Born in 1957, and brought up in suburban Bexleyheath, it was the 1960s! The mainstream psychedelic, anti-materialism was becoming jaded and faded, but like a dying star blasting off its last layers of incandescent gas, there were the few golden years of innovative Rock Music remaining, with their fabulous gate fold album sleeves and an all-pervasive atmosphere of medievalism, surrealism and science fiction seen through the lens of late Victorian/Edwardian sensibilities. Living a quarter of a mile from William Morris’s Red House, I’m sure Psychic Geography played its part in my early inspirations.
Imagine our joy at school when our fencing master, exasperated, exclaimed “It’s meant to be an Olympic sport, you look like Victorian gentlemen duelling!” (and yes, that was the very flamboyant, very Spanish, British Olympic Fencing Coach teaching us at Bexleyheath Comprehensive…. ‘those were the days’)
Magic certainly filled the air, and whilst still at school I started to experience weird, ecstatic out of body experiences. I was approached by someone from the local Spiritualist Church and asked if I would like to join their sessions. I certainly hadn’t mentioned my strange internal experiences, had I inadvertently wandered into someone else on the Astral Plane? Or perhaps it was just my looking like a Biblical Prophet? It was an image I was carefully cultivating, and the height of fashion at the time!
I quickly found myself in a regular ‘Development Circle’ with some of the top Spiritualist Mediums in the country. The aim was to develop and practice Trance Mediumship, the complete taking over of the body by ‘another self’. In the Spiritualist belief system, this would be the spirit of someone who had ‘passed over’ and was usually known to someone else in the circle. The spirit would offer up proof as to their identity, by giving information that would only be known by them and the relevant sitter, or could be researched later. The purpose was mainly to provide the comfort of showing that there was an afterlife, but often advice was given regards an earthly concern. Clairvoyance was also practiced, where the medium, in a trance state, sees visions and receives information, again hopefully relevant to someone else in the circle. Other phenomena sometimes occurred where a distressed spirit might break through, or some kind of non-human entity, such as a pagan god or Angel.
The most striking thing about these sessions was how seemingly highly grounded ‘ordinary people’ could take on a persona and describe different times and places in great detail with great poetic eloquence. The relaying of private shared knowledge was often spectacularly accurate, but has been explained away as Cold Reading, a technique used by Stage Magicians. Another explanation, which does away with a spirit world, is that telepathy is taking place, still an ‘out-there’ explanation, but perhaps not quite as far out.
Cold Reading requires intense observational skills, and a lot of practice to be convincing. Perhaps some people have it as a natural skill? I am certain the clairvoyants I saw working at very close range were certainly not out to deceive. In conclusion, very strange things happened, certainly at a cerebral level and sometimes a physical level as well.
I was beginning to feel the need to share all this weirdness (more accurately Wyrdness in the Anglo-Saxon sense) but I couldn’t see how. And then on April Fools Day 1976, Max Ernst died, and a number of his paintings appeared in an obituary in an early evening magazine TV show. This was a revelation to me, as the images (even on the small screen) captured exactly the visions and feelings I experienced in the seance room. I threw myself into researching Surrealism and went to see Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus at the Tate Gallery, which confirmed my conclusion that oil painting was to be the next stage in my investigations into what I think can be described as ‘The Greater Nature’, without limiting it to any belief system.
(By the way, my use of the word ‘Wyrd’ (as opposed to weird) is to signify a more specific meaning – something between the conventional meaning and something akin to the Chinese Tao, a concept from Anglo Saxon Shamanism. For more see Brian Bates).
