Claiming our lives

Submitted by Matthew on 15 January, 2014 - 12:05

Vicki Morris reviews a major exhibition of works by Nottingham-born artist Paul Waplington.


The Paul Waplington exhibition at Nottingham Castle showed works from what the exhibition notes call “a recent but by-gone age”, the 1970s and 80s.

A Central TV documentary about Waplington, broadcast in 1984, forms part of the exhibition. In it the artist comes across as the original “Grumpy Old Man”, mourning the passing of this by-gone, almost golden, past.

Happily, Waplington’s pictures — even of the East Midlands (he now lives in sunnier, rural Portugal) — are the opposite of grumpy: warm, colourful, full of life, love and hope. “Lowry meets the Muppets,” says my friend, but with an important political message.

The first room of the exhibition has paintings of Nottingham’s poorer streets, “strange views of terraced houses stacked up above each other”.

“May Day, Hyson Green” shows the 1978 May Day march snaking through the terraced Victorian streets around the then new-build Hyson Green flats. The Basford Hill Band — in which Waplington rose to second cornet — leads the march, which stretches into the distance.

The march features the banners of unions we know today including the NUT but also ones whose names disappeared through merger, eg, AUEW, and/or workplace closure, like ASTMS Raleigh. There are the banners of Bulwell Council Tenants Association, the NUM, and Nottingham and District Trades Union Council, and a home-made banner that says “People Before Profit”.

The scene would be familiar to a socialist today, but the march is clearly bigger than we can currently muster.

The residents of Hyson Green flats look down on the march with what Waplington suggests is bemusement. Many of them are recent immigrants to Nottingham; certainly none of them are — yet — citizens of the traditional labour movement.

Already, in 1984, Waplington is nostalgic for a time when whole streets would turn out for May Day, would know what the march and trade unions were about, and when political parties took the labour movement seriously. “I’d love to see May Day as what it was: a festival dedicated to working people.”

Waplington hated school, failed his 11 Plus, and left as soon as he could at 15. He wanted to be an artist but, without qualifications, was rescued only by the Nottingham lace industry where he got a job as an apprentice draughtsman, designing net curtains. “That was the pencil and brush job around here.”

Although he was pleasantly surprised to find he liked the work, he says it would be boring to do it your whole life: “Years pass and you’re filling in these little squares”. And then there is the problem that, regardless of your talents, you are just a worker, like any other, dependent for your living on ups and downs in trade.

Aged 21, Waplington was made redundant. He went abroad for a while, to Belgium, working as a pavement artist.

He met an anarchist and trade unionist who educated him to understand that what had happened to him was normal within capitalism, no matter how good you were at your job.

Back in the UK he became politically active, seeing his own experience as part of a system. A black and white photograph of the 1973 May Day march shows him marching behind the Nottingham Vietnam Solidarity Campaign banner. He was in the Young Communist League, but never joined the Communist Party or any other political group. The exhibition notes say he focused on involvement with the labour movement, meaning, presumably, trade unions. An AWL comrade remembers Waplington getting stuck in on a local protest against the National Front.

When Waplington returned to work in the lace industry it was as a freelance. Between doing his art, designing lace, and teaching art classes he made a modest living. But by 1984 he was still 70% dependent on lace (by then a dying industry), and felt tied to Nottingham because of it. He suggests that he could make more money as an artist if he picked a more commercial subject, but he doesn’t want to do that kind of art.

“You make what’s called sacrifices,” he says, eschewing new clothes or a new car. “This is not too terrible.”

After all, he is painting what interests him, he enjoys his work. “Unless you are excited by what you see, you are just churning something out, you’re making commercial art.”

Of lace itself he says: “I don’t basically like lace as a fabric. You could say that politically I don’t like the connotations of the material. I was keen on the machine and how it worked, but I wasn’t interested in the product or how it worked.”

The 1984 documentary starts with Waplington talking about what was by now his main subject: working-class life. He paints practical, unadorned workplaces and workers and work processes, and the unlovely streets and houses where the workers live.

“Like a lot of working people, for me painting and drawing were associated with a lack of industry. It took years to say: why do I keep walking away from the housing estate?”

Thereafter, he struck out from his modest, terraced house through the neighbouring streets to paint houses and the people living in them, the industries carried on in their midst. He set out to see whether he could make art based on these places.

He could — though not everyone liked it.

A picture painted for a local hospital got mixed reviews from the visitors; many disliked its honest depiction of the modest Nottingham streets. “I don’t like the houses.” “I like the children playing.” “He hasn’t got the perspective right.”

