John Bartlett is an artist who has marched to his own creative beat all his life. His depiction of the poll tax riots caused controversy and his subject matter meant commercial galleries shunned him. His day job as a gallery assistant at London’s National Gallery inspires his work, surrounded as he is by the Old Master paintings he so admires. But now he has his own one-man show and it could be the making of him.
John Bartlett’s exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London marks the culmination of a journey that began when he was a small boy growing up in Braintree, Essex. Always artistically-minded, he had a gift for making things at school and an attention to detail which has remained with him to this day.
“Even in my woodwork class I remember people making wooden scrapers, paper knives and that type of thing, while I made a complete workshop with a tool cabinet and work bench and that took me the whole three terms. I’ve always harboured these grand ideas for master projects which go across the board. It’s my fundamental approach to work,” says John.
John’s artistic talent was evident from an early age and he attended his local college to study art for one year before moving on to a three-year fine art course at Maidstone College of Art.
Up to then, John had been a big fish in a relatively small pond: now he was in a different world. “At Braintree I’d been treated as a sort of prodigy and lavished with praise, whereas at Maidstone the priority was on ideas, thoughts and issues and it gave me that side to my work. I could not see why some of the students there got so much praise and attention so I had to decide whether the art taught at Maidstone had some depth to it or was just another variant on the Emperor’s new clothes.
“The art world came as a surprise to me. Although I had a certain amount of natural talent for drawing and painting, going to a place like Maidstone which revolved around avant-garde art, conceptual art, contemporary art generally, I was just not aware of these things or art history generally. I didn’t study history of art at school, I just made paintings.”
John has supported West Ham United football club all his life, but that was not the type of experience shared by his fellow students. “It was a transition for me as a schoolboy to go from football every week with my friends and that type of masculine background, to find it was sneered at when I mentioned it at art school. I always found myself trying to come to terms with college life whereas most of the other people there just naturally seemed to take to it.”
One incident at Maidstone which gave John pause for thought was when he and another student were selected to submit work for a prestigious competition at the Royal Academy. “I painted a picture of Bow Road. I was quite pleased with it but I was up against someone who’d painted a black square. Naively I thought I had a good chance against that but I was shocked when it was selected instead of my painting. Perhaps it was thought more sophisticated and that memory has stayed with me ever since.”
The ‘incident of the black square’, as John calls it, made him realise that he had to explore and research the significance of contemporary art if he were to make any headway at Maidstone. His figurative, representational style was distinctly different to that of his fellow students, so he tried to understand the prevailing approach to see if he could adapt it to his own work. “The Maidstone years were very formative in terms of me as an artist and made me even more determined to be a painter. Before I went there I just made paintings without too much thought about what I was really doing and the ideas I wanted to express. Maidstone helped me place my work in context and convinced me that art was the way forward. The thing I had to come to terms with on leaving Maidstone in 1983 was how I was going to survive as an artist.”
John then underwent his own seven years of ‘famine’ in the sense that, while many of his fellow graduates moved directly on to postgraduate courses, John found his work was at odds with what the art schools wanted. As he explains, “leaving Maidstone I was trying to find my place in the art world of the day. It was going through a transition at the time. Neo-expressionist painting was very popular but there was also a type of backlash from people who made more minimalist, conceptual works. It wasn’t that my work wasn’t fitting into any particular niche, it was that I wasn’t clear about what I was doing and it took some years for me to get close to making work that I felt was what I really wanted to do.”
John’s earned his living post-Maidstone working in timber yards. It was labour-intensive but gave him time to reflect on his artistic goals. “I’d do timber yard work from January to the summer, paint for a few months then get another timber job in the autumn and apply to art school each year after Christmas.”
Finally, John was accepted on a fine art post grad course at Byam Shaw College in London. “I thought I’d cracked it; I’d done it at last, on a post-grad course. But the first week I was there one of the visiting tutors said to me ‘why didn’t you do a postgraduate course?’ and I replied ‘that’s what I am doing’ and he said ‘yeah, but at a big college like the RA Schools or the Royal College of Art.’ I realised I’d waited all this time to get into a place but I still hadn’t done it. So most of the time I was at Byam Shaw I was obsessed with getting into the RA Schools and had the constant feeling that if I didn’t do that it would all be a waste of time.”
