How Brit­ten and Pears Saved Sut­ton

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Si­mon Tait

Philip Sut­ton cel­e­brated his 90th birth­day on 20 Oc­to­ber with two ex­hi­bi­tions, in what has be­come his home town of Brid­port in Dorset. One of them was of char­coal draw­ings, the other was a ret­ro­spec­tive of the last seven decades, in­clud­ing some new can­vases, ‘my whole life’. Paint­ing still is his life, and although his eyes are not good any more and the sight is gone in one eye he paints con­stantly and walks the West Bay beach three times ev­ery day.

Less con­spic­u­ously, there was also a small ex­hi­bi­tion at the Red House, the Brit­ten-Pears Li­brary at their home in Alde­burgh, Suf­folk, of the seven Sut­tons the li­brary owns, in­clud­ing his por­trait of Peter Pears and the pic­ture that changed his life.

Sut­ton says he owes his pro­fes­sion to chance – that he was able to make use of the ex-ser­vice­man’s grant scheme for higher ed­u­ca­tion in 1949, that the Slade saw some­thing in his evening class draw­ings of car badges, that Wil­liam Cold­stream was the Slade pro­fes­sor, that the deal­ers Henry Roland and Gus­tave Del­banco went to the Slade’s 1953 de­gree show on Cold­stream’s rec­om­men­da­tion and saw Sut­ton’s melan­choly por­trait of a fel­low stu­dent. And that the singer Peter Pears hap­pened to pass the Roland, Browse & Del­banco gallery in Cork Street.

The ex-air­craft­man ar­rived at the Slade, as did Cold­stream, in 1949 with an in­take that in­cluded Ewan Uglow, Craigie Aitchi­son and Michael An­drews, whose dif­fer­ent kinds of ge­nius were recog­nised and nur­tured by the avun­cu­lar, tac­i­turn Cold­stream – not least Phil Sut­ton’s. His friend Derry Irvine – Lord Irvine of Lairgs – re­calls Cold­stream telling him: ‘Phil can never be writ­ten off. His work can go through bad phases, but he is and al­ways will be ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing some­thing that is re­ally good be­cause he is a gifted, in­tu­itive painter’.

The col­lege ca­reer – at the Slade he met the film-maker Heather Cooke, his wife of 64 years, who died last year – was aus­pi­cious by any stan­dards, but grad­u­a­tion re­al­ity in aus­ter­ity Lon­don was hard. He and Heather es­caped to Europe for a while on bur­saries he’d won, and at one point Uglow found them liv­ing in Men­ton on a diet of pota­toes. Heather be­came preg­nant and they re­turned to Lon­don pen­ni­less with baby Jake in a wo­ven straw car­rycot.

Sut­ton got low-paid teach­ing shifts at the Slade and an­other col­lege friend, Harold Co­hen – later to be the pi­o­neer of com­puter art in the United States where he de­vel­oped the ‘cy­ber­netic artist’, AARON – found the fam­ily a room in the house where he had a flat. Toi­let, kitchen and bath­room were shared, Jake slept in a card­board box, and it was a fairly squalid en­vi­ron­ment from which to launch a ca­reer, a ca­reer Sut­ton was not sure was there to be had.

It was at about this time that Peter Pears hap­pened to pass the gallery win­dow and had his eye caught by Sut­ton’s som­bre, ex­pres­sion­is­tic por­trait of a fel­low stu­dent, Tony Tice, who was later to com­mit sui­cide. Struck by the vi­brant colour use he bought it on an im­pulse – the first Philip Sut­ton pic­ture to be sold through a com­mer­cial gallery – got into con­ver­sa­tion with Del­banco and heard of the poverty the fam­ily were sub­sist­ing in, got Sut­ton’s ad­dress and asked him to lunch with Ben­jamin Brit­ten at their favourite Covent Gar­den restau­rant, Ber­torelli’s. ‘All I can re­mem­ber of it was that I was starv­ing hun­gry but so ner­vous I couldn’t eat any­thing’, he says.

