#MondayBlogs Paint a Vulgar Picture with DH Lawrence – D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage

burning-photograph dhl

A friend of mine recently splashed out on a painting by the Nottingham-born artist Paul Waplington. Naturally, this gave me an excuse to photocopy a short essay by Lawrence called Pictures on the Wall and post it through her letterbox. ‘The human race loves pictures,’ declares Lawrence, ‘barbarians or civilised, we are all alike, we straightway go to look at a picture if there is a picture to look at’. This is perfectly true, although my first port of call for distraction and stimulation is the contents of a bookshelf. I remember once being shown around a house I was interested in buying, and being put off by the seller’s book collection. I just couldn’t bring myself to live in a space that had housed such a shabby collection of fiction. My partner at the time was appalled by what she perceived as my lack of sincerity. But I was deadly serious. The space had been polluted and I didn’t want to catch anything. We split up a year or so later.

Lawrence is fascinated by the pictures we hang on our walls. But needless to say they bring as much pleasure as pain. He takes particular offence at painting that have been hanging around for a long time as they represent ‘sheer inertia’ and a ‘staleness in the home is stifling and oppressive to the spirit’. He uses an analogy of fashion to explain these sentiments. Fashion in clothes changes because ‘we ourselves change, in the slow metamorphosis of time,’ consequently it is hard to imagine ourselves in the clothes we bought six years ago because we have since become different people. This is true, although fashion is also a process of aesthetic obsolescence that keeps the greasy wheels of capitalism turning.

Our reason for buying paintings, he argues, is that the painting somehow reflect or respond to some feeling in us. But as we grow (or age) these feelings change. If our feeling for a picture are superficial, our feelings for the picture wears away quickly. This is definitely true and I witness this every year when there’s a poster sale outside Nottingham Trent University for the latest batch of students. There’s only so long you can have a poster of a ‘doh’ing Homer Simpson, Bob Marley toking on a joint, or Tupac ‘God rest his soul’ Shakur on your wall before you feel a bit silly.

Lawrence, as subtle as a flying brick, has a simple solution for dealing with unwanted unfeeling pictures: Burn them.

Now this might seem extreme at first, and it is, but that’s because Lawrence doesn’t like art that’s reduced to materialism. ‘It is fatal to look on pictures as pieces of property. Pictures are like flowers, that fade sooner or later, and die, and must be thrown in the dustbin and burnt’. A picture, therefore, is only useful when it is ‘fresh and fragrant with attraction’. Once the aesthetic emotion is dead, the picture is no more than ‘a piece of ugly litter’.

And there’s more…

It’s a fallacy to see a picture as part of the architectural structure of a house, as somehow opening up the walls and functioning with the same purpose as say, the fire. Oh no. ‘The room exists to shelter and house us, the picture exists only to please us.’ Pictures are decoration, nothing more.

It’s at this point that a lot of readers probably pack in reading this six page essay. Life is too short to be scalded for having a painting on your wall for a decade. Some, good to his word, may even set Lawrence’s essay on fire. But try to have the one thing that Lawrence lacks, patience. He’s toying with you. He’s slowly building up to a bigger idea on how to make art more accessible to the masses. And to do this he brings in the example of public libraries.

In the 18th century books were very expensive. If you asked a gentleman whether he had read so and so he would most likely reply ‘I have a fine example in folio in my library’. Books being expensive rendered them a form of property, thereby overwhelming ‘any sense of literary delight’. It was only the development of the lending library system that changed the direction of the conversation to the contents of the book, the pleasure of reading for readings sake. ‘The great public was utterly deprived of books till books ceased to be looked on as lumps of real estate, and came to be regarded as something belonging to the mind and consciousness, a spiritual instead of a gross material property’.


Lawrence argues that the same principles apply to art as long as a ‘picture is regarded as a piece of property, and not as a source of aesthetic emotion.’ He suggests that we need a Circulating Picture scheme that follows the principles of the library, where we can hire pictures as we hire books until we’ve ‘assimilated their content’. Obviously he doesn’t offer any practical advice on how to implement such an arrangement, but the sentiments are honourable.

In 2010 Lord Biro and me created a ‘recession-busting’ Hirst skull covered in jelly tots. You can read about that here.

