By Gerard Hastings
Vaughan was filmed and recorded on several occasions. During the 1950s he featured briefly in a documentary concerning the British Art world and this film has survived intact (see below). He was filmed at least twice more: once in 1962 for a schools programme made by Granada TV and again, in 1966, by the BBC when his Journals and Drawings was published. A radio broadcast was aired in 1962 in which Patrick Procktor interviewed Vaughan. None of these other recordings have been located. Perhaps they are still stored somewhere in a dusty basement and may one day come to light.
BRITISH ART IN THE 1950s
Original release details unknown
This is the only piece of footage of Keith Vaughan known today. It can be viewed on Youtube as part of a black and white documentary entitled British Art in the 1950s (Archive Film 93578), held by HuntleyFilmArchives:
The section devoted to Vaughan lasts for just under a minute (8.34 – 9.28) and he appears for a few tantalizingly brief seconds. Cigarette in mouth and brush in hand, he is working on a painting as his shadow falls on finished works piled up against the studio walls. That is all that seems to have survived.
KEITH VAUGHAN: PAINTER
Granada TV Documentary
Television Broadcast, October 1962
Keith Vaughan: Painter, made for Granada Television, was the first in a series that featured various professions. The programme was transmitted at 11.40 am on October 19, 1962, repeated in the afternoon of that day at 2.57 pm, and again the following day at 1.00 pm. Sadly this has either been lost or destroyed. Fortunately the notes for teachers that accompanied the series have survived and, according to Professor John Ball, Vaughan himself prepared these, so we may presume the ideas and opinions expressed in them are his own. His commentary for the programme also survives. We also know that the music played during the film was Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (BWV 903) and the paintings discussed included Theseus, 1951, Lazarus III, 1959 (destroyed) and Third Assembly of Figures (Harvest Assembly), 1956, (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery).
Teachers’ Notes to Keith Vaughan: Painter:
‘Apart from occasional landscape painting (which is always an essentially humanized landscape) Vaughan has concerned himself for the past fifteen years with the problems of the human figure, either in isolation or as part of an assembly of figures. He began by drawing and painting figures as a romantic projection of the mood of a particular landscape; and has gradually concentrated in greater isolation on what might be called the architecture of the human body with certain formal distortions to accentuate a relationship between the figures, or a thrust or repose of a single figure. The earlier work was influenced by war-time conditions: small scale drawings in a pocket notebook kept while he was in the forces; and much of this work is derived from poetry, Rilke or Rimbaud, read in a time of isolation during this period when English art as a whole was concentrating on a romantic, humanized and subjective view of landscape. This particular view was largely inspired by Graham Sutherland, who was in turn affected by the rediscovery of Samuel Palmer.
Vaughan has slowly moved away from this intimate vision of figures and landscape into a more impersonal, abstract conception of his themes, though always retaining his grasp of the figure and its enveloping space or background. The programme shows a chronological sequence of paintings which clearly demonstrates this evolving grasp of form and formal problems. During the discussion, one large painting, Theseus, is shown together with drawings and paintings covering its initial conception and the subsequent studies of an intermediary nature between that conception and the final, massive figure composition. The completed painting was largely inspired by Gide’s Thésée. Vaughan uses a working notebook which covers the various stages of a painting from the initial lay-in and ground right through to the final surface. The shifts of emphasis in construction, and occasional complete departures from the first conception are of particular interest, as well as the technical notes regarding the application of paint and colour which punctuate the notes.
In general, the programme shows a development from the time when Vaughan’s figures were isolated incidents in a landscape, though expressing its mood in an intimate manner, through to the present day when the artist has integrated or synthesized these figures with the accompanying space or landscape in the most radical way. Vaughan is a humanist, with a noble vision of mankind, though his paintings stress the intensely personal and intimate side of human being.’
Vaughan’s Commentary to Keith Vaughan: Painter:
The main problem for the painter, today as always, is to find a way of expressing in visual terms his experience as a living person. And this implies whether he is employed decorating churches or experimenting in his studio. To do this he must be slightly detached from what is going on around him, but actually aware of the realities underlying the surface appearance of things.
These realities are the conflicts, anxieties, joys and fears which he shares with other people, and also the private and often rather confused world of inner feeling, which exist in everyone, but which cannot be described in everyday language.
Out of this material which bombards him from outside as well as within himself, he will gradually evolve a language of forms, colours and images, which when put together in certain ways make a reasonably true picture of his attitude to life at the time.
