA

Published 10 August 2010

The quiet minimalist aesthetic of the Academician’s London studio has survived an extraordinary intrusion, he tells us.

  • From the Autumn 2010 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    One morning John Carter RA was working in his studio, in a quiet Bayswater mews, when there was a sudden crash. The skylight shattered and, as Carter tells it, “A man fell into my studio. His two-storey fall was broken because he landed on my work, which was stored on the side where he fell. So he sort of bounced off the work on to the concrete floor. This saved his life.”

    The man was conscious, but in pain. “The ambulance men took him off. We heard later that he had an injury that is not often seen in a living person, called a hanged man’s crick, or something like that, and it very occasionally happened at hangings in the old days, saving the victim’s life, only temporarily, I suppose. He survived, and continued his profession as a model – the face of Ralph Lauren, as I remember. There is still a hole in the top of one work, but I restored the other and wrote something about it on the back.”

    Mending the roof proved more difficult. “We found that the particular moulding of the corrugated plastic window was no longer made. So we had to have it specially customised. Of course, it could only be produced in 100-metre lengths or more. So we ended up replacing all the windows in the roof! But the new ones can resist being jumped on, apparently.” This is good to know.

    Before moving there, in 1981, Carter and his artist wife Belinda Cadbury had dedicated more than two years to creating their own dream space in a former marble yard that had supplied tiles for the bathrooms in the Savoy Hotel in the 1930s. The steeply pitched, warehouse-like studio, divided into two, has been ingeniously built in the cobbled mews space between two existing shop buildings. The quality of light, the angularity and harmony of the design, perfectly reflect the beguiling and quiet geometric abstraction of Carter’s own work.

    He keeps fairly regular working hours and often converses with his wife, on the other side of the wall, during the working day. “We always break for lunch at 1pm and listen to the news. Much of the making of my work is purely the process of ‘craft’, and not imaginative or creative. Although, as (the abstract artist) Kenneth Martin said, there is a special quality to this repetitive activity which weavers enjoy too. But it does mean that it’s sometimes nice to have a distraction. I mainly listen to Radio 4 and Test Match Special.”

    A small collection of artists’ monographs fills a bookcase behind his chair. A table is covered with various kinds of glue and carpenters’ tools but all is clean, calm and tidy. The large floor space absorbs a trestle table stacked with work and the eye falls on the smooth, white rendered surface on which Carter likes to hang one or two examples of his work.

    “Although much of the carpentry is done in the adjoining workshop where I have a bench saw, I do some of the cutting of larger sheets of plywood and most of the assembly in the main studio. Also, I do all the ‘painting’ – by which I mean the application of the marble powder and acrylic to the surface – and the sanding down, in the studio. I used to have my drawing table here too, an architect’s one with parallel motion but now it’s upstairs in a smaller, dust-free studio.”

    Carter, shy and serious but with a twinkling wit, was born in 1942 near the Thames in Hampton. His father worked in the film industry at Shepperton Studios as a make-up artist, trained by the film company Gaumont-British in the 1930s when some of the early Hitchcock films were made. Carter suffered at school because of a now almost inaudible stammer. Child psychology was still a crude science and the young boy was hauled out of ordinary school and moved to an independent school in Dorset that specialised in helping children, many from deprived inner-city backgrounds or who had undergone traumas.

    “Actually, I loved it. I was keen on nature. We could collect fossils, birds’ eggs, butterflies. We ate pigeon pie and rabbit shot by the headmaster. The art teacher was terrific and I spent a lot of time modelling clay.” Having returned to London, he left school at 16 and went to art school, first in Twickenham, then Kingston.

    “It was disappointing. I thought everyone would be passionate about art and we would be discussing painting all day. It wasn’t like that at all. It was very formal, and entirely tied to the exam system. At Kingston they wanted me to be a painter, as sculpture was regarded as low prestige. But I managed to sneak into the sculpture studio and work with plaster.”

    Yet although he was elected to the Royal Academy as a sculptor, he considers his three-dimensional works – mainly made of painted wood and hung on walls – as an extension of painting. “Yes, I make what I call ‘wall objects’, although some of my work has been cast, such as the Darmstadt Double Arch (1993) in Germany. I have worked a lot in Germany and Belgium, and exhibited there frequently in the past two decades.”

    Darmstadt Double Arch, two parallelogram structures out of which two square arches have been cut, is characteristic of Carter’s restless obsession with positive and negative forms, a thread running through his subtle work, full of ghostly ambiguities. He explains how, in a work such as Equal Areas II (Cadmium Red) of 1982 (seen on back wall, above) owned by Southampton City Art Gallery but back in his studio temporarily for conservation, all the subdivided shapes and cutouts form a perfect equation. “Though I have to say I am hopeless at mental arithmetic. I can’t add up my change.”

    A book about Carter’s life and work is published this autumn by the Royal Academy, coinciding with a retrospective at the nearby Redfern Gallery, where he started showing in the 1960s, having been spotted as one of the Whitechapel’s New Generation artists.

    And if you are still wondering why the man jumped through the roof that day, Carter can explain: “He leapt from his own balcony, mistaking the plastic for metal, because he was infuriated by a burglar alarm which had been ringing all weekend on an adjoining building. He had a hammer and was intending to strike the device off the wall.” Carter never heard from him again, no apology and no thanks. “Which, I suppose, is strange. But I still have his hammer.”

  • John Carter RA: A Retrospective is at Redfern Gallery, London, 20 October - 11 November 2010 ** ***John Carter* by Chris Yetton, Britta E. Buhlmann, foreword by Mel Gooding (£29.95, RA Publications)

    Fiona Maddocks is a journalist and broadcaster. She is Chief Music Critic of the Observer.

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