Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde – The Two Roberts as they were known – could be treated as one organism, in life as in art.
When Roger Bristow was preparing The Last Bohemians, his book about the painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert
MacBryde, he talked to their great friend the poet George Barker and was told to forget facts and tell the truth. Bristow went on to supply plenty of facts; his hefty book even has a catalogue raisonné that contributes to its looking faintly like a catalfaque raisonné. But Barker’s advice is well-cited.
It transmits a deﬁning feature of the New Romanticism of the Forties. During the war, when there was comforting recourse among painters to the pastoral landscapes of Samuel Palmer, there was also a recourse, elsewhere on the scene, to the claim there was no such thing as factual or statistical truth. New Romantics believed in the operations of personality and of genius, and there were those of them who believed in the horrors of democracy. Like the Black-wood’s coterie in Edinburgh during the Romantic period proper, they believed in greatness. George Barker believed, writes his biographer Robert Fraser, that “art was the one cause he felt impelled to honour,” at the outbreak of war. Residence in academic Japan, “away from the main theatres of any prospective war, might help him to preserve that commitment…” Such beliefs smack of the Forties and Fifties – of the bohemian life, that’s to say, of the decades in which the Roberts, as the two painters were known, ﬂourished and foundered.
Another feature of the scene was its attraction to “the shine of the avant-garde”. These are the words of the Irishman Anthony Cronin, a leading chronicler of the scene. The avant-garde was the source of all true art; the ruined people of bohemian Soho and other such enclaves were in touch with it, as the ‘fashionable’ artists and writers whom Cronin disliked, with their deserved falls from grace, were not.
The Roberts were “undeniably working-class”, writes their biographer, as though at some point this had been denied. They came from Ayrshire, and went to Glasgow School of Art, where they began a partnership, a lifelong angry love affair. They were also undeniably gay, though a friend and teacher was to deny it: “they were deﬁnitely not homosexual” – “certainly not while they were in Scotland”. Not in their backyard. They soon left it, and descended on Lon-don like the Forty-Five rebellion, or like those compatriots who used to be found drunk on their way to Wembley to watch, or not to watch, the football international against England. This, at any rate, was how the legend that grew around them chose to represent their arrival. This was a time when the “young Sottish painter”, as a misprint puts it, might move to London, while swelling the ranks of those who complained about a London dominance of the arts.
MacBryde wrote home to say that they’d been going to Sassenach parties, which were “not so hot”. Hot or not, the ones held at their Notting Hill studio became a place to be. They were raised to favour and to the West End galleries by the dark power and abrasive charm of their carry-on, and by the patronage of wealthy homosexuals, among others: Sir Kenneth Clark also lent his grand, straight hand. Before that, from on high, they had been shielded from any prolonged experience of military service, at a time when they were both of them not just reluctant to serve but ill. It was no easier then that it is now for painters to make their mark or keep their feet; patronage was hard to do without. And they did manage to secure a public. Their work was praised by good judges, such as Robert Melville. The two men could be treated as the one organism, in art as in life.
They were for a while, in their sphere, as famous as Derry and Toms in theirs, and, for their exploits, as ‘infamous’ as Dylan Thomas was, according to this writer. Major artists, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon were living at that hour. Bacon’s opinions were recognisably New Romantic, and his art shared some of its ways with that of the Roberts. Freud and Bacon are, however, rarely mentioned here, seen as associates of Colquhoun and MacBryde. The bleak hatchet faces of their post-Cubist phase were an icon of the time. But the spell wore off. Parties, pubs, Fitzrovia, Soho, Notting Hill – the two men sunk into alcoholism. The Lefevre Gallery withdrew its countenance – a serious blow. Destitution followed. In 1962, Colquhoun died suddenly in his friend’s arms, and four years later MacBryde was knocked down and killed by a car in Dublin while returning from a night out with the famous and infamous and undeniably gifted poet Patrick Kavanagh.
At about this time a visitor to the city, privy to this small world of acerbic Archipelagic romantics, at least as sharp with each other in Ireland as in Scotland, England and Wales, lent his car to a guest who crashed it in his cups and died: “we are now thrown back,” the man remarked, “on the meagre resources of the bus service.” Some members of this small world were connoisseurs of acerbity and of catastrophe, and some hearts may have been hardened by it all. When George Barker ﬁrst met MacBryde, MacBryde held out, for him to shake, a hand in which broken glass lay concealed. But there’s no doubt that the poignant deaths of the two painters were mourned as such by their many friends, those of them who’d remained on board the ship when the wreck became imminent.
