In his new book—The Mirror Steamed Over: Love and Pop in London, 1962 (Auckland University Press)—Anthony Byrt shines a spotlight on a telling moment at London’s Royal College of Art in the early 1960s, as three extraordinary personalities collide. Two are students who are pioneering pop art—Barrie Bates (an ambitious young graphic designer from New Zealand, who will become Billy Apple in November 1962) and David Hockney (who is working class and openly gay). The third is the secretary of the College’s Painting School, the aspiring novelist Ann Quin. She becomes Bates’s lover, and ghost-writes his dissertation and collaborates with him on a manifesto, while writing Berg, the experimental novel that will establish her as a new voice in British literature. Wystan Curnow talks to Byrt about his book.
Wystan Curnow: In the last week of August 1963, I was on a train crossing the United States. It had left from Oakland, California, and was to arrive in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, four days later. As we approached the Eastern seaboard, one after another of my sleeping-car companions took me aside to tell me about what was going to happen in Washington on the 28th. A big civil-rights protest march headed by Martin Luther King was arriving in the capital. They didn’t want me to get the wrong idea about their country. These people were not typical Americans and they misrepresent the way things were. Some of these conversations were within earshot of train staff, who were the only African-Americans in the car. The recent extraordinary Black Lives Matter protests in the US provide unnerving mirror images of the 1960s and today we seem to be revisiting them in more ways than one. How do you think The Mirror Steamed Over, which is a sort of case study of the origins of the 1960s, speaks to the present?
Anthony Byrt: This was a question I thought about a lot while researching and writing the book. I was lucky, in that the story I had to work with included some great characters at a really interesting moment—young, smart, gifted people coming together in the hothouse environment of the Royal College of Art at the start of the 1960s. But there was also a ‘so what?’ moment; as in, ‘Why should anyone now care or be interested in what these kids did way back then?’ That was when I started to focus on the larger cultural forces that were shaping the world around them, in particular the conversations about sexual and civil rights, the tensions in Britain generated by the immigration of people of colour from the Caribbean and the wider Commonwealth, and the debates about morality, censorship, and art embodied by the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960.
What quickly became clear to me was how many parallels there were with our current moment: Black Lives Matter, the anti-immigration dog-whistling of Brexit and the Trump administration, the right to express one’s gender and sexuality freely and without fear, and even questions of privilege and power that have emerged around artistic freedom and critical thought. At the start of the 1960s, there was also the increasing influence of popular culture and mass consumerism on how young people conceived their identities. For people like Billy and other pop artists, it was advertising, pop music, fashion, consumer items, and so on. Now, I think you could just add phones, social media, and memes and you would have the same picture of the present moment.
So, there’s something cyclical here, and a growing motivation during the writing of the book was to say, ‘Hey, we’ve been here before.’ But I’ve also felt for a while that, to understand the contemporary world, we really need to go back to its origins in the 1960s. It’s a decade I’ve been obsessed with, particularly its music and literature. But increasingly, I’ve come to understand it as the origin moment for the figure of the contemporary individual. There are many great and important things about this arrival of this figure—particularly when it comes to civil, sexual, and artistic freedoms. But the shadow side, at least as things have developed over this past half century, is the brutal self-interest that lies at the heart of the ‘greed is good’ economic system—the idea that we are all just individuals, in constant competition with each other, bouncing around within a larger financial framework.
Working on the book, I became fascinated with that period, at the start of the 1960s, when the idea of the individual was a liberation from what had gone before, whether the culture of sacrifice and austerity generated by war or the moral codes of a restrictive society. That idea produced some remarkable art and culture. My feeling now though is that we’re at the end of that era—that we’re going through another period of profound cultural change. The past decade or so has been marked by so much decadence and decline—embodied for me in things like reality TV, technology fetishism, much social media, and the collapse of the US political system. Something new is happening. It’s nascent and hard to pin down. The change is a good thing. But I worry that we don’t have the kind of public intellectualism to shape and give language to it that the 1960s did. That was one of the reasons I referenced in the book the likes of R.D. Laing, Norman Mailer, Marshall McLuhan, James Baldwin, and Nat Hentoff, as a kind of yearning for a similar quality of conversation to emerge now.
