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1979 Landscape with Uneducated Old Man and Boy, 1979

In the summer of 1979, my dad took me to London to see the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. We went on the coach from Coventry to Victoria and would then have walked through St James’ Park to Piccadilly. Trips to London were always exciting. For my dad, this visit would have been his opportunity to show what the future had in store for me as an artist. He’d been to the Exhibition a good few times when he was living in London in the early 1960s. Showing at the Academy was historically a big deal and the Summer Exhibition would have represented to him an opportunity for the man in the street to get his foot in the door and his paintings on the wall. His own future would be a little less bright as the following year he had the first of several heart attacks and was made redundant from the Standard car factory, never to work again. In May that year, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. Dad had told us that it was largely due to the sweetener offered to working-class families that they would be able to buy their own council houses, bringing an end to the idea of homes people could afford (to be replaced later with the hollow mantra of affordable homes). The Coventry band, the Specials, had their first hit that summer too, providing a soundtrack to our own kitchen sink dramas as everything went slowly down Ghost Town’s plugholes.

Explore the 1979 catalogue

And here we were at the Academy. Escaping on a day return ticket. To be honest, what I saw there has long since faded away. The whole experience would have faded too if it hadn’t been for the little blue catalogue dad bought me as a souvenir. The catalogue isn’t illustrated so what I have left is a list of titles and artists. I obviously walked around the Exhibition with the book itself because I’ve underlined or circled with a red biro a few of the entries that caught my eye (Fig. 1). What did Thomas W. Mckinley’s Untitled or Carolyn J. Chapman’s Skylight look like? What was so impressive to a twelve year old about Gareth W. Hawker’s Pears and Nuts or Kathy Clarke’s Apples? What was or were The Gates on the Road to Truth by Les Matthews? Who was The Dead Man by Michael J. Salaman or Figure with Clock and Mirror, Dec. 1977 by Julian Cross? What was so fascinating that I should underline all sixteen of the miniatures in the showcase? Of all the 1,444 exhibitors and the thirty-one that I’ve highlighted, only two artists leave me with any images of their work: Anthony Green’s The 17th Wedding Anniversary: Our Bedroom at Mole End and all three of Carel Weight’s The Seven Deadly Sins (the other four are not included in the Exhibition). I’m not sure if this is because they have lingered in my memory or if it’s because I’ve seen examples of their work since. Can I detect any traces of influence in work I’ve done and what I’m doing now? Certainly, some of the titles of other works could be titles of my own paintings: Rain before Seven by Roger Handley, Green Lane by Peter Fuller (the art critic?), Rainy Day by Jeanne Holder, Souvenirs by John Flint. There is a sad Englishness about them.

There is a sadness about this small book too full of names and titles that mean as much as names and dates on gravestones. I’ve lost count of the pubs and cafés I’ve visited that line their walls with watercolours and oils, embarrassed nudes, hopeful views, and very still lives. The Summer Exhibition is the daddy of them all. Ungraciously, I’ve come to hate all of it. Isn’t it a little like the Chelsea Flower Show or Wimbledon? I haven’t been to a Summer Exhibition since that one in 1979—though, funnily enough, a few of my works have been. I don’t watch it on the telly either. All the B-listers in linen lining up to look sophisticated get in the way of the work.

I wonder if they still do the little catalogues?

In 1996, I began my MA at the Royal College of Art. I was a bit daunted by the prospect of being there and more than a bit unsure about what I should do. Rummaging in an old box for inspiration, I came across the catalogue for the Summer Exhibition 1979. It seemed strange and comforting being in London nearly twenty years since dad brought me to the Royal Academy to show me the future. One of the first pieces of work I made there was a list of all the titles in that exhibition. It was an attempt at a memorial to the fallen images of my childhood and a homage to my own aspirations. The work was called Landscape with Uneducated Old Man and Boy, 1979 and remains unexhibited (Fig. 2).

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Explore the 1979 catalogue