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1969 Study Against a Black Background

Can an annual exhibition of art take the temperature of the social world swirling around on the streets outside? Can contemporary events breach the solid walls of Burlington House? A lot was happening in the summer of 1969 while the doors of the Summer Exhibition were open. More eyes were on television screens than on canvases, watching the lunar landings of the first manned mission to the Moon made by the United States’ Apollo 11 on 20 July 1969. If objects in the Summer Exhibition did make reference to contemporary events, they tended to draw on those of the previous year for inspiration. Ruskin Spear’s painting Study Against a Black Background, a portrait of the politician Enoch Powell positioned in front of a microphone, provided a link with one of the most widely reported events of 1968, a speech given by the then-Conservative politician on 20 April (Fig. 1). Now infamously remembered as the “Rivers of Blood speech”, Powell railed against the immigration of people from Commonwealth nations and the Race Relations Act of 1968, speaking to a gathering in Birmingham. This led to his dismissal from the Conservative shadow cabinet by Edward Heath and left an anti-immigration legacy in British right-wing politics which is still obviously apparent over fifty years later. By the opening of the Summer Exhibition in 1969, it might be said that this was somewhat old news, but Spear’s canvas reopened the debate around Powell’s speech with a particularly provocative title, which surely did not only reference the composition and colour choice of the canvas, but also the racist tones of Powell’s speech. The artist stated that the painting was inspired the “mood of the country on the racial issue.”1

Explore the 1969 catalogue

As a seasoned exhibitor at the Summer Exhibition, Spear was well aware of the long history of political portraits at the Annual Exhibition. Significantly, the painting was newsworthy even before its exhibition, with Charles Grenville describing it in The Daily Mail on 2 June 1969 as “The picture destined to be the talking point of the RA”.2 The painting related to news reporting in more than one way, being directly sourced from photographs of Powell giving the speech, and was made without Powell’s knowledge. Although, somewhat cannily, Spear avoided using Powell’s name in the title. The Daily Mirror also described it as “the talking point” of the Exhibition and Spear as an artist “who specialises in provocative pictures for the academy exhibitions”.3 For The Times critic, this was a “punchy portrait”, which would find no problem in finding a buyer at the price of £1,000, suggesting that Powell was certainly not out of favour with all in the country. Spear remained purposely ambiguous about the work, saying, “It is up to people to read what they will into it.”4 The “talking point” picture, or “problem pictures” as the genre was widely known from the late nineteenth century onwards, were works painted specifically with the Summer Exhibition crowds in mind, depicting a controversial subject and/or an ambiguous or unresolved narrative. Ursula Robertshaw reviewing the Exhibition for The Illustrated London News read this ambiguity in Spear’s work, describing it was “really two portraits in one, which you keep seeing successively and at the same time.” For her, one portrait showed Powell as a “reasonable man, listening to the other chap’s point of view, the intellectual”, and the other was Powell as the “ranting demagogue, who seems to be striding out of the frame in furious attack.”5

Spear delighted in gritty subjects, and was known for his paintings of down-at-heel pubs and clubs (where he had once made money playing the piano) in his native Hammersmith and its environs. By 1969, he had taught at the Royal College of Art for over twenty years and had been an RA for fifteen years. He was also a talented portraitist, creating further political portraits, including his enigmatic depiction of the Labour leader Harold Wilson in 1974. Spear was a huge admirer of the painter Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Painters, inspired not only by Sickert’s focus on the forgotten corners of London life, but perhaps also his use of newspaper photographs as source material which often captured their subjects mid-action and not formally posed in the manner of many traditional academic portraits.

As well as the standard fare of flower paintings, bucolic country scenes, and royal and society portraiture, there were works which stood out as somehow more connected to contemporary life and events (Fig. 2). These might have been outnumbered, but there was a sense that the Academy was at least trying to be more in touch with contemporary events. The press barometer measured this change against the people who attended rather than the works on the wall. “Never mind about the pictures, it’s the people that count …” ran an article in The Evening News, noting that “Now there are mini-cars in the courtyard and long hair in the galleries.”6 Spear’s painting proved that exhibits in the Summer Exhibition still had the potential to ignite debates, even when most of the country was looking up, gazing at the moon.

  1. Charles Greville, “Enoch by Spear”, The Daily Mail, 2 June 1969.↩︎

  2. Charles Greville, “Enoch by Spear”, The Daily Mail, 2 June 1969.↩︎

  3. George Thaw, “A Study in Black of Enoch the Orator”, The Daily Mirror, 2 June 1969.↩︎

  4. ”Powell Main Talking Point at Academy”, The Daily Telegraph, 3 May 1969, 15.↩︎

  5. Ursula Robertshaw, “The Summer Exhibition”, The Illustrated London News, 3 May 1969, 40.↩︎

  6. ”Never mind about the pictures, it’s the people that count …”, The Evening News, 2 May 1969.↩︎

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Explore the 1969 catalogue