Anthony Earnshaw

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The Independent Online

Anthony Earnshaw, artist and writer: born Ilkley, Yorkshire 9 October 1924; twice married; died Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire 17 August 2001.

Anthony Earnshaw liked to quote a Russian anarchist who said of life in prison: "If they give you ruled paper to write on, write across the lines!"

With the invention of painting on canvas came the frame. Then it was easy for the artist in the studio to hold a frame in front of his face and say to his visitors: "A perfect portrait." The frame could frame any bit of reality and make it art, make us look at it as if it was full of meaning. The joker in the art school can put a frame around a chamber pot and write underneath "Picture of a Great Teacher".

This joie de vivre and mucking about became epidemic with the proliferation of Bohemians in Paris at the end of the 19th century. There were exhibitions by the Incohérents and the Hydropathes. Alphonse Allais exhibited a monochrome canvas in 1879 – a red one entitled Tomato Harvest by Apopleptic Cardinals on the Shore of the Red Sea. Félix Fénéon described a work shown in 1883, a framed portrait of a man and woman: "Out of the man's mouth there extends a rope that is attached to the neck of a live rabbit that is chewing on carrots in a cage installed in front of the painting."

Another Hydropathe – Earnshaw too had a strong preference for alcohol over water – was Eugène Bataille, known as Sapek, who painted his head blue to escape from gloomy thoughts. In 1887 he added a clay pipe with wreaths of smoke to a photo of Mona Lisa, 32 years before Marcel Duchamp gave her a moustache. Dada gestures begat Surrealism, and, after the Second World War, this tradition was regularly re-invented in Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus, Conceptual Art, and today the rather large, rather empty gestures of Britart. Earnshaw's small work is bigger.

I emphasise the history of this subversive humour because Anthony Earnshaw, though unschooled, had learnt it all from books and felt himself part of a tradition. He was dismayed that this authentic and marginal biting art has become mainstream and academic, taught in our Royal College and shown at our Royal Academy. The force of Dada and Surrealism was against materialism and self-seeking aggrandisement and it has become that which it criticised.

I met Tony Earnshaw in the Wrens pub in Leeds 40 years ago. I was 21 and had just had my first exhibition and he was a crane driver on nights. He slept for a couple of hours on his own plank. He had visited the London Gallery in 1947 when he was 23 but was too shy to introduce himself to the gallery assistant, George Melly. He was painting watercolours of old machinery then, under the influence of Paul Klee and Max Ernst.

The son of a watchmaker, Earnshaw left school at 14. So he was self-taught. No, he was not. He was taught by the best: André Breton, Edgar Allan Poe, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Lichtenberg. All the artists and authors in the world are waiting in the public library. For the person who is teaching himself there is no end to learning. Our unacknowledged, unsubsidised, unofficial educators are the publishers and writers who put out books on Escher and Steinberg and Klee and Clovis Trouille. People who are self-taught have all the advantages in life.

Earnshaw's favourite member of the awkward squad was the first one, the ancient Greek Diogenes, an ex-slave. He wrote, "A man keeps and feeds a lion. The lion owns a man." Diogenes was discovered standing with his hand out, begging, in front of a statue. He went about with a lamp in broad daylight, saying he was searching for an honest man. He said, "In the rich man's house there is nowhere to spit but in his face." And, with Earnshavian wit, "At Chrysippus's lecture I saw the blank space coming up on the scroll, and said to the audience: 'Cheer up fellows, land is in sight!' " Earnshaw said:

I have never had the gall to describe myself as a Surrealist. They were a certain group of people at a certain place in a certain time. I feel kinship with the spirit. If this [the 20th] century only had Cubism or Futurism or the Euston Road School to offer I doubt I would have been interested in painting. It is a spirit of rebellion which can express itself as humour, cocking the snook, upsetting the applecart to criticise Western culture with all its pretensions and its arrogance.

From Flick Knives and Forks (subtitled "Aphorisms, Jokes, Insults, Stories with Morals, Lies", 1981):

It is apt that obituaries end with a full stop.

Toes are the first to catch the sound of distant drums.

Film stars are the extras in our lives.

Misfortune smiles when bandages turn a cheerful red.

Lakes brand reservoirs as Company Men.

Royalty: the needle is stuck on the last track.

A mask threadbare from years of hard service.

His wallet sprang a leak and the money gushed in.

The deceiver bestows French kisses with his tongue in cheek.

Carping and Kicking was published in 1987:

Rhododendron? Wouldn't you rather be crossing a bridge?

A street leading to a jail is a wind- tunnel blowing a gale.

Authority takes many forms: the common weed teaches the gardener ruthlessness.

Stove and sink, life and death.

When Tony Earnshaw was a child he thought the movement of the branches of trees caused the wind. When he was Working in Leeds he was Lurking in Weeds.

When he framed things in his boxes he was putting together inert things that had never been together to make them live for us. He treated these banal objects – tiny plastic ballerinas, a micrometer, football studs, a shoe, a wheel, to a new function. Cruelly he cut a heel from a lady's boot and substituted a wheel and put it in a box with a heart-shaped mirror surrounded by pearls. It is poetry to create something between a feeling and a thought. Earnshavian wit included harsh and extended metaphor. To follow in his shadow, let me say Tony is now in his box but his spirit lives on.

In 1979 when walking on a heath in Devon he found a stone that looked just like half a loaf, he put it on a broad board with a bread knife and called it Raider's Bread. Let them eat stone. Later on, the Friends of Earnshaw – Tony was delighted we were called Foe – who were Di Atkinson, Glen Baxter, Les Coleman, Angela Flowers, me, George Melly and Jeff Nuttall ganged together to buy it and give it to Leeds City Art Gallery. (It was I who persuaded him to have a retrospective, in 1966, at the Leeds Institute; it was Angela Flowers who gave him his first one-man London exhibition, in 1972.)

In one box called The Game with No Rules (1985) there is a scene of wild abandon, a champagne glass with a cocktail cherry and an abandoned high-heeled shoe at a rakish angle with a lady's garter caught up in it – and a spirit level on the sole of the shoe showing that it is plumb, perfectly horizontal. By chance freedom can be in the same plane as all-conquering gravity.

Earnshaw found out how to get toothpaste out of a tube and put something else in. He replaced the toothpaste with picnic mustard and put the pristine tube back on the chemist's shelf. It is pure devilry for him to imagine the surprise of someone, somewhere, sometime, in the bathroom carelessly squeezing mustard on to their toothbrush and wondering "How? Why? Who?"

The first lines of Wintersol (1971) by Eric Thacker and Anthony Earnshaw: "To the meek who will inherit the earth only by forging the will".

His wife Gail, a gale of laughter and love, has been with him every step of the way for 33 years. He loved his daughters, Frankie and Ruth, and his granddaughter, Kaisha.

Patrick Hughes

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