Money is always a corrupting influence for Lawrence, and he suspects that a man who pays a hundred pounds for a canvas is doing it in the secret belief, or hope, that one day it will be worth thousands of pounds. The world of modern art supports these accusations, not least the vulgarity of Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull. But I think Lawrence’s arguments don’t necessarily apply to my friend. She hasn’t purchased her Waplington painting for financial reward, she’s bought it because he’s a local artist and, perhaps, it helps her feel a sense of home, within her home. And she certainly wouldn’t burn it because that’s wasteful and she’s someone who thinks about her impact on the planet. I’m quite sure she didn’t bother to read Lawrence’s essay on paintings but this doesn’t matter. If we’re still friends in ten years and the Waplington is still on her wall, I’ll post another copy through her door.

In 2019 Paul Fillingham and me will be creating a DH Lawrence Memory Theatre. It will include artefacts that address aspects of Lawrence’s life. Perhaps ‘Pictures on the Wall’ will be one of these artefacts. If you’d like to get involved and have any suggestions,  please submit your ideas here.

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Source: #MondayBlogs Paint a Vulgar Picture with DH Lawrence – D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage

Shhh…it’s NW5’s Secret Artist

Karl Marx's home

Karl Marx’s home

On Wednesday 18 March Dawn of the Unread (in partnership with Nottingham Trent University) won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards (more of this in another blog). While in London I went on a literary tour of NW5 (Kentish Town) as it’s been home to DH Lawrence, Karl Marx and George Orwell. I was made aware of NW5s incredible literary history by the Secret Artist who has painted Blue Plaque buildings in watercolours. They’re beautiful paintings that have helped to map out the heritage of this area in a really unique way and so I thought we’d celebrate our win by championing the work of someone from another city who cares about their home as much as we care about ours here in Nottingham. Enjoy…


We live in a world of celebrity culture and the selfie so it’s quite rare to find someone who wishes to remain anonymous….
I want the focus to be on the buildings rather than me. Most of them have been around for many years and will be around for many years after I’m gone.

When did you start painting blue plaques and why?
The first Blue Plaque house I painted was George Orwell’s house in Lawford Road. I was painting pictures of listed buildings in Kentish Town, where I live. Although Orwell’s house is not listed, it is of great local interest because Kentish Town is full of writers. It was the manager of our local bookshop, the Owl Bookshop, who said he thought his customers would buy postcards of that house. He was right. I painted that in July 2014.

Did you intentionally set out to create a collection of blue plaque paintings or did this kind of happen after painting the first one?
Someone who liked my listed building paintings suggested I start doing postcards of Blue Plaque houses. Up till then I had only done George Orwell’s house but I really liked the idea. He has managed to persuade the local council to put up some Blue Plaques, so it is his passion. I saw it as a good way to broaden my art project, which up to then had been restricted to listed buildings and the popular old shops of Kentish Town. This allowed me to go all over London in search of houses with plaques.

Naturally DHL had to live at Byron Villas during his time here in 1915

Naturally DHL had to live at Byron Villas during his time here in 1915

You’ve painted DH Lawrence’s old home. Could you tell us a little bit about this area and any details you have of Lawrence’s time there?
This house is in the Vale of Health, a hamlet in the middle of Hampstead Heath, where many writers have lived in the past. Lawrence and his wife Frieda lived here, in Byron Villas, in 1915. While they were there, his novel, The Rainbow, was declared obscene by London magistrates.

When you paint your pictures do you research the famous person who lived at the house and if so, does this inform your approach in any way?
There are many Blue Plaques commemorating long-forgotten people. I don’t bother with them, I’m afraid. I pick well-known names that I think will appeal to a wide range of people who might buy prints of the paintings. So long as the person lived in the existing building, then I will paint it. I don’t bother if someone ‘lived on this site’. Sometimes the house is interesting or beautiful, sometimes it’s not. I will always do a bit of research, just out of interest. Also, if I get some nice anecdotes about a person, I will use these when I publicise the painting.

What tools do you use to create these gorgeous paintings?
I paint the pictures on an iPad, using an app called Paper 53. It is very simple and allows me to draw and paint free hand, making the pictures look like watercolours. Watercolour is my favourite medium but the iPad allows me to mix colours very quickly so I can finish these pictures faster than I would if I was getting my watercolour paints out all the time. It is very satisfying and lots of fun. I take photos of the buildings for reference and have the photo up on another computer as I paint on the iPad. It is very relaxing, but when I go on holiday, I revert to old-fashioned watercolours, which I love.

What’s your favourite listed building?
My favourite listed building is Blustons, a 1930s shop in Kentish Town which sells clothes from the 1940s and 50s. It has a beautiful shop front and is famous in Kentish Town where everyone wonders who on earth buys such old-fashioned clothes. But apparently a lot of their business comes from the film industry, when period clothes are needed. Presumably, long ago, the clothes were fashionable.

