Working as an artist: part I

On the evening of October 4 1979, in London, Eduardo Paolozzi (EP), his assistant Marlee Robinson (MR), John Hoyland (JH) and Brian Clarke (BC) met and recorded a discussion with lawyer Henry Lydiate (HL) about the legal aspects of working as an artist. The following is an edited transcript.

Part II of this discussion will be published in our June issue, and will deal in further detail with problems raised by VAT, and with the artist’s relationships with galleries.

EP We’ve been using Artlaw because we’ve been trying to get some money out of somebody in the States. It seems very difficult if you sell an artwork to an American and he’s not paying up. We went to an ordinary lawyer and he say’s it’s one of the most difficult things of all.

HL One of the earliest cases we had was this kind which made us probe into America and see if there was anything like Artlaw over there. We discovered there was. And we were very successful in establishing contact with similar organisations. One slapped a writ on this guy who owed an English printmaker a couple of thousand dollars for prints he’d sold in the States and he paid up immediately.

BC I always get paid in America. I always ask for cash.

HL The difficulty is if the two tax inspectors, the English and the American, put their heads together.

BC The only time I ever had a problem in getting paid was when I designed a stained-glass window for a church. It took them two years from the thing being installed. And this piece cost me two thousand pounds to have made. I finally got one of those firms who repossess things for you and sent them up to the church to take the piece out . . . The vicar gave the men the cheque before they took it out.

HL Debt collection is a small thing compared to the problem of actually getting first sales when you’re trying to get on your feet.

BC John, what did you do when you first left college?

JH I got two days a week teaching, and you could live on that in those days, in a two pounds a week flat.

HL Did you have a studio?

JH I had a front room.

HL Did you try and get a studio, because that’s what a lot of the young people try to do now.

JH I tried to do some work first. I didn’t worry too much about having a studio.

BC People seem to think about it now though.

JH Yeah, but they get these big studios and then they don’t seem to do anything with them.

BC I think he’s right. A lot of people seem concerned with getting a studio before they know what they want to do with it when they’ve got it. It’s almost a prerequisite of being an artist.

JH I didn’t have a studio. It was my front room and I gradually filled it with paintings, so that I couldn’t get in through the door. I used to have to come and go through the front window, which hid a terrific drop into the basement. So, if anyone wanted to come and look at the paintings, they had to make this kind of terrible death leap across the top of the stairs to the window.

HL Were you based in London?

JH Yeah.

HL How did you sell things then?

JH I didn’t. Then the Marlborough offered me a contract which was £400 a year, which was equal to a day’s teaching – £8 a week or something – so that was terrific. But they wouldn’t show the work. It was all part of another deal. They didn’t really want it, but the guy who liked my work had the Pollock estate, and he didn’t have a gallery, so he did some kind of deal whereby they got half the Pollock estate, but they had to take on four English artists. I think I was the only one who got a one-man show. No, I think Bill Turnbull got a one-man show as well; he was much older than me. Then they sacked roe anyway before the contract ended, because I wasn’t selling any work.

HL What did you do about that?

JH I didn’t do anything. I was quite happy. I wanted the show. I sold one painting, to Manchester City Art Gallery, and they had me on the carpet and said we’d like to terminate your contract.

EP A lot of artists I used to know were like Bill Turnbull, who used to paint in his front room. Kitaj, when he went up to college, he got a little house at Dulwich and painted for ages in his front room.

BC It’s all they can do. It’s not a case of choice, it’s a case of being forced to.

JH I just kept thinking that Morris Louis painted all those pictures in his basement.

BC When I left college, there was a second-hand shop in Preston and it had a big window in the front, and it was a real slum – there was no roof on it or anything. To get in it- ‘cos I wasn’t buying it – I had to buy the key and what this geezer called goodwill, and the good-will cost me a hundred quid and I had to borrow fifty and thirty quid off somebody else, and I had twenty quid. I didn’t know the phenomenon of social security existed. When I came out of college, I really didn’t know; I thought you had to have worked for about twenty years before you got any money. And I had to buy thirty double beds and other stuff in this second-hand shop, and I moved into this small studio in this tiny back-to-back street. Then the Local Authority declared it unfit for human habitation, and said I couldn’t live there. But I had nowhere else to live, and I finally did it up. What I did was to restore old paintings. I’d do anything, just until I could sell the odd thing. I met Kitaj some time ago, and he said to me that it’s all nonsense about people wanting to have big studios, there’s no need to have a big studio, you can do anything you want in a small front room. But actually if your work’s really big you can’t.

EP Kitaj did. A lot of his early pictures, which he showed at the Marlborough, he did there and it wasn’t a very big house either.

