Colin Self

The Gardens - with Four Eagles


Not on display

Colin Self born 1941
Graphite on board
Support: 187 × 349 mm
Presented by the artist 1979

Catalogue entry


Inscribed on reverse ‘COLIN SELF./THE GARDENS - WITH FOUR EAGLES.1972.’
Pencil on board, 7 3/8 × 13 3/4 (18.8 × 35.1)
Presented by the artist 1979
Exh: 11 englische Zeichner, Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden, May–June 1973 and tour to Kunsthalle, Bremen, July–August (Self 18); Recente Britse Tekenkunst, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, September–October 1973 (Self 18)

The following notes, which have been approved by the artist, are based on several conversations with and dated letters from him during 1980–1.

The theme of gardens was prominent in Self's work and thoughts throughout the period 1966–73. T02398, a drawing of Waterloo Park, Norwich, made in May 1966, was his first drawing on the theme and T02400, dated 1972, almost the last. His very last gardens drawing (now stolen) was based on a drawing by a mental patient reproduced in Norman I. Mackenzie, Dreams & Dreaming, London 1965, p.143. Influential on the series as a whole was Josiah Conder, Landscape Gardening in Japan, Yokohama 1893.

‘The Gardens [series] was perhaps born on a Bank Holiday visit to Waterloo Park, Norwich in Spring (end of April - beginning May '66). The weather was fine - like Seurat's “Bathers” atmosphere. Playing with our baby daughter Jackie. A release - as happens when Spring arrives. But like most ideas of freedom it is relative, so the gardens are at once of freedom and imprisonment, the stalemate (check/checkmate), of some kind’.

Self's gardens phase ended with the inclusion of the present three drawings [T02398, T02399, T02400] and others on this theme in the Baden-Baden exhibition cited above. Since then much of his work has been concerned with more extensive landscape views, sculpture and ceramics.

He conceived his gardens series of drawings as embodying a wide range of types of garden and of human experiences. It was to be ‘a world series’, comparable in this sense (though not in motif or technique) with his completed series of spray drawings 1,000 Temporary Objects of Our Time, which was exactly contemporary with the gardens series. It is not known how many gardens drawings Self made, but the number is large. As with the Tate's group of three, some were drawn from nature, some from the imagination, and some were part-real and part-imaginary. An unknown number (and ownerships) of drawings are versions of the three in the Tate's triptych. A drawing closely related to T02399 was reproduced on the back cover of the issue of About the House cited above; Self inscribed his copy ‘This drawing repeated plus tall column of water as at Chatsworth’. Also closely related to T02399 is the Arts Council's drawing ‘Gardens No.3’ 1966, which Self adapted as the three-colour cover for The Paris Review No.39, Fall 1966. A drawing still in his possession and of which the Tate owns a photograph combines the foreground eagles of T02400 (reversed) with the extreme central vista between ranks of hedges among which tall trees rise, seen in T02399. In all these versions except T02399, the central vista is spanned by an arch. Self sees a connection between this and the female pelvic arch, the terraces at either side being analogous to legs and the tall trees being consciously phallic: there are also lines radiating from a central point, suggesting speed and directness.

Within the gardens series, the present three drawings were conceived independently, and each is a complete work in its own right. They are mounted in a single frame in a triptych format with T02398 in the centre flanked by T02400 at the left and T02399 at the right. To offer them to the Tate, Self selected them from a larger number of gardens drawings in order to make a triptych which was put together by the Tate in a precise arrangement of heights and intervals determined by him. His aim in creating this arrangement was to give the group of drawings a weight or presence equal to that of a painting. ‘On seeing the three framed...I felt that...they were catalising each other quite powerfully and I felt extra energy being created by the triptych format’.

The densely worked, almost relief, pencil technique of T02398 is apparent in the detail reproduced in About the House cited above, which was photographed in raking light. All three drawings were made in Norwich, the outer two (as well as the last week of work on T02398) being done in his home. The time required was so great that he could keep going only with the aid of music, which fed him creatively as he worked. He remembers in particular music by the Los Angeles group Love, and by the Doors, the Beatles, the Mothers of Invention, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Captain Beefheart.

The central drawing, T02398, represents details of Waterloo Park, Norwich. To draw the hedge required three weeks' work on the spot; Self omitted the wire netting of a tennis court which lay beyond it. In the fourth week of May 1966 he added, at home, the yew tree and the lawn. The yew was based on one seen elsewhere in Waterloo Park. Taken as a whole the scene is thus in one sense invented.

