A D R I A N S T O K E S
M A I N I N T R O D U C T I O N - Richard Wollheim
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Adrian saw a great deal of art. He looked very slowly, and thought nothing of spending an hour or two in a small dealer's exhibition. He wrote to friends, or friends of friends, who were painters about their work. He did not take the dispute between abstraction and figuration seriously, and all he required was that the work should have what he referred to in an early review as 'visual relevance', by which he meant the power to support some image of the human body and therefore of the human psyche. He excluded only work that issued from (I quote) 'the half-baked, ignorant and journalese theory of Surrealism'. He loved certain music: Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Mozart, Berlioz, Schubert. Beethoven was taboo. Two great pleasures in his last years were the revival of 'Don Pasquale' at Covent Garden and the great exhibition of Islamic carpets at the Hayward Gallery, organized by his friend, David Sylvester. He thought that the decorative was totally under-prized in our culture. He could never see enough tennis or cricket.
After he had finished the last of
the Tavistock books, which appeared in 1967, he wrote a lot of poetry. He wrote it
continually in the interstices of painting. He aimed at the same connections in his poems
as in his prose and in his paintings. He also revealed more of himself in his poetry,
sometimes unfairly to the reader. His best poem, I would say, takes for its title the word
that was the most savoured, the most potent, in his vocabulary: 'Home'.
Favouring regardless people
Schubert's last sonatas reign.
He wrote a remarkable fable, which Karl Miller insisted on printing in The Listener.
In 1971 he fell ill and had a serious operation. The next year, contrary to expectations, the cancer returned. Throughout the autumn he knew he was dying. We dined with him on his birthday. He said to me 'I never liked birthdays', and added with a laugh 'But never again'. He gave a party to say goodbye to his friends. It was as unlike what one might imagine such an occasion to be as he was unlike other people. It was a celebration. That autumn I had brought him back from Kandahar some beads made of green travertine, because I knew how much travertine meant to him. I got a letter of thanks, written in a strange floating handwriting but in which the magical word appeared several times in sentences otherwise bereft of sense. And all the while he went on painting: painting with failing vision, failing muscular control, his thoughts sometimes wandering but with a fantastic physical intensity probably the greater for his resignation. The last painting that he painted was the last he would have been capable of painting. Ann, who had helped him put up the canvas, hold the brush and dip it in the paint, helped him to bed. He died, resting from the effort. From that moment his fame began to spread.
[This essay is a version of the 4th William Townsend Memorial Lecture, originally delivered by Richard Wollheim at the Slade, University College, London.]
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