Friendship with the Manchester artist John Pegg


Kenneth Lawson’s paintings were exhibited with John Pegg’s at Wendy Levy Contemporary Art,  Didsbury, from February 10th  to March 2nd 2012.

Ken and I became close friends in spite of our contrasting personalities and backgrounds and as well as having a variety of non-compatible interests.  We had flats in the same development in West Didsbury and were on nodding terms for many years  before  a casual invitation into his home sometime in the early 90s led to the  discovery that we both painted. We were immediate friends and remained enthusiastically so until his death some 15 years later.

He was pleased to find  someone else in his immediate neighbourhood  with an interest in 20thcentury British painting   and soon  the conversation was fizzing along, usually in some Didsbury cafe or pub. He would produce a  carefully organised  selection of cuttings,  postcards  etc., even the occasional  gem of a  1940s exhibition  catalogue for us  to peruse and talk about,  and which  he’d usually give to me at the end of the session . We’d talk ideas or  technique, as well as generally  rummaging  through the lives of  largely forgotten  personalities of the 40s and 50s,   many of whom Ken had met and about whom he had anecdotal glimpses to pass on.  He’d been part of London’s bohemia during  the Second World War and known  characters such as  Jack Bilbo of the Modern Art Gallery  (who introduced him  to the newly arrived  refugee Kurt Schwitters),  and   painters from the art establishment  like Claude Rogers.  It was  Jack Smith, the painter whose picture of a kitchen sink  gave the movement  it’s name, who  took him to see Rogers. On the way he offered Ken   surgical spirit – which  was declined!  Ken was highly conspicuous – 6’ 4” was  an  enormous height in the 1940s – and  in one popular bar the  long hair, shaggy coat and sandals  attracted the attention of another regular, Dylan Thomas,  who  mockingly dubbed him ‘My Lord Jesus Christ’!   My feeling that they didn’t get on was confirmed  when, inevitably, I asked what Dylan Thomas was like and one of Ken’s haughty sniffs  preceded a peremptory ‘Fat little Welsh boy!’.  Mind you, next to Ken everyone looked short! – And fat!

We were too far apart stylistically to have much effect on each other’s painting  though  I was pleased with the result when I used Ken’s abstract style as the inspiration for an Orkney seascape. I had  no  influence  on Ken’s work  other than an occasional opinion or piece of advice over details when he  asked.  But   this could be useful as  even Ken with his intuitive approach could sometimes overwork a painting.

We both attached a lot of importance to the role of   intuition  in  the  painting process, especially with regard to  composition, though our methods of enabling it to operate (as usual!) differed.    It’s the abstract  substructure of  relating elements in any strong painting in any style, which  captivates  the viewer’s subconscious.  This isn’t surprising when one  of  the  earliest tasks we have when we are born is to decode the visual patterns we are confronted with. This is surely what Clive Bell  meant  by  his (much criticised) term ‘Significant Form’ all those years ago.  But be that as it may, an  over self-conscious approach to this substructure is liable to produce a contrived  composition and  my means of ensuring  that a proportion of  the elements arrive of their own accord i.e. via the eye rather than the intellect, is to paint ‘by the seat of my pants’ – and then walk away.  This enables the conscious mind to catch up with what’s going on before it accidently destroys essential elements  with the wrong kind of ‘logic’. I’m sure that very many painters operate this way though it’s been said of even as great an artist as Augustus John that he ‘buried a lot of good paintings under bad ones’!    Ken, especially in his spontaneous gestural abstracts of the 1970s, allowed intuition full reign, and even in his figurative  work  would quite often observe and then paint from memory in order  to prevent his sight from interfering with his vision and allow these formal elements to  materialise.

Quite early in our friendship I  gave Ken  a book  on Richard Diebenkorn for his birthday  and was slightly taken aback by the warmth of his thanks.  I got the feeling that maybe he hadn’t known too many male kindred spirits  in his life. Once over lunch and probably in an expansive mood, he told his wife that I was the best friend he’d ever had. Well, I doubt that – Ken had a long and colourful life and friends going way back  with  whom he’d  kept in touch,  but I was pleased to be so highly thought of.

