Meet Ge­orge Un­der­wood, the man who punched David Bowie in the eye

Artist Ge­orge Un­der­wood is a cre­ator of fan­tas­ti­cal peo­ple and mytho­log­i­cal be­ings who in­habit a world of his cre­at­ing. Can­dia Mck­o­r­mack talked to him about his life in art and mu­sic, and his en­dur­ing friend­ship with David Bowie

Cotswold Life - - NEWS -

When you’re known as ‘the man who punched David Bowie in the eye’, there’s al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity that your other achieve­ments will be over­looked. So, let’s get the small mat­ter of that in­ci­dent out of the way and move onto talk­ing about the work of one of our great­est liv­ing artists…

It all hap­pened 55 years ago, when a 15-year-old David (then Jones) and his class­mate at Brom­ley Tech­ni­cal School, Ge­orge Un­der­wood, fought over a girl. The strike to David’s left eye dam­aged the pupil to such an ex­tent that, even fol­low­ing two op­er­a­tions, it re­mained paral­ysed and fully di­lated. Young Ge­orge wasn’t to know it at the time, of course, but he helped cre­ate the alien look that, along with his rev­o­lu­tion­ary mu­sic and dis­tinc­tive im­age, set Bowie apart from his peers.

“When you’re 15 these things seem im­por­tant,” Ge­orge says, as I talk to him from his home in Sus­sex, “but when you look back you think ‘how stupid I was to be up­set by that’. I never meant to cause him any harm… in fact, he did say later that I did him a favour. Ev­ery­one seems to think he was born like that, but I’m afraid it was me!”

Far from caus­ing a rift be­tween the school friends, they con­tin­ued mak­ing mu­sic to­gether for a while af­ter­wards and had a deep friend­ship that lasted right up un­til Bowie’s death last year.

“We hol­i­dayed to­gether, and I think he quite liked the fact that I wasn’t in the busi­ness…” he con­tin­ues, “if he wanted to, he could be quite dull with me – though he rarely was, of course. We were just good mates.”

The two shared an in­ter­est in the avant-garde, in ex­otic pop mu­sic and the arts in gen­eral… though in fine art Ge­orge left David stand­ing. In Brian Hi­att’s book ‘A Por­trait of Bowie’, the singer is quoted as say­ing, “Sit­ting along­side him in art class con­vinced me that I would never achieve his flu­id­ity of line, his sense of right­ness in re­la­tion to his sub­ject, what­ever it was. I per­suaded my dad to ad­vance me the money for an alto sax in­stead.”

And so Ge­orge went on to con­cen­trate on de­vel­op­ing a ca­reer in fine art – with a brief two-year stint, aged 20, in the art depart­ment of Pye Records on £9 a week (“It was rub­bish!”) af­ter suf­fer­ing a break­down due to hav­ing his drink spiked with acid. Those two years gave him the con­fi­dence he needed to set up as a free­lance artist, go­ing on to pro­duce al­bum cover art for the likes of Marc Bolan with T. Rex’s de­but al­bum ‘My Peo­ple Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They’re Con­tent to Wear Stars on Their Brows’ – “The long­est ti­tle in pop his­tory!” – along with pieces for Mott the Hoople, Pro­col Harum, and of course his old school chum David Bowie.

But to­day I’m talk­ing to him as he’s re­turn­ing to the Cotswolds with an ex­clu­sive show of some of his oth­er­worldly fig­u­ra­tive work.

The ex­hi­bi­tion will fea­ture 32 oil paint­ings – some on board, some on can­vas. “There may even be 33 if I fin­ish the one I’m work­ing on at the mo­ment!” he laughs. “I’ve done all the paint­ings spe­cially for the show, so I’ve been look­ing at my sketch­books, scratch­ing my head and de­cid­ing what to work on. I tend to take el­e­ments of each of them and see what comes to­gether.”

At one stage his fig­u­ra­tive oil paint­ings were in­spired by the Vi­enna School of Fan­tas­tic Re­al­ism: “When I first saw those guys I thought ‘Wow – they’re amaz­ing!’ I wouldn’t say in any way I’m on their level of ex­per­tise, but it’s like sow­ing a seed, you know… but the last thing you want to do is copy some­one else’s style.”

There is ab­so­lutely no way he can be ac­cused of do­ing that, for his cre­ations emerge from a world solely of Ge­orge’s cre­ation.

“I want the per­son look­ing at them to make up their own mind about what they’re about, rather than as­sign­ing any par­tic­u­lar mean­ing to them. For in­stance, with ‘The En­sem­ble’, I haven’t got a clue what that’s about,” he laughs.

I sug­gest there’s some­thing rather sin­is­ter about that par­tic­u­lar paint­ing, as though the ob­server is about to be judged. “Yes, it’s the In­qui­si­tion, isn’t it? [pause] …I must ad­mit I’m not par­tic­u­larly good at do­ing smi­ley faces!”

