Cliff Holden

Documents: 1999


Chapter 1 - My Need to Paint

How shall I begin? It is a long story, beginning when I was quite small. In spite of being very clever at making what was called art at school, I felt intuitively that this activity was not art. At the time, I didn't know what art was. I also reacted against doing art at this stage because my ideas were fluctuating between religious fervour, political commitment and philosophical attitudes that made me ask: "What is art for and what use is it in society?" I had the conviction that one should produce food for people to eat and goods that were of use. I therefore turned to agriculture and to politics. I didn't realize at the time that the development and cultivation of the spirit was preferable and, in fact, not only desirable but essential to the well-being of both the individual and society.

When I was a child my family moved from Lancashire to Yorkshire and then settled in Cheshire where we attended the Congregational Church every Sunday in Wilmslow. By the time I was 11 or 12 I was also joining my father at Quaker meetings and I came to sympathize with his commitment to Socialism and the Trade Union movement. At the age of 13 I was a Communist, which is about the right age for that sort of commitment, although I confess that I flirted with it again just before the war. My tendency from the age of 13 to the age of 19 or 20, was towards being useful to society and therefore I was gravitating from Socialism to Communism and from Quakerism to Pacifism. Later on I was to throw it all in for Anarchism. But at the age of sixteen I was under pressure from my father to choose the kind of job which people call sensible. Before I could make my own choice, I was offered and accepted an office job in an Auctioneer and Estate Agents office. The Headmaster from my school found me this position and I was considered to have made a good start in life. But after nine months, I was dismissed without notice for making chaos of the files and disturbing the boss while he fumbled his secretary.

In the years when I was growing up my family always had land and livestock. I took an interest in my father's work as a farmer and I had a love for animals. So my thoughts turned to veterinary science but I failed my exams for university. After a few months loafing around I managed to get to Agricultural College and ended up with a Diploma for Poultry Keeping. In 1939 I got a job on a chicken farm in Dunsfold, near Godalming which was run by two Irish brothers, Peter and Richard Nugent. Mr. Dick, as we called him, turned to politics after the war. He was knighted and subsequently became Minister for Agriculture in Margaret Thatcher's government. He ended his career in the House of Lords as Lord Nugent.

When I was living in Surrey I met an artist who ran a shop in Guildford called 'Things of Beauty and Utility,' which is rather curious because later on in my time as an artist I repudiated beauty and things of utility. The artist's name was J. Selwyn Dunn. He had a studio in Haslemere and it was called 'The Kelmscott Studio' in tribute to William Morris. He had worked with Morris as a boy, together with his father.

In 1940 I was running a pacifist community farm, called Crossways Farm, in Cradley near Malvern. This farm had been bought by a Quaker called John Jenkins and the project was intended to assist military aged people who were conscientious objectors and who were being discriminated against by employers. The farm was little more than a peasant holding with a cottage and a number of out-houses which were in need of repair. We had four cows, one sow,

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three piglets, thirty three hens and a horse. Many prominent people were our house guests including the popular radio philosopher Dr. C.E.M. Joad, who used to visit us for weekends. At the same time I attended philosophy lectures at the W.E.A. in Worcester. When I eventually decided to abandon the Community Farm project, Mr. Jenkins chose a couple to take my place and their names were Nommie and Harry Durell. Harry was an architect and Nommie was an art teacher who proved to be an aquaintance of Herbert Read and, later, she organised the National Exhibitions of Childrens Art in London.

My ideas evolved slowly towards anarchism and, during a stay at an anarchist community near Stroud, I came in contact with a Hegelian philosopher who had met Prince Peter Kropotkin and Leo Tolstoy. I began to read people like Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Bakunin, P. J. Proudhon, E. Malatesta, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche. I had moved a considerable distance in my reading away from people like Thomas Hardy, William Cobbett, Henry Williamson, Richard Jeffries and Theodore Watts-Dunton. My innate love for nature had been fostered originally during my schooldays by a very remarkable teacher J.C.W. Houghton (who we used to refer to affectionately as J.C.) and these writers bolstered my enjoyment of nature and gave me encouragement in my lifestyle as a tramp and a gypsy. As well as following this direction in my reading, I also went out deliberately to meet people like H. G. Wells, Sir Richard Ackland, Julian Simmonds, Simon Watson Taylor, E. L. T. Messens, Herbert Read, George Orwell and Dr. Alex Comfort. My commitment to Pacifism gave way to Anarchism and finally to Anarcho-Syndicalism.

I led a romantic life at this time playing by turn the role of tramp, gypsy and political agitator. This led to organizing strikes and I gradually became more and more involved in a militant anarchism whose purpose was to establish a society based on anarcho-syndicalist principles. To this end I eventually found myself one of ten members of the editorial board of Freedom Press and we produced a weekly called 'War Commentary' which eventually became 'Freedom.'

In 1943, three of us - Tom Brown, Ken Hawkes and myself - broke away from Freedom Press because we had huge differences of opinion on how to organize towards revolution. We founded another paper called 'Direct Action,' but at this point, after some months, the Spanish and Hungarian anarchists postulated a much increased militant attitude. When I contemplated the possibility that I had to involve myself in the economic structure of society plus a militancy which increasingly demanded an obedience to group activity so that one could be ordered to kill, I felt that to involve myself in this way would not be compatible with my conscience. I therefore resigned from the Anarchist Federation. Here is a draft of my letter of resignation.