You’ve focused on capturing the buildings of NW5. Any plans to expand elsewhere?
There are about 120 listed buildings in Kentish Town. I have painted all but two, and will get the last ones finished soon. I have edged into NW1 (Camden Town), a bit, as it has a lot of attractive old buildings

It seems like you’ve set up the perfect business, concentrating on a niche subject and then offering commissions where needed. What advice would you give to artists thinking about setting up their own business?
I have been struck by how much cafes and coffee shops are keen to have art exhibitions by local artists. This seems to be more and more the norm and a good way to get known. Social media is also very important to me. I don’t use Facebook but I am very active on twitter, where I post my latest paintings and communicate with my followers. Make yourself accessible. Although I am anonymous and few people know my name, I set up a Secret Artist email account, a Secret Artist Paypal account and a Secret Artist website which shows all my paintings and prices. I spend a lot of time getting postcards and larger prints printed, having befriended the local printer, and delivering them to shops that sell them to their customers. The other day I was on holiday in south-east Asia, and the local vicar emailed me, asking for a print of his church urgently. I emailed the printer (who had a jpeg of the church having done a print of it before), and the vicar was able to pick up the print from the printer the next day while I was on the other side of the world.

Where can we see your work (exhibitions/online)
My website is http://www.secretartistNW5.com and I currently have an exhibition at a popular local café called Map Studio Café in Grafton Road, Kentish Town. This is running indefinitely at the moment. There will be another show in June at a coffee shop called Two Doors Down in Kentish Town Road, showing my paintings of the local shops.




An Apple a Day Keeps DH Lawrence Away


DOTU on Ipad

Since having this absurd idea of creating a graphic novel I’ve had the flu twice, suspected shingles, a panic attack and a nasty facial virus that left me looking like I’d gone a few rounds with Bendigo. This is inevitable with the start-up of any project but now that the main framework is in place things are starting to calm down and I’m making it to bed before 1am.

One reason for my stress is the delay of the App and iPad versions of Dawn of the Unread. This has now been put back to 8 May. Paul Fillingham, who deals with the digital side of any project I run, has had to make quite a lot of coding revisions after working with actual content. Consequently we’ve been unable to re-use web-content and instead had to programme everything into Apple’s Native iOS code for things such as gestures to control page-turns (left/right swipes). This is time consuming.

An apple a day may keep the doctor away but working with Apple is not good for your health. Paul has found it increasingly difficult to get content through their gatekeepers with recent projects and is cautious to the point of paranoia in complying with the Apple Human Interface Guidelines. And he has good reason to feel like this. One App he recently put together for a WWII project took two months to get approval due to references to the Holocaust. It is frightening how fearful organisations have become about broaching complex sensitive subjects. This is no doubt a fear of being sued and as a result, certain words must get flagged up on their database.

Nottingham's favourite Potty Mouth, DH Lawrence

Nottingham’s favourite Potty Mouth, DH Lawrence

I mention this because our front cover has a picture of DH Lawrence stumbling about muttering ‘f*ck’. This is of course a reference to the acquittal of Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley trial. Writing in the Guardian, Geoffrey Robertson QC said: “The Old Bailey has, for centuries, provided the ultimate arena for challenging the state. But of all its trials – for murder and mayhem, for treason and sedition – none has had such profound social and political consequences as the trial.” So basically, a Nottingham man made it possible for everyone to swear more freely.

Fast forward 54 years and Paul Fillingham is advising me that we cut the ‘F*ck’ from the front cover for our iPad and iPhone versions because this will be the main landing page for the App and consequently the first thing Apple will focus on. The DH Lawrence trial may have ‘provided the ultimate arena for challenging the state’ but it’s a very different arena when submitting work to Apple as if they don’t like something it simply won’t happen. ComiXology recently decided to bar a SAGA issue from the App Store to second-guess approval policy.

All of which raises the issue of censorship, because this is what we’re really talking about. And should Apple be dictating content to creators? Surely their only concern should be that the technical aspects of production and industry standards are met. I appreciate there will always be some form of regulation, and rightly so, but not to the detriment of legitimate educational content.

I love words. They are the most important thing in the world to me and when someone steals one it is like sending your dog to be castrated. But in a project of this size and scale you have to concentrate on the battles you can win. The main issue is to get it through Apple’s stringent vetting process so that schools can start downloading it. If that means losing a f*ck’ then fuck it. We can always resubmit the cover at a later date. And I have an obligation to reclaim my ‘f*ck’ for DH Lawrence. For as he once wrote: “Do not allow to slip away from you freedoms the people who came before you won with such hard knocks.”