I know what you mean about the ‘quality of conversation’. I was at Peter Robinson’s opening last week and he invited some of his students from Elam to assess his work, which they did (ten minutes each). I appreciated the idea of turning the tables on himself, but I’m not sure it worked. There was some stage fright. Peter then said something about the work—he’s a practised conversationalist. Then, there was one of those moments when questions were invited from the audience, which was large and included many knowledgeable people who had nothing to say for themselves. So, as the silence became more and more deafening, I opened my trap, as I usually do in these circumstances, for the sake of the conversation. Which brings me back to your book’s major contribution to knowledge and that’s the richly detailed flesh-and-blood account of what it was like to be a student at the Royal College of Art in London at the start of the 1960s. You know a bit about today’s art schools. There’s your teaching at Whitecliffe College here in Auckland, and your visiting fellowship at Cranbrook in the US. What was it about the Royal College at that time that made it work, or not, for the young Billy-Apple-to-be and David Hockney?
That’s an example of the kind of thing I’ve started to find troubling. I have strong feelings about the impact of social media on how we understand the function of criticism, public debate, and the experience of collective reading—whether of an art work, or a film, or a book, or a political situation. I’ve talked a lot to other writers and colleagues about this. Criticism is a form of close attention, honouring the artistic endeavour, which is vital to the overall health of the system. It’s a part of civil discourse that’s being lost. That’s why I don’t participate in Twitter anymore. I realised that, in the end, it was keeping me from slower forms of writing, looking, and thinking.
My experience of art schools is that they’re unpredictable places. Sometimes they can be incredibly flat and dull, and other times completely alive. The most important factor in generating energy and vibrancy is the cohort of students. Sometimes, a certain magic happens within a group, and people you weren’t sure about when they entered art school are lifted and end up making great work. It usually depends on a handful of faculty recognising and directing that potential. That’s what happened at the Royal College between 1959 and 1962.
Billy was lucky to arrive as part of a cohort that included Hockney, but also Allen Jones, Frank Bowling, Patrick Caulfield, Derek Boshier, and Peter Phillips, and there were students already there, like Ridley Scott, Pauline Boty, and Adrian Berg. Of the Brits among them, many came from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds. They were the first generation to have benefitted from the UK’s 1944 educational reforms, which gave smart kids from tougher economic backgrounds a pathway through the secondary and tertiary systems. When you combine that with some of the social changes that were starting to occur around them—as well as the raw ambition many of them arrived with—they were bound to get some interesting things happening.
As I was working on the book though, I realised that the faculty and staff at the RCA also deserved credit. The famous story of that generation is of Allen Jones being expelled at the end of first year—basically for no fault other than being part of a cohort who were seen as too ambitious and bolshy. But when I dug a little more, the staff-student relationship became much more complex. The Head of Painting, Carel Weight, protected and nurtured that group. The Head of Graphic Design, Richard Guyatt, was a defender and mentor of Billy, oversaw a department that produced the important magazine Ark, and had extraordinary technicians. The Principal Robin Darwin had professionalised and raised the stakes for the entire College. And then you had talented young women working as administrative staff, like Ann Quin and Paddy Kitchen, who both became published novelists by the mid 1960s. So it was a vibrant, rich ecosystem, and, with hindsight, you can see how much cross-fertilisation, sharing, arguing, and competing was going on there. They raised the quality of work and conversation for each other, and, in many cases, it laid the foundations for lifetimes of interesting practice.
Yes, sustaining the quality of the visual art ‘conversation’ is perhaps the primary responsibility of an art school and it’s as capable of winding it down as ramping it up. Sounds from the story you tell that the Royal College wasn’t sure which it was doing when not-your-usual students Hockney and Bates/Apple arrived from the backblocks. It was the cultural and class diversity of their cohort as much as the institution that freed up this fresh wave of Brit pop. Bates/Apple, as you show, also went to ‘finishing school’ on Madison Avenue with an internship at Sudler and Hennessey in 1961 and jobs in various agencies after he moved to New York in 1964. Again, he arrived at an opportune moment when a serious ‘conversation’ was under way within the world of advertising and graphic design. A new, more diverse cohort comprising college-educated children of European immigrants (often Jewish) was taking over from the WASP lot that had dominated the business in the 1950s. The old office hierarchy was upended with ‘creatives’ replacing ‘suits’ at the top. I wonder if it’s that double opening that enabled Bates/Apple to weave through his schooling with something genuine to add to the conversation. Perhaps you agree. But Hockney’s the famous one, not Bates/Apple. Hockney’s openly gay subject matter fits your thesis about the new individualism of the early 1960s. But, to me, he adds nothing to the art conversation. In fact, he winds it down to book illustration; serious painting takes a hit. The Mirror Steamed Over brings together a confusion of conversations. I guess it has to.