But John did get to the RA Schools and began a three-year painting course immediately upon leaving Byam Shaw in 1991. He revelled in the freedom he had to paint what he wanted and at his own, considered pace and it was in his final year here that he created his most famous work to date – History Painting. This huge canvas, which hangs on permanent display at the Museum of London and features in the Guildhall show, depicts the poll tax riot of 1990 in Trafalgar Square, but, according to John, that was not the driving force behind the work.
“The original idea was to make a huge, figurative and complex painting that was to be an updated, contemporary version of the kind of work done by the Old Masters. I wasn’t quite sure how to approach it, but I knew that I wanted it to be on the grand scale and contain representational imagery. I thought that if I chose a subject that everyone could identify with, like the riots, then anyone, even if they were not artistically-trained, could have some dialogue with it. It probably went back to the days when I first started art school and I felt that a certain kind of art cut off the man in the street, that they would have no interest in it because it meant nothing to them. So I’ve always tried to use subjects that everyone has an opinion on.
“My intention was also to learn how to make a big picture of that nature. I wanted to make something that looked like it was destined for the National Gallery. I remember a quote from Francis Bacon where he said it’s either the National Gallery or the dustbin and I thought that’s the way I should approach it. I wanted to make something that had a claim on importance and significance in some way and aspired to a very high level. I made a conscious effort to do this.”
John’s approach to History Painting was exactly the same as the one he took back in woodwork class in Braintree. He spent the whole of his final year working on it and even he wondered if it would prove too great a challenge. He had spent the previous summer buying the stretcher, stretching the canvas, priming it, mounting it and then finally hanging it. “It was the biggest painting even I’d ever seen,” he says with a grin. “It was nine feet by twelve and it dwarfed anything I’d ever made and was the biggest picture at the RA Schools at the time. When I’d finished priming it, I went for a break and when I came back there were about ten people just standing and looking at this blank canvas and I thought ‘if I’m getting this amount of attention from a blank canvas, what’s going to happen when I start painting it?’ That was the only time I felt a little daunted as I knew I was really going to be on show for the duration of the year.”
Some art critics see History Painting as a mere pastiche of certain Renaissance painters such as Paolo Uccello or Piero della Francesca, but John’s influences are wide-ranging and include Hockney, Guston, de Kooning and many other contemporary artists. The poll tax riot was simply a means to an end for him.
“I’m the most non-political person that you can get but people describe me as a political artist which I deny. I try to paint everyday subjects and although it may not have been an everyday event, the ordinary person could relate to it and think about it. I wanted to make a picture where people could see me placed very much within a genre. So I wanted that work to really establish me as a history painter. And then I felt I would be able to take on numerous subjects that weren’t so obviously located in a specific incident.”
But John’s apolitical stance was severely tested when the Museum of London took History Painting on loan in 1997. The attention he had craved for so long was achieved, but at a cost. “When it was first exhibited the press coverage was about a potential scandal, the idea that the Museum of London was displaying a deliberately provocative picture which endorsed civil disorder and that was the angle that the press generally took at the time. Virtually no one looked at it as a painting, only the subject matter.”
Mireille Galinou was a rare exception. She was then the museum’s curator of paintings and realised that the work was highly significant. “John Bartlett’s reputation for bold undertakings reached me months before I actually met him. It was the painter Oliver Bevan who recommended him warmly to me, adding that I’d probably be knocked out by it.
“I was and I had little trouble convincing my Museum of London colleagues of the painting’s worth – it was immediately selected for the London Now Gallery which was then being planned, in 1996. It was not simply the size of the painting that made such a lasting impression – the late 20th century has groomed us all to expect very large works, from gigantic abstract paintings to street murals. No, the style blended realism and heroism in an unforgettable manner – a riveting mixture which had last exerted its powers on the French during the troubled times of the Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath. John Bartlett proved that neo-classicism was still a wonderfully effective tool in the hands of a painter who could master its technique and spirit.”
One of the colleagues whom Mireille approached was Dr Cathy Ross, then head of later London history, now the museum’s director of collections and learning. Looking back today she says: “I wanted things to be a bit controversial and to move the museum forward and History Painting ticked all those boxes big time. It got enormous press coverage and from my point of view it couldn’t have worked better in the sense that it was making a statement about the museum and contemporary events.
