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Robert Montgomery

Robert Montgomery


Interview & Portraits Kirk Truman


“…I wondered if you went halfway between Jenny Holzer and Philip Larkin what would you get?”

Rob and I ran into each other a couple of months back. Then, we talked a little about Journal, a little about his publishing venture New River Press and quite a lot about his art. I wondered why he hadn’t graced our Fitzrovia cover yet, and suggested it was about time we got around to it.

So, Robert Montgomery: poet, writer and artist. He’s a Scotsman who insists he’s a Londoner, a “melancholic Situationist” whose work brings together a personal poetic voice and public interventionist strategies. From billboards, and solar-powered light pieces to woodcuts and ‘fire poems’, Rob’s work is fiercely diverse; though to me, he’ll always be the artist who burns his own words to the ground.

Tell me about your background and influences…

I grew up in Scotland and I lived there until I was 23. I did a BA in painting at Edinburgh College of Art, then I got a scholarship to do an Master of Fine Arts, so I stayed in Edinburgh for that. After my MFA I got a place on this amazing post-graduate programme in America, the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. It’s a fantastic residency programme for young artists funded by the museum, similar to the Whitney Program in New York. I had incredible artists come to my studio there to critique my work; James Turrell, Roni Horn, Jack Pierson – these real heroes of American art. The best thing was that you had a studio in the museum surrounded by an incredible collection of masterpieces – Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, rare works by Gerald Murphy – so it was also an education in American art history. The artist Joseph Havel and the curator Alison de Lima Greene became my mentors there.

 

How did you start out as an artist?

Well I decided when I was about 15 that I wanted to be an artist, but I had been quite an academic kid so persuading my father to allow me to study art at university was a bit of a challenge. I had to make a deal with him: he would only let me go to Edinburgh to do art if I got the grades to do law. So, I had to take economics at school and do five Scottish Highers/A Levels, and I had to get two As and 3 Bs, or something like that. Those were the entrance requirements for the Law degree; for the art course I would have only needed something like 3 Bs. I got the grades for the law course, so he had to let me go and go do the art course! That was our gentlemen’s agreement. From art school onwards, I was set on the path. I had a great experience at Edinburgh College of Art that gave me lots of tools to draw on, a particular way of thinking about the world.

How did you come to spend time in Fitzrovia and eventually end up living here?

Well, I met my wife – the Fitzrovia poet Greta Bellamacina. She already lived here, and when we had our son Lorca I had to stop living in the craziness of my art studio – so we moved in together to our small flat right under the BT Tower. The flat is pretty tiny, too small for us really, but it’s very old and has good vibes so we’re very happy in it. Niall McDevitt, the Irish poet and poetry historian, discovered Arthur Rimbaud’s first address was next door to us; the first time he came to London, before he came back with Verlaine on their wild love affair/escape from Paris, he lived on Maple Street when it was called London Street. Partly because the streets of Fitzrovia are so steeped in it, I’ve been making work recently revisiting early London Modernism. I just did a work called Estuary Poem for Wyndham Lewis for the gallery at One Canada Square, where I revisited Lewis’s 1914 BLAST manifesto. It was a giant wooden sculpture that said ENEMIES OF THE ICEBERGS AND THE STARS. We burned it on Shellness Beach at the very end of the Thames Estuary then rebuilt the burnt fragments in Canary Wharf.

 

How did you come to bring poetry into your work and installations?

Well, I started working with text in my paintings at Edinburgh College of Art and then I became really obsessed with the text art of Jenny Holzer. I loved how she disseminated her words on little posters in the city; that was such a beautiful idea – messages to strangers. So I began to make work similar to Jenny’s, and then I wondered how close I could take the voice to poetry. I’d always been privately obsessed with a few poets: TS Eliott, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and John Ashbery. I wondered if you went halfway between Jenny Holzer and Philip Larkin, what would you get?

 

Tell me a little about New River Press and its backstory. How does it differentiate from your work as an artist?

