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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own