JH Yes, it’s a bit like people say I can’t because I haven’t got a big studio and I haven’t got a lot of paint. The fact that you’ve got a small studio and very little paint, if you were enterprising enough, would probably force you to make certain kinds of innovation in your art that might be interesting. But, as a prerequisite, to have a lot of paint and a big studio-no. If I find myself tomorrow without a big studio and a lot of paint, which is very likely, then I’ll probably start doing different kinds of pictures.

BC It’s funny, because when I moved here I was anticipating doing, and had already designed, some 24-foot long canvasses; I’d actually ordered them to be made at Winsor & Newton, and I was getting thrilled about the idea. Then I sussed when I moved in that the biggest one I could get up the stairs is 6′ x 6′. So everything’s changed, and now that’s why this one, instead of being one long canvas, is in three sections. And it’s actually changed me work.

JH I think one of the most interesting things that’s happened to my work is the effect of the studio. I find that when I change studios, it’s probably the biggest change that ever occurs in my work. And that’s to do with one’s relationship to that particular space. Somebody told me recently that Lucien Freud likes to paint every portrait in a different room; he didn’t mind where the room was. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do know that even if I’m preoccupied with precisely the same idea, if I paint in London or New York or Wiltshire, all the paintings – though related – are completely different.

BC That’s true. I’ve noticed, because I have a place in Derbyshire, and what I do there and what I do here are quite different. Your environment has a big effect on what you do. I’m very interested in photography, and I’ve found that what photographers talk about is wanting to be represented by major galleries that painters are represented by. So the worst thing about painting has become the most important thing for photographers; they’re aspiring to the kind of myth that is in many ways one of the most serious drawbacks for painters, aspiring to being represented by a major gallery in Mayfair or uptown New York – and that’s success – and all they talk about is ‘Will Castelli show me?’, or ‘Will Waddington show me?’

EP If the painter doesn’t aspire to that, his mother does.

HL Just to pick up on Brian about social security and his being told he couldn’t use the room. A lot of younger artists starting off come to us not only trying to find a studio and all that that involves financially, legally and administratively, but also the basic lack of knowledge about what they should be doing, if anything, to train to become professionals like you are now. They don’t get it at art schools and I wonder if you have any thoughts about whether art schools should do something?

JH No. I think that when students go to art school, or if someone wants to be a poet, it’s no use saying to them, we are going to give you a kind of commando course in how you’re going to be able to make money as a painter or a poet. All you go there for is to try to become a good poet or a good artist. You have to tell the student right from the very outset that this is what it’s all about, and that you cannot expect anything out of it, and even if you do make money and become successful your relationship to money and success will not change. You still have to have this basic attitude that you have right at the very beginning – and with a big ‘A’.

EP I feel this. He’s about seventy now, but when I first came back from Paris about 1950 I met Francis Bacon. Every time I see him he’s exactly the same guy, and the strange thing is, talking of proper studios, he’s still in the same mews. He’s done all his classical work, such as the great Metropolitan show, in this little mews off South Ken. But he hasn’t changed.

JH I think one of the great things about Bacon, I don’t consider him to be a great artist, but I think that’s why he’s remained the figure he is. Unlike a lot of artists of his generation – it always happens with English artists, once they become famous and successful they cut themselves off from everything that’s made them exactly what they are. Bacon, as Eduardo was saying, lives just the same way as he always did.

EP Totally unaffected by money. You remember The Times saying, ‘record bid -Parke Bernet – Bacon £180,000’ (or something like that). Just by sheer accident, the same day I saw him in a bus queue.

JH He could probably give you a painting the next day if he was in the right mood.

EP But I think he’s so intelligent and sensitive he enjoys the freedom of being in the bus queue. You know the guys who have to put it all on their elbow because they’re trying to make compensation.

BC That’s one of the things I abhor about the Arts Council: I consider them a real force for evil. I’ve found in England, particularly in England, that you’re always expected to be the self-effacing humble little artist who’s patted on the back by the Arts Council or the regional arts associations or the Gulbenkian Foundation. And you’re expected to be very anonymous and let other people do it all for you; and it’s wrong – people say to me – being able to manage me own affairs. As if artists should be little romantics who retreat into little garrets and have their jam butties and just have no sense of what they’re doing on a commercial or business level. If you show any signs at all of being confident in this country you’re stamped on.

MR But regarding the thing that John and Eduardo were saying about how you can’t teach anyone at an art school, how to cope: I think you can teach them some of the technical paper work that is going to have to be done to make sales and put on exhibitions. Eduardo had some students last year at the Royal College of Art who had an exhibition at the ICA; they had to do their own catalogue (with the help of the college print department); they had to sign a contract with the ICA – bravo for the ICA for encouraging it, not trying to get out of it; and they had to provide the control and set up their own things. On the first visit to the ICA they went into shock. They came out and said ‘I’m going to throw up, I can’t cope with all this. Why do I have to look at all these papers?’