Well, me and Greta were inspired by the story of Leonard and Virginia Woolf starting the Hogarth Press in their dining room. The Hogarth press published Mrs Dalloway and also the first British edition of Eliot’s The Wasteland, so I had the idea that writer-led presses could do important things. We’ve set up New River almost like an indie record label. If the Hogarth Press was one inspiration, Sub Pop and Factory Records were the others. The poets get 50 per cent of the income from their books, which is a much more generous percentage than big publishers can give. I’m very lucky in that I can make a living from my art. I can sell paintings and do public commissions, but for my poet friends I noticed that’s a lot harder. So, my work as an artist is able to support the press, and I hope we’re doing something important. Really, we wanted to make a press for contemporary page poetry. There’s been so much progress for spoken word in London in the last few years that we wanted to do something for page poetry, or poetry in the Modernist/Beat tradition. We’ve had a very dynamic first two years. We’ve published 11 books so far. We did a night at Pentameter’s Theatre in Hampstead just before Christmas that I think brought back the spirit of 60s poetry happenings and the International Poetry Incarnation, with around 30 poets reading and some musicians whipping the whole thing up in to a kind of mad Bohemian theatre.

Greta Bellamacina

Greta Bellamacina


Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Sandra Vijandi


“I think all art forms are connected to statements – and educate in some way. I like to think that through fashion, music, art you can change the way people think.”

On the seam which separates Fitzrovia from east and west sits Maple Street. Cornered in by Banksy’s contribution to the neighbourhood and the post office tower, Maple Street is the bridge from Camden to Westminster. As my former home, I know Maple Street all too well. Though, recently I have come to discover a neighbour whose creative habits are not too dissimilar to my own. Poet, writer, artist and model, Greta Bellamacina tells of her relationship with the Fitzrovia neighbourhood and her works.

Greta grew up in Camden, which explains why the area always felt nostalgic to her. Having previously attended RADA, she studied at King’s College London where she graduated in 2012 with a BA in English. Her true passion, writing, came about as no coincidence for Greta… in fact it was almost intended. Her father, a musician, would endlessly play melodies on the piano to her in order to encourage her to write lyrics: “…they were always more like poems. I don’t think I really became interested in it properly until I was at school – I remember being really drawn to Lord Byron’s epic poem Don Juan,” she recalls.

Her first credited contribution came in 2007 when working for US Vogue as part of her artists/writers journey on the publication of ‘The World in Vogue: people, parties, places’. In 2011, Greta released a limited edition collection of poetry titled ‘Kaleidoscope’, which later aided her in being short-listed as the Young Poet Laureate of London in 2013. Though currently poetry editor of Champ Magazine, her writings and works have also graced the pages of a variety of publications, from The Telegraph to Wonderland, Vogue (UK, US & Italia), and Harper’s Bazaar UK.

Growing up Greta read a lot of poetry by writers such as Anne Sexton, Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin; all of whom Greta felt devoted to understand. She explains, “I felt close to their unleashed silences and noiseless despairs. But now I think I am more influenced by poets who have a way of looking at landscape as a continuous home; poets like Octavio Paz and Alice Oswald, looking at land as part of a greater system, something more cohesive with our dreams, part of the weather and the trees. I like to explore these themes a lot in my writing.”

Last year, Greta edited a collection of poetry, ‘Nature’s Jewels’, in collaboration with MACK publishers, where she was later assigned the role of poetry editor. Earlier this year, she was commissioned to write a series of poetic texts for the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy, while in February she launched a collection of British contemporary love poems with Faber & Faber. Greta is currently collaborating on a collection of verse with the poet, Robert Montgomery. “We started writing together a while ago and decided our styles seemed to complement each other. The poems all come back round to the idea of being British, the night buses going round the circus squares of London, the left-over mornings of the week, and the BT privatisation,” she explains.

But Greta has more than one string to her bow. She recently directed a documentary about the importance of saving our slowly vanishing public libraries (released last month) and is currently working on several short films which will premiere at the end of this year. In addition to filmmaking, Greta has also modelled for a number of years, and has starred in fashion campaigns for various brands including Burberry and All Saints. “I was spotted in a lift by a photographer in the Conde Nast building in New York, whilst I was working for Vogue in my gap year before I went to university. He sent some images to Models1 in London and I got signed,” she says. She sees these two creative pursuits – modelling and writing – as having developed alongside one another. “I think all art forms are connected to statements – and educate in some way. I like to think that through fashion, music, art you can change the way people think,” says Greta. Currently, she is represented by VIVA Model Management on their talent board which is based in London and Paris.

Greta first visited the Fitzrovia neighbourhood when visiting French’s Theatre Bookstore on Warren Street to look for plays and scripts during her studies at RADA. She felt strongly that Fitzrovia was in some ways a lost neighbourhood; in being so central, though equally quite forgotten from the rest of the West-End, despite its literary history and charm. “I like the rhythm of the place; everyone arrives into town and leaves so quickly that it feels like there is a lot of stillness and space,” she says, now a resident of Fitzrovia for two years.

With her literary agent based around the corner, Greta is well adjusted to Fitzrovia, a neighbourhood which has come to inspire her in recent years. With the signs of poetry and old magical history everywhere in her path – from Banksy’s art at the end of her street reading ‘if graffiti changed anything – it would be illegal’, to the rooftop graffiti on Maple Street reading; ‘the writer, the villain & the stone’ – to Greta Fitzrovia is a realm of independence and creativity.

George Skeggs

George Skeggs


Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Etienne Gilfillan


“There used to be a saying about old people that when you become old you become invisible. Some old people are invisible; they’re just waiting for that last step into the grave…”

They have become a rarity in recent years… Soho’s characters. Where dandies and mods once hung at street corners to be noticed, people now go about their routines, unaware of the eccentric creatives that flourished in this area. Though there are still, in present day Soho a handful of the old brigade of artists and writers wandering the streets of Soho, many luminaries have passed while countless others have started to face their untimely extinction. But one seemingly immortal Sohoite stands out. Though well known well by residents and transients alike for a curiously chic sartorial sense, this man has a lot more under his hat than a distinctive taste for clothing by fine tailors.

To the many that espy him day-by-day, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine George Skeggs had some work related link to fashion, what with his eye-catching choice of tailoring. Little do those who stop to stare and photograph him realise that behind this impressive veil of style is a brilliant pop-art/surrealist artist. From a working-class background, George is one of four children. As a youngster, he was urged by his family to find a serious job that would keep him afloat. Though he never attended art school, a teacher recognised his talents at an early age, and recommended a creative vocation. Some early work was included in the London Schools Exhibition touring China. He then went to join in art workshops at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, while years later, his work was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and the National Museum of Wales.

As a youngster, George long aspired to be in a skiffle band, having played a homemade bass instrument. His relationship with music is coincidentally what led him to Soho for the very first time. A Rock ’n’ Roll enthusiast at the mere age of 14, George came to Soho upon hearing that 1950s Rock ’n’ Roll BBC television show,‘Six-Five Special’, was to be broadcast live from The 2i’s Coffee Bar, Old Compton Street. “It was like another world; there were girls on the street propositioning men and pimps on the street,”says George on his first trip to the area. Later, he returned with a friend, arriving at Tottenham Court Road tube station. “It had that edge; it was dirty, flashy and seedy. You could always smell Soho, it always had that special smell. When you were walking up from Oxford Street, you could literally smell it. It was the place to be, it was our playground.”

His younger years in Soho brought him face-to-face with the often dark reality of the neighbourhood. From the scene of a shoot-out between drug dealers at the Nucleous Coffee Bar, forward through to befriending a young prostitute who’d had her throat slit by a client, George has come to witness the true nature of the neighbourhood first hand. Despite these memories, there is one that is particularly significant. George and friends had come to regularly frequent the amusement arcade Lots of Fun on Wardour Street. It was here that a man offered him and his friends free-play on the pinball machines as well as cigarettes, proceeding to ask where they lived (the East-End) and offering them a lift. Little did they know that this man was the henchman of the Kray twins, who were parked outside in a black car:“Being streetwise, we enjoyed his hospitality and decided to leg it by sneaking out of another door and running right across Leicester Square to safety,”he recalls.

