Cedric Bardawil

In the studio with Winston Branch

Winston Branch (b.1947, St Lucia) is a British artist whose work was exhibited at the gallery earlier this year. I was invited to his studio in London, where he recently started working on large scale paintings for the first time in many years. In this conversation we cover how he found his language of abstraction, the 25 year journey of his work 'Zachary' which is now part of the Tate Collection and the enduring influence of Venetian painters.

Cedric Bardawil: When did you decide you wanted to be an artist?

Winston Branch: I always wanted to be a practitioner and learn my skill as a painter. It came after many years of looking, observing, travelling and attending the Slade School of Fine Art, which really illuminated my education in the pictorial language of painting, which I am indebted to. Before I graduated, I showed tenaciously throughout Europe, North America and North Africa. I had a plan where every summer instead of lingering in London I would find myself in an exhibition or commission somewhere abroad. Doing what I love and have a passion for. I am a painter, I don’t describe myself as an artist. I’ve been asked many times what the difference between an artist and a painter is. I’m a practitioner of painting, but I suppose, in inverted commas, I am an artist because there is a dialogue between the art, the painter and the audience. But I always see myself as a painter.

I am a painter, I don’t describe myself as an artist.

CB: You mentioned the Slade and how indebted you are to your education there, what was your path to get there?

WB: I was born in the Caribbean on an island called Saint Lucia, it is a British protectorate. It’s a very interesting island because it was, I hate to use the word colonised, but the first European settlers to come there were the French, and it was part of the French Dominion. Napoleon’s brother and Admiral Rodney fought 14 battles for it to become British. A lot of good things came out of a colonial education, out of colonialism. The cathedral had all these wonderful murals, and the ceiling was very well decorated. I am a Catholic, not that I wear my religion on my sleeve. In the days of early Catholicism, the mass was said in Latin. It was a very interesting way of transporting oneself into a world of fantasy, because really it was all ritual and theatre, the costumes of the priest, the altars, the candles burning. This inspired me. I started drawing and making marks on paper. I had no idea about art as we know it now. Some people thought, he seems to have an aptitude. They said the best place to send him is England, and if he can’t succeed, he’ll come back.

When I was in England, I decided to put every ounce of my energy into becoming what I am now, a painter. I had the facilities to go to the Wallace collection, look the Boucher ladies; the National Gallery, look at Rubens; Kenwood House. I spent lots of time drawing at the British Museum. I went to every museum in London. I had a friend who taught at Central Saint Martins and he said: ‘You must come to my evening class in Stepney’. So I went and I started drawing from a model. I then thought, I’d like to pursue this. I applied to all the schools which I later taught in, like Central Saint Martins and Chelsea College of Arts. I was rejected but not dissuaded, because I decided that it is what I would do. One day we were in a pub after an evening class and somebody said: ‘Why don’t you just go to the Slade?’. I thought, okay, why not start at the top and work your way to the bottom, you’ll have nothing to lose anyways. I was about 18 and I applied. The professor there said: ‘We looked with great interest at your portfolio, and we would like to invite you for a full session’. That was the beginning of my whole life changing, because from 5th October 1966 when I got to my classes at the Slade, I never looked back. I was just onwards and forwards, and that’s really what brought me here.

(The Slade) was the beginning of my whole life changing.

CB: Following the Slade, you were awarded the prestigious British Prix de Rome in 1971. You moved to Rome and lived there for a couple of years, and then your career went on. It was during that period travelling around Europe that you found your voice as a painter. Could you speak about how your practice evolved in the 1970s?

