Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Craigie Aitchison

My January blog-post about religious art in a secular age got me thinking about my BA dissertation, which explored a similar subject. The tutors assured us we’d get extra brownie points if our writing included primary research, so I made it my goal to try and line up some face to face interviews with modern artists who’d explored religious themes in their work.

After a barrage of letters (probably fifty in total) to artists from Damien Hirst to Andres Serrano, a precious few dropped me a line in personal response.

I was particularly grateful to Sam Taylor-Wood who, although busy with preparations for shows here and in the US, sent me a handwritten note of apology for being unable to talk. Antony Gormley sent me a couple of curmudgeonly, though gratefully received and enlightening pages of longhand prose about the relationship (or lack thereof) between his work and religion.

The net result of my letters, then, was that only two solitary artists actually acceded to my request for a personal interview. The first encounter was a bit of a disaster (my fault entirely). Royal Academician Anthony Green contacted me via his gallery to offer a telephone interview. It was all very short notice, ‘Anthony Green will speak to you tomorrow morning, call him on this number at 10am.’ It was the holidays, and I was nowhere near the college library. I could find precious little about him online. Here was a problem. I’d pursued a carpet bombing tactic trying at all costs to secure an interview with absolutely anyone who’d ever come close to religious subject matter, but now someone had called my bluff and offered me a chat straight away with no time to prepare. And I knew sod all about him.

The extent of my knowledge was this; Green is a figurative painter who makes images using scenes from his own life. An enormous shaped canvas he produced for the millennium, entitled ‘Resurrection’ had toured English cathedrals. Surely I could bluff my way through a phone interview by just asking him to chat about this? The answer was no. Green, obviously an old hand at weeding out the bluffers from the enthusiasts, began the interview with a brief quid pro quo to gauge my cluelessness. ‘How much do you know about my work?’ he pleasantly inquired. I stumbled in my response and he invited me to call him back when I’d done more homework. I scuttled away embarrassed and painfully aware the fault was my own – I’d learnt a vital lesson, and I never called him again.


Of those fifty or so initial letters, I only got a single face to face interview – with 80 year old Royal Academician Craigie Aitchison, a man whose career stretched back to the mid 50s and who was the immediate contemporary of Freud and Bacon.

Luckily this interview was booked more than a month in advance, giving me the chance to learn from the mistakes of my phone interview disaster with Anthony Green. It’s true to say that, unlike my previous artist encounters with Gilbert and George and Carl Andre, my initial contact with Craigie wasn’t exactly fan mail. If I hadn’t known him through his religious themed art it’s safe to say he would probably never have crossed my radar. I borrowed various books and articles from the library and started to read about the man.

Craigie was what might be (perhaps unfairly) termed a ‘naive’ artist – schooled in technique but choosing to simplify his figures into schematic representations – images that critics often dismissed as childlike. Although agnostic himself, the crucifixion had been a recurring subject in his work for fifty years. I didn’t like the pictures at first glance, but as I turned the pages and accustomed myself to his way of looking, they began to move me.

His compositions felt like a tranquil middle space between figurative and abstract – with gorgeous colour combinations dominating the image to such an extent that it sometimes felt the crucifixion subjects were just a figurative (and no doubt symbolic) framework upon which to hang sensual colours hinting at transcendence of the world of the flesh. Interesting to note that, at a time when Francis Bacon’s ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion’ hinted at the horror and violence of postwar Europe, Craigie’s treatment of similar subject matter contained no anger or violence, only solace and, at times, melancholy.

Showing Craigie’s work to my friends at college, I realized this painter was pure artistic Marmite, even more so than my beloved Lowry. A couple of people delighted in the sweetness of the pictures, whilst many more were plainly outraged by the naivety of his technique.

Reading about his life, I had to confess to being charmed by his life story. The grandson of an unconventional, thrice married Scottish minister, he was encouraged into a career in law and studied at Middle Temple in London – before failing his exams and becoming a painter. He travelled Europe in an old London taxi, where he viewed the medieval and early Renaissance masterpieces that would eventually inspire his career.

Intriguingly, my research also threw up a coincidental connection to my own life. Craigie had links to the area of central Scotland where I was born. My Dad was able to confirm that he’d evidently been honoured in my town by having local streets named after him – my birthplace was flanked by ‘Craigie Court’ and ‘Aitchison Drive’. I felt sure this would be a good ice-breaker at our interview.


On the big day I admit I was nervous about going to his house – Craigie owned several large terriers which he adored. I tend to be quite nervous around dogs, so I hoped they’d be well behaved, and that Craigie wouldn’t be offended by my reluctance to befriend them.

