Modernists and Mavericks by Martin Gayford review – Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London painters

An immersive history of painting from 1945 to the 1970s draws on a huge archive of the author’s interviews

Martin Gayford has been talking with artists for 30 years. He doesn’t just nip into the studio with a notepad: he has a gift for sustaining conversations that unfold across decades. His friendship with David Hockney has inspired remarkable collaborations, and when he sat for a portrait by Lucian Freud he made in return his own version of Man with a Blue Scarf, a written portrait of the painter painting.

In Modernists & Mavericks he draws on a huge archive of interviews to piece together a history of postwar painting in London, from the Camberwell students of the 1940s, working in the ruins of a bombed city, to the pop artists who collaged images of shining new-made lives in the 1960s. Gayford starts with people, moments and meetings, standing firm in the belief that “pictures are affected not only by social and intellectual changes but also by individual sensibility and character”. Three cheers for that faith in individuals. Other studies have debated the effects of state art funding and cold war cultural politics; this one brings us the expression of Leon Kossoff as he moves through heaven and hell with each brushstroke, Bridget Riley introducing the whisker of white that makes a black painting live, Gillian Ayres and Howard Hodgkin talking hour after hour in the car down to Bath School of Art.

Black and white portrait … Bridget Riley in 1964.
Black and white portrait … Bridget Riley in 1964. Photograph: David Newell Smith/The Observer

Many of the painters here were sceptical of interpreters pinning them down with words. But with each other they could be unstoppably voluble. Francis Bacon went around conducting “a mobile seminar”. Frank Auerbach (the most grippingly eloquent of the book’s voices) says that he and Bacon “talked, slightly drunkenly and wildly, for about 15 years”. As for Auerbach and Freud, the conversation went on for half a century.

The book’s span allows Gayford to plot several generations in relation to each other, and it’s striking how many of the most potent encounters involve forms of teaching. Simply walking down the street one day, Bacon pointed out to the young John Wonnacott how a shadow seemed to eat into a figure “like a disease”. “I rethought shadow,” says Wonnacott; it stayed with him all his life. There are dismal fallings-out at art school: Allen Jones, amazed that his tutors had omitted to mention the existence of Jackson Pollock, suggested suing Hornsey College for fraud. But David Bomberg emerges as a deeply valued teacher at Borough polytechnic, whose students inherited his convictions about the uncompromising effort that painting requires.

Effort and seriousness united the London artists. The Colony Room Club bar in Soho filled up after many a dinner at Wheeler’s, that’s true, as well it might after what Cyril Connolly called the “chopless chop-houses and beerless pubs” of the 40s. But the talk was never far from painting, and the next morning there was work. Gayford attends particularly to the relationship between long concentration and sudden achievement. For Kossoff, tirelessly painting a swimming pool in Willesden, north-west London, there would come a point when “conscious intention breaks up”. It was then that “the picture happened”.

Frank Auerbach in his Camden studio.
Frank Auerbach in his Camden studio. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

Kossoff and Auerbach stayed close to Camden; Freud thought it mad to travel when there were parts of London he had not visited. The particular environment of the city is perhaps most clearly felt in the account of what happened when Bacon ventured to St Ives, though the episode is also a welcome reminder of the vitality of British painting elsewhere. But the biggest news was coming from the US and everyone was forming some kind of relationship with the ideas coming from the new centre of the art world. Peter Blake posed in his Levi 501s, with American badges pinned to his jacket and Elvis magazine in hand, portraying himself as a gawkily dedicated fan. The picture has the wistful air of Watteau’s Pierrot, Gayford observes; there’s Gainsborough here, too, and Rousseau. It’s a beautifully complex self portrait of a young Englishman dressed for America.

New York and Los Angeles were the places to be; Hockney, Jones, Frank Bowling and Richard Smith all eventually went. But powerful work could come of not being there. The giant force of abstract expressionism intensified debates about whether external subjects had any role in the life of a painting. Was the “hard-edged abstraction” pursued by Robin Denny and William Turnbull a leap into the future or a dead end? If a Sandra Blow painting “put you in mind of landscape” was it then a figurative work? The conversations of Ayres and Hodgkin were charged by the fact of their work falling just (but decisively) to either side of the “invisible frontier” between abstraction and representation.

Ayres is a vivid presence and Gayford gives a fine account of her vast, tumbling, ever metamorphosing Hampstead Mural. He records her laughter as baffled onlookers wondered what she was doing. Ayres died last month, Hodgkin last year. The great figures of the 60s are passing – which is all the more reason to be grateful for a book that takes us right into their world.

• Modernists and Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters by Martin Gayford is published by Thames & Hudson. To order a copy for £18.95 (RRP £24.95) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Alexandra Harris

The GuardianTramp

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