Aha, that’s it – the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion! Though no­body ex­pects them, he’s hit the nail on the head. And there is a dis­tinc­tive ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal el­e­ment to many of Ge­orge’s fig­ures – the sug­ges­tion of nuns’ wim­ples and such – though he says that wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily his in­ten­tion.

“Though I’m not reli­gious, I am in­flu­enced by some of the old-school artists, like Ti­tian, so I sup­pose some of that might have rubbed off on me… and some of my faces do look as though torn from the past, from an il­lus­trated Bi­ble or some­thing.”

He doesn’t sketch or paint from real life, but the faces in his work feel like they could be peo­ple Ge­orge has known. Be­hind those ex­pres­sions of melan­choly and de­fi­ance, there are sto­ries to be told: what events have led to that mo­ment? Why are they dressed the way they are? Are they aware they’re be­ing ob­served? Are they ob­serv­ing – and judg­ing – us? (shades of the In­qui­si­tion again)

“I do have fun paint­ing peo­ple who, though they might not have been flesh and blood be­fore, I try to paint the flesh and blood onto them. They look like they might have been breath­ing once upon a time.

“One of the artists I re­ally look up to is Velázquez. What a pre­co­cious per­son he must have been, paint­ing for the King as a teenager – and I think to my­self, ‘that’s some­thing you’re born with, I guess’. In art you don’t re­ally get child prodi­gies – though I think Pi­casso said he did a few things when he was about ten… but you can’t be­lieve ev­ery­thing he said!”

At pri­mary school, a friend of Ge­orge’s said to him that his dad was go­ing to buy him a skull as he wanted to study to be a doc­tor. Nine-year-old Ge­orge was ex­cited by the idea of be­ing able to own a hu­man skull and so he went home to his mum and said, “Mum, Steven Asquith’s dad’s go­ing to buy him a skull and I’d like one.” He re­mem­bers be­ing quite taken back by her re­sponse when she said, “What do you want a skull for? You’ve al­ready got one – go look in the mir­ror!”

Young Ge­orge was con­stantly draw­ing, and his cre­ative mind would see faces where oth­ers wouldn’t – join­ing up marks on pa­per to make fa­cial fea­tures, and see­ing them in steam on the kitchen win­dow while his mum was cook­ing. And, look­ing at the in­tri­cate pat­terns on the cos­tume and head­dresses in

‘I do have fun paint­ing peo­ple who, though they might not have been flesh and blood be­fore, I try to paint the flesh and blood onto them. They look like they might have been breath­ing once upon a time’

some of his fig­ures – many look­ing as though moulded from clay or carved into stone, while oth­ers em­bossed into leather – you can def­i­nitely pick out the sug­ges­tion of faces and shad­owy out­lines of strange crea­tures.

“Yes,” he says, “some­times I put them in there in­ten­tion­ally, and other times they’re sup­posed to be ab­stract and aren’t ac­tu­ally faces, but could be! I do like that thing with paint­ings where the more you look, the more you see.” He goes on to de­scribe the ‘hair in the gate’ phe­nom­e­non where, when you’re watch­ing an old cine film and a hair ap­pears on the screen and you stop look­ing at the film and all you can see is the hair. It’s a par­tic­u­lar way of view­ing the world; while many stop see­ing the hair af­ter a while, there are those who be­come fix­ated with the de­tail; it be­comes im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore.

“Some­one once said,” he muses, “there’s a lot of ge­om­e­try go­ing on in my paint­ings. It’s some­thing that hap­pens, co­in­ci­den­tally, when you get a hat and another hat joined to­gether, or cir­cles and curves that take your eye away from the face.

“I was talk­ing to the Nor­we­gian painter Odd Ner­drum re­cently,” he con­tin­ues, “and he came up with the the­ory that the repet­i­tive pat­terns that come up in an artist’s work are due to Tourette’s, as he him­self has it. He said ‘Do you know Ge­orge Tooker?’ and I said ‘yeah, I do; he’s an Amer­i­can artist who does lots of repet­i­tive heads in strict, uni­form pat­terns’. And Odd said that he had Tourette’s and won­dered if I did, too. I said ‘no’, but I do think that’s in­ter­est­ing…”

And this takes us back to Ge­orge’s life­long friend, as it was Bowie who first no­ticed the con­nec­tion be­tween the Nor­we­gian artist and Ge­orge’s work, say­ing, “There’s a time­less el­e­ment in the choice of sub­ject mat­ter that over­laps with the myth­i­cal world of Odd Ner­drum… Now that a huge shift to paint­ing is tak­ing place, I would ex­pect to see Ge­orge’s name pushed fur­ther and fur­ther to the front.”

Never let the small mat­ter of a punch in the eye get in the way of true friend­ship.

Hair Peace

Time Goes By

White Magic Woman, by Ge­orge Un­der­wood


Pale Lady

Ride With Stripes

Straight Ahead


The En­sem­ble, by Ge­orge Un­der­wood

Ge­orge Un­der­wood with David Bowie Be­low: Ge­orge in his Sus­sex stu­dio

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