This picture may represent something seen, such as a landscape or portrait, or it may be quite abstract. For instance if his theme is conflict he may represent it by a group of shipwrecked survivors, as in this picture by Gericault, called ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, which not only depicts in an imaginative way an actual shipwreck, but also symbolises the struggle and aspirations of the new society to which he belonged, born out of revolution.
Or he may deal with much of the same inner experience in terms of an abstract conflict between areas of black and white, as in this picture by the modern American artist Franz Kline. And in each case although the vision will be an essentially personal one, if he is any good, other people will see something of their own experience reflected in it as well. They will see what started as chaotic and confusing can be made into something coherent and orderly.
Now this orderliness, which is common to all true works of art, is not something which can be imposed from outside, like a mould. It is more like the orderliness of a piece of machinery in which each part works together with every other.
A painting is like that when the artist has translated his experience, his material, correctly into the language of visual forms, and made the image as true as possible to the his own feelings and convictions: that is to say a true expression of what it’s like to be alive at this moment.
RADIO INTERVIEW WITH PATRICK PROCKTOR
‘The Russian Programme’
Radio Broadcast on the BBC in 1962
Patrick Procktor and Keith Vaughan were good friends. They met when Procktor arrived as a student at the Slade School of Art in 1958. Both artists depicted the male nude in their work and shared a passion for life-drawing. During the 1960s Procktor regularly hired Slade life-models to sit for him privately at his Manchester Street home in Marylebone. Various artist friends joined him for these Sunday ‘draw-ins’, as they became known, including Vaughan, Robert Medley, Mario Dubsky and even the photographer Cecil Beaton. Procktor was a frequent visitor to Harrow Hill, Vaughan’s Essex home, and they frequently dined together in London. The younger painter’s intellectual capacity impressed his former teacher so much that he made several references to their dinner conversations in his journals.
Procktor was a fluent Russian speaker, having leant the language when he joined the Royal Navy at the age of eighteen. Later he worked for the British Council, translating documents and acting as an interpreter.
This is a transcript of an interview first broadcast on the BBC 1962 as part of the Russian Section for the World Service. Apparently Procktor’s questions were unknown to Vaughan beforehand and his responses are off the top of his head. The tape of the interview has disappeared and the following was made from Vaughan’s own BBC transcript of the programme. He made spelling corrections and occasional notes on his copy and some of these are included here in square brackets.
In mid career it must occur to you to think of the future of your own painting in the context of the future of painting as a whole. The development of painting in the West, particularly since the war, has tended to a more and more abstract or non-figurative style of painting. In your work on the other hand you have been consistent to a subject matter consisting of figures and figures in landscape and landscape. Might one conclude from this that the continuity of your subject matter implies a belief in the humanist content of your work?
Yes I certainly have a belief in it. In so far as the general trend of works is towards an abstract phase I think that is true, and also that my own work is. So far as my subject matter is concerned it is not something which I have consciously chosen. It seems to be something in which I can express my experience as a person. It will always be that but not necessarily always in the same way. I don’t think I would ever know what else to paint but the sort of thing I do paint.
As far as the future of painting is concerned, I haven’t very clear ideas what that is going to be or how I shall relate to it. I find myself totally occupied in finding a valid expression for my own sort of experience. In fact I feel on the whole rather out of sympathy with fashionable Western painting today. They seem to have taken an easy way out of a difficult situation, to have been content to produce elegant art-objects that are no more than marginal decorations to life. They don’t really contain the living experience of the painter. In fact he keeps his private life rather insulated from his artistic life.
So your attitude is that the only valid way is to immerse oneself in ones own personal experience?
That is the only reality that I understand. I don’t; recognize the distinction between private fantasy and social reality, because I think the only reality that a painter can paint is his own inner world of personal and quite private convictions. To what extent those will be of universal significance will largely depend on the context in which he lives. The difference for example between Courbet and Blake is not that Blake sealed himself off from life and dwelt in a fantasy world, whereas Courbet was more concerned with the life around him. They were both concerned with the life of their times but they found different ways of symbolizing and giving expression to it.
In one respect there is a relationship between the impersonal elegance of much fashionable abstract painting, and the impersonal quality of social realism. How do you understand the differences between the optimistic humanist context of your work and the more rigid formulas of socialist realism? Is it simply the difference between a personal approach to art and an impersonal formula imposed on painting.
