Andrew Marr: Strokes of Colour at Corke Art Gallery
Words & Interview, Patrick Kirk-Smith
Andrew Marr’s first public exhibition, made up of paintings created since his stroke in 2013, tells two stories, one intentional, one not.
The first – an intentional narrative – is of recovery; a physical advancement of, what was, a pastime. A self-professed landscape hobbyist, Marr would march his easel, oils, water, brushes, and readiness out to the hills and paint with his three rules: paint in front of the subject, paint quickly, sketch oils. As a result of the stroke, he had to choose, does he give it all up, or does he change? It actually became an opportunity, and one he grasped readily, focussing on improving and developing a physical space where he could work within a newly imposed set of rules.
The second – a natural progression – is of the growth in confidence of style of an artist who was, in 2013, unsure where to restart. His first painting after the stroke, ‘Bounce’, is a sincerely beautiful moment of “bugger it, I’m going to carry on” captured on canvas. If anything, following his stroke, his work became far freer, far more energetic, and much more engaged with the moment of painting itself.
From room to room, the stages of this creative progression are clear to see. It’s a progression of confidence. One that watches the self-taught artist produce series on series of captured walks, imagined spaces and fleeting feelings of ups and downs. As a result there are works that will speak to people on a one-to-one level, and series which will reflect lived experience.
One group that comes to mind, and sums this up is the run of ‘Falling’ paintings. In the series, painted soon after his stroke, Andrew Marr seems to go through a narrative of inescapable falling, with fear, with glee, jumping, and falling with hope, even joy, through what appears straight forward. He describes them, simply, as experiments in composition, but they far exceed that.
It is clear that some are just that, experiments in composition, but that helps set up the distinctions between series, between years, and months. After all, this is four years of work packed into the Aigburth Road gallery. Four years revealing a condensed history of Andrew Marr, the artist; His politics, his heritage, and his lust for life. Four years revealing a creativity that even he hadn’t known he was capable of.
At the opening of the exhibition I wanted to know more about what tied this all together, and how it ended up in Liverpool. This is what Andrew Marr had to say:
Why the big change from this first painting, ‘Happy Day – East Devon’?
OK, well there are two answers to that. The first is a functional one. Before the stroke I used to go out, I had a few rules: I would always paint in front of the subject, almost always landscape, I’d paint quickly and do some oil sketching, and with a stroke I can’t use this left arm, and my leg is gone. And it’s almost impossible to deal with an easel, and paints, and canvas, and oils, and brushes, outside, in changeable British weather, with the wind blowing. Can’t do it.
So then I thought, “OK, well that means, that apart from giving up, running, skiing, swimming, cycling, I’m going to have to give up painting as well – bugger.” And I thought, what I can do of course, is I can learn to paint in a space that I control, which means a studio, but I’m not at all interested in doing academic nudes or pictures of roses in a bowl – not my thing – so that means, in turn, painting out of my head more.
So that’s the first reason. The second reason is that when you have a stroke you come quite close to death. Time is short. I’ve always wanted to paint in a more abstract, more emotional, more expressive way. And I’ve always been too frightened to do it. I thought I wouldn’t be good enough, it’s too different. How could I even start? And so after the stroke, I thought, “well this is ridiculous, I’ve still got a fair amount of health and strength and a bit of time left, so if not now, when? So I might as well get going and do it now.” And I’m still thinking my way through new ways of painting.
I’m still learning, in a sense, how to paint, I’m not a professional painter, I’m moving quite fast, I’m changing quite fast, and I think I’ve had some decent ideas. So that’s reason two
I don’t know if these were some of the transitions [‘Swimming With The Picts’/‘Bounce’], pictured above), but there’s a feeling of progression through the different spaces.
Well yes, you can see it. Actually that’s the first picture I made after the stroke [‘Bounce’, 2014]. And actually, is it a proper painting? I don’t know. Its highly emotional picture about deciding not to give up, keep standing. Above it there was a lot about Scottish nationalism at the time. I’m actually not even a Scot, I’m a Pict. And there are Pictish symbols in that painting above it, and in a series of what I call ‘intensely patriotic pictures’, which was a joke around Scottish nationalism.
That’s much later and there’s a few here that are, as it were, still lives from my head, that were about trying to find balance in the picture, not just about texture and shape – and that’s called ‘The Great American Meal’. You can see a landscape behind it but I messed it up. I wanted to get in front of it.
This stuff [‘Happy Day – East Devon’] has come before it. Some of this stuff is really quite successful and some of it’s much later. This [‘The Great American Meal’] is where I’ve over-painted earlier pictures and used quite a complicated range of textures, with the cracks coming through the paint there – that’s done with liquid glass, and lots of very, very, thin painting as well. I over-painted it to get a real rich array of textures, whereas some of the older ones are slightly more static.
And all your profits from the exhibition are going to ARNI?
All the stuff that would come to me is going to ARNI, yes, and the guy that runs ARNI is coming tonight I hope too. It stands for Action Rehabilitation for Neurological Injuries, in other words brain injuries, and it was set up by a guy called Tom Balchin who had a stroke himself as a very young lad. Instead of doing physiotherapy the normal way he got into a gym and worked it out himself. And he has found out a way of self-training – using lots of heavy weights, dumbbells, and exercises. He’s produced a book too, called The Successful Stroke Survivor.
Anyway, the point is that if you have a stroke in this country you’re very lucky as the chances of saving your life in this country are very high. The bad news is that once you’re out of hospital we’re very bad at looking after you. Physical therapy can cost about £80 to £100 an hour, and you might need four, or six, or ten years of physiotherapy several times a week. Almost nobody can afford that kind of physio therapy, which means people are often left in wheelchairs where they could be walking, and unable to work when they could be working, and what Tom Balchin has done is created a UK wide network of specially trained ARNI physiotherapy trainers. And these trainers will come into your house and get you strong in a way that nobody else does. And for that privilege you’ll pay about half, or a third of what you’d pay for a trained physiotherapist.
I think this is a really important way of filling in a big gap in the health system, and that’s why I want to help them. No public money, no government funds go to help ARNI at all, which is why I’m very keen for some of the money from this to go to him.
Why do you want to leave the “London hot house” and hold this inaugural exhibition here in Liverpool?
Well Liverpool has had a good painting tradition for a long time and, in part, due to having a very, very, good art gallery here. Well before the Tate came you had a very strong art gallery in the Walker and a strong painting tradition, and I think the John Moores Painting Prize has had a big impact on Liverpool. I wanted somewhere that had a strong art tradition and it seemed to me that Liverpool was the obvious place. And also, of course, my wife was getting her chair kicked on a plane, by Nic’s children [Nic Corke, the gallery’s owner & curator] – but luckily, and thanks to Jackie for turning around, because this exhibition wouldn’t have happened otherwise.