Review: Patrick ProcktorPatrick Procktor: Art and Life
By Ian Massey
Published by Unicorn Press
Reviewed by David Plante
It puts me at an odd angle to review a book about someone I knew, a book in which I am in fact quoted. My first reaction is to remember Patrick Procktor as I knew him. My partner, Nikos Stangos, and I used often to invite him to supper at our flat, sometimes with the poet Stephen Spender. The image comes back to me of Patrick wearing a tight translucent shirt and a pale green flimsy feminine scarf tied about his long thin neck. He had a nasal laugh, rather like a snort; he would raise his head in a slight jerk, his sharp chin jutting, and look away, and when he looked back it was as if from on high. I wondered what really he’d laughed at—perhaps at me. He always made me feel I lacked daring in dress, in gestures, in talk, in artistic originality. He was to me all daring.
Yet what most struck me about Patrick was his grounding in deep culture. His appreciation of Baudelaire, in French, was just one of the constant surprises of his serious knowledge of literature. And of course there was his ability to access the Russian writers in Russian. But, as if it were a pretension to be serious about such knowledge, he all too often presented a self that was more pretentious in his dandy-ism. I remember his carrying a book covered with fancy paper, in fact a novel by Dickens; and I thought it was typical of Patrick to disguise his serious interest in literature within decorative paper, as he disguised so much that was serious in him by decoration.
And how to square his socialist vision (I think of the very moving photograph in his memoir of him on a collective farm in Soviet Tashkent in 1956, translating for visiting Lancashire Weavers) with that dandyism? At the opening of the show in 19-- of his Great Leap Forward painting commemorating Chinese Communism, I was impressed when he said he thought someone from the Chinese Embassy might appear, and I thought: really, Patrick knew everyone. That he seemed to know someone at the Chinese Embassy made all his other acquaintances, such as his druggy friend the fashion designer Ossie Clark, ideologically equal. Or it could have been that in the 60s when young people carried Mao’s Little Red Book about, Patrick thought of an acquaintance at the Chinese Embassy as fashionable as knowing Ossie Clark. With Patrick, one never knew.
Procktor's 'First Day of Sun'
Ian Massey in his book, Patrick Procktor, Art and Life, is fully aware of how one never could know Patrick. For the life, he relies largely on reminisces of friends, very much like my reminisces which Massey’s book has inspired. Though I have my own doubts about the work, Massey’s enthusiasm is convincing. ( I see so many of the views Patrick painted in Venice, Egypt, China as obvious as postcards, but Massey argues that it is the deftness of the use of the paint that makes the difference, and so it does.) And the book expands beyond Patrick himself into the world he represented so centrally with his lovers and friends, starting most dramatically in the years of the 1960s when, it seemed suddenly, nothing was taken for granted, everything was to be experimented with and open to discovery, especially in sex and drugs. (My only wish is that Massey had been a little less discreet in exploring the sexual relations of Patrick’s lovers.) The book covers the decades following the 60s during which so many of the promises ended—in the case of Ossie, in his murder, and, in 2003, with the sad death of Patrick, far gone in alcoholism.
The last time Nikos and I saw Patrick was when we were out shopping in Marylebone and came across him, in carpet slippers and walking his dog. He asked us to join him for a drink in a pub, where we sat at a small table on which he leaned an elbow, his hand delicately to his cheek. He was drunk already and seemed to be supporting himself with that poised hand. He pursed his lips, thinking, and I hoped he would finally say something equal to his intelligence, but then he told us that he and his son Christopher were living on grilled sausages, and I had a vision of a grill dripping with grease.
Years before—oh, some thirty five years before he died in 2003-- Patrick had done a watercolour of Nikos and me lying side by side naked on a bed. Someone bought it; I should like to know what happened to it.
Patrick Procktor, Art and Life is more than a biography, it is social history at its best, creating a world seen anew by those who lived it, and wondered at by those for whom it is now seen as daringly original as it really was.
David Plante is author of many books including The Francoeur Trilogy, The Catholic, Difficult Women and The Pure Lover.