Aretha Campbell, Bridgeman Artists' Manager, speaks to artist Paul Huxley RA (b. 1938), on teaching, print-making versus painting and his favourite artists.
What is your earliest memory of an artwork and who was it by?
My earliest memory of artworks were by my parents who studied art and later set up a business making elaborate window sets for the big London department stores in the 1920s and 30s. Some were based on topical events like the Diaghilev ballet performances on their London tour. One window attracted so much attention that the police closed it because it was causing congestion on the pavement. But the first real paintings I remember seeing by artists of note was Totes Meer by Paul Nash and a Harlem street scene by Edward Burra when my art teacher in secondary school took us on a trip to the Tate Gallery. That must have been about 1951 when I was thirteen.
You studied in New York, can you tell us about that time and the artists you met whilst you were there?
I wasn't so much studying in New York as living and working there on a Fellowship awarded by the Harkness Foundation. That was between 1964 and 67. I met a lot of the artists who were part of the New York School, all of them much older than me, but they were enormously kind and welcoming in spite of my youth and obscurity. Robert Motherwell was one of my three referees for that Award because he had visited my studio in London the year before and he knew my work a bit. He was then married to Helen Frankenthaler and I was invited to stay with them for a couple weeks in their NY townhouse and in the beachside studios in Provincetown. Of course, with introductions like that, which I have to say were largely through Bryan Robertson, the then Director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, I met many other leading artists around at the time including Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. Lee Krasner and Barnett Newman were probably the ones I saw most of.
What is your favourite time of day to be in your studio?
My favourite time in the studio must be when I'm not normally there like six o'clock on a summer's morning. It's like stolen time because I'm never there and there's a wonderful sense of peace.
Tell us about your time teaching at the RCA, who were some of your more challenging students?
Peter de Francia invited me to teach at the RCA in the early seventies and for me they were fairly free-wheeling times. I enjoyed talking to the students but I didn't feel a real responsibility towards them until the mid eighties when I was appointed Professor of Painting in charge of the Department. Peter wrote to me saying he wanted me to take over from him but that there was nothing he could do about it because he knew he was so thoroughly disliked by the then Rector and Pro Rector that if word got out that would scotch my chances. There were so many highly talented students there and rightly so because it was then the most desirable of the postgraduate courses to get into. I did some research and found that statistically it was three times as hard to get into the Painting School at the RCA than to Oxford or Cambridge. You ask which were the more challenging and well, one thing I learnt was that the most troublesome were often those heading for big time success and the 'best' or perhaps the most co-operative students were less likely to. The students' Union once lodged a serious complaint to me about Chris Ofili who had painted a mural over the canteen wall during a party the previous night. I had to require him to go down there with a can of white paint from the store and paint over it. I hope there are people who have lived to regret that now that his work would be one of the most prized features of the whole college. Tracey Emin still hasn't forgiven me for making her stay in her studio all summer long until she had painted three large canvases. To this day I am not sure whether it was really such a bad thing for her career. But you can't really make generalizations. Chinese students, for instance, were nearly always hugely courteous and respectful.
You exhibited in a group exhibition at the last Venice Biennale, how did that come about?
Two years ago, a curator in the Artwise Curator's team asked if I might be able to contribute to a wonderfully ambitious show, an international show within the 2015 Venice Biennale. The theme was ecology and the effect of the human footprint on our planet. Being an abstract artist I was immensely flattered to be considered but doubtful that I could accept. To my own surprise I came up quite quickly with a concept that would work. My work is largely geometric and so I devised a series of three large wall painting each composed of dimensions that told the story of the statistics to do with world population, greenhouse gasses and sea level changes. You wouldn't have known this without a small key to the works tucked away on one side on an iPad that showed it all happening live in real time statistics. It's still ticking over and can be seen on my website www.paulhuxley.com under the page for news.
How do you find your printmaking practice runs alongside your painting practice? Do you find that one inspires the other?
I wish I were more of a printmaker than I am. I've made relatively few even though they have been quite popular. I have a long term ambition to install a press, maybe a flatbed press, in my basement below the studio so that I could become more productive in that field.
If you could pick 5 artists, dead or alive, to have dinner with who would they be and why?
Perhaps the fantasy of sharing dinner with any 5 artists, dead or alive, could include granting me to be multilingual. Van Gogh could speak English and one feels part way towards knowing him not just through the paintings and drawings but because of his exquisite letters. Who could fail to include Leonardo? I would love to be able to tell him of the way his inventions have been realised. I believe Picasso was the undoubted hero of the 20th Cent. The nearest I ever got to him was to see an exhibition of his latest works in Paris in 1953, they were fresh out of his studio, what a thrilling experience that was, I shall never forget it. I'm feeling dizzy and exhausted with the thought of this dinner party and now one has to think how they will all get on. I think they will, but let me persuade Frida Kahlo and Eileen Agar to join us. I did meet Eileen Agar a couple of times, she knew Picasso and I think we need a surrealist mind to help cope with this weird grouping.
See all images by Paul Huxley RA on the Bridgeman website available for licensing.
Bridgeman Artists' Copyright Service
Paul Huxley RA joins a distinguished list of artists and artists’ estates to have appointed the Bridgeman Artists’ Copyright Service including Lucian Freud and Stanley Spencer.
Even if the image is not held by Bridgeman, copyright can still be cleared.