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Colourful career of an accidental artist

07 November, 2019 — By John Gulliver

Artists Alan Gouk, left, and Frank Bowling

ALAN Gouk doesn’t do things by halves.

I dropped in on the birthday party of the celebrated artist at Hampstead School of Art last week – but in fact his 80th birthday fell in June. He simply wanted all his family there, as well as close friends, so it was postponed for a few months.

But that, in a way, is the story of Alan’s life because he never became the recognised painter he now is in a straight­forward way. Born in Northern Ireland and brought up in Scotland his life, it seemed, was one small burn.

He is one of the few artists I have met who never studied at an art school – in fact his early years were spent studying psychology at university, then architecture, even working for several years for London County Council in the 1960s. His art career started accidentally with a job with the British Council that led eventually to a teaching post at one of our most prestigious art schools – St Martin’s.

“I suppose I just wanted to make sure that it was art I wanted to do in my life,” he said. “I had a conscience about it, it was all a matter of ethics. I never went into art to make money, to sell my work.”

I asked him what he thought of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. “They never became artists to make money either,” he said. “They did it because they loved it – people wanted their paintings, that came later. It all changed with Britart – that’s when everything became a matter for marketing. I have never been like that.”

An exhibition of his work is being held at the Hampstead School of Art where, typically of a man of conscience, Alan has become a patron and gives free lessons. The ethos of the school, basically run on co-operative lines, and founded by the great sculptor Henry Moore, no doubt fits in with his view of life – and art.

Alan with his wife Pat at the birthday bash

Though he lives in London his studio is in Montrose near Aberdeen in Scotland – a converted village hall, stacked full of his canvases. If people are interested in buying his work he advises them to go to this studio.

Apparently, a banker and his wife wanted one of his works, flew to his studio and bought a large 16ft wide canvas whose colours were so rich that when they hung it in their London home they decided to change the colour scheme of the whole house to fit in with the colours of the canvas.

As he told me this, I was standing in front of one of his largest canvases at the HSoA, and I could see how seductive his colours can be. He told me that he has always been an abstract painter, and that he has no idea how his painting will emerge and develop when he starts on the canvas, it all becomes a matter of “improvisation”. His work can sell for tens of thousands of pounds but he is, after all, a working artist, and he didn’t want to discuss prices.

Another guest was 85-year-old Frank Bowling whose first big retrospective recently opened at the Tate Modern. Recognition came later in life for him – born in British Guiana, he studied art in London, then spent most of his working life in New York. Recently, one of his works sold for £1million.

Frank looked as if he had just come from his studio – his shoes were spattered with paint. Though he is largely confined to a wheelchair he manages to work on a canvas which is spread out on a high table. He, too, is drawn to the ethos of HSoA and has given several bursaries to disadvantaged pupils enabling them to take foundation courses for entry to university.

Meanwhile, the school’s principal, Isabel Langtry, is off to Singapore in the next few days to give a lecture on Frank Bowling whose fame is beginning to spread. She’s then­ off to Indonesia to give another talk on the artist.


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