The right-hand drawing, T02399, was completed in March 1969 by which date Self had already drawn the large garden sculpture in the foreground. However in that month he bought his present house in Thorpe, Norwich, and in its garden he found a green glass ashtray. Sad that this de facto garden object was only an ashtray, he was curious to know what it would look like enlarged. From then on he conceived the foreground sculpture in T02399 as being made of green glass, solid all the way through. (In other gardens drawings he projected solid glass sculptures in other colours). He conceived the conical and ovoid forms in this drawing as being topiary, in cupressus or yew. Topiary interested him as being a living fusion of art and nature, the two working together in a way he found strangely analogous to Giacometti's long drawn out process of putting on and taking off clay. The giant avenues of hedges rising to a point, which are at right angles to the central vista, reminded Self of cathedrals. He imagined that one could walk between them in a dank green light. The tapering trees were partly inspired by the scene in a topiary garden in Resnais's film L'Année Dernière à Marienbad 1961, in which Self was struck by the absence (repeated here) of any shadows thrown by the trees. However, despite the considerable artifice implied by the topiary, Self envisaged T02399 as representing a lost garden left by an earlier generation (a theme expanded below). He felt satisfaction at the way in which the natural processes of growth would take over in such a garden, so that it would then develop without any of the sense of urgency of which he was aware in much of the art and the art world of the late 1960s.

Of the two pairs of eagles in the left-hand drawing, T02400, one is in the foreground and the other, which is dark, is on the parapet which runs horizontally across the picture. Self first drew these eagles in December 1971 from those on the entrance gates of the Wells Taxi Co., Chapelfield, Norwich. Birds of various kinds appear frequently in his art, from the peacocks in some of his gardens drawings (and which appear in his ‘Power and Beauty’ series) to his mobile sculptures of Birds of Fate, to recent drawings of parrots. The motif of the half-circle arch in T02400 is inspired partly by a large one in Maidstone, partly by Self's interest in the problem of doing a drawing within that format, and more by the painting ‘Two Chained Monkeys’ by Peter Brueghel the Elder (State Museum, Berlin) which was reproduced in a book - his first on art - which Self's father had given him at fourteen or fifteen. In this painting the monkeys are chained within a half-round window, through which galleons can be seen beyond. Its theme of imprisonment combined with the implication, in the wide space beyond, of escape, is central to the two outer drawings in this triptych. Self draws attention to ‘the contrasts of situations ... Two monkeys chained, the two flying ducks “free as a bird”. The harbour, with its relevance for mariners. The sweet horizon and those chains. The oppressive arch bearing down and the escape “through” to serenity. re my left panel in the triptych. “Escapes” “freedoms” oppression, barriers physical and mental, release.’ He is now at work on a three-part sculpture of which one section, involving a stuffed monkey chained to a rubber tyre on a garden swing, is inspired by the same Brueghel picture.

The drawings in this triptych cannot fully be understood by a description of their imagery. They spring directly from Self's experience of life and also involve the subconscious, relating in detail to his attitude, as someone born and bred in Norwich and as an artist, to both Norwich and London, society in general and its sub-group the art world. They are one result of his experiences of being rejected in various ways, while himself simultaneously rejecting many of the values of the world around him. Both rejection experiences led to his adumbrating in the series of gardens drawings a world of inner experience signifying a high moral, religious and imaginative reality.

For Self, the period of the gardens drawings was one of change after a hectic burst of work in c. 1962–65, done largely in London where he enjoyed a certain worldly success. During these years he visited the United States twice and his themes reflect the artificiality of modern city life and the threat of nuclear holocaust, ‘fearful, bitter, comic and real’. His work had a certain connection with Pop art but he felt, albeit relaxedly, that its frequent classification as Pop was wrong at least insofar as it implied a celebration of modern mass culture. ‘I always felt more akin to George Grosz’. For his work of c. 1962–5 had a central theme of warning and of grim realism, deriving in part from his religious, social and anarchist convictions. Although he enjoyed living in London and his return to Norwich in 1965 was an accident, by the mid 1960s he felt he had to withdraw from the metropolitan world and art world, both in order to reaffirm his regional identity and, more, to evade the temptations of public and worldly success. Circumstances of marriage also meant leaving London. Such withdrawal was also the only way to avoid giving both tacit assent and financial support to a system of which he disapproved on both social, political, environmental and aesthetic grounds. Of these, the last included the belief among artists that big was beautiful, and the growing response to abstract art of an increasingly reductive character. He felt that in order to make an effective statement about the world an artist must not only point out what is bad but more importantly evoke what is good. It seemed to him that Picasso, because he did this, was a better artist than Bacon. Much of his own recent work had been concerned with the threat of war; in persuading mankind away from this course it was equally necessary to evoke the beauty of peace.