At that time, the degree to which Spiritualist and other traditionally occult methods had been used in Surrealism was not widely known. Any inkling of a belief in discarnate intelligent entities was getting a bit close to religious belief, an anathema to that particular group of card carrying Communists. The early thinking was surprisingly systematic, rooted as it was in Psychoanalysis. Jung’s Analytical Psychology derived from Psychoanalysis, and far more spiritual in my opinion is, I think, a better fit, certainly with Symbolist Art, which I believe is a forerunner of Surrealism. Arnold Bocklin was an influence on Ernst. The hidden hand of occultism behind Surrealism has now been fully exposed in literature. Of particular interest to me was Kenneth Grant’s observation of the similarities between Dali’s methodology, Paranoid Critical Method and Accommodations of Desire, with the full-on magical practice of Austin Osman Spare. Interestingly, Spare used Psychoanalytical terminology as well as terms from Spiritualism and witchcraft to describe his system, but called Freud and Jung, Fraud and Junk, possibly due to the link made between Depth Psychology and Surrealism with which he had fundamental disagreements with.
(Incidentally, Austin Osman Spare’s objection to Surrealism, was the idea that an Artistic training would stand in the way of ‘pure psychic automatism’. Spare thought a high level of competence was required to obtain meaningful results, at least to other people, a position borne out by Dali’s highly competent and successful work. Or that in other media, such as jazz improvisation, a high level of skill produces the more startling results).
Perhaps paradoxically, I had gained a place at Imperial College to study Life Sciences. The College was then the High Temple of evidence based scientific investigation, with a total dedication to a constantly evolving mathematical – often statistical – model of the physical world. Upon graduation, I had hard wired into me the scientific method, which has proved ever useful in my later ‘spiritual adventures’ and an ability to draw from life after hours of accurate drawing of biological specimens.
By now (around 1977) I had realised that Surrealism was actually a philosophy for life which I had adopted, which combined in me with a cynicism so extreme that I came to totally mistrust cynicism itself! The constant ‘What if?’ is key to my artistic endeavour, which has always felt like a scientific investigation into the ‘Wyrd’ and the beautiful.
At that time, a massive cultural shift occurred, just down the The Kings Road, as it happened. Punk culture changed everything, or perhaps the rise of Thatcherism, which swept away the last vestiges of bucolic 60s utopianism. The Loadsamoney era had arrived.
I had by now taken the, what then appeared to be the mad idea of becoming a full time professional ‘Artist’. I worked hard on my painting ability and automatic drawing technique as described in Spare’s Book of Pleasure. I had by now discovered Symbolist Art, with its deep occult roots and Victorian Fairy painting which was a serious genre in its day and foreshadowed both Symbolism and Surrealism. Another important influence were the largely anonymous, agricultural naïve paintings, often of animals, which had unintended but revealing surrealistic twists. This work, once housed in a large gallery in Bath, was of particular interest, as these were self-taught representational Artists, often sign writers or rat catchers!
By then, I had somewhat outgrown Spiritualism, and now was experimenting with Qabalistic practices, Tarot and particularly the Enochian System of magic set out by Dr John De, occult advisor to Elizabeth 1st and Sir Edward Kelly, principally an Alchemist. All of this I did now in the service of Art. I also completed a three year course in Hypnotherapy and Psychotherapy in the mid-1980s, and continue to study the more obscure roots of Visionary Art to this day.
Initially, I had success with The Portal Gallery in Bond Street, The Garden Gallery in New Cross Gate, and I secured solo exhibitions in Moscow, Amsterdam and London.
My most recent outings have been eight paintings in the recent Creative Spirits exhibition at The College of Psychic Studies (in the Conan Doyle room) and a solo stand at the Winter Olympia Art and Antique Fair, representing Messums St.James’s, both during November last year. Incidentally, as was evident in the recent Creative Spirits exhibition, there are obviously two main strands of spiritual art: the trained and the spontaneous, more ‘Art Brut’ type of work, but there is of course room for both!
A relatively full CV is on my section in the Messums St.James’s website, along with images of all my work in my 2020 exhibition at Bury Street. The high-quality printed catalogue for that exhibition is available from the Gallery (I am down to my last copy!)
My latest work is incorporating psychedelic elements, referencing back to the 1960s as the era initiated in the mid-1970s seems to have run its course, and projects such as The Spiritual Arts Foundation gather traction.