You raise a number of points here, which I’ll try to deal with one by one. You make a really interesting observation about the changes on Madison Avenue during that era, particularly that impact of second-generation New Yorkers whose parents had come from Europe. I totally agree that this completely changed the game for advertising—and magazine publishing, actually. Milton Glaser—one of the true heroes of American graphic design, who died just a few weeks ago—embodies your point perfectly. So yes, I think that probably helped Bates/Apple get into the industry in New York. Coming from the backgrounds they did, a lot of those children of immigrants had seriously good bullshit detectors and well-formed cynicisms about old-fashioned WASP nepotism. Bates/Apple had plenty of that too, and, like them, his origins were ‘somewhere else’. But he was also just bloody good at it. I’m still amazed by some of the advertising work he contributed to in the 1960s and 1970s. New York gave him a platform to do that work in a way the UK was never going to. Even now, it’s still deeply shaped by its class structures, and it certainly was when Apple tried to make his way there between 1962 and his departure for New York in 1964.
Which brings me to your point about Hockney’s significance, or otherwise. When I was about twenty-seven, I was shortlisted for a job as an assistant curator at Tate Britain. I got down to the final two, and went for a second interview with a bunch of Tate senior curators. I know the exact moment I fucked-up the interview. I was asked why I wanted to work with the Tate’s collection, and I said ‘because British art is so weird’. I wanted to go on to explain this in terms of a certain ‘island-ness’ I saw in the culture—something I knew from my own experience growing up in New Zealand, something self-contained, a bit odd, and ultimately very separate from Europe and the US. I saw this particularly in British postwar painting—especially the likes of Stanley Spencer and Francis Bacon, and then the ‘pop’ of Peter Blake, Joe Tilson, David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips, and so on. I always thought British abstraction was pretty kooky too. New York, it most certainly wasn’t. The job ended up going to an ‘insider’ who probably didn’t see British art history as weird or kooky at all—an upper-middle-class Brit who’d been to the right university.
But, to your point about Hockney’s art, I think there’s a period, from about 1963 through to about 1976, when he made some pretty incredible things. Though he may not have been in step with the kinds of contemporary-art advances happening in the US and Europe, he was a remarkable colourist and a great painter of light, culminating in the Splash paintings and those great double portraits of couples. So I do think he made certain things possible in paint, which other contemporary painters have been able to build on.
Now I want to try and combine the two points here—the impact of Jewish/immigrant culture in New York and what to do with figures who may not have been the most important innovators but whose stories reveal something interesting about society at the time. There are two such figures in the book, who I ended up dedicating a lot of space to. The first is Larry Rivers—a painter who I’m sure you’d have even more questions about than Hockney! But he was a super-important influence at a particular moment, both in New York and London—a brief moment, but a moment all the same. I know Thomas Crow was pretty intrigued by this, when he read my manuscript. I found a number of articles pointing to Rivers’s impact, as well as the transcript of his Royal College lecture. Allen Jones, when I interviewed him last year, was clear about Rivers’s influence on him. The other figure is Norman Mailer. Both men were born to Jewish immigrant parents in the 1920s. Mailer grew up in Brooklyn, Rivers the Bronx. Both became highly problematic figures, but they performed public selves in a way I found fascinating. And, of course, Quin and Bates had left breadcrumb trails for me to both men, in Bates’s dissertation Pop Corn and the manifesto Quin ghosted for Bates.
Okay. I do like the genealogical graph lines. It’s interesting to wonder if they are one-offs specific to the moment of postwar affluence, or something more permanent. Success being another name for assimilation—i.e. failure. Madison Avenue’s hipness and 1960s jazz, neither went anywhere much after that. Maybe Bates’s hipness went somewhere because it had the art world to go to.
The Mirror Steamed Over is about the early lives of Bates/Apple and Hockney, although neither are named in the title. It is also about ‘the 1960s’—in London and New York, a group portrait of 1962 and thereabouts. Reading it, I’m sometimes unsure which it is. We follow some intriguing leads into the context our two young artists found themselves in, but then the connection gets pretty tenuous and so the questions come up. Are artists the creatures of their cultural context or the creators of it? Where do new ideas come from, where do they go, and by what routes? They are ridiculously large questions, I know, but you must have had to examine your assumptions about them while you were researching and then plotting the structure of your book.