The gardens drawings are evidence that his deliberate choice of a more restricted environment really involved an opening out, a journey of discovery of both visually and spiritually new lands and places. It was an inward journey of self-discovery. Confirmed in the Church of England, he felt himself open to the teachings of Christ. At the same time his reaction against the large scale of the metropolitan art of the period and his rediscovery of the satisfaction he had had in childhood in working on a really small scale, involving long hours of concentration in one room, meant that he was almost literally following the injunction in Matthew 6:6 which (correctly in its essentials) Self remembered as ‘Go to a room by yourself and the Lord will come to you’. In the gardens drawings Self tried to rediscover his lost innocence. The gardens formed an inner world into which he could withdraw from the grim contemporary realities of his recent work. His work could now reflect his original nature, which was one of tenderness. (His work in the Gardens years was not exclusively on peaceful themes, but ‘Fallout Shelters, bombers, guard dogs, etc. were put aside’. ‘My art has always swung...from the New Edens’).

He felt that a garden was one of the best and most civilised things to which man could apply his mind. He was struck by the selflessness involved in the work of those who lay out gardens with a view to long-term effects they cannot live to enjoy. He had in mind that Voltaire, when old and in disgrace, could get joy only from a garden. Some years later he bought a cushion at a jumble sale and was surprised then to find inside it a tea towel with the legend ‘When the world wearies and society ceases to satisfy, there is always the garden’. He felt this unexpected occurrence to be a confirmation of his views.

Self's concentration from 1966 on the theme of gardens was influenced by imagery that had impressed him greatly in childhood. His father, a signwriter, had given paints to local Italian prisoners of the Second World War who in turn gave the Self family examples of the pictures they had painted with them. One by Alfonso Fortunato, which hung in their front room, represented an English garden. Self came to feel that its mood and composition reflected the oppression of being a prisoner; it thus directly foreshadowed his own gardens drawings, as explained below. His mother worked in a local sweet factory, from which coloured silver toffee papers were obtained to make images of crinolined ladies in stylised gardens. After an image had been stuck on glass, black shellac was painted behind it, making it stand out like something timeless. Because he was a child, Self believed in the existence of these places, as he also did in the garden scenes in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (in which white roses were painted red) which he read at his grandmother's. He considers Carroll's ‘Surrealism’ as a whole a definite source for his gardens drawings, although by no means as powerful as the personal influences.

Later, when adult, Self ‘had a most beautiful experience of discovering a huge country house, topiary gardens (of eight gardens contained within yew hedges), a private broad (lake), woods, watergardens and acres of marshes at How Hill, near Ludham, Norfolk. This had been empty and untouched for a year. I never knew of its existence and stumbled upon it, on a hot summer's day. Later the T. S. Eliot programme was on T.V. and it was just like this and something like my drawings’. Self saw this programme on Eliot (probably “The Mysterious Mr Eliot”, a full-length feature film in the ‘Omnibus’ series, on BBC Television on 3 January 1971) after he had conceived the Tate drawing which relates to it most closely, T02399. But through the programme he at once felt a close affinity between certain aspects of his gardens drawings and part of ‘Burnt Norton’ from Eliot's Four Quartets, ‘... relating to time and experience. Memory and possibility and actuality. Burnt Norton and my Gardens are harmonious works in different media. Neither illustrates the other because neither knew of the other when they were created, but as it happens, in the best sense, they go together well in parts’. The whole of the first forty-six lines (i.e. Section I) of ‘Burnt Norton’ relate in this way, the lines which do so most of all being:

‘To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotus rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool’

Self describes this as ‘a sort of image of metamorphosis’. After seeing the programme on Eliot, Self made one garden drawing which this part of ‘Burnt Norton’ inspired directly.

Although the period of these drawings was one of escape from the metropolitan world, their evocation of a secret inner world must also be understood as an escape from Self's immediate personal and local circumstances. ‘Being “in and out of love” did make me (perhaps) seek a solid world (ART) which was beyond what happened in everyday events. Which is also (part) of the level on which religion works, or word from God comes. Divine inspiration, creative inspiration ...Some of the insecurities posed by my first love affair (which was good but innocent in an old world). Some of this most definitely tints or taints the outlook of much of my work of this period ... Perhaps I am seeking “a perfect place” somewhere, away from the trials and tribulations of the world? in the Gardens.’