“When we first displayed History Painting in 1997, the poll tax riots were still fresh in the memory; it was still a contentious event and it did provoke reaction. I was expecting that but the degree of the reaction did surprise me. It was one of those news stories that had legs of its own, so you got people like Conservative MPs quoted in the press who had never even seen the painting but just didn’t like the idea of portraying an event such as that as part of London’s history. And when you explained to people who felt agitated about it that this was in an important tradition, the tradition of commemorating big, historically important events such as these, it was difficult to understand at times why they had a problem with that. But people just read it very emotionally.
“It’s not simply the forces of anarchy against the forces of good; it’s much more complex than that and the painting captures that very well. I never felt that I should remove it from display because, on the whole, the people who were anti it were mainly rent-a-mouths!”
A common assumption was that John had been protesting at the demonstration, had himself been present in Trafalgar Square. In fact, he was working at a timber yard in Essex, doing a stock take when the riot took place.
Andrew Wilton is visiting research fellow, Tate Britain, and formerly honorary curator of drawings and prints at the Royal Academy and Keeper of the British Collection at the Tate. He first met John when History Painting went on display at the Mall Galleries prior to its arrival at the Museum of London, and was immediately attracted to the work.
“Firstly, it was its title which for me meant a tradition of academic painting going back to the 18th century and a lot of famous artists had used it to depict scenes from ancient and recent history, usually with lots of figures engaged in heroic action. And I was fascinated that a young artist now could be referring to that tradition which could hardly be said to be fashionable and using it so intelligently and with such imagination in the context of a modern subject, a very dynamic and controversial modern subject. He had also grouped his figures intelligently, they were well drawn, they were interestingly composed to convey the narrative which was one of considerable dynamism, and all that made me think that here was an artist who knew what he was doing, who had a strong sense of the past, unlike so many modern artists who have no feel for any art beyond their own time or a couple of generations back. And that sense of being intelligently linked to something much more substantial and established interested me.
“This criticism of John’s work that it is mere pastiche is precisely the thing I like about it, the fact that it uses the art of the past intelligently in my view and in a very original way. I have known other artists attempt that sort of thing but not get anywhere near his degree of success with it because it involves such a combination of skills – the drawing of figures, the composition and light and all the other things that go into the making of such an elaborate scene.”
The old adage that no publicity is bad publicity seemed initially to be confirmed in the wake of History Painting’s hanging at the Museum of London. John himself had no doubts: “I thought this was when I was really going to make it big time. The attention was immense and I remember one of the curators at the museum saying how well I was handling it and I just said that I’d been waiting all my life for this!”
But it was not to be. Commercial galleries visited John in his studio but offers to represent failed to materialise. “At that stage I only had one or two big pictures and I think people in the commercial art world want to know how they can make you a product, market you so you become representational of a particular style. The commercial galleries were more concerned about the content of some of my work. It’s always been quite provocative and disturbing. It was probably difficult to define me.”
Andrew Wilton is more forthright. “Life is what it is and the art world moves in not very mysterious ways. It’s not very good at spotting real talent. It’s quite good at pursuing whatever is fashionable or whatever’s being promoted by the people who happen to hold the reins of power. But those people don’t necessarily have the best eye or the best taste. They’re motivated by things quite other than looking at pictures. It’s much more to do with money and incomes.
“John has done his best to promote himself but because he’s not doing anything avant garde people don’t take notice of him. It’s partly because the critics and commentators don’t know what to say about a proper picture. They don’t have the knowledge and I don’t think they have the feeling for it.
“They prefer novelty to true originality whereas John’s work springs from an understanding of what’s gone before and a use of it in a creative way. Novelty can be any old thing. You can put a slit in a canvas and call it Concept Spatiale as Lucio Fontana did in 1959 and there you are, you’ve done something new. Hooray! So what. Or you can pickle a shark in formaldehyde and give it a pretentious name, which is a very great gimmick. You’ve only got to look at those people to know that with John you’ve got a serious artist who can do it and who has lots of ideas and is working hard to express himself on a whole number of levels.”
