Evidence of Albert Irvin RA’s irrepressible thirst for adventure on canvas can be seen in the heavily spattered surfaces in the east London studio he has occupied for over 30 years. By Fiona Maddocks.
If you visit Albert Irvin RA, always known as Bert, you have to go in through the ‘Girls’ entrance. For the past four decades his studio has been in the former Stepney Green Jewish School – an Edwardian redbrick building off Mile End Road in east London – which closed its doors to pupils in 1970. His workspace is an adjoining pair of first-floor classrooms where the blackboards are still in place, long ago painted white by Irvin, although nothing else has been touched, no improvements made. ‘Well, that’s not quite true,’ he corrects himself. ‘There used to be enormous cast-iron radiators that looked marvellous but never worked. After freezing each winter for more than 30 years, I thought I could allow myself some central heating.’
On a still, golden autumn day, light flooding in through the 336 panes of glass which comprise the tall windows at either end of the north-south axis of the main studio (the other room is used for storage) you can easily imagine the sound of fidgety children scraping chairs and slamming desks, wanting to be in the playground outside. ‘You used to be able to see the scuff marks of shoes on the parquet floor, around where the desks once stood,’ Irvin recalls. The artist Mark Gertler, the playwright Bernard Kops and the band leader Jo Loss were among the school’s distinguished alumni.
‘When I got together with five other artists [including the late Michael Kenny RA] to rescue this building from demolition for use as studios, this part of London was still predominantly Jewish – a big Russian and eastern European immigrant community. Now it’s more Bangladeshi. Sometimes, former pupils come back and want to see inside. I do my best to show them around, even if it is a bit of an interruption... It’s often very moving.’
A tall, upright and unbelievably youthful 88-year old, with twinkly chestnut-brown eyes, Irvin appears to have emerged from one of his canvases, his striped rugby shirt, jeans and shoes comprehensively spattered with the rainbow colours which make his large, abstract paintings so instantly familiar. On closer inspection, it’s as if he has stood upwind of a spin painting machine, since the thick acrylic splashes cover only his front half. His rear is spotless. Is this his work uniform? ‘Well, yes, in a way. I change when I get here [on the tube from Clapham, south London]. I don’t wash these jeans. This pair is about two years old. Eventually, I throw them away.’ They look as if they would stand up unaided. A new pair and a denim jacket hang neatly in a corner of the room, ready for his 5pm commute home.
His studio is not, as he needlessly observes, a clinical kind of place. Every inch of floor is covered: pots of acrylic, buckets full of big brushes, phone book, shoes and socks, a trestle table crammed with radio, old light bulbs, kitchen roll, water biscuits. On a pin board, a few art postcards – by Matisse, Van Gogh, Turner and a scruffy note from the composer Morton Feldman saying, ‘Bert I’m in the Pearly King [pub]’ – act as quiet inspiration. Irvin works, first propping the canvas on several rusty old four-pint beer tins, ‘sullying’, as he puts it, the background in a dominant colour of choice. His knees evidently give him no trouble. The array of quatrefoils, multifoils and hinted architectural forms that shape his visual language are then added, often using his favourite wide-headed brush – ‘ordinary trade, the kind used to paint walls’ – in which the four ferrule-secured tufts give a broad, open, spontaneous quality to his brush strokes.
Around the time he turned 80, Irvin decided he ought to stop working on huge canvases and confine himself to (slightly) smaller ones that he could manoeuvre more easily. He has no assistant, so has to rely on his own muscle power. But the vivid yellow, ochre, orange and green canvas he has just completed is on the old scale. Has he found some magic elixir to restore his strength? ‘No, I had some of the large canvases left over from my last order. It was an effort of will, really. I just thought, “Come on Bert, bugger it, just do the bloody thing”.’
It took him around three months, and the result is entitled, appropriately, Inextinguishable (2010). It relates in part to Carl Nielsen’s fourth symphony, which shares the same name, but also to the unquenchable spirit of this popular artist, who did not become a Royal Academician until he was over 75, giving him immediate senior RA status. ‘I don’t mind that at all, though I get a bit frustrated that, as a senior RA, I can’t sit on any of the committees. I suppose they think, or back in the mists of time once thought, “Can’t have these doddery old sods droning on...”’ He says this with a warm grin.
‘Inextinguishable’ is also the title of Irvin’s forthcoming show at Gimpel Fils gallery in London which opens in November. As part of a trio of winter events, in December Kings Place, London, is holding a show of his prints and Lund Humphries has just published a book, Albert Irvin: The Complete Prints. ‘I think I’m pretty lucky,’ he reflects, touching wood. ‘There was no sense from my childhood or upbringing that I could live a life as an artist.’
He was born in Bermondsey, south London, in 1922. His father ran a grocery shop but during the Depression fell on hard times. ‘I have always lived an urban life. I see my paintings as a metaphor for my journey through life. It’s why I have used street names so often as titles.’ When he was a boy, the family moved to north London and he was a pupil at Holloway County Grammar School, near Arsenal football ground. At the beginning of the Second World War they were evacuated to Northampton where he attended art school, benefiting from fine teachers who had also fled London. ‘So this little shoe- making town didn’t know what had hit it, with all these talented people from art schools such as Camberwell, Chelsea and St Martins moving in.’
This period of his life proved a turning point. In Northampton he met Walter Hussey, vicar of St Matthew’s Church and an inspired patron of the arts. ‘He commissioned Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child [1943-44]. Going into his house was the first time I had ever seen works by Graham Sutherland, Stanley Spencer, Blake, Epstein – right there on the walls. This was a very significant encounter for me. It made me see what was possible in life.’ Hussey became Dean of Chichester Cathedral and his collection is now in the city’s Pallant House Gallery.
After serving in the RAF as a navigator during the war – ‘I was never a pilot. I didn’t trust my steering ability. In fact I have never learned to drive a car either’ – Irvin completed his art studies at Goldsmiths, where fellow students included Bridget Riley and Mary Quant. ‘They were younger than me because they hadn’t been in the war.’ By this time he had met his future wife, Betty, who had also been at art school in Northampton. They married in 1947 and now have grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
'During the war she retrained, as several women artists did at the time, as a graphic designer in the aircraft industry. That skill came in useful later when, in the ups and downs of my career, she was able to earn money!’
As we leave the studio, he points to an enlarged picture leaning against a wall. ‘That’s Ruskin’s drawing of Turner – one of my great heroes. He keeps an eye on me, and makes sure I get on with what I have to do.’ Bert Irvin shows no signs either of taking it easy, or of disobeying.