The person featured in the Patrick Caulfield painting – “After Lunch” – above, was based on a real life model – Brian Westbury – who just happened to be an art tutor on the Art Foundation course at Ealing School of Art and Photography, as it was then called ( it’s now called Thames Valley College), when I did an art foundation year there in the late 70’s.
I’ve always been a big fan of Caulfield’s work – the graphic, minimal quality more than for the clever use of flat colour to depict light, since it is closer to my way of drawing, which tends to be angular rather than rounded. This may have been behind my decision to pursue a graphic design course afterwards rather than Fine Art and although I had taken an early interest in animation, my personal drawing style and interests tended to lean toward economic graphic styles rather than the rounded naturalistic style of Disney animation, for example.
For some reason I felt uncharacteristically brimming with confidence on the induction day at the college, possibly because I had got a place on the course thanks to my parents quick action in enrolling me into an arts course after a fairly dismal 5 years at a local grammar school, that had ended with a broken nose from a pair of racist bullies. So there was a general sense of relief and also anticipation at what the course would offer.
In that first year, where we were introduced to the various directions in arts practice, I relished the opportunity to try my hand at everything, knowing that a B.A course would require a more focussed approach, and I gravitated toward printmaking, in particular plate lithography. This didn’t seem to attract any of the other students on the course as far as I remember so I would often find myself alone in the print room surrounded by huge Heidelberg printing machines and sloshing “A Gum Z” onto aluminum lithography plates under the tutelage of Brian Westbury.
Brian was never judgmental about my efforts as I struggled to create a personal identity in my work though to be fair I was just enjoying trying things out and was never too concerned about whether the results were good or not or were a representation of me or my background. I remember another tutor telling me about another Indian student (female) who had passed through the course in a previous year and that her work was very “Indian” and I took this to mean that he assumed I might be the same. He was the same tutor who ticked me off for not knowing enough about Indian spices when he probed me about ingredients for a curry recipe.
No, Brian was always encouraging, in stark contrast to my grammar school art teacher who very pointedly once told everyone in art class that my drawing of a daffodil based on observation made it look “like a machine” rather than something alive simply because I liked drawing machines like cars and spaceships and the tone of disparagement was very obvious.
If further proof were needed that Brian was no “art snob” is the fact that he told me that he learned to read by looking at comics. For him, like myself, there was the simple joy in mark making in whatever medium, something that continues to this day in digital media, whereas the other tutors seemed to have a benchmark for what was good and worthy.
At the end of that year I managed to get into a B.A course at a reputable London art and design college and my experience there couldn’t have been more different, though Brian had warned me in advance not to expect any help from tutors. I remember clearly one tutor telling me to avoid entertaining the idea of drawing comics since I’d never have a decent job doing that – doubly ironic given the popularity of graphic novels later but this illustrates the attitudes prevalent at that level of tutors who were often Royal College M.A graduates and had the utmost conviction that they knew what was good or bad art, understandable I suppose, if they were preparing students for the real world of work but it’s also telling that they never taught us the basics of book keeping or how to run a business as a self-employed person.
The following 3 – actually 4 almost 5 years – on the B.A course started on a high and gradually traced a parabolic downward curve as any enthusiasm for a career in the arts was gradually drained out of me via pointless graphic design assignments and the sense that I wasn’t hitting the mark in various areas. I was a self-starter in terms of animation and did get the wholehearted support of the film unit – part of graphic design – but by doing something that wasn’t actually part of the syllabus I was distancing myself from the graphic design tutors. The film unit for its’ part saw me as a feather in its’ cap and an asset to the college even if the head of the film unit didn’t particularly like my grad film and told me so.
I somehow managed to pull things together a year or so after my year peers had all left and had no doubt started working, by completing a 7 minute animated film that was subsequently entered into various festivals by the college, so it wasn’t a complete waste.
In around 2004 in a fallow period work-wise I randomly googled Brian Westbury and was surprised to see that he was now teaching at Wimbledon Art College. A few emails were exchanged to confirm that it was the same person, which was confirmed and I drove down to Wimbledon to meet him.
I was a little apprehensive since I know that college tutors will meet many, many students over their careers from my own experience as a guest tutor at various colleges, so would Brian even remember me decades later ?
I was pleasantly surprised when a now slightly more portly Brian rolled up in the middle of over-seeing a degree show, dressed in almost exactly the same way as he had been in the late 70’s, and he gave me a warm handshake and we picked up where we left off as if the intervening years had meant nothing. I spent the next few hours watching the show going up as Brian proudly took me around, and I was introduced to his wife, also an artist, who I had never met before.
Brian wasn’t particularly interested in any details I offered about my career since leaving art college as I filled him in, but then that was Brian all over, interested more in the work rather than being impressed by career achievements, and I liked that about him – it was as if the measure of a person wasn’t their accomplishments – all that was irrelevant next to being a friend and the simple pleasure of mark making.