In the mid 90s I moved to Altrincham, but this did nothing to dilute our friendship  -  and the increased wall-space  gave  my wife Anne and me the opportunity  to buy several of his larger paintings.  He was an indefatigable letter writer and I received  a steady stream of correspondence -I’ve a tin trunk full  – resulting both from   my no longer being in Didsbury and  the habit he developed about this time of wintering abroad.  During the summer,  however,  we still had plenty of opportunities to meet up.

One day we bounced into Manchester on the top deck of a bus (front seats of course!) in order to ‘do the rounds’  which included a visit to Jan Green at Tib Lane. Ken was on top form and I didn’t want to break his mood when, on the way home, I suddenly realised I was rapidly coming down with a  particularly nasty  virus.  So I kept my distance in the hope he hadn’t caught it and said nothing for the short time we had before we parted. For the next few days I was out of commission  but once I’d  ‘resurfaced ‘  I phoned and after several failed attempts to raise him  Anne  drove me  to Didsbury.  There was no answer when I buzzed the intercom,  but a neighbour  let me into the building and I managed to rouse him sufficiently  to open his door.  He was so ill we immediately phoned for an ambulance and he had a week or ten days in Withington Hospital. Later he declared that I’d saved his life - but that’s hardly the way I see it.

When he was a teenager and in poor health Ken had been befriended by Teddy Joyce and his band who, though now completely forgotten, were  very  big stars at that  time –  the mid to late thirties. Even at a distance of 70 years, he was quite moved as he told me of their kindness and was very careful  to  emphasise that there had been no improper hidden agendas. (This wasn’t always true of the war-time galleries!!). I think that his own generosity was   inspired in part by a desire to  give back to  the World some of the kindness Teddy and the boys had shown him – in fact he said as much.

When we first became friends I’d  never exhibited  -  so he took my work to two galleries both of which took me on.  I write at Ken’s old drawing desk, use his painting stool and often an easel of his  (all rescued from the garage) – and I  still occasionally use one of his old primed boards to paint on. He helped in other ways too, such  as when Anne and I thought we’d start a little business and  used his wonderful designer’s handwriting to create the logo. We had a very low-key civil wedding and Ken was my only representative.  Once,  when  I turned up at his flat with sore feet, he even provided a pair of shoes  (I still wear  them!) . In other words there were times when he would treat me like a son.

But  all powerful personalities have their non-saintly side too, and when the mood took him, he certainly wasn’t averse to systematically testing a person’s psychological armour. I think that one reason we were friends was because I  had the inner confidence to parry these thrusts!

A strong artistic ego  kept original work by anyone else off his walls. There were some reproductions of work by De Stael and particularly by Modigliani, but an original  stage design discarded by  John Piper for instance, lay neglected in the  garage  for many years before being  sent to auction.

It took Ken a long time to get round to clearing out that  garage, its clutter contained so many memories –   and though  generally not squeamish either mentally or physically for that matter,   he admitted to being rather apprehensive as to how he would feel  trawling through the by then  damp – damaged contents. I remember the looks of doubt and disbelief as I advised (successfully)  against  any wholesale destruction!

He  wintered  firstly in Tavira in Portugal for a few years before eventually settling on Menton which had the advantage of being  familiar territory from his association  with Graham Sutherland, whose assistant he’d been.  By that time I had family commitments and it took until the winter of 2006/7 to respond to his invitations to visit. I’m so glad I did. We had a wonderful few days in unseasonably warm weather in Menton’ s relaxed and civilised atmosphere , never suspecting that this  had been my last chance to visit him there . By the following autumn he was beginning to suffer from the effects of his final illness and  became  too ill ever to return.

I’m now on the 55th  volume  (i.e. notebook!) of a  mental scrapbook I started in 1985. Perhaps they serve the same function as  Ken’s garage in that I’ve never returned to their contents and would feel the same apprehension if I did  as their true function was always merely  to act as a dumping ground for my thoughts and past history . But it’s important to me to know that one day, if the urge takes me, I’ll  be  able to wade through a  mass of detail which would otherwise have been lost , and return to our conversations.