I think that is partly the difference. I think there is a certain sort of false painting some of which can be classified under social realism, or even Western academic painting. I think a man who paints workmen building a bridge or building dams, which he may never have done himself but is required to paint by other people, by society, he is doing very much the same thing as the man who paints smart expensive women in expensive houses and shows them at the Royal Academy….
Or smart expensive abstractions?
Exactly. I mean they are painting something outside their own experience. There is a sort of painter who could very well paint so-called social realist subjects which would be true and valid for him, and would be good art.
… Like van Gogh?
… Or like Leger. The trouble with social realism is that it also imposes a style. The fact that ‘social realism’ painting is required to appeal to almost everybody, that in itself prevents it from being good painting because painting cannot appeal to everybody, without it being reduced to the level of advertising or propaganda. It has to use such obvious clichés, such obviousness of idiom and style that it can never get beyond that.
But in a sense even an artist who works out of his own personal experience, makes a ‘propaganda’ for his own experience. Indeed in the past many of the greatest movements in art have been essentially propagandist, as in the Enlightenment or in an artist like Poussin, or most of all in a religious artist like Bellini. Their primary aim was to make propaganda for a specific attitude to life.
I wonder whether that is really true. Admittedly religious paintings like those of Bellini for instance, were used for Christian propaganda to illustrate the Bible stories, to decorate the churches, and to put people into a comfortable, cozy frame of mind in order to listen to the Christian doctrine. But I don’t think the artists themselves were really concerned with that. Bellini was entirely concerned with his own experience as a man.
But his experience was profoundly Christian.
I’d have thought that very few of the Italian painters employed by the Church were Christian in the Church’s sense. In fact what amazes me is the total disregard which they have more often than not for the realities of the story; how they simply used the story as a starting point for their own plastic experiments.
So any form of shared ideology is repugnant to your conception of art as something individual and essentially personal.
I think a shared ideology is impossible today, certainly as far as I am concerned. I can quite see that if you live in a very close community in which all values are genuinely shared, then automatically your own personal reality will be communicable to everyone else. That is certainly true of all Primitive art. It isn’t true of Western society today and it would be false to make it so.
Like many artists nowadays you refuse to accept a communal ideology, where a social or political or religious ideology that is imposed from outside as a valid way of working.
I would welcome nothing more than to live in a society where there was a common ideology to which I felt I could owe allegiance. In fact my work is often considered as being idealistic or idealized. I am painting an ideal human world, perhaps because I am basically optimistic. But I don’t believe in any religious, nor in any political ideology. There are elements in political ideas which I am fully in agreement with and feel part of, the idealistic elements in Communism. But when they are translated into actual political power it’s a different thing altogether.
An artist has to choose those subjects in which reality is contained for him. Any subject matter concerned with human beings can communicate to other human beings. Many Western artists escape from this problem into abstract decoration, which is pleasant to look at but contains nothing of the experience or problems of today. For me human subjects can be dealt with not in terms of social realism but in a stylized form where they are reduced to their absolutely bare essentials, for example figures in settings. Even these figures may be ultimately reduced to abstract symbols, but as far as I am concerned they still won’t be abstract art. It is not my concern to influence other people to make them accept my point of view. I would like to give and make as clear as possible my attitude to the world.
People can take it or leave it, like it or dislike it and possibly learn something from it. What I offer is one man’s point of view.
Well, offering one man’s point of view is what most artists past and present would advocate. Unlike artists of the past, however, most artists nowadays face the world and the social organisations which exist in it with feelings of despair. Despair is one of the dominant themes in art in the west. On the other hand your painting is not a painting of despair but are there elements of despair in it?
No I don’t think so. There would be if I tried to make a social propaganda for the West for I certainly share a sense of dissolution about the social organizations of the West. But I think they operate at a superficial level. Beneath that there are still living human beings pursuing the same ends; Communism or the so-called Western democracies provide only the covering or shell which is different. I think the element of despair in Western art arises because the artists have somehow cut themselves off from their society or they have seen only one side of it. An artist rejects the readymade social formulas because he has to pursue his own truth, his own reality. He won’t know what that reality is exactly until he has done the painting. The weakness of so much social realist painting is that the artist is simply illustrating somebody else’s ideas about life. He is just like an advertising man – he is told to sell something, he is told the way to do it, even the technique of doing it. The stylistic interference is what makes it unlike what religious artists would have experienced. Raphael for example, it’s true, would have been told what to paint, which angels to represent, the Virgin always had to have a blue robe and the Saints their special uniforms. That was alright. But the final aim was on a slightly higher level. The result was better art than under a state-controlled art. It’s a big question. There are probably more reasons than just that. Once could say they were concerned with the more spiritual aim. We must remember that almost all the Church-controlled painting after the Renaissance was entirely about Man. I suppose the earlier painting of Byzantium, and most Gothic art is anti-human [I never said this!]
