Moira Vincentelli interviewing Conrad Atkinson

Kecskemét, Hungary 5-20th, July 1998

M .V. Okay, So, Conrad, if you could start by telling me a little bit about how you first trained or became interested in the idea of art and being an artist.

C.A. Oh, in art, oh well, my first experience of art and politics was with my grandfather in 1945, and I’m not sure why but we were painting a hammer and sickle on a red flag and hanging it out of our council house window in Cleator Moor, and I think it was partly because, well my grandfather was a Socialist, and it was partly because Leningrad had been relieved or something. So that was my first hint of art, and I remember trying to get the point right on the sickle and I couldn’t because I had a bent brush. So that was my first experience but the first really significant thing was when I was about twelve or thirteen. I won a national prize for a book cover and I went to London and it took me as long to get to London from Cleator Moor as it now takes me to get from California to London, and it was wartime London, or post wartime 1952, so that was the thing. Then I went to Carlisle College of Art, and you know, was good at drawing when I was a kid, and then like Henry Moore my parents made me go and do a teaching degree. Which I did at Liverpool College of Art in 1960 to ‘61, when we all had guitars under our arms and some of us became the most famous people in the world, and probably still are the most famous people in the world. So I was at Liverpool at that particularly interesting time for a year then I got taken into the Royal Academy Schools and that’s how I started basically.

M.V. And at that point, the politics had always been in your family?

C.A. Yes, but you also have to remember that there was a small kind of escape hatch for working class kids, mostly male, but it was really a very middle class environment at art school, even then, in terms of the fine art departments rather than the applied art departments. I mean it’s changed since then into other names but basically there were very few working class kids. There’d be maybe two or three (and all from London art schools) at the Royal Academy when I got there, and the Academy was particularly good because it didn’t charge fees.

M.V But presumably, I imagine the Academy to be even more middle class than say Liverpool School of Art.

C.A. Oh yeah, but you know, at that particular time, if you wanted to be a professional painter, you would automatically after four years at Carlisle and one year at Liverpool, you’d automatically try for the Royal College or The Slade or the Academy schools. There was really no other alternative post-grad or graduate schools as they were called in those days.

M.V. And how much, so you had actually, a very good, strong academic art training?

C.A. You’re talking to Augustus John! yes.

M.V. Did you feel at that time that this was, you know, what you really wanted to do, or were you feeling all the time “Oh my goodness they’re teaching us all this stuff that….?”

C.A. Well, for the four years at Carlisle, you had to, at the end of that, you had to produce a life drawing, a life painting and a figurative composition which you sent to London to be judged, to pass your National Diploma. That’s all changed since then, and then at the Royal Academy, for the first year you did life-drawing every single day. Five days a week, eight hours a day, and I was aware that you know, I was very. I was quite a bright kid and I was aware of Picasso, I was aware of current stuff and actually when I went down to get my book prize, I saw the first Guggenheim show in the Tate Gallery of Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists. So I was clued up but when I went to Art College it had to be figurative and I knew I couldn’t drop out. There’s nowhere else to go, and so I knew I needed all those bits of paper. Otherwise you know I had no social mobility at that particular time. So although, and after the second year in the Academy, I moved into what’s called the ‘back school’ where the dissidents are, and you know, produced things which at that time were thought to be slightly adventurous, abstract painting, and in fact got, I think it’s, oh, I got honours in my final show at the Academy, but, it must have been one of the very first. I think it was the first honours for an abstract painter.

M.V. Yes, yes, them being very broadminded.

C.A. We’re talking 1965 you know. We’re not talking….