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R[esource], C[reativity], A[dvancement]: Derek Boshier

As this year's graduates receive their degrees, RCA Blog talks to artist Derek Boshier (ARCA Diploma, Painting 1962) about opportunity, education, transformation, international diversity and what happens when a creative community is encouraged to flourish.

Derek Boshier receives an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal College of Art at Convocation on 1 July 2016.

RCA Blog: Tell me how you arrived at the RCA?

My years at the Royal College were when David Hockney, Allen Jones, R B Kitaj and all those people were there. Patrick Caulfied came a year later…

The process of getting in to the Royal College at the time was quite complicated for a 20-year-old. In Part 1 of the application process they looked at your portfolio, which was a large selection of paintings and drawings, sketchbooks. This all went up by train… If you were accepted to Part 2, that was the interview. And if you were from the provinces, which David was – from Bradford, I was from Somerset, Peter Philips was from Birmingham – the College insisted you stay overnight in London because the interview was over two days.

I even remember the place we were recommended to stay, the Burns Hotel, off the Earls Court Road. The first day we spent the whole day in the life drawing studio. The models were put up, and there were statues to draw, and we drew all day. Then we went back to where we were staying, and the next day we came in for the interview proper.

You went in, and I recall it as being like the crescent/star flag. They were the crescent, and you were the star, though of course it didn’t feel like that, as the unfortunate interviewee facing this huge curve of professors. Your sketchbooks, paintings and drawings were all arranged on the table, and they asked you all the normal questions, why do you want to come here, who’s your favourite artist, and some that you hadn’t anticipated. They were very friendly. It was all the people who went on to become my tutors, Carol Weight, Roger de Grey. I had such a good time at the Royal College.

RCA Blog: Why was the Royal College the place you wanted to apply to? And what were you doing before?

So I’ll go right back, because we have time to talk. It was the thing at that time in the UK to take the 11+. It was a terrible idea, a class thing really. If you passed you’d go on to a grammar school and continue an academic training, and if you didn’t you went to a trade school, basically, and learnt plumbing or electrics as your main education. My parents had said to me, ‘If you pass this exam, we’ll get you a bicycle.’ I sat the exam, and two weeks later there was the school assembly, and the names were called of the candidates for grammar school. My name wasn’t read out, and I thought, there goes the bicycle.

But at 11 o’clock I had to go and see the headmaster. And he said, ‘Well. Boshier, your name wasn’t read out as a successful candidate for the grammar school.’ I said, ‘No, sir.’ And he said, ‘In fact, your name was on the list but we thought there’d been a typing error.’ They’d been calling County Hall in Dorchester all morning, saying, ‘Are you sure you got this name right.’ So I went to grammar school.

My whole education process was unexpected. I had a strange grammar school experience, I’d win the form prize one year and be bottom the next year. They liked me because I was a track athlete, never beaten at 220, 440, 880 yards or one mile. I went to art school and never ran another race.

RCA Blog: What did you think art school was going to bring to your life that wasn’t there already?

I came from a working-class background. My parents were janitors. When I told the school I was leaving at 16, the only person who approached me was the art master – a marvellous man called Edgar Maltby. He was very important in my life. He said to me, ‘You know, Boshier, it’s a bad idea to leave school at 16. What are you going to do?’ And I said I thought I might become a butcher, because my best friend Don Hanny’s father ran a Dewhurst butcher’s shop in the main street in Sherborne, and he’d offered me a job. He said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing art?’ And I said. ‘What’s art?’

He said, ‘It’s what you do on Thursday afternoon.’ And I realised I’d quite liked that. The subjects I’d known I liked at school were geography and history, but when I asked what’s art, he said ‘Art is everywhere. Look at that magazine, someone designed that cover. Open it. You see that advertisement, someone designed that. You see that sweater, someone designed that, and this chair. And then there are painters and sculptors and photographers. Look out of the window. Look at that streetlamp, that was on paper before it was anywhere else.’  He was amazing.

He told me there were places called art colleges, where you go and train to be an artist, and he helped me to get a portfolio together and apply to Yeovil School of Art in Somerset. I went for the interview, 16 years old and not very confident. The day before, my parents had told me: when you go for the interview, you’d better tell them you can only go for one year, because we can’t afford College. And you’ve got to be taught something that’ll mean you can make some money afterwards.