JH That’s part of what you call growing up.

EP They didn’t like it, though.

MR Right, but that’s the kind of thing art-colleges can teach someone. Then they came up with a catalogue which was very good, and put on a very good exhibition. They had a huge turn-out at the opening and a lot of people going later. Several of them had exhibitions since then because of that exhibition. Now they are incredibly proud of themselves. At the time it was very traumatic, but they had the school’s backing and everybody helped them along. So now they were equipped.

JH But the point is that all that can be taught in one week; teaching somebody to be an artist can take a lifetime.

EP Actually we had Artlaw down to talk to the students and I think one of my motivations for getting Artlaw along was that it’s just as important for me to be there to stop them from being screwed the way I was just as much as to say where there’s a good library for books on Oriental art.

JH Of course, but I think that in the course of teaching – if you have the right relationship with your students – these things come out.

BC John’s dead right. When you go to art school you go specifically to acquire techniques and disciplines that are going to make it possible for you to articulate something. The only way to actually help a student come to terms with the realities of being an artist who’s got to support himself is to expose him to artists who are doing that.

HL The danger is that many art school teachers don’t do that for their students; either because they are simply not prepared to or, more frequently, because the teachers are not practising artists.

JH That’s because of the cut down on part-time teaching.

HL Right. And that relates to another point about survival for younger artists which you put your finger on; part-time teaching is not now providing a support system for the artist who’s trying to do one or two days teaching a week in order to support his art. So there are two things lost: the instructional element of having a practitioner come into the school; and the reverse of that coin, which is that the artist who is coming in is thereby being supported to do his work. It seems to me that killing off the part-time teacher is doing down two very important factors that used to prevail.

JH There’s another way that’s working: the part-time fees have not kept abreast of inflation; full-time fees have. In the old days you actually got the same amount of money, and although you didn’t get paid in the holidays, you did get more per day if you weren’t full-time. But now part-time fees are considerably below those of full-timers. So that if you’re a borderline case artist, who is not making any money or is making very little money, there’s a great temptation to go into full-time teaching for which you pay a certain price in almost every case. Or you’re making more money, then you don’t teach at all, and so that cut-off comes.

HL You seem to be pointing a disparaging finger at students whose stay at art school is perpetuated longer than it should be by the school giving grants, bursaries and fellowships. Has there been a change in attitude in the establishment over the years, towards a ‘feather-bedding’ approach for students? It seems a lot of artists are striving for a show, of course, but also for a grant or bursary, rather than perhaps trying to survive their own way by creating their own sales and market. What Brian said about social security doesn’t suggest it’s much of an alternative help – he said he didn’t even know about social security.

JH I didn’t know anything about it either. I still don’t know anything about it.

MR Brian, how long ago did you get out of art school?

BC I lied about my age, so I left when I was nineteen.

EP But actually, I never had social security. I think we didn’t apply for it. It was probably peanuts, wasn’t it? I think it was quite tough until recently. If you’re leaving college and you have an MA, I think you get a special scale if you’re a graduate.

HL The difficulty I have experienced with my work is that when artists do try and sign on as artists they aren’t allowed to. They’ve come through art school or whatever and have got to the point where they can’t make ends meet and are trying to survive by their own art work, and there’s no part-time teaching and they’re not getting any sales. They’re trying to get an exhibition together, working from home, but just can’t make ends meet. Either they go and take a job, and have to do their art work in the evening and at weekends. Or, perhaps they felt the need to sign on for some time to get social security. The artist cannot get social security; it’s a legal anomaly. There’s no such category. Even if you’ve got a degree, you can’t sign on as an artist. Just because you’ve got an MA in Fine Art doesn’t mean you’re an artist.

JH So what do you claim it as?

HL Well, there are thousands of artists saying they’re labourers.

BC Or designers.

HL Or illustrators. The system doesn’t clock there are thousands of artists who really ought to be allowed to sign on. That’s a really big Artlaw issue that we’ve identified. Do you think, in principle, Eduardo, that all artists should be able to sign on? Do you think you ought to be able to sign on, John, now, if you just ran into difficulties tomorrow?

JH No, because my son just came back from Canada and he’s going to Oxford in a couple of weeks time, and he got offered so many jobs and made a thousand pounds in two weeks selling double-glazed windows. So I really don’t think I’d bother. I’d find some other thing to do.

HL I respect that view, and that’s what I advise most artists. It’s far better (and probably better for your integrity anyway) not to have to sign on. The money that you get is a pittance, anyway.