“Tilt it, boy, tilt it. Tilt everything in life,” George Barker once advised a youth who was struggling to pour him a bottle of beer. Barker was, or might have made, a considerable aphorist, and his cryptic sayings shed a suitably dark light on the activities of the Roberts, who lived for a bit in Elizabeth Smart’s Essex house of Tilty, where MacBryde was referred to as the Laird of that ilk. “Wherever I arrive I ﬁnd my life in ﬂames,” confessed Barker, and there were literal ﬂames which licked the corners of the Roberts’ quarrelsome life. “I have burnt ma lover,” MacBryde is reported to have announced, counter-factually. “I have burned the house with ma lover in it.” Enter Colquhoun, uncharred.
The two of them could be portrayed, using a familiar duality of the modern world, as good cop and bad cop. Colquhoun was physically beautiful, and he was gentle and shy, a contrast to his combative signiﬁcant other, who looks out at you frighteningly from the photographs here, with a period fag stuck teat-like in the midst of his stare. He’d go around in kilt and bow-tie, one after the other perhaps, singing his Burns songs, dancing his jigs, which could end in tears. Women were apt to speak of his friend as a closet heterosexual, closeted in Bluebeard’s castle. But MacBryde could also be generous, and Colquhoun could be aggressive, displaying the xenophobia of Soho’s outsiders, directed at the deathly English. He once approached a man near him at the bar of a country pub, who seemed to be wearing an old school tie, with the predictable demand to ‘buy me a fuckin’ whisky’. When the stranger asked why, Colquhoun replied, ‘Because I’m a fucking genius’. The man acquiesced, only to have another demanded of him seconds after Colquhoun had downed the ﬁrst. This time, the stranger demurred, causing Colquhoun to abuse him and his tie, saying he was living proof of what mean shits the English were. Not wishing to suffer this for too long, the man turned to go but before he did so said to Colquhoun, ‘Allow me to introduce myself,’ and gave him his card. The name on it read ‘Robin Ma-cintosh’.
It seems that the painter smiled beatiﬁ-cally and ordered himself another drink. He may have felt that he’d smoked out one of those middle-class Anglo-Scots, not Angles but even worse. The story may sound apocryphal. But it is sourced to a persuasive friend of the pair and to The Fleece, Box-ton, East Anglia. It could well be true. It may even be a fact.
It must also be a fact that the Catholic faith has a part to play in this circle. The Roberts wished to be seen as Celts. MacBryde was of Irish stock, and he ended his days with a measure of Catholic observance in Dublin; and he would abuse his boyfriend for being Presbyterian and puritan. Also, mysteriously, for being East Coast, as opposed to MacBryde’s West Coast, of Scotland. But when Dubliners made contact with his Ayrshire family after his death, it was discovered to have belonged to the Church of Scotland. The importance of Ca-tholicism for Barker’s work was not widely perceived at the time (but was not lost on my Edinburgh mother).
This book sets store by personality, genius, talent, the success that can be measured in critics’ hyperboles and the kindness of galleries and of grant-giving bodies, both strongly solicited by MacBryde. Another aspect of ‘the romanticisms of the Forties’, in C.H. Sisson’s phrase, was the freedom of spirit expected of its artists. The Roberts were free spirits all right, and this, together with their self-destructiveness, calls to mind Joyce Cary’s artist and unruly genius in his novel The Horse’s Mouth, which appeared in 1944, when this generation of artists were hard at their work and play and at their despair and thousands were dying of their wounds across Europe.
For all their independence, their non-serviam, the Roberts were obedient to the changing names and styles of the day: they were aware of the Vorticists, the Neo-Romantics, the post-Cubists. This one organism moved from Samuel Palmer via Wyndham Lewis to Picasso and Braque. It’s possible to feel that Colquhoun might have done well to stay closer to his ﬁne landscape of 1941, ‘Marrowﬁeld, Worcestshire’, but he had striking pictures still to paint; in his last days he hated the idea of their being thought Picasso derivatives. Presently Abstract Expressionism came in to hurt the prospects of this band of artists, rather as the Movement, with its publicity skills and its very different merits, issued its challenge to the romantic writers evoked in Cronin’s shrewd and very funny Dead As Doornails (1976), which speaks fondly and at length about the Roberts.
Roger Bristow deprecates the stories that were recklessly told about how wild and colourful the two painters were. But he has his own stories to tell, and they are worth listening to. The book lacks the ﬂair and penetration of Robert Fraser’s life of Barker or of Cronin’s life of Kavanagh and company: the ‘company’ craved by romantic solitaries was an attribute of this small world. The book tells you things twice, and tells you what you know; it relates that the Roberts checked into a Paris hotel which had no restaurant, so that they had to eat out in bistros. But it is a diligent piece of work, long in the making, and it has its point. The Roberts and their confederates were not among the last of the bohemians; there was much more of that to come, in various veins. But it isn’t beyond imagining that there may be a further vogue for the wild ones of pre-strip-club Soho, for this bygone bohemia, for those painters and writers and drinkers and touchers who hoped to touch the hem of greatness.
THE LAST BOHEMIANS Roger Bristow
SANSON & CO, £29.95 PP456, ISBN 9781906593193