My Avant-Grandfather

My granddad George Wilson grew up in a rented council house in 1930s Jarrow. This impoverished part of northeastern England was an industrial hub of shipbuilding, an industry that employed about eighty per cent of the town’s population – most of whom left school at 14 to work. But as the son of a railway clerk, he had brighter prospects. The first person in his family, along with his twin sister Joan, to go into post-secondary education, he continued to art college.

His father had left school at 14, as did everyone at the time unless they could afford to pay to go on to grammar school. But eventually he landed at the rail yards. “My father thought he had a wonderful job,” my granddad says. “He said he was enormously lucky because he had a job for life. And he was quite happy just to stay in that job, there was no competition, no applying for jobs. … Whereas if you were in the shipyards in those days, or building, as soon as the ship was launched you were out of a job. … You had no permanence, no surety; it was a very tricky thing.”

This all-or-nothing career was still the main option facing young people in my grandfather’s day, forty years later. For him, the difference between going into the shipyards or going into the railway was decided by a now-legendary exam: the 11+. If you passed, you stayed in school until 18. If you failed, you stayed in school until 14 – not doing very much in the meantime, by my granddad’s account – and then you went to work. “I remember going to school, and when I came home for lunch I could pass people who had been in the junior school with me who were black from head to foot working in the shipyards at 14 and 15 years old,” my granddad remembers.

When the Jarrow shipyard closed in 1934, unemployment plunged the area into depression. The response was one of the landmark labour movements of the 20th century. The Jarrow March of 1936 is still remembered today as being remarkable not only for its scale – 200 marchers walked almost 300 miles to Westminster – but its lack of significant impact. Unemployment remained high until, and even after, the renovation of industry brought a ship-breaking yard and engineering works in 1938, and the protesters returned on the train, using the £1, which was all they were given for their efforts.

Art was the only thing that mattered for my granddad, but he has unable to practice it at school. His first exhibition, at age ten, was at a local agricultural fair – called a Leek Show because of the North East’s specialty: huge leeks. His painting was crammed in among the pastries and the jams and the cabbages. The Second World War, which broke out when he was nine years old – meant that when the previous art teacher retired, he was never replaced.

No one was unaffected by the war. But when my grandparents talk about it, they don’t have much to say because it became their daily lives, imbued with an banality that seems unbelievable today. Why do they not clam up with horror at the memories? No one in my family died, was bombed or evacuated far from their family, or fought in the front lines. Listening to their memories, I get the impression that my grandparents grew up with an awareness that they were at war, but at the same time, that was just how life was.

My granddad’s school was taken over for “the war effort,” and my granddad was evacuated to his grandmother’s for a couple of years to escape the bombings that faced most of Britain’s built up residential areas. With his father being called up for the Royal Navy, my granddad’s mother was too lonely at home, and so he and his sister returned home, attending school for the half-day a week that was available to them.

My granny also felt the effects on her education, but that was about all that was affected. She was five at the time, and homeschooled. “Granny had a lovely war,” she says. “I stayed in Alnwick with granny and granddad. Granddad was invalided out of the First World War, he was a stretcher-bearer.”

When my granddad later continued to grammar school, after the 11+, “an awful irascible old headmaster” made him take an extra year. My granddad pinpoints this instant specifically as “one of those great quirks of fate.” It was while he was doing his extra year at school that he met my granny – “If he hadn’t come to the grammar school, to re-sit his O-levels, you might not be here!”

“Oh that’s right, I met little Beatrice Humble,” she says. “Do you know, she was only four-foot-two. Tiny little thing she was.” Their banter is wonderful to watch, makes me long to be back in their big suburban-village house, the wall-to-wall carpets and bacon sandwiches and entering through the back door because the front is saved for formal guests and the postman. “Every year they took a full photograph of the whole school and when I was in the third year I was sat at the front with the first years,” my granny continues.

“Cross-legged, at the front, because she was only two-foot-three.”

“No, four-foot-two!” No one in my family – on either side; my parents both came from families of late bloomers – is allowed to forget the heights of various members during their teenage years. My mother was in children’s shoes until she was 14, I have grown two inches in seven years, and my father was three inches shorter than his younger sister at 15.

This extra year not only served to ensure my own birth, but brought my granddad so close to the mandatory age for conscription that he put off his entry into art college. Even though the war ended when he was 15, conscription continued until 1960. After completing his service in the airforce – during which he never actually got off the ground – he followed his father into being a railway clerk. “He was hopeless at it!” my granny points out. The stationmaster declared him “a disgrace,” and it was then that he finally decided the only recourse was art college.

My granddad went to art college in Sunderland. A working-class boy from an impoverished corner of the northeast going to art college was an unusual thing. His mother was originally against his ambition, fearing  that all painters were drunkards. (She herself had left school at 14 to work at a local building company, where all the painters – presumably, because of their exposure to turpentine – turned to drink.) Nevertheless, it was she who went to the art college in Sunderland and asked about applying. “My mother instigated it,” he says, “because she realized I couldn’t do anything else. And I think everybody thought that.”

