A Dedication to Drawing: Peter Greenham by Roger Wagner
A Dedication to Drawing
Peter Greenham's favourite ambition was to leave one really good drawing behind him. To that end whatever else he was doing he would draw every day. His aspiration had much in common with the great Japanese artist Hokusai, who describing himself as an "old man mad about painting", said in his ninetieth year that given ten years, no even five years more he might have become a great painter. As the Keeper of the RA schools from 1964, Greenham preached what he practised. When I first started at the Academy he warned me that if I wanted to get anywhere as a painter I would have to do nothing else. A tall man with untidy grey hair, who looked at you through thick glasses and shuffled around the schools in carpet slippers, Peter Greenham's teaching method was very characteristic. If you were doing a drawing he would sit beside you, take your piece of paper, and do his drawing alongside yours. When he had finished he would say something to the effect of "like that" and shuffle away. This might not sound very illuminating, but in fact it was. The idea that a picture is worth a thousand words is never more true than when a picture is what you are trying to produce. Some students used to collect Greenham's instructional drawings, and as a gauche new student one of my most shameful memories is rubbing out one of these drawings, which seemed to me to spoil my own (when I once told this story at a Reynolds club dinner faces blanched and there were sharp intakes of breath all round the room).
Greenham's dedication to drawing set him to some extent at odds with what has become a common approach in art schools, where drawing and painting are taught only as possible options that a student can select from a large smogasbord of potential art practices. In many art schools where new art forms increasingly crowd out the older ones, students whose whole passion is for painting are sometimes implicitly and often explicitly encouraged to think of their preference as somehow reactionary or retrogressive. But even where this is not the case the almost universal assumption that students should not specialise in any given art form, but throughout their student career should continually remain open to whole panoply of art practices, is not necessarily to their benefit. It is rare to find a professional tennis player who is also a professional footballer, not because it is impossible to enjoy both tennis and football, but because the degree of commitment necessary to excel in either is of an all consuming kind. It would be surprising if excellence in any given art form did not require a similar level of commitment. Greenham in this sense followed generations of painters in arguing that it did.
In his own work the fruit of this kind of dedication can be seen in a picture like his portrait of Sheridan Russell. No photograph of the painting really conveys the almost magical way that the solid appearance of Russell's head arises out of such fleeting evanescent touches of oil paint, or the way that Greenham's ability to draw in paint and his iron grasp of underlying structure enables him to freely extemporise his brushwork without for a moment losing touch with reality. If drawing is ˜putting lines around an idea, then Greenham's painting is a nice demonstration that the strength of an idea and the means necessary to convey it can be inversely proportional. But this is far more than simply a technical achievement. There is a peculiar lyricism in Greenham's handling of paint that is highly characteristic (it is perhaps no coincidence that he was skilled pianist and kept a grand piano in his Academy studio). Where a photograph records a momentary appearance in the blink of a shutter (Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment") the moment-by-moment human choices involved in these gestures of paint on canvass, are necessarily invested with a human meaning that can somehow dramatise the whole nature of an encounter. A portrait can in this way become a record not just of an appearance but of a meeting: an engagement in which sitter and painter are both somehow vividly present. It is not (to put it mildly) an easy thing to achieve. A mechanically accurate painter with no gift of conveying feeling in paint can depict a person's appearance with no real sense of having met them. A more expressive painter can become so preoccupied with the emotions expressed in paint that the person who is their source fades from view. But where, as in Greenham's portrait of Russell, the fragile balance between these two things is miraculously attained, the result is something uniquely and luminously human.
In an introduction to a New English Art Club catalogue Jane Greenham describes how Peter, though rapturous whenever he sold a painting, endorsed the remark of his own teacher F.E Jackson that "you can't do things and get the credit for them. Getting credit is a full time job". It was an attitude far removed from the idea of gaining notoriety through what Merlin James has described as the art world's "fickle mixture of net-working and hustling and luck and fashion fluctuations". While in one sense Peter coveted the applause received by musicians, in another and deeper sense he was almost indifferent to how he was received (when he went along to the Palace to paint the Queen, dressed in his usual somewhat shabby suit, the doorman thought he was a tramp and tried to turn him away). Yet while such indifference to applause may be a necessary attribute in an artist striving to produce any kind of masterpiece, a society which values such masterpieces would be unwise to permanently sit on its hands: a major retrospective of Greenham's work is long overdue.