There was an interesting moment for me early on in researching the book. My starting point was always the Bates/Quin relationship, and specifically the things Quin wrote for Bates. When I realised that her first published novel was about a man who changed his name and then when I read an autobiographical piece she’d written in 1966 that said she’d finished that novel while working at the Royal College, I wanted to put these two things alongside each other—the reinvention of Bates as Apple, and Quin’s novel Berg.
Once that decision was made, it seemed to me that the only real way forward for the story was to try to understand why these young people would choose to address questions of individual identity so directly, at that particular moment. But that could just have been a long magazine article. The question was whether there was something sufficient here for a book-length exploration. And that was when I really became fixated on the larger cultural moment they were participating in, and, within that, the multitude of figures who made that moment around them. One way to think about it is as a series of concentric circles: the tight circle formed by real, intimate relationships like Quin’s and Bates’s; then the slightly larger circle of the Royal College; then the cultural/social moments around that, like the Lady Chatterley trial, Shirley Clarke’s film The Connection, or Thelonious Monk playing in London; then larger questions about sexual and civil rights, and so on.
The most important thing for the tightness of the structure is that every cultural connection I draw had its origins in one of two meaningful things. First, the writing Quin did for Bates—which is how and why Mailer, hipsterism, jazz, and Larry Rivers became such important parts of the story. And second, the very real connections between people. Frank Bowling mattered because he was an exact contemporary of Bates and Hockney at the art school, and he married Paddy Kitchen, who was Quin’s closest friend. Rivers was important because he gave a significant lecture at the Royal College that changed the course of Bates’s life. Rivers’s wife, Clarice Price, had been an artist’s model in London for the same scene. So there came a point where the research was kind of inhaling and exhaling, taking on a breathing life, ingesting these connected people and moments as a speculative attempt to understand what I’ve come to believe is a really important moment.
Now, to turn to your actual question more directly … I’ve long held the view that, as makers of things, we are shaped as much by who we love and how we love them as we are by what we see in a museum or read in a book. And that is because, for me, the creative act is always an attempt at connection: a striving for intimacy, whether between us and our audience or us and the world. The raw material of The Mirror Steamed Over presented me with a chance to present that idea: I had a group of talented young people, in a hothouse atmosphere, finding each other and themselves at a moment of significant cultural change. This is why the title became so important. ‘The mirror steamed over’ is a sentence from Quin’s novel, Berg. And yet it seemed to capture so much of that heated, intimate, close attempt to find and remake self. That was also why the subtitle mattered to me—this is very much a love story. We all have lovers (like Quin and Bates), but we also love our friends (like Hockney and Bates), and yet, so often in creative contexts, our friends—the people whose own successes can shape and motivate us—are also our rivals. I think that was certainly true of the Hockney/Bates connection. And it’s exactly what Quin seemed to enjoy poking fun at.
These loves, I think, are absolutely essential to the work we end up making, particularly in our twenties and early thirties. It’s often quite startling in retrospect to see how many authors or artists do their best work in that decade. That’s probably true for all three of my main protagonists. Hockney, certainly. Quin’s first two novels are probably her best, and those were both published by the time she was thirty. And for Billy, there’s something so monumental and authoritative about the moment when he changes his identity. It’s still for me his ultimate art work.
For this particular generation I wrote about, the luck is that this period of their lives coincided with those larger cultural shifts of the 1960s, in civil rights, sexual rights, and so on. Reading Jill Lepore’s These Truths, a brilliant one-volume history of the US, it struck me how much the mid-1960s was perhaps the ultimate expression of the American egalitarian vision—that brief moment before Vietnam, Kent State, race riots, LSD, and so on sent it into a new and volatile phase. I find the speed of change in the 1960s so intriguing and thrilling. In the book, I talk about Hockney’s playful crush on Cliff Richard at the start of the decade. I’m impressed by the idea that you could go from the cheesy pop of Richard in 1960 to, say, Jimi Hendrix first performing in London with the Experience in 1966. If I look at our own times and throw my mind back six years, it’s difficult to see anything like that pace of cultural innovation and change.
So, are artists the creatures of their cultural context or the creators of it? In short, you’re right to be unsure which it is. I don’t think I know either. But there was a living, pulsing cultural energy that my main protagonists both participated in and drew upon, contributing to a legacy of art making—and self making—that still has effects on the present.
Wystan Curnow is an independent content provider and IP hoarder. His book, Sold on Apple, was published by Auckland Art Gallery in 2014.
Anthony Byrt is a writer based in Auckland. The Mirror Steamed Over is his second book. His first, This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art, was a finalist in the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.