Responding, Waplington says: “They expect from painting what I used to expect it to be... something that takes you out of yourself, makes you forget.” In fact, his paintings hold far more exciting thoughts and emotions.

In a triptych — heady pictures of children hanging from climbing frames against a backdrop of row upon row of terraced houses — Waplington poses the question:

“When are the kids going to come down off the monkey frame and claim that town and their own life?”

It’s not clear whether he means in the sense of becoming adults (workers) or in a more political sense — both, I think.

Waplington has a detailed, technical interest in the machinery people work on and sets out to record workers and their work, “but not just in a photographic way, more vivid, quite intimate”. He paints portraits of people who are interesting to him by virtue of their work, but he paints them as individuals.

He is pulled between the two styles. He paints the worker as an anonymous part of a work process — an individual worker, yes, but one who could nevertheless be replaced by any other individual worker, or laid off altogether... even replaced by a machine.

He acknowledges the tension, saying he tries not to paint “typical faces”, or to paint stereotypes, but while his paintings are of individuals, they are individuals shaped —literally, physically shaped— by their work. And different jobs shape workers in different ways.

In the documentary Waplington is filmed painting Barry, a man who sports a crew cut, “not for an image but practical”: because his work involves leaning into the machinery, to have even averagely short hair would be dangerous.

At the same time, Waplington says, while even his hairstyle is shaped by his work, Barry “is not a robot, he is a man in many ways to be envied”, because he does a job that requires skill and judgement, at a time when modern technology is making work more and more boring and skills such as Barry’s obsolete. “He’s working in a way that everyone should have the chance to work in.”

My favourite exhibit is a drawing of two balding, bespectacled, middle-aged men tying a warp on a loom. Sat side by side facing the loom, a tension in their posture indicates effort but their bodies are also skilfully held, suggesting they have been doing this job for years.

A huge mural in Castle Street, Sheffield, made of bricks, depicts a steel worker (1986, above left) and was based on a drawing of an individual worker, Ron Mason. Waplington took pains to portray him in detail, because, while he represents a worker and his trade, he is also an individual.

In the 70s and 80s Waplington made many paintings of coal miners and their surroundings. A group of old miners that he paints sitting in a bar remind him of his granddad and friends, old men who reminisced about the First World War and the General Strike. “I was very sympathetic and tried to paint them with affection and respect. I was trying to paint a type — an archetypal old miner. But a particular one.”

Affection and respect, but he doesn’t want to paint icons:

“Heroism is one aspect of mining, but I would not use the stereotyped images of heroism. When drawing the figure, I never think I am going to do a hero or heroine. The thought is just not there.”

He likes the sense of community in pit villages, but worries that working-class people increasingly seem to be content with their lot — presumably, the programme was recorded before the miners’ strike began in that same year!

At the top of a banner that Waplington painted in 1986 for Hucknall NUM, commemorating the 1984-5 miners’ strike, there is a mounted policeman, raising a baton to strike a kneeling miner.

The policeman is anonymous, the visor of his helmet hides his face. The young, kneeling miner in the centre represents all the miners, but his face is recognisably that of an individual miner Waplington knew, Ian Morrison.

Paul Waplington has said that he doesn’t want to paint political pictures, only what he sees. Despite that, we can draw important political lessons from his work.

His own conclusions —in the 1970s and 80s, anyway — seem to have been pessimistic: modern technology is making jobs more boring, making people idle, and sucking the colour out of life, and workers seem to be acquiescing in this.

And then came the miners’ strike! In Nottinghamshire, where the majority scabbed, yet a minority of miners joined the strike and fought, with Waplington and other working-class Nottingham people on their side.

In spite of the conclusions Waplington draws explicitly, his work strikes me as profoundly optimistic.

The forms and geography of capitalist exploitation have changed — are ever-changing — but there is no winding down of the basic, underlying realities. Important facts remain.

People must work in order to live. And people – the way Waplington paints them – are wonderful, full of life and colour, despite sometimes miserable surroundings. As much as possible, they enjoy work, they want to create, make music, organise.

Industries, trades and jobs have changed or vanished. New workers will be shaped by new industries; they will rebuild and renew their trade unions.

The then “new” flats depicted in “May Day, Hyson Green” were demolished after the riots in 1981 and replaced with a big Asda.

However detached from the labour movement they seem, the residents of the Hyson Green flats, and all those who live or shop in the area today, are workers, with the potential to organise. We can see again May Day marches that snake through the streets for miles.

The exhibition concludes on 19 January.

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