In your work you’ve always stuck to the same themes. Like Cezanne with Mont St. Victoire or Braque with his still life, people might see the subject matter of your work as compulsive. Where does the compulsion to paint what you do paint originate?
[Somewhere in the subconscious I suppose – psychoanalysts relate it to a desire to restore the destroyed image]. The image is deeply psychological. Whatever an artist chooses to paint, it is the world as he knows it or comes to know it. One might think that still life as a subject matter has limitations that is incapable of expressing the whole of a man’s feeling about the world, but with Braque it is not so. Nor is it so with any subject matter, provided that the motive comes from inside.
People nowadays tend to over-simplify the artistic process, by separating the inner world of the artist and the outward responses of the spectator. Finally, do you agree that the task of the artist in painting is precisely to make his own private world explicit to the spectator? Does this barrier exist, which he has to get across?
I think all an artist tries to do, if he is absolutely honest with himself, is to make it clear to himself. If he succeeds in doing that, if as Cézanne said, he finds a way of expressing these confused inner feelings which he carries through his life, then automatically he will make it clear to other people as well.
In effect the process is based on the assumption that he is sane and that he lives in a real world.
It is based on a sort of faith in the possibility of being understood.
KEITH VAUGHAN: JOURNAL & DRAWINGS
Interview with Bryan Robertson
Television Broadcast on the BBC, November 1966
In 1966, shortly after Vaughan had published Journal and Drawings, the BBC filmed an interview between him and Bryan Robertson, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery. At the same time an exhibition was held at the Redfern Gallery on Cork Street, showing many of the featured drawings. The previous year Vaughan had been awarded a CBE and the continuing attention temporarily lifted him out of his customary melancholy. The film of the interview has since been lost. Vaughan, however, discussed being filmed in his journal in early November 1966:
Wednesday November 2, 1966
BBC TV people here this morning with Bryan to arrange the short programme about my book which they intend to put out. Busy and productive activity with others. Very pleasant. Enough to banish all my depression. If there were more of this in my life, instead of the long days alone trying to find some creative spring of energy within me, I should be a lot better off. But I can’t very well apply for a job at the BBC & to take on the extra day at the Slade wouldn’t be as good because that again, is a solitary activity for the most part. At least it is not sufficiently programmed.
Sunday November 6, 1966
Waiting to do my TV recording with Bryan – discussion part. Tedious. And one knows that after rehearsing it 3 times & defending oneself against Bryan’s quite unintentional aggression & domination, one will be at one’s worst when the actual take is made.
Tuesday November 8, 1966
The TV programme of the Journal in last Sunday’s ‘Look of the Week’. Drawings displayed with considerable understanding & sympathy, albeit implying a relationship to the text which is not accurate. The Highgate Pond one, in which there are sexual, prominent cocks, was held for what seems to have been a suspiciously long time. Possibly, as a result of this, a member of the Redfern Gallery was inundated yesterday with anonymous phone calls asking, “Is this the gallery that’s showing the pictures of men?”
But my face talking to B[ryan] R & photographed relentlessly through telephoto lenses which concentrated solely on the central 6 square inches, looked like a cross between the W. German chancellor & a stranded prehistoric jelly-fish – palpitating & quivering – and one of the most revolting sights I have ever seen. A salutary experience I shall never forget. It will make a permanent change in my narcissistic self-image & remove the last traces of illusion that I can still succeed in looking like an attractive teenager. The thought of ever again pressing that flabby mass against a young mouth fills me with nausea & disgust. This is a pity since the act will probably be performed some time or other & the memory will simply deprive it of pleasure.
Extraordinary though how many people have gone out of their way to say how much they enjoyed the Journal & have been moved by it. And I don’t think they were just being polite. I certainly never expected this. I suppose I expected either an embarrassed silence from friends, or a pretty sharp attack for self-indulgent, waffling, sentimentality & half-baked metaphysics. Of course – this may still come.