WB: That is correct. In the ‘60s, before I even graduated, there was a lot of cross-fertilisation between writers, painters, designers, and sculptors in London. I was very lucky because I happened to be in the middle of all this excitement. Everybody at the art schools in London knew each other. One day I was in a bookshop in town and ran into Ken Kitchen and I said: ‘I haven’t seen you around London’, because in those days everybody would invite everybody to parties. He said: ‘Well, I’m in Rome at the British School. I’ve won the prize’. I said: ‘Oh, that’s great’. He said: ‘Rome would be ideal for you, Winston’. So, I said: ‘Okay, how do I go about it?’. He said: ‘You know everybody on the committee, get in touch with them’. And it happened, I had my first studio at the British School in Rome, 61 Via Gramsci. It was in the Borghese Gardens, between the Museum of Modern Art and a school of architecture, above the Piazza del Popolo. I was sent there in October when the semester started. I had a wonderful studio, a good stipendium and I could do what I wanted. What I did a lot of the time was travel. I would sneak back to London, and when I did, I got a job at Goldsmiths School of Art. I decided I would spend time in Paris and meet young painters my age. They said: ‘You should participate in the Salon des Jeunes Peintres at the Grand Palais in 1972’. And I said: ‘Great! I’m all for showing’. I then spent time in Hamburg and met a lot of young painters, which was very stimulating. They were all very ambitious and were going places. I thought, Rome is good, but everything is slow. If you say subito, they say a dopo domani. I thought, that’s not going to work for me. I used to go around the galleries and drink cocoa with the women, and it was great fun. It was very socialising, I’m a very sociable person. I believe in talking to everybody, you never know what will happen if you talk to people. Like when I met you, I didn’t know who you were, but you were engaging, exuberant, full of energy. My entire life has been accidents. I take the moment, carpe diem, and seize it, whether it works or not. Only by going for it you get anywhere. That’s the whole basis of how I happened to be going to Europe and travelling to different parts of the world. I had to be out there, put myself on the world map. I wasn’t lucky, I just was very persistent.

People ask: ‘Why did you stop painting figuratively?’. It wasn’t because I didn’t appreciate it, it was just not my voice. In New York in ‘78, I was sitting with some young painters in a loft drinking whisky and we were talking about why we wanted to be a painter. I use the word painter because painter is someone who gets up and puts paint on canvas or paper. It’s about the work and if you really believe in it, it will touch people. I had my first show in New York in 1975. Then I came back to London and received a letter from Berlin asking if I would like to be on the DAAD program, which is a very interesting situation. They give you a very big stipend, you have a very good studio and a lovely apartment, and you paint. Most of the artists who were at the DAAD are famous like Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and Joe Tilson. A lot of artists were in Berlin at that time including Gerhard Richter, Markus Lüpertz, and A. R. Penck. I love Berlin I will always be grateful to it, because it really made me who I am. From Berlin, I went to New York, and from New York I came back. I was a young man. I was up and down and up. You’ve got to be out there burning the midnight oil.

It’s about the work and if you really believe in it, it will touch people.

CB: You touched on several moments that shaped your path. How did you arrive at the language that we see here, which is pure abstraction?

WB: There is a correlation between figuration and abstraction. Abstraction takes something from something, it’s not from nothing. I was really interested in colour and the way colour makes light. If you look at the work on the wall, the juxtaposition of tones creates a language and evokes your imagination. Veronese, Tintoretto and the Venetians were all dealing with colour. The two hallmarks of Abstract Expressionism, which opened the way in 1947, were size and colour. Pierre Soulages was painting big black paintings. I went to the Metropolitan Museum and there was an incredible exhibition of Clyfford Still. It blew me away, the paintings were covering huge walls. I thought, this is it, I’m going to do this. This is where I am going, I am part of the new world. And it was just colour. I mean, to put pigment on the surface and get excited—it’s the sweetest thing I have ever experienced. I came back to Europe, then Berlin. They gave me the perfect studio: 250 square feet of space. I worked hard and I hit my very first big show of large canvases. Then Anthony Caro said: ‘Come back to New York’. I met him at the Camden Art Centre in Arkwright Road and said: ‘I’ve been an admirer of your work for many years. I’m a painter, and I’d like you to come to see my work’. He said: ‘Call my studio and my assistant will set up a day and a time’. At the time I was living in Hackney in a warehouse, he came in and he loved the work, because he was into colour field painting. He said: ‘I am going to pay £2,000 for any work’, as he wrote a cheque. My work being in the collection of Anthony Caro, that’s quite an achievement. I love talking to people. I don’t paint figurative anymore, but I’m excited by human contact. Human contact is the essence of abstract painting because you touch, you feel the sensitivity.