JH I think signing on is a terrific cop out.

HL But do you think there ought to be a right there, like there is a right for every worker in the country to sign and say I’m unemployed.

JH All these things are fine in theory, and I think that that’s OK that they should be able to sign on; but there are so many ways artists can find around this thing. For instance, in the art service area you can always help galleries to stretch canvasses, paint somebody’s studio, do all sorts of ancillary activities that many artists have had to do because they want to be involved in that world. Some of them end up becoming gallery dealers and some of them end up being artists. I suppose I agree with you in principle, but I don’t think it’s important. My attitude is, look, nobody owes you a living so just get tough. And of course, the other thing that people have to remember is that because people go to art school and don’t come out of it being well-known artists, or that they go off and marry a farmer and have three children, it doesn’t mean that that’s wasted education. I still believe it’s one of the best educations you can get all round.

EP It’s when they get this crippling bitterness, because Bond Street’s controlling everything and so what’s the point of doing anything, that’s when they start becoming self-destructive.

HL Can I just introduce another element here? When you’ve started to get going and are down the road a bit, what happens when you find an accountant to handle your Income Tax? How did you deal with it when you realised you had to do something about organising it?

JH That’s another myth, of course, because you’ve always got to handle it for him!

HL Well, is it a myth?

EP Unless you’ve got an exceptionally good accountant you’ve got to give them a crash course about the way things are; it’s the same with bad lawyers.

BC As far as my accounts are concerned, I don’t do a thing except put all my receipts in one envelope, all my invoices in another and send them to my accountant.

JH Be careful. You may find in another four years’ time that something’s been going very wrong.

BC I’m very good on things like organising, when I actually get a commission or when I’m doing an exhibition. I’m efficient at making sure everything goes right.

JH How does that affect your work?

BC In no other way than that when I’m doing that I’m not working.

JH Do you work while you’re doing that or do you drop work?

BC They sort of run together really.

JH That’s very interesting, because you’re the first person I’ve met who can operate on those two levels simultaneously.

BC I can, I find no problem.

JH But we might as well talk about this bloody VAT situation. Personally, I find that I can’t paint and do VAT. VAT is like a constant thundercloud on the horizon. Patrick Caulfield said to me that the only thing he could think of as equivalent to VAT is getting your call-up papers every month. The brown envelope hits the mat and this terrible dread runs through you, and it actually affects the way you feel for the rest of the day.

EP There are marvellous books which try to explain everything.

BC And they send them so frequently, they’re so fat, like Bibles.

MR And they say throw out everything before, start now with this issue.

BC I can’t cope with all that. I employ an accountant and pay him a lot.

JH But to employ an accountant and pay him a lot you’ve got to be earning a lot. I constantly have difficulty in paying my accountant. In fact, I can’t leave him at the moment because I can’t pay him. It would make it cheaper and would be more efficient, but I know I can’t do VAT and paint at the same time. I can’t paint all morning, then do my VAT in the afternoon; or do my VAT and then start painting. So that it actually impinges on me as an artist. We all have to deal with bloody income tax, but VAT specifically puts one in the category of being a manufacturing businessman. And it’s constant. What has to be rammed home is that the whole idea of artists being businessmen primarily, labelled as businessmen, assessed as businessmen, is false.

MR Eduardo’s former accountant paid all the bills. He got boxes of receipts and invoices and things. We discovered after we left him and I started doing some of the books – which were very simple things. Then the actual form which gets sent to the VAT man, is done one day every quarter by the accountant’s clerk, which works out very well. The old accountant who’d been doing everything – we thought – had never, since VAT was introduced, put a VAT return in on time.

EP This sounds like John’s warning.

MR And over that period, since VAT was introduced, Eduardo had accumulated a bad reputation in the eyes of the VAT man. His credit rating was practically zero. Which is why we had the VAT man come to visit us. They said, look here, here, here, here, you have never put in a VAT return on time. We hadn’t any idea that was happening.

BC That’s really funny, because I’ve got a secretary who does all me stuff. I send out all me receipts and everything to me accountant, but I have a secretary who does all me letters and sends invoices out and receives payment. We’re often far behind with sending cheques to the VAT man, mainly because when she sends me a thing that I have to sign, ‘cos I have to do it, it’s three months too late when I do. And I had one visit from the VAT people and they went through my books really carefully, and they were just so helpful.

MR When they came they were very nice, but it was traumatic to know they were coming. We had practice sessions with the accountant before they came, with him pretending to be the VAT man and saying ‘Can you produce this?’ Although he was very nice and helpful, the time that was spent building up to him coming was horrific.

© Henry Lydiate 1979

 

 

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.