Obituary : Michael Wishart

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With his sonorous monotone drawl, floridly handsome features and quiet erudition, Michael Wishart could have been taken for a rather urbane landowner, or perhaps a bookish squire. Anyone eavesdropping on the artist lunching at the Travellers' Club might therefore have been surprised to hear Wishart report that preparation for his last art lecture in Normandy consisted of two very dry Martinis and "a little amphetamine".

Michael Wishart's ability to balance high-society propriety with Bohemian kudos was ever a delicate acrobatic skill. He was born in 1928, son of the publisher Ernest Wishart (of Lawrence & Wishart), whose Marxist sympathies the boy did not inherit. He was brought up at Pulborough in Sussex: "As a child there were no quarrels, no terrors, no rages that could not be healed by running into the fields with a paintbox."

The local prisoner-of-war camp introduced more physical passions to those fields in the form of a blond German boy named Harm; thereafter Wishart would openly acknowledge his bisexuality. He had an early entry into hedonism: at 12, he was an habitue of David Tennant's Gargoyle Club in Soho, dancing with Tennant's young daughter, Pauline - to become a lifelong friend - and meeting her aesthetic uncle, Stephen Tennant, a decorative recluse whose eccentricities he would soon come to emulate.

Wishart was educated at Bedales, where he befriended Thom Gunn and read Charles Henri Ford's View. At the Central School of Arts and Crafts he was taught by Cedric Morris while living with his uncle, the poet Roy Campbell; in 1947 he moved to Paris, sharing a room with Lucian Freud (who the following year married Wishart's cousin, Kitty Epstein), drinking a lot, and meeting Marie- Laure de Noailles, Christian Berard and Boris Kochno.

His patron Peter Watson introduced Wishart to Denham Fouts, an opium addict (he was amused to hear Cocteau describe Fouts "as a bad influence") who in turn introduced a besotted Wishart to the habit. Wishart memorably described Fouts as looking like "the best-looking boy at a West Coast college. He wore nothing but cream-coloured flannel trousers and had the torso of an athlete. Along his beautiful shoulders and golden forearms ran snow-white mice with startled pink eyes, which he stroked gently with the backs of his hands."

Wishart's memoirs, High Diver (1977), reflect his conversational talent for such vivid cameos: Nancy Cunard's legs "so thin that it looked as though two threads of her knickers had come undone"; Francis Bacon applying boot black to his hair and Vim to his teeth.

It was through Bacon that Wishart met the painter Ann Dunn, daughter of the millionaire Sir James Dunn, whom he married in 1950. The event was celebrated with 200 bottles of Bollinger at a two-day, three-night party at Bacon's studio. A year later, Ann gave birth to a son, Francis, and they moved to the South of France. But the liaison was not destined to last, and the break-up in the late Fifties resulted in further alcoholic abuse. Wishart ended up in a psychiatric hospital, where "an ugly, green- faced girl with either one eye or two mouths . . . laughed inanely as she grappled between my legs with large tenacious hands . . . I do not recommend asylums to the sane," he commented dryly.

Much of Wishart's subsequent life seemed to be spent in a search for profound sensation (a Catholic convert, he revelled in its ritual, as well as revering its tenets). His sense of adventure was tinged with doomy pessimism. He was, perhaps, out of time, caught between the pre-war aesthetes, the wartime Bohemians and the post-war pop generation, and influenced by all three. He was wilfully eccentric. Like Stephen Tennant's artfully composed letters, Wishart's communications spiralled round the page in colour-changing felt-tip pen. "I have conceived a searing passion for Michael Jackson," he wrote to me in 1988, "how I am to live apart from him is an appalling quandary."

He loved to make an entrance: surreal in country tweeds at Stephen Tennant's funeral, or, as he described breathlessly in another postcard, "in full Bonnie Prince Charlie kilt a lot of ecru lace & half my grandmother's pearls and rubies at a Masse de mariage at an exquisite chateau . . ." A gentle irony tempered Wishart's fanciful rhetoric and tendency to namedrop, and made him essentially lovable, more especially when he was telling some unlikely anecdote with the driest of wits.

As an artist, Wishart applied himself fitfully to his calling. His 1956 exhibition at the Redfern received excellent reviews, and David Sylvester wrote in the Listener of "a sensibility that is at once shamelessly romantic and deeply sophisticated, and which endows the wide open spaces of the great outdoors with a sort of hothouse preciosity . . . he is one of the select band of English romantic painters who are truly painters."

Wishart was overawed by this tribute; perhaps he felt it difficult to live up to, for much of his subsequent career seem-ed spent in approaching but not quite achieving the first ranks of British art: "Call me a dedicated dauber who holds his hat upside-down and is sometimes surprised to see a rabbit fall out of it." His larger, more abstract canvases are his best, evoking a mystical dream-world out of Odilon Redon or Andre Derain, neo- romantic landscapes and hidden faces captured in bravura swathes of oil. These were Blakean visions, and the comparison is apposite: both artists were directed by their muses and prone to sweeping statements about their worth.

Whether Michael Wishart's will be vindicated only posterity will tell. Certainly, in his lifetime, he did not fulfil his promise. (He called has as-yet unpublished second volume of memoirs Injury Time.) He was forever talking of being unable to attend some function because he was in the midst of his very finest creative phase, thereby concealing his own terrors. But the work he did accomplish merges with the memory of his exuberant life, to leave a lasting impression of something precious.

Philip Hoare

John Michael Wishart, artist: born London 12 June 1928; married 1950 Ann Dunn (one son; marriage dissolved 1959); died London 28 June 1996.