For the moment, John spends his working week at the National Gallery as a gallery assistant. He has been there since 2000 and in many ways it’s an ideal job. “I tend to use it not only to watch the public and make sure they’re not doing what they shouldn’t be doing, but also to think about my own work and ideas. Surrounded by such great art I’m always so pleased to go to work every day, it never palls. You get to see great shows like the Velazquez, Caravaggio, El Greco, Vermeer and Titian.”
When John studied at the RA Schools, he won a scholarship to study Spanish art and spent his days there drawing the work of one of his heroes, Diego Velazquez, and two works in particular, Joseph’s Bloody Coat brought to Jacob (1629-30) and Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan of 1630. When the National Gallery held their important Velazquez exhibition in 2006, John was able to reacquaint himself with these awe-inspiring works. “They were housed in the same room opposite each other and I went in there each morning before the public came in and looked at them there in silence because they both meant so much to me.”
John lives with his partner and young son and his studio today is their flat above a Chinese takeaway in Stoke Newington. In a move to raise his profile, he hosted a show of his work there in 2009 called Anonymous. “I didn’t want to say it was in my front room so I marketed it as a gallery space and the flat became ‘Tate Newington’. I had an enormous amount of people come to it including Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery, Cathy Ross and the late Vivien Knight, curator of the Guildhall Art Gallery. Vivien took an interest in one of the pieces and said how much she liked it so I approached her shortly afterwards and asked if she’d give me a show. After a long silence I suddenly heard from her and she said it had been put before an exhibition committee and agreed.”
Sadly, Vivien herself will not be present to see her faith in John justified, but he intends to stand by the principles which impressed her and to which he has always adhered. “The exhibition will give me the chance to show everyone what I’m doing for the first time and if I do sell it could give me a degree of financial stability where I might be able to give up my National Gallery job or do less and devote even more time to making paintings.”
During the duration of the exhibition, John will be creating a giant drawing along the width of the gallery on a specially-erected wall which will then be dismantled. Yet again it will depict civil unrest in London, this time last year’s riots. For an artist who claims to be uninterested in politics, isn’t this one civil disorder too many?
“Having a wall and a huge drawing to do, I started thinking about the subject matter. If it was trees next to a river, it’s not going to provoke much of a response. As it happens we had the London riots in the summer of 2011 and, although I’ve always said I’m not someone who just depicts riots or historical images, it just seemed that fate had presented me with a very big subject once again, worthy enough to put on the wall.
“It will look like it was a clear intention of mine before the show took place, which it wasn’t, but having said that, if I’d avoided the subject, I don’t know what I would have done in its place because obviously it gives me the same potential that History Painting had in that it gives people a very dramatic subject from recent history, one they can debate.”
Sometimes John’s ideas are a conflation of disparate themes coming together over time and this new major work – named The Rise of the Invisible – has its origins in another drawing he did in 2005 called The Invisible Man. The earlier work showed a hooded, anonymous figure, invisible in terms of identity, not in any sci-fi sense. This idea returned to John when he witnessed last year’s rioting as “there was a feeling that there was a rising up of people you couldn’t see because of the masks and the hoods, and suddenly it seemed like a grand scale rise of the invisible. It’s fictionalised and contrived into a kind of parallel situation which speaks of places and events but is not in reality an actual incident.”
Cathy Ross thinks John’s show is long overdue. “His time has got to come soon because he is an incredibly interesting artist. He’s bringing not just a modern sensibility but his own particular sensibility to his art which, if anything, brings a slightly sinister, disturbing edge to his work and one which sets up real complexities and resonances which I think will stand the test of time. He also creates very powerful images. Sometimes I think some of the conceptual stuff done by other artists is much more ephemeral because it’s about ideas and ideas change over time, but a really strong image will endure.”
If John has learnt one thing from his career so far it is the value of patience. “Because I’ve learned to live like this, I see things as part of a lifetime’s direction. And because I’ve got used to things being very slow, and things falling through, it’s almost by the by having the show, I’m doing what I would do anyway.
“At times in the past I’ve maybe thought I should scale things down a bit and make my work more accessible, but I just don’t feel as comfortable doing that so I tend still to make the big statements in my art and now with the show I feel that approach has been vindicated.”
John Bartlett’s exhibition – London Sublime – continues until 20 January 2013 at the Guildhall Art Gallery, London. You can find more information here: