When I think back to my early memories of the times I spent with my father there are many which come to mind.
He related very well to his children and he certainly found the imagination and enthusiasm of children refreshing . As well as fun he was also also able to show warmth and closeness. To this day the smells of artists oil paint, turpentine and most of all old books bring it all back.
Of course I remember the remarkable and beautiful women, unusual colourful and interesting people, wonderful paintings and long conversations about life and art. The strongest memories of my father are not just of him being surrounded by his beloved books in his library or sat painting in the main huge studio at his easel. Rather the memories which always seems to come back stronger and quicker are those of us talking. We talked endlessly and passionately about all sorts of subjects from music and art and artists to school and girls. He was a great listener and an even better talker.
Looking back it was a time of innocence and childhood sadly can not last forever. We all grow up and learn that even our beloved parents are not perfect.
Looking so far back now to the child I was I am tinged with many contradictory emotions and thoughts.
Both feelings of affection, sentiment and warmth but also sadness and vulnerability for a innocent child in a wonderful but also dark and sometimes dangerous world.
Looking back on childhood it is a strange mixture of feeling as if it was part of a dream which is so vivid but fading and yet also as if it happened only yesterday.
I have warm and affectionate memories relating to my relationship with my father. I was sensitive at that age as often young boys are and he was kind and a good listener. He made me feel important and close and to me he was a larger than life figure.
It took many years for me to see him as a human being with fantastic qualities but also with inevitable faults and flaws.
One day Robert asked if me and my brother Wolfe could we come to the studio late one evening and help him white wash the Barbican Mural from top to toe.
The idea basically was a April Fools Joke which he often did. He actually had a very childish and fun sense of humour. So he wanted people to wake up in the morning and noticed with no warning that the mural had been completely whitewashed. But with three nicely painted ducks flying in formation across the wall. Just like the ducks you used to see above mantelpieces.
Robert then put two large buckets outside on the wall by the studio and wrote on signs under each bucket, “all money donated to charity. Vote which you prefer the old mural or the new mural?
To this day I can’t really remember which bucket ended up with more money in it but eventually the whitewash was hosed off and the Barbican Mural was restored in all its glory. Robert actually restored the mural three times and completely repainted it twice.
When my father painted me as a child he had rather clever ways of entertaining me.
For example one way of keeping me from fidgeting was to tell me a scary story. I remember some of these stories and this is one…
On one evening in my father’s studio, with the shadows looming and surrounded by all the people in the many paintings, I listened to this old riddle about the human heart.
“A wicked old crone said to a young king in a splendid castle if you can fill this small purse I will grant you your heart’s desire. The young king thought this would be a simple bargain as he was the richest of all the kings. So he put a handful of gold coins into the purse but to his horror it still remained empty.
The king continued against his own better judgement putting more and more gold into the tiny purse yet still it remained empty.
After all the jewels and gold in the kingdom had been put into the tiny purse with no success the king demanded the crone’s explanation.
The smiling old woman bent to the floor and pinched a little dust and dropped it into the purse. It suddenly closed tightly shut!
The old witch said listen and learn you foolish young king the purse is the human eye! It can never be satisfied!”
The reason that Robert faked his own death was simply for him to experience what it was like to be thought to be dead. As he obviously couldn’t know what it was like to be dead it was important to him at the time as he was involved in painting his project on Death.
The idea was that he would advertise in the local paper for people who were dying to pose for a painting. I can’t remember exactly how many people came forward but there were substantial numbers.
My memories of this are that I must have been 13ish at Penlee Comprehensive School and it all seemed a bit of a joke. I remember being pulled out of class by the headmaster who was extremely sympathetic and kind.
I remember being given lots of sweets and crisps by sympathetic friends and students. I think I felt a little guilty about taking the crisps and sweets at lunchtime. The only teacher that I remember guessing the truth was my sports teacher he called me in and he sat me down and said “Reuben I’m very sorry to hear about your father but come on be honest with me he’s not really dead is he”? and of course he was absolutely right. Robert was in fact ensconced at Port Elliot Estate painting the round room Riddle Mural.
One of the stories that Robert found amusing about this was how he invited the press to the studio on the Barbican.
The journalists came in and began looking for him under various tables and opening cupboards trying to find him. However he slipped out the front door and locked it for a few hours eventually releasing 10-15 furious journalist from captivity.
To this day I still believe that his motives were genuine and that it had nothing to do with him trying to raise the value of his paintings or that he was having a joke at anyone’s expense it was simply his own interest in his mortality.
The story of Diogenes (the name comes from Diogenes of Sinope the philosopher of Athens and pioneer of stoicism). Roberts friendship with Diogenes is a long story which many people already know the details of.
My memories of Diogenes are good ones although I found him a mysterious character. But he was pleasant enough to me. I was very young and as an old man he probably found me a bit annoying. He wasn’t a very talkative person and really would only talk to you if you asked him a question and even then his answers were fairly short.
I think my strongest memories of him are what he looked like. He was very striking like something from a mediaeval painting by Bruegel . His lack of grooming was legendary and I’m sure I remember things crawling in his beard on one or two occasions but he always had a smile. He seemed content to enjoy his pipe and the odd pasty or pie.
His relationship with Robert was very close and they seemed to care about each other a great deal. Diogenes was certainly devoted to Robert and loved being at the studio.
To me as a child he seemed like he was ageless like Methuselah. One day I came to the studio and Robert told me he had died apparently he left Robert his body and had written a will which gave Robert permission for him to be embalmed and exhibited as a Momento Mori alongside the paintings and the library.
One of the more amusing things that happened I remember was on Sundays all the kids would very often go to one of the studios that Robert had on the Barbican to discuss art and poetry with Robert. So me and my brother Wolfe were asked to turn up at a particular time of day which we did. Robert was going to play a trick on us alongside Mary. We walked up the stairs and in the centre of the room was a Coffin. In candle light Robert looking very serious stood behind the coffin with Mary and he started speak in Latin. He turned to us and said in as serious a voice as possible that he was clearly intending to raise Diogenes from the dead! I turned to my brother and we looked at each other and I’m sure we were both thinking “this’ll be great”! But unfortunately Robert couldn’t keep a straight face for long enough. A few minutes into this Mary couldn’t stop giggling and neither could Robert. This was just a schoolboy prank. Actually Robert was always extremely respectful and serious about Diogenes he regard it as a Momento Mori a reminder that we all die and that life is short and we should value it. He saw the death as an important lesson for living. Never to take life for granted.
There is an amusing story connected with the old age concern mural. I think it was at the ceremonial unveiling that Robert turned up in a wheelchair and heavily disguised as an elderly man of 90 years old. With a grey beard and wrinkly skin, slouched over in a wheelchair. Once wheeled in he was introduced as an academic and at the appropriate moment he jumped up and ripped off the beard to everyone’s delight and amusement.