On Louis Wain and Why I Write Poetry

Yesterday, Lyn and I went to see The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the man himself, Claire Foy as his sisters’ governess who became his wife, and a tremendous supporting cast. Films which travel along the arc of a real person’s life often disappoint I find; here, though, the script, design, music and, above all, the acting, seemed perfectly appropriate. It’s a beautiful film, a heady mixture of happiness and sadness.

I’d been very much looking forward to seeing it, mainly because Wain was an artist whose famous cat pictures my dad adored from a young age right up to the end of his pre-dementia years. Dad had books on Wain, paintings and prints of illustrations by him, but also loved cats per se. As the film made abundantly clear, Wain captured the cattishness of cats like nobody before or since.

For my part, I, too, have long been a fan, especially of the ‘stranger’, more psychedelic pictures which Wain painted towards the end of his life. I was fortunate to be based for work, for Richmond Council, in Twickenham for many years, during which Orleans House Gallery – which is still run by the Council – put on several exhibitions of what’s nowadays known as Outsider Art. This is chiefly art made by individuals who were self-taught, outside the traditional route of art school training and gallery representation, and invariably dismissed in their lifetimes (and since) by art critics as ‘mad’ and therefore unworthy of serious critical attention. Often, as in the case of Wain, that sense was reinforced by the artists’ detention in asylums.

Colin Rhodes, who has devoted much academic effort into recognising and celebrating the value of Outsider Art, has written, in an accompanying book (Private World: Outsider and Visionary Art) for an Orleans House exhibition that:

[. . .] there are also other figures who do not easily conform to the professionalised notion of the artist, and who occupy more marginalised positions in an artworld context, as well as more often than not in socio-cultural terms, but whose work is no less interesting and important than that of their peers at the centre. [. . .] At a local level, then, these are individuals who usually find themselves ostracised through what I will call the ‘visionary’ nature of their perception.

It’s strange, though, that the works of, say, Blake, Dadd, Martin, Palmer and Spencer, all of whose works are peculiarly their own, are displayed in the grandest of exhibition spaces, but there still remains a whole galaxy of great art which, if it is allowed at all, is shown only, and briefly, in more peripheral art spaces. Of course, these attitudes change with time – the paintings of van Gogh were wholly disregarded in his lifetime, Blake’s almost completely too, but command vast amounts of attention (and monetary value) now; whereas others continue still to be treated as insignificant despite their brilliance. Wain was a hugely popular artist, but treated far more as a ‘commercial artist’ rather than, say, a ‘serious’ artist, to be mentioned in the same breath as his almost exact contemporary Sickert. It is much to be cherished that there is increasing recognition of neurodiversity, in society at large and among creatives in particular, as something to be valued and accorded the same generosity of attention as those whose behaviours and output conform more broadly to societal ‘norms’.

I’m currently reading, and very much admiring, the excellent Nine Arches Press book, Why I Write Poetry, edited by Ian Humphreys, in which 25 contemporary UK-based poets address aspects of their poetry practice and motivation. The subtitle, of sorts, of the book is, ‘essays on becoming a poet, keeping going and advice for the writing life’. These words from Rosie Garland chime precisely with attitudes to artists like Wain:

‘Outsider’ is an opinion, imposed by those who regard themselves as ‘inside’, and impose their arbitrary norms.

Yesterday was the seventy-fifth birthday, as it were, and tomorrow marks six years since the death, of the person who did as much as anyone to give licence to outsiders in the UK and beyond: David Bowie. Later this year, it will be fifty years since his incarnation as Ziggy Stardust changed many people’s lives forever. His first gig as Ziggy took place on 10 February 1972, at the Toby Jug pub at Tolworth roundabout, a mile away from the house in Old Malden that my parents, brothers and I had just moved into. We got our cat, Puzzle, shortly after. I read the other day an excellent piece, here, about Bowie’s northern patrilineage.

The sense of being an outsider, of ‘othering’, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a recurrent theme in the book. Nine Arches, like increasing numbers of others, is a publisher which specialises in bringing to the fore poetry by diverse voices who would undoubtedly have been marginalised, if not entirely unpublished, in previous generations, and the much longer established poetry publishers seem to have started to respond too. I’m very glad, incidentally, that Nine Arches will be publishing Ramona Herdman’s first full collection this year. Of late, I’ve also been (re-)reading Caleb Parkin’s Nine Arches collection, This Fruiting Body, which is full of riches – even his most straightforward poems, such as his magnificent ‘Ode on a Black Plastic Compost Bin’, are so lush that each one needs properly savouring.

There is much to relate to, to be inspired by, and to reflect upon in Why I Write Poetry’s essays. Each is heartfelt and I know I will come back to them again.

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