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

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