It’s Just About Over Now, Baby Blue

Earnest Hemingway once said, “as you get older, it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.” I agree with the first bit and am fortunately not so sure about the second. Three years ago, at the Hop Farm in Kent, one of my sometime heroes, Bob Dylan, rather spectacularly dropped off the plinth on which I had placed him. I had been really excited with the prospect of seeing him live and suddenly there he was croaking away on the stage; or I assumed it was him; the songs that I had loved when I was a  student first time round were unrecognisable. He himself was unrecognisable because he did not allow any camera to show a close-up, so all one could see on the big screens was that there was someone there, somebody playing a guitar and making a noise.

In the interests of objectivity I will report that the reviews of Dylan at the Hop Farm were mixed; some people apparently liked it.  As you can tell, I did not and I was not alone; unreported in the reviews was the fact that quite a few people left early. You can see why; he didn’t talk to the audience at all; he gave every impression of being miserable so that one wondered why he was doing it. Challenge the audience, yes but give them something of what they want. Compared with Ray Davies of the same vintage and at the same venue who sang songs we all recognised and  seemed to be having a wonderful time, Dylan’s performance seemed mean-spirited. It wasn’t his age;  I saw Leonard Cohen when he was 75 and he managed to enchant an audience with his exuberance and charm despite the driving rain.

I tell this story to explain why I somewhat half heartedly went to look at Face Value, a collection of his drawings now showing in the National Portrait Gallery. I wouldn’t have made a special journey to do so, but, as the Gallery is near Charing Cross where I get my train to Hastings, I thought I would take a look. It is fair to say they were not bad. I mean that in the literal sense rather than that they were quite good.


There are twelve portraits in all; each has a made up name such as Red Flanagan or Skip Sharpe and the first thing that strikes you is how remarkably similar they are. They are all the same size; they have the same sort of swirly smudged backgrounds, are broadly the same colour – tones of grey with the addition of some earth colours. There are three women among the twelve but oddly their faces do not stand out from the others. All the works are drawn full face. As, unlike most pictures in the National Portrait Gallery, they are not of specific people but of more generic types it is not surprising that the features particularly the eyes have the same intensity. Of course because they are imaginary, they reflect more about Dylan than they might if they were trying to portray the essence of some particular individual.  They are quite crudely drawn; members of most A level groups could do as well. Despite that, there is certainly an energy to them. The effect of the twelve faces around the wall was a striking demonstration of the power of repetition. If I hadn’t been to the Hop Farm concert I might have said stick with the evening job; actually I think – stick with the art. Leave the music alone and let us remember it as it used to be.

Sophia Writing in Striped Socks

It was Paul Valery who  wrote “a poem is never finished only abandoned” except of course that he didn’t write that at all, for the very good reason he was French and he also liked to write things longer and more flowerily.* But Auden said that he said it, and agreed with him that it was right, and put it in the forward of his Collected Shorter Poems in 1966 and helped make it famous.  Picasso said the same thing about painting, possibly quoting Valery or possibly Leonardo de Vinci, who might have said it in the first place.  As I was fussing about her portrait and fiddling with it and wondering whether to stop, my daughter quoted it to me, though she couldn’t remember where it came from, which as it turns out was hardly surprising.

So I think, if not finished, it is abandoned, at least for the moment – and that is something of  a relief to both of us. She was getting fed up with my staring at her whenever she adopted this pose, which is quite a lot of the time. Sophia is a writer, her Romanitas trilogy is published by Gollanz and Mars Evacuees will be published by Egmont in February – read it; it is brilliant. Whereas many people when they write, including me, are in a hurry to get down words, and then spend ages changing them, she writes slowly and spends more time looking at the screen of her laptop than actually tapping away at the keys. When she is thinking, she nearly always has her hand to her chin; she didn’t know that until I painted her.

She also found it a bit disconcerting to find me staring at bits of her – “you wouldn’t like it either,” she said and demonstrated. She was right I didn’t. All the same, now that I have stopped, she says she likes the painting.


I am relieved to stop because it had come to the point where I cannot change the things that I feel are wrong without basically starting again. That is the best reason I can think of to call it finished or abandoned.

What I like about this painting is that it undoubtedly looks like my daughter; it is a most characteristic pose. I think I have captured the concentration that she shows when writing. I also rather like the way that whilst a woman lying on a couch has been depicted by artists across the centuries, she is clearly a modern woman and lying in  a quite unclassical way. I am not going to tell you what I don’t like about it: who knows, you might not notice the faults.

As a result of the work, I have also got to know this painting by Mary Cassat; Mrs Duffee reading on a striped sofa. My painting was not inspired by it; I found it after I had started, when I did an internet search on paintings of striped sofas as I wanted to see how other artists had handled stripes. The answer is you get on and paint them.  It is interesting that she, like me, was interested in the different stripes; she has Mrs Duffee sitting in a delicately striped dress; whereas I have Sophia in her striped socks.

mrs duffee

Her painting was done in 1876 and it is quite possible that our sofa dates from the same time; it was bought by my mother-in-law at an auction back in the early 1950s but it was already old by then. Certainly there are similarities. It is interesting to look at it and to think of the different  people who must have sat on it. If both it and the painting survive another hundred years or so, will the clothes my daughter is wearing look as alien to their time as Mrs Dufee’s do to ours? Will the cord on her laptop  seem as old technology as the sight of Mrs Duffee struggling to read by lamp, or even candlelight, seem to us?

*Un poème n’est jamais achevé — c’est toujours un accident qui le termine, c’est-à-dire qui le donne au public. Ce sont la lassitude, la demande de l’éditeur,— la poussée d’un autre poème.