July 1944

Dear Comrades,

I regret that I have not written this earlier, and yet I almost wish that there was no necessity to write at all - but there is no point in sentiment.
I wish you to acknowledge my resignation from the A.F. The motives for my resignation at this juncture are in no way connected with the recent "factional" strife and it is not designed to protest against or further any particular viewpoint. Unlike some members I regard resignation over such issues as petty and trivial, and I can no longer regard people with such tendencies as being serious in their intentions towards the movement.

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Unlike Sonia I do not conceive it to be a duty, to myself or any other person past or present, to belong to the movement - I need a purpose and a certain naive enthusiasm. My lack of enthusiasm I put down to the following:

1.  the apparent inability of the present circus, which is the A.F. as now constituted, to form an organic movement or even an organic nucleus.

2.  lack of faith in any other body of people forming such a movement.

3.  lack of faith in attaining an anarchist society or, even if attained, whether such a society is desirable.

It can be argued that possibly this is a rationalization to cover my laziness. But in any event according to my own conception of what a militant should be I cannot further conscientiously participate in the activities of the A.F.

In retrospect I had personal problems which I was unable to work out through my involvement in religion, politics and philosophy. This was the background to my frustration and it was frustration which produced the need to become a painter.

By now I had read Kant and Hegel but then I became acquainted with the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley. I met various people in the cafes and pubs of Soho where we would discuss these philosophical ideas and a friend presented me with a copy of the complete works. Then I came to a point, after a lot of religious and political activity, where I had a psychological and emotional breakdown which resulted in me staying in bed, reading books for a period of between nine months and a year without any other activity or making contact with people. During this time, I kept asking myself what should I do with my life? I must do something. I must justify my existence; I must create. So I began to paint. Then all my real problems started.

The decision to paint was a very traumatic moment, equaled only by the despair that I had experienced a year before. Having decided to do it and having started to do it, the problem then was how to do it - what kind of direction should I take? What kind of stimulus was on hand?

I had always wanted to do this as a child and had been deprived of doing it not only by my own outlook, but also by my parents, teachers and friends, including a number of architects and other artists who I knew. These last proved, in retrospect, to be academics in their approach to painting and, in fact, were non-artists. That is to say they were illustrators, letterers and painters supplying the market with landscapes and portraits. In fact they did everything which had a practical application. What was being ignored was the image, the mood and the poetic content.

As a small child I liked drawing and painting and was considered to be "good at art." I wanted to do it. I cannot remember my early childhood drawing - my recollection only goes back to the age of 10 when I started to do the Royal Drawing Society examinations completing six of them with Honours by the age of 15 years. I was the only child in the school to do this. It was not until many years later that I realized that this kind of drawing had no relation to what I was to come to understand as 'art proper.'

These drawings were of no significance and of no value. They only indicated that I had talent but were of no consequence in the world of art - they were produced by a non-art activity. In spite of parents, teachers and friends being proud of my achievements, in what they thought

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was art, they persuaded me to forget art unless I took a sensible practical approach which would give me a living. This meant, of course applied art or hand-craft such as illustration or lettering, both of which I hated. So, although according to my teachers and friends I had plenty of talent, this was useless because I had no direction and above all I had no need at that age to do art.

The need developed slowly and became much greater when I had been through the process of grappling with ideas to do with religion, politics and philosophy. In other words, the need was to find myself. To find myself I needed direction and to find direction I needed a mentor. I needed a master.

For several years I had been looking at the Royal Academy shows which I always found disappointing but without knowing why. To me they were boring and meaningless and I dismissed the shows as rubbish. The London Group however was a trifle more exciting but, again, I reacted negatively to most of the paintings. But, every now and again, there appeared one or two paintings by a man called Bomberg. I had never heard of him. I knew nothing about him, but these were the paintings that I responded to and I felt I had an affinity with. So I inquired amongst my friends who was this Bomberg and some of them knew him - or rather knew of him - but dismissed him as being of no importance what-so-ever.

Coincidentally, I attended lectures on philosophy at the City Literary Institute in London. This was an attempt to break out of my depression and to continue my search for truth which I had already started during the early 1940's, when I was running the pacifist community farm near Malvern. My interest in philosophy continued at the City Lit. and it was there that the most extraordinary coincidence occurred. The curriculum listed the name of a painter called David Bomberg who was teaching at the same Literary Institute and this was in the year 1944. I immediately contacted Bomberg and enrolled as a student. Thus, at the age of 25, my apprenticeship with my Master began.

What I cannot remember is when Bomberg and I began to discuss the philosophy which motivated our activity. It seemed to me at the time that I introduced Bomberg to Berkeley and especially to chapters called the 'New Theory of Vision,' but I have since heard that Bomberg was probably acquainted with Berkeley much earlier. So that what emerges is a most extraordinary coincidental linking of two minds, my own and Bomberg's, going in the same direction with the same philosophical background. Philosophy acted as a stimulation and justification for the kind of non-verbal research that we were engaged in.

I never had an art college training but I followed Bomberg wherever he was teaching, never taking part in the school curriculum, but taking advantage of Bomberg's unorthodox teaching methods and making use of the space and the model.

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