Figure In A Landscape: The Paintings Of Patrick Procktor

An exhibition in Bologna sheds new light on one of the forgotten heroes of modern British art

Patrick Procktor, Juliet Benson, 1968, Palazzo Bentivoglio, Bologna, ph Carlo Favero

Controversial and contradictory, with a unique stroke and appearance (he was six feet six inches tall and left-handed), Patrick Procktor, a camp-loving dandy and an openly homosexual father, a Marxist and a snob, perfectly embodied a quintessential British attitude and sensibility, making into a complex constellation the bright dots of Oscar Wilde’s legacy, Bloomsbury’s intellectualism, the excesses of Swingin’ London, and the complicated history of homosexual communities in the 80s. Among his pals were the fashion designer Ossie Clark and his wife, the textile designer Celia Birtwell, the interior designer Christopher Gibbs, Richard Beer, Peter Schlesinger, Mo McDermott, David Gwinnutt, and even royalty, Princess Margaret. He socialised with Derek Jarman (who would later star as Procktor in Stephen Frears’s 1987 movie Prick Up Your Ears), Francis Bacon, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, and Cecil Beaton; and painted the cover art for Elton John’s 1976 album Blue Moves.

His arc ended abruptly just as the Young British Artists were about to become the flag-bearers of a new cultural revolution brewing between 10 Downing Street and Camden’s Good Mixer pub, a revolution imbued with that image of Cool Britannia he felt so distant from but profoundly influenced by his career.

The 90s were the critical moment: it’s then that he first becomes a member of the Royal Academy, then has his iconic studio home at 26 Manchester Street, Marylebone, London, burn down in a terrible arson, turning much of his work into ashes as well as torching his mental and physical well-being. In the 90s, Patrick Procktor gets lost in the artworld’s oblivion, alone and hopelessly addicted to alcohol, too anachronistically tied to a cultural scene long gone and forgotten. His name then vanishes from art history and memory in an eclipse that will last until his death in 2003.

But, before the fall, Procktor had been one of the UK’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures, painting with his brushes over three decades of prominent British characters: aristocrats and pop stars, sons and young Ephebes, protagonists of fleeting encounters, fellow artists, and lifetime lovers. And these years, from 1962 to 1987, are the core of Procktor’s big retrospective, now on view in Bologna’s Palazzo Bentivoglio, A Room with a View, curated by Tommaso Pasquali. Sixty artworks reunited for the first time to shine a new light on a magnetic yet extreme artistic and human story, articulated among green sofas and brushes, colourful brush strokes, and supports that became part of the representation, among Picasso vases and Cecil Beaton photographs. It is fifty years since his first solo show in town, at Palazzo Galvani in 1972, organised by Hélène de Franchis, founder of the influential Verona gallery Studio La Città.

Patrick Procktor. A View From a Window, a cura di Tommaso Pasquali, Palazzo Bentivoglio, Bologna, 2022, ph Carlo Favero

Procktor, who was born in Dublin in 1936 but moved to London when he was a child, is portrayed as a theatrical child, similar to the fictional young Oscar Wilde in the opening scene of Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (he could have played practically any character in the film). Procktor enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1958 after being conscripted in the Royal Navy and serving as a spy in Russia.

It was during his art school years that he forged the most important bond of his career with a student from the Royal College of Art: David Hockney. "You couldn’t really mention one without the other. It was like Castor and Pollux. They were the dandy twins of the art world," explains the art critic John McEwen in Patrick Procktor: Art and Life, a biography edited by Procktor’s most eminent scholar, Ian Massey.

But the two artists’ careers could not be more different. Where Hockney will look west, especially to the US – and California in particular – Procktor’s interest will point east, towards the Middle East and Asia. If Hockney establishes himself in the market by seeking ever more important and influential galleries, Procktor will instead work throughout his career with the Redfern Gallery in London, the same one where he made his debut in 1962 and which still represents his work. Both figurative artists, if Hockney’s acrylics cover the surface of his large canvases in solid and saturated colours, making history within British Pop Art and beyond, Procktor’s delicate watercolours work by subtraction, muted in their transparencies, silenced by the support material emerging from the background in the void intentionally left on the surface.

An entire life passes through Procktor’s brushes. The titles of his works carry the names and dates of the subjects they represent; life passes through paper or canvas with dedications, notes, and inside jokes that bring the subjects to life and soul without superfluities and metaphors; it’s up to the puns to suggest emotional states and introspection. That occurs in one of the best watercolours on display, Eye Sea You (February 1969): a self-portrait in which the artist only offers his eyes and face to the viewer, gazing almost hidden behind a monochrome, peeking out from an upper corner as in a caricature or cartoon.

Patrick Procktor, Gervase in Tangier (October 1968), watercolour, Milano, private collection

Italy played a big role in Procktor’s existence. He travelled there for the first time in the 60s. In 1962, just after finishing at the Slade, he toured with Michael Upton and his wife from the Venice Biennale to Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries, where the frescoes and their relationship between figure and background became a main source of influence in his painting. In 1967, after Italian art critic Franco Solmi included his work in his militant exhibition Il tempo dell’immagine, reading Procktor’s figurative work in an anti-capitalist, anti-pop art key, he returned to Italy, this time with David Hockney and his muse and partner Peter Schlesinger, staying at Galleria la Medusa founder Claudio Bruni’s villa on the Lazio coast. Later, in the 1970s, when Procktor defied the roaring modernism of the day by diving into the Picturesque, he did so in Venice, in the company of his gallerist friend Gabriella Cardazzo, who frequently showed the artist’s work at her Galleria il Cavallino.

But Palazzo Bentivoglio’s exhibition’s display, masterfully designed by Italian artist Davide Trabucco, offers another crucial and original moment: a semiotic triangle, a power play among subject, object, and sign provided by the simultaneous presence of three elements never put near each other before. It’s Procktor’s Picasso Pots at Cecil Beaton’s (1 April 1968), a watercolour depiction of Picasso’s two portrayed vases, Chouette Femme (1951) and Chouetton (1952), and of Procktor’s photographic portrait par excellence: his friend Cecil Beaton’s Patrick Procktor from Dublin – six foot five inches of talent (April 1967). A magic circle, which tells in all its grandeur the poetics of a master of the art who no longer needs to succumb to time.

Patrick Procktor, A View From a Window, is at Palazzo Bentivoglio, Bologna, until 5 February

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