So I went for the interview and repeated this information. They said, ‘Oh dear, just step outside for a minute.’ And when I went back in, they said. ‘Well there is something we can train you for. Do you know the town? There’s one department store, called Plummer Roddis of Yeovil and Bournemouth, and we could train you to be a window dresser…’ – which, incidentally, was what Andy Warhol was doing at the time.

RCA Blog: And Jasper Johns…

Yes, people who weren’t from the traditional, upper-class, free-to-be-an-artist backgrounds… I went, and within the first two weeks of being at art school I fell in love, with Rembrandt and Picasso. It was so fascinating. I thought, this isn’t easy but it’s so interesting. I got it straight away.

So I did four years at Yeovil. You did one year foundation, in the Fifties, it was a very rigorous academic training. You did life drawing every day, and in your first year, you were only allowed to draw, you weren’t allowed to paint. In your second year, you could paint if you passed the exam. You had to name the bones and muscles in the body, and get 70% to pass. I can still tell you that the smallest muscle in the body is in the eye, and called the orbicularis palpebrarum.

RCA Blog: That’s a very useful piece of information to carry through life…

I started to travel. At 16 or 17 I hitchhiked all over Europe. Then I applied for the Royal College. I had a tutor called Robert Ellis who was a Royal College graduate. He was the only painting tutor at Yeovil, and for the last two terms I was the only painting student. He had great Royal College stories. He used to paint the hands on Ruskin Spear paintings.  He loved the College, and I was the only person ever to get in from Yeovil. 

RCA Blog: Were you nervous? Did it feel like a natural path, or was it something that you really wanted and were anxious about? 

I wasn’t too nervous. A little bit. I wasn’t offered a bike that time.

RCA Blog: But you hadn’t lived in London before, so it was a huge move?

Oh, at that point, I’d only been to London twice. Once to see the Festival of Britain, the Skylon, and the other time was when Yeovil School of Art did a one-day trip to London. We left on a morning train, slept on the way up, went to the National Gallery and a musical in the afternoon.

Anyway, after the life drawing, I went back to the hotel and in the lobby were a couple of guys, and one of them came up to me and said, ‘Didn’t I see you at the Royal College? Are you applying there? So am I. Tomorrow’s the interview. D’you think we’ll get in?’ That was David Hockney. He was with Norman Stephens, and they were at College in Bradford together.

RCA Blog: And you were accepted?

Yes, though if you got accepted there was National Service, so you went two years later. I spent two years in the British Army, and David, because he was a conscientious objector, spent his time in the mortuary and the Forestry Commission. He used to tell great stories about the mortuary. On his first day, he was working and there were all the bodies and the smell of formaldehyde, and all of a sudden someone called lunchtime, and everyone got their lunchboxes out, put them on the bodies and calmly proceeded to eat their sandwiches. David and I were at the College 1959–62.

So we started at the Royal College, and it was marvellous. Here we were in London, a lot of us from the provinces. Most of the people involved in the Pop movement were working class. The only person who wasn’t was Pauline Boty, a marvellous painter who was from a middle-class family. She applied to stained glass, because she’d been told it was hard to get into painting. 

RCA Blog: In the Painting Studios, were you separated in different spaces, or all painting together? 

The painting studios were wonderful. They were in Exhibition Road, part of the Victoria and Albert Museum, through the arch. Every time I go to London, I still walk up Exhibition Road and think, ‘God! I had such a great time at the Royal College.’

They were marvellous studios because they were part of the museum: high ceilings, very good light. Funnily enough, practically all the time we were there, I worked in the same room as David. We were diagonally across from each other. Often, in the evenings, we were the only students still working because lots of students went off to the pub.

The studios and faculty were great. I was so happy there. I loved the painting and what was happening and the atmosphere at the College at that time. Up where the Painting studios were, they brought in someone who ran a mini-canteen, this marvellous lady who did tea and sandwiches, and sometimes one fruit. People used to hang out around her and talk… 

RCA Blog: When you were in the studio painting, were you aware that you were pushing at boundaries of what had been done, and that Pop Art was happening there. Did it feel like you were making an art movement, or were you just working really hard and painting.

Yes, exactly, just working hard and enjoying painting – and going to parties. The Royal College life was so good.

One of the great things was the canteen. The Painting, Graphics and Illustration Schools were all in the Exhibition Road building. Fashion was in another part of South Kensington, and Sculpture was in Queen’s Gate, at the back of the Natural History Museum. What happened in those years was something that all art schools say they want – we got together as groups, independent of which department we were in.

I guess we were a coterie, a clique. There were people from Fashion, Marion Folds and Sally Tuffin went on to have a big label and their own shop; Ossie Clarke, a milliner who was David’s boyfriend at one time. We had a couple of friends from Industrial Design, Textiles, Photography, Illustration, Graphics and Automotive Design. And of course Ridley Scott was there, and I was very friendly with a Sudanese student. I always wondered what he went on to do…

RCA Blog: I think of the RCA at that time as still being quite a monoculture. I don’t think of it as being globally diverse, like it is now.

In fact that’s the other thing about the Royal College, it introduced me to diversity. Apart from my friends in Painting, Graphics and Photography, I was very friendly with a Sudanese student, and an Indian student called Meli Gobai, who was a Graphic Design student and went on to run a big graphic design company in Bombay. At Yeovil, everyone was not just English but from Somerset.

So you had this diversity at the Royal College, this coming together of lots of people. That influenced several things. There were parallel things that made this happen. One was ARK magazine, and people from all over got together to do it. And all those people that started ARK went on to become the top people, they changed the British magazine world. Queen magazine and all the others that were popular at the time, were due really to the RCA design students. And the fashion, so many things came out of that.

The camaraderie and the canteen were really important elements. If you were in the Painting School and you needed work, you could get a job working as a stage hand at the Royal Court theatre in Chelsea. David and I did that. I used to take over other people’s shifts, because I was obsessed with Samuel Beckett. He influenced me a lot in my art.

A lot of people from the year before us did that too. They were all in the film The Horse’s Mouth, with Alec Guinness, who also wrote the screenplay, playing the part of Gulley Jimson; they were the extras. It was about an obsessed painter who wanted to paint murals, and when I arrived at the Royal College I recognised most of the students, because everyone had been watching that film. The paintings for the film were all created by John Bratby…

There was a guy who was at the RCA a couple of years before us called Roddy Maude-Roxby, and he – like Pauline Boty – had this dual possibility to their career. They were painters and wanted to go into acting. I was a very close friend of Pauline. She was glamourised and that was distracting, so critics saw her as a flashy actress and didn’t write about her work. I think she’s a great artist. If you look at Pop Goes the Easel, the Ken Russell film, the paintings she was doing then weren’t Pop. Her great paintings were a year or so later. Three years ago I did a very large, ten-foot painting called Pauline Goes Digital, for Pauline Boty…

An important thing about the Royal College at that time, because of Maude-Roxby and that connection with the Royal Court, with the actors and producers, although the RCA was a visual arts school, every year we did a revue. It came out of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, these people we got to know at the time. 

All the Royal Court people would come to the Christmas revue, one week before Christmas break. A lot of us performed in them. Ron Collins from the Graphic Design School, Brian Wright, who was a very interesting painter, Roddy Maude-Roxby and I studied mime and performed on stage. Apart from that, we did sketches and political skits. I wrote and performed a conversation between Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling 1950s actor, and Beethoven. They were dead, in heaven, and they had a talk. So Errol Flynn would say, ‘You’re not really deaf are you, that’s a big lie.’ And Beethoven would say, ‘I heard about you and the ladies in Hollywood…’

RCA Blog: This is where David Hockney is putting clogs on and singing the song from Oklahoma!

Yes... People often talk about R B Kitaj’s influence on David, being there and helping him. I think the person that was as influential was Mark Berger, who was also, like Ron, a one-year student on the GI Bill. Mark was gay and had been living in New Orleans for three years and was an amazing dancer, and I think it was him that brought David out of the closet. Mark was a very interesting painter. He went to live in New York afterwards. In fact, he was the person who persuaded David to dye his hair. It was at Mark Berger’s aunt’s house that David saw an advert that said, ‘Blondes have more fun.’

RCA Blog: You describe working in the studio, being very serious and diligent and producing work. And this fun side where people are moving away from their 1950s repressive backgrounds and into a space that’s more expressive and freer, it seems…

Yes, I think the time had a lot to do with it. Out of the grey, dull Fifties. And American culture. I always remember at Yeovil, seeing National Geographic magazines with these glossy ads at the back for refrigerators and cars and stuff.

The point about the Pop Art movement in Britain is that we’re all grouped together, but we were very different. David was much more autobiographical, coming out of the closet and the gay stuff, and marvellously inventive. Allen Jones came out of European art and turned the colourist aspects of French art into Pop. Peter Blake and Peter Phillips were much more interested in celebrating American culture, pin-ups and all that stuff.

I came out of a more critical aspect of American culture. I’d read books, Vance Packards The Hidden Persuaders, and Daniel Boorstin’s The Image and anything by Marshall McLuhan I’d been interested in. We’d all come together, and there were various things that happened. We’d become quite prominent at the Young Contemporaries, which started everything off. That was due to a re-hang. I was on the committee, and Allen Jones and Peter Phillips were hanging the show, and thought, ‘This looks terrible, why don’t we put all the Royal College stuff together…’ And that was British Pop.

In fact, there’s this famous story, because of the big social aspect at the Royal College of Art. We had the best dances. We’d even booked the Rolling Stones, but they didn’t turn up because they’d become too famous, even at that early stage. Art schools always had parties, but not in the way that the Royal College did. We went to the Slade party, and the students said, ‘There’s those Royal College Pop Art boys, let’s get ’em.’ And there was a fight, and I recall it was stopped because Peter Phillips had a bleeding nose. And we all came to our senses… The Slade was very academic at the time.

RCA Blog: Thinking about you in your studio, I was really struck when you said that you and David Hockney had shared a studio, that those paintings like The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, you must have seen him paint them?

I know all those paintings. We looked at everyone’s work in the daytime, and I do recall at night that we were often the ones still working until they closed for the night. David’s always had a hearing problem, but at that time everyone thought he was really deaf because he had one of the first earphones, so he could listen to the radio while he was painting. I think he used it to his advantage at times…

RCA Blog: Did you graduate at the same time as David in his gold lame jacket.

Yes, I’ve got photographs of that somewhere…

I must tell you one story about the revues, the theatre we put on. One of the only places you could get a cup of coffee and hang out past 10pm – that wasn’t in an expensive place in Soho – was a coffee bar in Earls Court called The Troubadour. It was decorated with junk everywhere and interesting cultural things, and it had a dark basement that always hosted jazz and folk music. A lot of Royal College students hung out there alongside actors and local characters. We used go there late at night, when the pubs closed. The Troubadour was run by a French-Canadian called Mike. He was a huge mountain of a guy with a great sense of humour. Imagine 6 foot 3 of him – in width and height – but all soft and gentle in real life.

Mike came to one of our mime performances, and afterwards he said, ‘You guys’ mime was so good. I’m giving a birthday party for someone. Come and do the party, no money, but you can eat and drink as much as you like.’ Students love free meals, so we said fine. About a week before, we said, ‘ Who is the birthday party for?’ And he said, ‘Marcel Marceau’! We said, ‘We can’t do that!’ And he said, “Yes, you can. He’ll love it.’ So we did it, we performed a mime.

RCA Blog: That takes some brass…

The great thing about it was burly Mike had arranged for a huge, three-tier cake, full of candles all topped off with a splendid figurine of Marcel Marceau. Mike said to Marceau, ‘You have to cut your birthday cake,’ and handed him this vast butcher's knife. And Marceau retorted, ‘No no, no no, I tell you what… You stand in front of the cake, put your hands behind your back as if you are going to do it.’ And Marceau then proceeded to stand in his shadow put his arms through his, and, in a flash, he became the Canadian’s theatrical limbs. ‘Carry on, say what you were going to say…’ But this time the sharp, shining knife wasn’t in the control of the talking head on show. It was an incredible impromptu act, with a serrated edge of jeopardy and gesticulation. On reflection, it was so amazing to have seen such artistry up close.   

That was the thing about the Royal College, because it was such interesting times, there were so many exciting things going on…