I strolled down a charming secluded street in Kennington and, at the appointed hour, knocked on the door of a lovely Victorian house. The sound of rushing paws and frantic doggy barking greeted my ears, followed by the sound of an old man fiddling with the door catch and berating his pets individually by name for making so much noise.

‘Now really…. shhh Sunday! Sunday, stop your barking please!’

The door flew back to reveal an old man with a prodigious mop of unkempt white hair, wearing a friendly if somewhat guarded smile. He ushered me into his drawing room, which I half-recognised from many descriptions in articles on Craigie. The artist had purchased the Kennington house with his mother about thirty-five years before, and had made it his own private museum. The room resembled a Victorian bric-a-brac shop, with little statues and trinkets engulfing every inch of space. The curtains were shut and, as I recall it, the walls were painted a dark shade – giving the space a warming, womb-like feeling, emphasized by the low atmospheric lamp-light.

It would be wrong to describe this eccentric room as ‘disordered’ or ‘cluttered’, or to give the impression that Craigie was just a man who could no longer bear to throw stuff away. Not a bit of it. The house was well cared for – very clean and tastefully decorated. The myriad objects were consciously displayed around the room with infinite care. Everything here had its place.

Craigie introduced me to his dogs, big excitable white creatures which looked more like sheep. They were, he explained, Bedlington terriers – prized for not shedding their hair all over the place. ‘Look at their coats, it’s like wool!’ he enthused.

I warned him that I was nervous around dogs, and that I had an irrational fear of being bitten.

‘Oh dear’ he said, sitting down in an armchair, ‘that’s quite a shame’. His brow was furrowed in concern and deep empathy – by no means the defensive reaction I’d feared. ‘Would a little drink help you to relax before we chat, then?’ he inquired with a sprightly look in his eye. I assented, and he gestured towards a crystal decanter on a small table in the corner.

‘Help yourself to a whisky - a large one, mind. And pour me one while you’re there.’

Settling down with our drinks, I produced my list of questions.

The interview was a success, with Craigie offering some insights into his religious pictures. His discourse was disarmingly down to earth (which I loved) and mainly took the form of anecdotes. He didn’t know why he was so interested in religious subject matter, and didn’t feel any need to scramble around in his mind for reasons. He just painted what he liked. He ventured to suggest that his initial interest in the subject was a reaction against snobbery, namely a specific piece of criticism he received from a tutor at the Slade in the early 50s who in response to his copy of a Georges Rouault Crucifixion, had declared “This is far too serious a subject for you!” Craigie answered this rebuke by stubbornly making it his core subject matter.

We discussed the difficulty of contemporary artists making work for religious space, and chatted about the artist’s own commission for Truro catherdral. He told the story of a verger who had been strongly opposed to the scheme, but who had contacted him years later to admit that, after daily contact with the canvasses, he had grown to love them.

When the interview ended, Craigie encouraged me to stay a while longer and chat off-topic at my leisure. He refilled my whisky glass several times and we sat there talking for several hours. His housekeeper, a stout middle-aged Londoner with a 40-a-day voice joined us and shared some gossip about the neighbourhood.

Craigie was extremely interested to hear about my studies – he had a nephew at the same university, and was intrigued to hear how art and illustration were currently being taught. I fished a volume of my visual diary out of my bag, and he spent thirty or forty minutes looking carefully through it, reading the captions, laughing and asking me questions about the characters. He seemed especially interested in the life studies of my parents watching the telly.

“You must keep doing this” he said eagerly as he handed the book back, “I’ve really enjoyed looking at them.” I was delighted with this seal of approval, particularly because it seemed so utterly sincere and heartfelt.

Meanwhile, the dogs were melting my heart too. They were gently determined to get my attention. At a certain point, deep in conversation with Craigie, one of the dogs lifted her paw and literally began to tap me on the leg to distract me – just as a human being might do.

I noticed Craigie was wearing a colourful tie printed with his own painting of a dog.

“Oh that’s Wayney” he explained, “Wayney died a long time ago.” He proceeded to explain, at rather confusing length, the entire genealogy of his pets – his current dogs, as I recall it, were all descendants of Wayney.

Several refills of my glass later, and I was feeling rather drunk. I took my leave and thanked Craigie for his kindness before stumbling out into the early evening with a spinning head.


After the interview I used particularly glowing terms to describe Craigie to my friends. I had ‘fallen in love’ with him and he was the ‘nicest man I had ever met’. Years later I can still honestly say that I have rarely ever had the fortune to meet anyone else so kind or down to earth.

We did exchange a couple of letters afterwards, and I’d hoped to get the chance to pop round and say hello again but – as is so often the way with these things – it got delayed and delayed and finally forgotten. I was sad, therefore, to discover in late 2009 that Craigie had died at the age of 83. I hope those dogs found a loving home…

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