George first moved to Soho in 1963. “I married a local girl, she worked for a famous shoemaker’s in Drury Lane.”He went on to find work with West One Studios, the offset printers and commercial artists. By the 1980s, his marriage having faltered, he succumbed to drink. So badly, that one careless night, he drank so much, he fell and broke his neck. This ended his relationship with the bottle, leaving him with scaffolding around his neck for 3 months.

Having never been to art school, it was at this time that he became involved with the Arts Laboratory scene in Covent Garden and Seven Dials, which was frequently raided by the police. “In being a creative and artistic person you are there to be picked at, you’re there on the wall. Personally, I don’t care. All I care about is just doing it,”he remarks on his work. In addition to his work in recent years having been exhibited in Paris and Caracas, he also produced the album cover sleeve for ARK of the Covenant, based on a painting from his King Arthur series.

With his self-confessed obsession with clothing, from his Stephen Jones hats and Mark Powell Bespoke suits, George has always made style an important part of his life. “Fashion is the enemy of style. Age is no barrier to style, some people just can’t work that out. I’ve become more refined and particular about what I look like as I’ve got older. There used to be a saying about old people that when you become old you become invisible. Some old people are invisible, they’re just waiting for that last step into the grave.”

Soho has become a part of the social fabric of George’s life and many in the neighbourhood think of George as one the area’s characters. Though superficially he feels much of the area looks much the same, he feels it’s very different today. “You walk up Old Compton Street now and see brand new shops appearing. I think of other shops in the area and then realise that they’ve gone. I think it’s lost its edge, its saucy, sleazy side. It feels more interesting to live in a world where you have to take chances or be streetwise.” Now living near Seven Dials, George spends much of his time these days visiting art galleries throughout London. And though he might describe himself as retired, he has recently begun work on his self-proclaimed ‘swan song’; a detailed pop-art/surrealist series centring on Soho. Though keen to keep the details of the series a secret, he revealed that the first piece he has started on will feature the Kray twins, and reflect a highly personal point of view, based on his own experiences in the neighbourhood. “Creativity shines in the dark. You’ve got to bring it out of the dark and put it out there!”

Molly Parkin

Molly Parkin


Words & Photography Robert Chilcott


“I met Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald, all people of that ilk. All people of that ilk. Where else would you meet them except in Soho?”

Molly Parkin is 83 and now prefers life in the garden, a veritable paradise of palm trees and plastic Buddhas, castaway in Chelsea’s World’s End.  Currently appearing on BBC4’s Bohemian series with Victoria Coren-Mitchell, she reminisces over a Fentiman’s Ginger Beer, about the halcyon days of post-war Britain, and the forbidden allure of W1. “Sohoitis, the state of it, really applies to those who live on their addictions. And Soho is utterly addictive. It’s not a dreamy state of being, Sohoitis.” She laughs. “You don’t go to Soho for a pleasant afternoon, perhaps tea out and then go home! Soho is limitless in the hours that you spend there. It did take over my life. The very first time that I went there I knew that something so extraordinary was in the air.”

