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Benches

acrylic on canvas
125 x 275 cm
1971
collection Tate

Battersea Park, London, no. PT8015

Battersea Park, London. Photo: E. Ludwig, John Hinde Studios

Central Gardens, Bournemouth, no. B2082
Also features as source material in Dante's Inferno 

Parcellefn On, Llanishen; Postcard, no. PT28357

In Old Steine Gardens, Brighton Postcard, no. LP395
Also features as source material in Dante's Inferno Canto III and The Quest for Irma 

The Terrace, Prospect Gardens, Harrogate; Postcard, no. HGTE.156 

 

In Works/Texts to 1974 I gave a breathtakingly tedious account of the making of Benches, the result of a perversely literal interpretation of a request from the Tate Gallery (who purchased the work) to furnish them with any details of its conception and execution. I more or less specified where each tube of paint was bought, and enumerated the endless coin-tossing that determined the width of the stripes in the colour catalogues that dominate the picture. Here stripped of the circumstantial minutiae and technical apparatus, are some edited highlights.

This picture began its existence with a chance meeting between myself and a postcard on Euston Station at 8.05 a.m. on Tuesday 17th February 1970. Most of the many postcard purchases that I have made have the feeling of Ezra Pound's category, 'not source material but relevant'. This one however spoke to me directly of mortality. Stark light fused the group while better delineating its members in their isolation and separateness. They were the assembled cast of a tragedy and or its spectators: the ironic brightness of council flowers and the drab gaiety of the surrounding concrete parkland reinforced these impressions.

My destination that same day was Wolverhampton College of Art. Upon reaching it I found that the office staff had collected together all the postcards they had sent each other while on their several holidays the previous summer; cards from Lugano, Cleethorpes, Salzburg, the Isle of Wight etc. Their random selection of (mostly peopled) summer scenes, did seem to offer corroboration. Because there were so many unifying factors (provenance, purpose, sunshine, unfactitiousness of choice etc.) another such factor could, by poetic extension, be postulated; that the source photographs for these postcards were all taken in the various places at the same instant as the postcards of Battersea Park. Thus the comic-strip writer's use of the link-word 'meanwhile' could be adopted to connect this with other images.

The unifying motif of benches (as the stationary vehicles of mortality) emerged over the next months especially after a fruitful visit to Bournemouth and the receipt of a spectacular card of Harrogate from Richard Morphet. For a long time the painting occupied two canvases only and it was the chance discovery of yet another postcard of the scene in Battersea Park which showed the same bench in what was evidently a different (and later?) year, that made possible the symmetry (both physical and iconographic) of this hitherto one-winged bird.  

Much later it occurred to me why the association of benches with mortality was strong in my mind: my brother had told me (when I was about twelve) that the bench in front of Ashton's the S.E. London undertakers had been put there in order that old people might sit down to rest on it, and dying there, provide trade. It was also on a park bench on Clapham Common that I spent much of the perplexing day on which my father died.

Although the only quotation in the picture comes from the same text as the series Ein Deutsches Requiem, there was also a predictive association with Dante: in a page from a notebook which contains the preliminary studies, I tell myself airily to 'read Longfellow's Dante again' (I think I had only just finished it.). Not only was I intending to use at some point the line 'I had not known death had undone so many' but a Dantesque schema underpinned the work as a whole, as I described in the original notes: -

It seemed to me that a picture might deal with the ten pre-purgatorial circles and I got near to planning such a picture, with material from postcards, describing the progressive abandonment of hope. One such circle is exemplified by Benches (Dante often differentiates the stages of his afterworld by the physical positions of the people in them), i.e., the stage of resignation to the fact of death. Within this metaphor there is also a progress; the man that enters the uncharmed circle in Harrogate (who so resembles, in suit and attitude, William Burroughs), the youth who is able, by virtue of youth, to pass unheeding by in Bournemouth, the grim inmates of the enclosed circle at their open gate, the figure emblematically sweeping up in the Bournemouth autumn, the figures turned to black and white in a coloured world as a penultimate metamorphosis on the way to oblivion, and the insubstantial reflection of the yet unthreatened mother with a child in a pushchair who is seen to escape from the picture in the final image while the bench itself is enveloped in flame-like flowers.

These notes ended with a mention of the use of dots (which relates to other analogous pictures): these neither related to the true disposition of the dots in the postcard printing (although the cards were studied with a X6 magnifier) not do they follow any purist system of optical colour (unlike true pointillist paintings). They merely proceed from the decision to work in separated colour and the desire to make adjustments continually as I worked from the often coarse-grained information at my disposal.

The initial ikon of the figures on the Battersea Park bench continued to haunt me and three of its cast featured in close up as a series of cards called Come & Go after the Beckett play of that name. The group as a whole formed the central feature of a tapestry in which each of the master weavers of the Edinburgh Tapestry Company found their own solution to resolving the problem of working from elusive dots of crude offset reproduction.

The motif of park benches, as well as occurring in other works (Fisherman's Walk Gardens, Inferno, etc.), also finds its way into 20 Sites, in which it has extended its echo despite attempts to suppress it.

See also the tapestry version of this subject in Textiles.

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