Ian Breakwell

Voyeur of the gutter who worked across many media

Ian Breakwell was an artist and writer who saw the extraordinary in the ordinary. Something of a polymath, he was a diarist, draughtsman, painter, collagist, film and video maker, performer, broadcaster and writer with a talent for bringing together disparate media and people. In many respects his method of working pre-figured the careers of the artists of Damien Hirst's and Tracey Emin's generation. Like them he was keen to have the widest possible public, achieving it through television and radio broadcasts, notably of his Continuous Diary and his Christmas Diary on Channel 4 in 1984.

Breakwell was born into a working-class family in Derbyshire; art provided him with a means of escape from a humdrum existence. The lace factory, where his father worked as a twisthand machinist, was not for him. It was to his uncle Tom, an insurance agent by day but a conjuror by night, that he gravitated. After attending Nottingham High School on a scholarship, Breakwell enrolled at the West of England College, Bristol, and then Derby College of Art. A conventional art-school education, including life drawing, gave him the necessary skills with which to set out.

However, Breakwell was anything but conventional. From the early 1960s until his death he kept a diary that underpinned his entire oeuvre. The events he recorded were rarely of national or international importance. An acerbic entry on the Falklands War victory parade, later made into a television transmission, was an exception. In general Breakwell was interested in the banal and the contingent. He wrote down snippets of conversations overheard on the bus, unexplained incidents observed in the street or seen through windows as he moved around London, the minutiae of the everyday. In his written work Breakwell was a king of punch lines and timing, a talent he shared with the vaudeville artists and slapstick comedians whose work he celebrated in a number of films and projects that referred to the dying tradition of novelty acts and entertainment, not least in Variety (2001), currently on view at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea, Sussex.

He was interested in the surreal, the quirky, the marginal and the personal. Actuality was merely a springboard for the imagination. His best-known work, The Walking Man Diary (1975-78), acquired by the Tate Gallery in 2001, is an example. From his studio window on St John Street, Smithfield, above what is now the art world's favourite restaurant, St John, Breakwell observed the daily passage of an unknown man. Without knowing his destination or his purpose he began to photograph him until one day he failed to appear. It was his inexplicable disappearance and subsequent reappearance a year later that led to the making of the work consisting of a collage of photographs, diary pages and fantasies of the comments of other passers-by who had observed the eponymous walking man.

Breakwell's art, up to this point, was urban. He was a modern-day flâneur, a voyeur of the gutter rather than the keyhole, an observer of the minutiae of life. But when he took up residence at Cambridge in 1980, on a fellowship at King's College and Kettle's Yard, his art was to be transformed. In a studio in the grounds of Newnham College that had once been a laboratory, he was cut off from the world. With nothing to observe but the insular lives of students and dons that he met over meals in hall and satirised in his diaries, he felt compelled to create a cast of characters to populate the empty space.

What emerged was 120 Days, named after the celebrated work of the Marquis de Sade. It was a series of 20 imagined portraits bearing the slogan "Keep things as they are" that seemed to evoke and parody the prevailing threatening ethos of Thatcherite Britain. Three of these outsized, masked faces were purchased by the Tate. The series was shown at Kettle's Yard and then the Tate before travelling to Madrid for Breakwell's only one-man exhibition to be held abroad, at the Galería Fernando Vijande but not before he had amusingly placed them alongside the 17th- and 18th-century portraits of King's College grandees in the dining hall one evening.

Enjoying Cambridge to the full, Breakwell dined regularly at King's relatively low high table, partaking of vintage claret at meals - he wondered how the fellows' teeth survived this regular wash - and the ritual of passing the after-dinner port in a wheeled silver basket until it had been entirely consumed. It was a change from his usual pint in the pub with a roll-up cigarette.

The other residency to have made a significant impact on him was at Durham Cathedral, organised under the auspices of the Chaplaincy to the Arts and Recreation. With the freedom to roam the cathedral, Breakwell's observations of the sick and the poor, the penitent and the devout found form in a tape-slide sequence called Deep Faith (2001). At the end of the residency he combined his interest in the city with his abiding passion for Franz Kafka in a performance called Hidden Cities (1995), consisting of a riverboat tour that culminated in his reading from The Trial from the cathedral pulpit.

Residencies and fellowships were Breakwell's staple. Between 1980 and 1997 he held five and, shortly before he died, he was awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council fellowship at Central St Martins. After abandoning regular teaching in the late 1970s, and with few sales to support him, they provided the wherewithal to live.

Breakwell could cut an eccentric figure. In the Sixties and Seventies he had long black hair that framed his distinctively narrow face with sunken cheeks, thick eyebrows, deep-set eyes and bulbous nose. When he came to Cambridge he chopped back his hair and exchanged twin-tone shoes for white ones. He had a sauntering walk and a wiry frame that belied his sporting prowess as a bowler for the Palm Tree Cricket Club. He loved playing snooker at the Cambridge Graduate Centre and for a long time was a devoted reader of the Daily Mirror. His diaries owed something to the unreality of tabloid journalism.

Like many artists as they reach middle age, Breakwell became preoccupied by mortality and death. Many of his works of the last 20 years deal with the consequences of old age and dying, none more so than The Mask (1985) where prosthetic make-up was used to visualise his face as it would be in 2000. His late masterpiece The Other Side, filmed at the De La Warr Pavilion and now in the Tate collection, depicts couples in old age dancing in the fading light to Schubert's Nocturne in E major for piano trio.

The series of drawings combining words and images known as Walserings (1992-93), after Robert Walser, the writer who ended up in an insane asylum, in retrospect seems like a moving presentiment of Breakwell's own demise. Reporting Walser's words, Breakwell wrote in his beautiful and distinctively slanted, scrolling handwriting: "Evening is now gradually beginning to fall upon my walk, and its quiet end, I think, cannot any more be very far away." He returned to his beloved Smithfield to die of cancer, at St Bartholomew's Hospital.

Jeremy Lewison

Sport
Aaron Ramsey celebrates after opening the scoring in Arsenal's win over Hull `
sport
News
peopleActress speaks out against historic sexual assault claims, saying things have 'gone quite far now'

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

Life & Style
Guests enjoy food and cocktail parings by Chefs Jimmy Bannos, Jimmy Bannos Jr, Daniel Rose and Mindy Segal with mixologists Josh King and Alex Gara at Bounty & Barrel: A Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Dinner Series at Heaven on Seven on April 9, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.
food + drinkSprinkle Palcohol 'on almost any dish' for 'an extra kick' firm says...
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
tvReview: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
News
politicsLabour launches the 'completely hollow' Easter Clegg
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Arts & Entertainment
Last, but by no means least, is Tommy Cooper and the fez. This style of hat became a permanent trademark of his act.
comedyNot Like That, Like This centres on alleged domestic abuse
Arts & Entertainment
Oxegen in Ireland has been axed as promoters decide it is 'no longer viable'
arts + ents Promoters have axed the event as it is 'no longer viable in current form'
News
The troubled star is set to give fans the biggest insight into her life away from the headlines
people Star made the announcement during the final episode of the programme, entitled Lindsay
Life & Style
YouTube clocks up more than a billion users a month
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players