…there was an incredible exhibition of Clyfford Still. It blew me away, the paintings were covering huge walls. I thought, this is it, I’m going to do this.

CB: That’s a great story, and interesting to hear how Clyfford Still and the American large-scale inspired you to paint big. This brings me to your monumental work, Zachary, that was acquired by the Tate Collection in 2017.  There was a fascinating story, published in their magazine: Tate Etc., of 40 year journey of that painting.

WB: Winston: First of all, I have to thank the Tate and Nick Serota, who I knew when he was at the Arts Council. There are many reasons why it took so long, I knew the people at the Tate since I was 19. That’s the dream of every young artist, to be in the Tate Gallery. I was about 30 something, I made some paintings in my large studio. Tate came, selected five of them, and then said they didn’t have the space. I then met a very lovely lady called Lady d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, she was a trustee of the Tate. She said: ‘Why aren’t you being looked at?’. I said: ‘I’m knocking on that door. You can’t get in unless they open the door from inside’. We had lunch nearly every week, and she said: ‘I will talk to Alan Bowness’, the head of the Art History department at the Cultural Institute. I called him up and made an appointment, and I went at the appointed time, 10:30. He was not there, and didn’t arrive till 11:30. We went up in his office, and he started to let me down easy. I said: ‘Listen, you were late, and I have another appointment so I must leave, because we are not getting anywhere’. Years later, he was appointed Director of Tate Britain. He was not going to let me in. He never forgave me for being, in his eyes, arrogant and too assertive. We met at several parties, but he was not going to let me into the Tate. The next director was Nick Serota. He was very busy building the new Tate Modern, but I kept in touch with him. When I came back from California, I went to him and said: ‘I’m long overdue being in the Tate Collection. I’ve been working hard for a very long time and it looks like the clouds are going past me. I’m only in darkness’. He said: ‘Winston, we will work something out. I’ll get my secretary to fix you up with one of the curators’. But the curator was a space cadet. She said to me: ‘Send some slides’. I said, ‘Listen. All my paintings are in California. I’m in and out of London because this is my home. I’m not interested in slides. I’ve gone beyond slides’. I went back to Nick and I said: ‘I’m not getting anywhere. I need your input. You’ll have to open the door. Let me in. Do you know how long I’ve been knocking?’. We then arranged to meet with a dear friend of mine, who I hadn’t known yet, called Chris Stevens. We had these dreary meetings, after four days of discussing the registrar rang and said: ‘We’ll get our shippers to get it from California and bring it to London’. I said: ‘Hallelujah. There is a little God after all’. They went there, crated it up and shipped it. And that’s how I made to the Tate. That painting is called Zachary, after my ex-wife. I was completely drained after talking to them for four days. It was very stressful, but I am very happy it happened.

I said to Nick Serota: ‘I’m long overdue being in the Tate Collection. I’ve been working hard for a very long time and it looks like the clouds are going past me. I’m only in darkness’.

CB: Finally, who are your painterly influences?

WB: One acquires influences subconsciously, after seeing a lot of things. I am of two cultures: the one I was born in and the one that made me, which is the one I live in. I don’t like to just say names of painters because painters come at certain times in your life. You take from them and make them into something. This is my voice, what you see is my conscience working with my subconscious to do what I do best. I talked earlier about the Venetians because that marked the beginning of where light and colour changed the atmospheric quality of painting. It’s about trial and error, taking charge and doing. That’s what I did in these paintings. I tried very hard not to be repetitious. It’s very easy to just get into a set formula. I tried to push for each painting to have its own life, its own individuality. The gameplan is not to make potboilers and turn them out. It takes time. Ideas are impregnated in my brain for years, and then they come out like a baby. Each time I’m making the work, I’m making a new life. There’s a correlation between the paintings, but each one has its own voice. That’s the trick—make each work an individual piece and sum of my existence. Making art is very special to me, each work is precious.

The Venetians marked the beginning of where light and colour changed the atmospheric quality of painting.