Self also identifies ‘hurt pride’ as one impulse underlying his work of c.1962–72, giving as one example ‘the loss of a “perfect” “idealised” love’, and quoting the lines

‘My woman she done me wrong -
She stayed out all night long...’

His pride was hurt in another way by rejection and/or lack of appreciation of his ability as an artist, starting with his parents when he was three and continuing through the art schools he attended in Norwich and London. This rejection was specifically of his ability in drawing. His reaction (which he illustrates by the story of Rocco in Visconti's film Rocco and His Brothers (1960), who ‘was motivated into becoming a champion boxer by some terrible events he had to witness through his loved one’) was to develop this art with still greater intensity of both subject and technique. He felt that all artists were using drawing with some separate end in view, as a servile medium. By contrast, he was determined to give drawing greater status in its own right. He began to do this some years before at the Slade, but the period of the Gardens series was arguably that of his greatest concentration on and refinement of drawing. Since that period his range of media has again greatly diversified. At the height of his drawing phase he worked with a battery of pencils, from 12B through to 10H, all in his hand as he worked, rather like a painter with his palette.

When Self began the Gardens series, he was living in a concrete flat without a garden. He felt that such an environment suppressed important sides of human experience and that energies which are suppressed will always come out in some form. For many flat dwellers that form is the protest/self expression of aerosol graffiti. For him it was perhaps the expression of an inner imaginative world specifically having the imagery of gardens, of which he was deprived. Another aspect of Self that was suppressed by the move away from London was regular contact with sympathetic fellow artists sharing a wider view of life and art than was available in Norwich. ‘My London friends are still my best friends’. In addition he found the extreme conventionality of local social attitudes restrictive. The two outer drawings in the Tate's triptych are enclosed in borders. It was only after this device was well-established that Self realised their autobiographical significance, when Robert Fraser pointed out that the same mannerism appears in the art of prisoners. For on many levels, Self, too, felt trapped, and in the imaginary drawings he correspondingly visualised an enclosed situation. But, able in the world of imagination to be more free, he indicated also the way out of it, which in each of the Tate's outer drawings can be seen down through the long vista. He was very much aware as he worked on these drawings of the parallel with Piranesi's also fantastic prints and drawings of prisons, in which, as in his own work, many elements in the scene recall the weight, for the prisoner, of the present, yet part of the scene (in Piranesi's case, the steps which lead in every direction) offers the hope of escape.

In Self's case, the way out lay, symbolically, straight through the middle. He saw this avenue as ‘The Way’ which, as in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the individual had to take, passing whatever temptations or frights might come at him from left or right. In the Tate's left hand drawing, he had to pass between two sets of eagles. The drawings symbolised that life is full of tests and challenges and that if one meets these with determination all will be well. Self compared this idea with his interpretation of J. S. Cotman's paintings (such as Mountain Pass in the Tyrol, and the versions of The Waterfall 1808 in Norwich Castle Museum) in which a tiny bridge spans a plunging chasm. The challenge of crossing the bridge without falling is akin to what Self sees as ‘the ego, security, risk, the void, collapse, safety’. He sees the link with Cotman, like that with Eliot, as one not of influence but of deep affinity, ‘which is something much better, much richer... My works come before I discover their works. I realise then, we are in the same carriage, travelling the same route’. The link with Cotman is with ‘the spirit of his vision and his expression of his insecurity. In my “Gardens from Imagination” I use all his abstract ideas to achieve the same ends that he does. Regarding insecurity, yearning for infinity, cutting off or obscuring the “pathway of life” by middle ground (sculpture, eagles with me - forest, hills with him)’. The parallel is so close that ‘I could superimpose some of my “gardens from imagination” over some of his landscapes’ (this refers to the ones cited above). This sense of tension and challenge is heightened in his drawings by the intensification of the sense of distance by means of deep vanishing points and radiating lines. Though not himself schizophrenic, Self consciously took these devices from the art of schizophrenics in order, through his own art, both to explain himself and to release his own great energy. (He was particularly impressed by the most extreme, elaborated - and essentially symmetrical - images made, when schizophrenic, by the cat painter Louis Wain. He points out the influence of one such drawing (repr. in Rodney Dale, Louis Wain: The Man Who Drew Cats, 1968, the right hand drawing on p.181) on the structure of some of his own ‘Gardens from Imagination’. ‘Seeing the work of Louis Wain, I saw I could take all my work a step (a large one) beyond my previous limits. Stretch things to the limits of insanity and put round it all a repressive oppressive border’).