Molly first came to London from the Welsh Valley to live with her grandparents 1939. Fresh from studying Fine Arts, as a 22 year old chapel girl, she shared a flat with her friends, Judy and Betty in Earl’s Court. “I had chamomile lotion all over my face, very, very pale, lots of black pencil all around the eyes. A lot of black hair, I was really based on Juliette Greco.”  Her earliest Soho memories are of The Studio Club in Swallow Street, run by the artist John Minton. “I said to Judy, ‘These men are all asking me what I want to drink and I don’t what to say to them,’ and she said, ‘Oh you are so quaint darling. Well what you say is a gin and Dubonnet please, and make it a double because a single won’t begin to touch it.’” Molly reminisces on her innocence at the time. “Well I didn’t realise at the time – gin and Dubonnet – that’s two alcoholic drinks merged into one. I thought that Dubonnet was like cordial or something. So, when the next person asked ‘Can I buy you lovely girls a drink?’ I said ‘Yes, I would like a gin and Dubonnet, but make it a double because a single won’t begin to touch it.’ He burst out laughing. I asked, ‘can I have a straw please, because it’ll go down quicker then,’ as if it was in a candy shop. So I drank it all in one. And I smacked my lips and said ‘Wow!’” That wasn’t all though, as Molly continues her anecdote, “So his friend asked, ‘Can I buy you a second?’ ‘Yeah’ I answered, ‘I shouldn’t say so, but I said again, ‘make it a double because a single doesn’t begin to touch it.’ And he burst out laughing. Well, I was nearly carried out of there.”

It wasn’t long before Molly was introduced to the Colony Room. “I went up those scruffy stairs, I thought ‘Christ! What is this place?’ And there I was, quite frightened really, because I’d never seen faces like that – so lived in, and yet so sophisticated. Brendan Behan was there – and Colin MacInnes. There was pounding on the jazz piano. What was different was there were a lot of writers, and I started listening to how they constructed their sentences – it was a different way of conversation, the way they spoke, however much they’d had to drink. It was such a tiny place, yet brimming with benevolence. They all shouted ‘Come back, Moll. When will you be coming again?’ and I said I could be here tomorrow.” Molly laughs candidly, “and I was there tomorrow. You see, Sohoitis had already captured my heart and soul, introduced me to heaven. Not everybody would have thought it was heaven. But I knew that I’d come home.”

In 1965, traumatised by her first divorce, Molly’s painting muse disappeared. Molly’s situation led to her accepting the job of fashion editor at Nova magazine, in order to support her two small daughters, which didn’t sit lightly with her ideals, as she tells me of a mantra she learnt whilst studying: “If you had been trained as an intellectual, art for art’s sake, you can expect to be a waitress for the rest of your life, but move amongst artists. In art school they said if you are going to specialise as a painter you stick with other fine art students, and you avoid, more than anything, the shallowness of the fashion crew, who only think about putting clothes on models. And people who specialise in illustration, because when they leave they are going to be in advertising – the lowest of the low, culturally speaking. Well to be a fashion editor to me seemed like the lowest you can really sink.”

Molly says that during this time she never went to the Colony “I didn’t feel like I belonged there. I just used to go to Terratza. That was around the corner. I was slugging wine – that is when my drinking started to get out of control, and delightfully so. I started taking on a lot of lovers. I’d go to Paris and pick up things you couldn’t find in London from the collections. But I didn’t feel like I belonged with the intellectuals in the Colony. I so highly regarded it.”

After a stint at Harper’s, Molly found herself doing five years on The Sunday Times Look pages, “I was taught to write there, and strangely enough that’s when I started to go back to the Colony: again, with other writers. I was on the television a lot. It doesn’t take much, the hospitality of all of that, to make you lose your nerves. So by the time I got on the telly I didn’t know what I was saying.”

Molly gave up drinking at 55 and soon after her painting muse, absent for 30 years, returned. The life Molly describes, and the Soho she talks of does seem to have gone. Are people there still living that life, or are they simply living it somewhere else? I ask her, “You had to be free to give all of yourself to Soho. That was my experience. And now that I’m 83 and sitting in the garden, in the bower, I’m so thrilled that I had that time in Soho”.

It’s saddening to learn that Molly rarely goes to Soho these days. “It broke my heart recently – the final downturn for me was when, arguably one of the best art stockists, Cowling and Wilcox, ‘round the corner from Berwick Street market, that’s gone. I said to the lovely chaps that sell vegetables, it’s as if the soul of the place has disappeared from the body. It’s too depressing for words what’s happening to London. I never thought I’d say this: the Sohoitis, it doesn’t exist anymore.”