Brit­ten and Pears thought the fam­ily were in need of a hol­i­day and of­fered them the use of a cot­tage in Snape, Suf­folk, for a fort­night. It was called Joy Cot­tage and they stayed for three years, dur­ing which two more chil­dren were born, and Sut­ton com­muted three days a week to the Slade.

He ar­rived at Joy Cot­tage at a cross­roads in his paint­ing. He was aware of de­vel­op­ments in St Ives, saw the Amer­i­can Ex­pres­sion­ists’ ex­hi­bi­tion

at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, and was ag­o­nis­ing on whether ab­strac­tism was the way he should go. Sev­eral can­vases were de­stroyed in his frus­tra­tion, be­fore he fi­nally re­jected it.

At pe­ri­ods in your life when some­thing’s float­ing in the air you pick it up, al­most like a virus’, he says. In­stead he felt the power of the land­scape out­side his win­dows. ‘All I can do is re­spond to how things fall. But I was a dif­fer­ent painter when I left Snape than the one that went there.

The in­vi­ta­tion was a life-chang­ing, ca­reer-mak­ing, act of kind­ness. Brit­ten and Pears used to take the fam­ily off in their car on fine days for beach pic­nics, and it was at the cot­tage that Pears’s por­trait was painted. The fam­ily lived a spar­tan life and when Del­banco vis­ited he found ‘a most dis­or­derly house­hold… the piss-pot stood in the kitchen and so on’ and he found it ‘amus­ing to have to sleep in my over­coat be­cause it was so cold’.

But Del­banco liked what he saw. Sut­ton’s style ma­tured and co­a­lesced at Joy Cot­tage, the colours be­came less hec­tic and less mor­dant, the paint thin­ner on the can­vas, the strokes more lyri­cal; there were pale seascapes, dreamy land­scapes from the open coun­try that had in­spired Con­sta­ble and Gains­bor­ough, and many happy de­pic­tions of his grow­ing fam­ily. ‘As an ex­tro­vert colourist – be­cause there are in­tro­vert colourists – this com­plete lack of hes­i­ta­tion with the han­dling of paint, this in­stinc­tive un­der­stand­ing of the na­ture of colour, is a thing so rare in the English school, and it’s Sut­ton’s great­est as­set,’ Del­banco said. The art be­gan to sell.

In 1958 the fam­ily left Suf­folk for af­ford­able Bat­tersea, trans­ported by their friend Jef­frey Camp, for a phase in which Philip Sut­ton be­came pop­u­lar, and then in the 60s and 70s fash­ion­able. Their house, bought thanks to a loan from Heather’s fa­ther, be­came a salon, the work was col­lected by the Tate, the Gov­ern­ment Art Col­lec­tion, Har­ri­son Birtwistle, Al­bert Fin­ney, Pene­lope Wil­ton, Arnold Wesker, Nell Dunn, Irvine, Carl Davis and Lord Snowdon, who did an ele­giac pho­to­graphic fea­ture of the Sut­ton house­hold for the Sun­day Times Mag­a­zine. In the 70s Sut­ton was elected an RA and

never misses show­ing and sell­ing in the Sum­mer Ex­hi­bi­tion. It was in the Suf­folk years that Sut­ton be­came as­sured that he was a painter by pro­fes­sion, not a teacher that paints. He ar­rived at Bat­tersea with con­fi­dence and ease in the de­pic­tion of form and colour that he found within him­self, thanks to the tran­quil­ity of Joy Cot­tage.

He says now:

I was look­ing for a tar­get, what I should be paint­ing, and re­alised it was in my­self and I found it by chance. Chance has been so im­por­tant…As long as you bump into some­thing you don’t know is there and can take it on, that’s be­ing cre­ative, but if you bump into some­thing you know is there and look no fur­ther, that is not a cre­ative act. The essence of a spirit of ad­ven­ture is that you don’t know the re­sult, and for that you need courage.

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