A further influence again relating to the theme of tests was Kafka's The Castle and The Trial. These novels are concerned also with the constant puzzle confronting the hero as to what is real and what unreal. In Self's view this is a problem continually posed in real life, in which the media lie to us all the time. Moreover he strongly opposes the view that what happened in history was inevitable and what we are told is what actually happened. There were many equal possibilities, of which the way things worked out was only one. On the level of historical possibility a hypothetical world is therefore just as real as the one we experience. Furthermore paintings which show us how the past actually was also show us, if we use our imaginations, how life could be today. (Related ideas are also touched on by Eliot in ‘Burnt Norton’, and Self's own Fact and Fiction series of collages of the early 1960s approaches the idea from another angle). Self therefore regards the scenes shown in his imaginary drawings as being in a sense just as real as in those drawn from life. In introducing the eagles from the taxi company's gates into t.2400 and related drawings, he was conscious of a connection with van Gogh, whose letters he read a great deal when at the Slade. For the same eagles guard the entrance to a mental home at Little Plumstead, Norfolk, and in the drawing their presence therefore gives an intentional sense of foreboding. It is as if they are guarding a domain in which distinctions between the real and the unreal, the sane and the insane, are confused, as they were for Van Gogh, who nevertheless sought, as does Self, to tell the truth about the contemporary world.

The drawings are assertions of Self's insistence that human beings must be free; that they cannot be restricted imaginatively; that source material of any kind is valid, there being no hierarchy of subject matter; that the mental environment must not be spoiled by departures from truth, or the physical either by impersonal architecture or (more fundamentally) by nuclear warfare. They are also a protest against the snobberies that restrict human life - the fashions and slavish imitations dominating the London art scene, and the narrowness of outlook of Norwich, from both of which Self was escaping into an inner world combining the innocence of a lost paradise with stern reminders of the need to keep to the path of truth and freedom.

The forces of snobbery and restriction are symbolised in the green glass garden sculpture which occupies the foreground of the right hand drawing but can be by-passed to reach the way which stretches beyond it. Self was angered that aspects of past art had been suppressed because of later generations' belief that some art forms were superior to others. He wished to be able to use photography and fine art techniques on equal terms, and could not accept that ‘folk’ art was ‘low’ and ‘fine’ art ‘high’. He regarded as snobbery any approach to art which held that one kind of art was superior to all others. He points out that at the time he began the gardens drawings, a form of contemporary art which he regarded as by definition limited - abstraction - was being proposed by influential voices (even political ones) as the form which art must take. Experience in technical drawing had convinced him that beautiful form was not enough, and now the widespread zeal for purist abstraction seemed to him a new snobbism. To limit oneself to abstraction was to speak as if with a gag over one's mouth. ‘Art which doesn't contemplate the world or universe as the mind perceives it through the eye ignores what is man's most highly developed organ... and as such can never utilise... the full range of impulses... and can by comparison only stand the chance of being very minor, or insignificant, art. For humans to turn their backs on how things look is to turn your back on possibility itself. For a spell working from concept and to ignore the look of the world may be useful in co-ordinating one's senses but to blindfold oneself from there onwards and be a one trick pony [is] quite perverted. It is not the way of nature, the seasons or man, or anything’.

Self had observed that the appearance of conventional garden sculptures such as gnomes improved when they became overgrown. For his imaginary garden he wanted to create an analogous modern garden sculpture. His aim was to take an example of what he considered the boring contemporary art of abstraction and, by placing it in a garden, creating a wonderful setting for it and allowing it to be overgrown, turn it into something human, even into ‘high nature art’. The inclusion by this means of an abstract sculpture in T02399 was the only way Self could find of justifying to himself, or appreciating, abstract art, ‘as with World War II pill boxes and concrete blocks - time healing improving - inventing a situation in which even abstract art will look interesting’.

The gardens series was a demonstration of Self's wish ‘to remain English or more importantly European and not sell out, by way of dialect, outlook, my culture Norfolk (peasant Anglo-Saxon), not become London trendy or sell out to this American cultural molehill when belonging to this European artistic Mt. Everest.’ Nevertheless his subsequent experience of Norfolk was of misunderstanding or rejection of his work, of obstacles to recognition or employment, and of harassment of various kinds. Against this background, his presence by invitation at the ceremony and reception at which on 24 May 1979 the Queen opened the extension to the Tate Gallery (which had bought two of his works) struck him as ‘a very necessary and overdue interlude of civilisation’. It was in direct response to this experience that he presented this triptych to the Gallery.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981

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