Because of his teacher at Sunderland, Harry Thubron, he managed to get into the Royal College of Art in London. Thubron revolutionized post-secondary art education, shifting its focus to the general study of colour and space, rather than specific skills. From his teaching, the Foundation Course evolved. This is still the standard qualification required for studying art, design, and architecture in the UK, and many of my high school friends went on to do it after graduating.

Under Thubron’s tutelage, my granddad also won a competition held by the Daily Express newspaper. The painting was bought by Lord Beaverbrook, who put it in his gallery in New Brunswick. And as a result of this competition, he won a travelling scholarship, took a break from the Royal College – which he admits he “shouldn’t have done,” but was again pushed into it by Thubron – and lived in Venice for a year.

During this year, in 1955, he didn’t learn a word of Italian. But he made a lasting friendship at a trattoria in the tiny and obscure Campo San Toma, which proved useful when I visited Venice almost fifty years later with my mother and brother, as the overjoyed owner plied us with bread. He later used the leftover scholarship money to take his wife there for their honeymoon.

As an art student, my granddad’s education had revolved around the use of the life model. He spoke at length about the influence of the Greeks on Western civilization through their art. “Greek sculpture was unlike anything else. It drove you to movement. Egyptian sculpture, Mesopotamian, Sumerian, you name it – you fell down in front of it, it was massive, absolutely awe-inspiring. Greek sculpture wasn’t, Greek sculpture was man-sized and it was dynamic, and you wanted to walk round the back of it, you wanted to dance with it! It’s marvelous, Greek sculpture, when you see the final high point of Greek sculpture, it’s absolutely lifelike, naturalistic.”

Once employing three nude models, Sunderland – and most other art colleges – no longer employs any. With the collapse of the life model came the collapse, says my granddad, of figurative art. Art students became individualistic creatures, and art became about the psychology of the individual. The individuals who would go on to form the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, all went to art college. That they all evolved into performing artists was no coincidence – they were part of a movement whose purpose was to blur the lines between art and performance. “They just wanted to perform,” my granddad points out. “The artist became more important than the art he produced in many ways. … The Andy Warhols, the Damien Hirsts, are stars in their own right – they just make objects that become sensational, you know. But a lot of it is ‘roll up, roll up, come and see the fat lady.’”

My granddad taught at art school after coming out of college, entering the world of teaching just as that role was losing its impact on those taught. “Slowly but surely there were students doing this sort of thing that really didn’t want any connections with life drawing at all, and the model and this sort of thing,” he remembers. “They would bring things in that they found on a scrapheap and put them all together and give it a name, just stick things together and hope that it would be greater than the sum of these parts eventually.”

As an art teacher, my granddad found it hard to adapt to these attitudes and perceptions of art. He says it became very difficult to teach art history – to teach principles and ideas and foundations that were readily rejected.

Instead, rejecting teaching studio art entirely, he taught a history of ideas – what is non-figurative art about, what is Impressionism about: the painting of ideas rather than action. Brought up to believe that art was naturalistic, a straightforward explanation of history and culture, teaching studio art became difficult.

“And ever since then,” he continues, “my job as a painter has been to find a language, a way of producing paintings that try and make some sense of that collapse of tradition, of figuration.” Growing up, I only saw a certain style of his artwork – ruined castles nestling in grassy sand dunes, summer afternoon cricket scenes, little cartoon birthday cards stuck to the mantelpiece.

But these, he says, he painted to make money. He says he no longer paints figuratively. “It’s not what I paint because I have ideas, you see. If you saw the ideas things, now they’re not figurative anymore. Now there’s a reason why they’re not figurative anymore and this is the difference. … Why don’t they have any life models anymore? Largely because if you’ve heard of the Enlightenment, you’ve heard of revolutions: political, social – it changed the way society regarded history and the past. We ditched things, got rid of things, revolted against all sort of things – kings, we cut kings’ heads off, and things like that. Now what does it leave you with if you ditch history? You ditch figuration.”

The study of art has been the driving force behind my granddad ever since he can remember, and the circumstances surrounding his becoming an artist are a remarkable example of coincidence. “My father never thought, never imagined he would make any progress,” my granddad tells me. “Now, I was probably one of those people who said, ‘oh no, I think I can do better than that.’ I could have been a railway clerk! I hadn’t had any ambition and if my mother hadn’t had any ambition I probably would have been.” He broke out of the social hierarchy ingrained in his upbringing (he was once chastised by a great-aunt for daring to have a conversation with the vicar) and travelled the world.

But to keep this in context, the beginning of his post-secondary education was representative of a growing trend. More people were staying in school, could afford to stay in school. Whereas his parents left at 14 because they didn’t have the money for grammar school, the only requirement for him to keep going was a basic knowledge of math and English. Despite being a “late bloomer,” he had the opportunity to bloom, and the hour-long treatise he gave me on his theory of art was the result.

My granny comes back into the room to say goodbye. “I bet you’re bamboozled!” she says. “It would have been a much simpler thing to ask granny about what she did in the war. She had a much simpler life.”

“Gathering mushrooms!” my granddad laughs.

“I had a lovely war, Naomi.”

“Gathering mushrooms.”