Monday, 23 August 2010

Borough Boy: A Chance Encounter With Leslie Marr

I don't usually attend exhibition openings. While I'm grateful for the  invitations, luke-warm wine and self congratulatory bonhomie don't really appeal to me. No, I'd much rather leave my viewing until the glitterati have departed and I can mingle with the public safe in the knowledge that I won't have to explain for the hundredth time that I'm NOT a journalist.

Recently however I made an exception based purely on the fact that the invitation arrived in the post and was printed on an attractive reproduction of one of the featured paintings. The exhibition in question was a group show at Keele University featuring a number of contemporary artists which, as is the nature of these things, turned out to be a rather mixed bag.

Having got off the bus at the wrong stop and  then caught in a shower I was already beginning to regret my decision but there was a surprise in store that changed the complexion of the evening entirely. Unbeknown to almost everyone present Professor Ray Pahl had chosen the occasion to donate a painting to Keele and a ceremony had been duly arranged to which the artist of the work, Leslie Marr, had been invited.

                              Leslie Marr, Prof Ray Pahl, Vice Chancellor Dame Janet Finch

Following a short question and answer session in which the reluctant Marr was skillfully prompted by Professor Pahl it was time for that luke-warm wine and the opening of the main event. Glass in hand, browsing  rarely seen portraits from the university's own collection by celebrated twentieth century artists including Jacob Kramer, Julian Trevelyan and George Clausen I was approached by the curator and asked if I'd like to interview the visiting artist. For once I didn't immediately deny the journalist tag.

Leslie Marr is 88 years old but you'd never guess. Accompanied by his charming wife he could easily pass as 20 years younger. But here he was- a living link to the history of  British modern art- to the world of Kossoff and Auerbach and, as I discovered, to his one time father-in-law David Bomberg.

Marr met Bomberg's step-daughter Dinora Mendelson carrying her portfolio in the Wheatsheaf in Soho. "I liked what I saw", he smiled, clearly referring to Dinora the woman as much as Mendelson the artist. Immediately Marr defected to Bomberg's class at the Borough Polytechnic (now London South Bank University) and so began an association that would result in his marriage to Dinora in 1948 and his membership of the Borough Group which he served as secretary.

The Borough Group was established in 1946 to develop the ideas that Bomberg promoted and to provide a platform for furthering those ideas. Bomberg had studied at the Slade under Sickert and displayed an  understanding of avant-garde European painting such as Cubism and Futurism. His early work, described by Marr as his "intellectual work", was abstract and geometric. He exhibited with the Vorticists although he declined membership. Slowly, however, he developed a more "intuitive" style akin to Expressionism. This is the work Marr prefers.

                                               Leslie Marr by David Bomberg

The Borough Group can't really be described as a 'school' as all the artists involved were encouraged to develop their own styles but Bomberg exerted his influence over his followers in a sometimes ruthless manner. On one occasion he expelled a member because she was pregnant and, as she was likely to get pregnant again, could never be a professional artist.

"He was a dreadful man" Marr told me although the two had been close. "He felt neglected and this made him bitter. Before his death (in 1957) he was sharing a house with a woman he never spoke to and living on toast."

With the passing of Bomberg and his divorce from Dinora, Marr's link with this fascinating period of British art history was broken. "I still respect him as an artist", he said. "And it's ironic that now he's talked about as the greatest colourist since Turner. He'd like that." I should, perhaps, go to more opening nights.

1 comment:

  1. I have a painting signed Marr that I think is a Leslie Marr. Is there any way I could verify this? An email? Any help would help!