Jock McFadyen is the psycho-geographer of the visual art world. ‘The laureate’, as Ian Sinclair has suggested, ‘of stagnant canals, filling stations and night football pitches’. His natural milieu is the East End where he’s lived for many years.
He inhabits its interstices between traditional past and discombobulated post-modern present
The derelict 1970s post-war city is the backdrop to many of his paintings of place, its liminal spaces before the rash of high-rise glass and steel developments, the influx of young bankers to Canary Wharf and Limehouse. His is a city of abandoned warehouses and neglected canals, home to drowned supermarket trolleys, and alkies with a can of Tennents wrapped in a brown paper bag. Artists, searching for cheap spaces to live and work, moved there in the early 1980s to set up shop in short-life, run-down terraces such as Beck Road. The East End, then, was as different to its glitzy sibling the West End, as East Berlin was to its twin West Berlin. Thatcher, squatting, Punk, graffiti, street markets and poverty were the mood music of this bleak post-industrial landscape.
Born in Paisley Scotland in 1950, near Glasgow, McFadyen’s grandfather was a boat builder, his father a draughtsman in the Clyde shipyards. A natural rebel, McFadyen made an effigy of his school Head which he set on fire when, after a stint in the hospital due to a motorcycle accident, he returned to find that the school art course had shifted from painting towards design. Soon after, he packed his bags and left with his then partner, Carol, for London to try his luck and got himself into art school. Chelsea, no less. The art school of the day when the King’s Road was the place to be with its boutiques and antique shops frequented by the likes of Marianne Faithful and Mick Jagger.
McFadyen was ambitious, argumentative and bright. He lived in squats. Had a son. Worked as a van driver, before becoming artist-in-residence at the National Gallery. It was when he split with Carol and hit rock bottom that he had an epiphanal moment. Shrugging off the weight of centuries of old master painting, he decided to paint what he saw around him. As he says: ‘I dumped all the clever bollocks and decided to work from observation’. Unlike other British figurative painters of his generation – Peter Howson and John Kirby, for example, who painted though a lens of sentimental nostalgia – McFadyen depicted skin-heads, prostitutes and Hawksmoor churches with the grit of an Otto Dix.
In 1990, when I first met him, he’d just been commissioned to paint scenes of Berlin after the fall of the wall for an exhibition at The Imperial War Museum. He was on his way. It was while working on the set for Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet, The Judas Tree at Covent Garden in 1991 that he realised he’d been painting landscapes all along. He began to take a sketchbook and copy graffiti off walls, to draw local authority tower blocks and Hawksmoor churches, and take photographs (though he had to be selective before digital a reel of film only had 36 shots) to record the streets around him. He painted Roman Road at night, spotted with street lights dissolving into the dark ground. The drab grey mouth of the Thames with its wide horizons and container ships. The no man’s land of the A13 that runs from the City towards Southend-on-Sea. His unique originality made it hard for him to fit into any current ‘ism’. Favouring the company of writers and filmmakers, he has always dipped into a wide cultural pool.
One of his most iconic paintings of this period is the doomed Walthamstow dog track. An Art Deco building that exemplifies one of the East Ends abiding traditions, betting. The ground, originally built and used by the Walthamstow Grange Football Club became known, by 1929, as the Crooked Billet Greyhound and whippet track. Winston Churchill addressed 20,000 people there in the 1940s while canvassing for re-election. The stadium has had a checkered history as a motorcycle speedway, a car racing track and the home to Charley Chan’s nightclub that was built under the clock tower. In Jock McFadyen’s Popular Enclosure, 2005 the building is shown at the end of its life, standing against a streaked sky like a once beautiful film star who cannot quite believe she’s no longer in vogue. Its grimy desolation rings with the lost voices of those who came to spend the day ‘at the dogs: the second-hand car dealers moved out to Essex, in for a flutter, the trainers in flat caps urging on their whippets to come in first. It’s as though their ghosts have been absorbed into the defeated fabric of this once bustling building that stands as a metaphor for the fluctuating fortunes of a dying community.
Yet for all the work’s potent social and emotive resonance, McFadyen is first and foremost a committed painter, concerned with the language of paint. He likes to work wet on wet. A technique that gives the oil paint something of the transparency and mobility of watercolour and there’s an ongoing debate between figuration and abstraction taking place in the horizontal white striations of cloud and the formal grid of empty entrance gates. As with his A 13 road paintings or Pink Flats 2000, there’s a raw desolation that suggests the lost narratives of those who once came to this place for entertainment, easy gain and companionship. The large expanse of cold blue sky, contrasted to the architecture of the seedy building, conjures a place both of dreams and despondency: a dilapidated cathedral to a wasted urban sublime.
Forthcoming exhibitions (Dates could vary due to COVID)
14th November 2020 – 11th April 2021 Jock McFadyen Goes to the Pictures, City Art Centre, Edinburgh
6th February – 11th April 2021 Jock McFadyen: Tourist without a Guidebook, Royal Academy, London
11th June – 25th September 2021Jock McFadyen: Lost Boat Party, Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh
Dates TBA 2021 Jock McFadyen Goes to The Lowry: A Retrospective, The Lowry, Salford
Read More About Jock McFadyen RA
Sue Hubbard is a freelance art critic, novelist and award-winning poet. Her latest novel Rainsongs is published by Duckworth. www.suehubbard.com