Patrick Procktor

Painter who personified the Sixties
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The Independent Online

Patrick George Procktor, painter: born Dublin 12 March 1936; RA 1996; married 1973 Kirsten Benson (née Bo Andersen, died 1984; one son, one stepson, one stepdaughter); died London 29 August 2003.

Patrick Procktor was a painter of exceptional intelligence and refinement. The tribute he paid his artist friend Stephen Tennant, "an English bird-of-paradise and source of merriment", might equally apply to him.

The annual dinner at the Royal Academy will be much duller for his anarchic absence, that tapering six-foot-six frame, topped by a fez, seemingly on the verge of imminent collapse as it swayed and teetered above the throng. And Marylebone has never been the same since the fire in 1999 that destroyed his flat and drove him from a neighbourhood he had graced with his hats and trailing scarves, velvet coats and carpet slippers for the last 40 years. But for all his camp and ironic ways Procktor was a man of great compassion and artistic conviction.

Patrick Procktor's heyday was the 1960s. In English art he and his friend David Hockney personified the languid efflorescence of the age. His friendships encompassed the worlds of pop, art, fashion and society from Princess Margaret, whose loyalty to him never wavered, to Ossie Clark. "It's a great honour that he should consent to draw you," Joe Orton was told by his theatre director in 1967. The resulting image of Orton, with nothing but his socks on, caused a scandal.

Yet even at the height of his success Procktor, like Hockney, was moving from experimentation to observation; and, following the fashion for water-based acrylic, had returned with renewed interest to watercolour itself, a medium and technique still fashionably regarded today as unacceptably retro. He was spellbound by its mysterious properties, preferring to call it "air painting" and marvelling at its ability to resolve like "a pointillist happening for elves".

Over the next 30 years of his comparative eclipse he became a master in the medium - portraits, landscapes, flowers, still lifes each achieved, remarkably, with a single brush. But he also made many fine print editions, mostly in aquatint, including a memorable Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1976); produced theatre designs; and painted portraits of great panache in oils, as well as large canvases of abrasive and imaginative power, the darkest and last done this year.

All this work met with scant critical or public recognition. That there is not a single Procktor canvas in the Tate collection is both absurd and a sad reflection of his fall from fashionable approval.

Patrick Procktor was born in Dublin in 1936, the younger of two brothers; but he was not Irish, as his Wildean persona led people to suppose. His father, a brilliant accountant, died in 1940 and his mother had to pursue a career - in hotel management - to send her children to boarding school. It was a blow when lack of money forced Patrick to leave Highgate School at 16. He had shone in acting and Classics and was destined for Oxford. He also liked his art teacher, Kyffin Williams. Williams recalled: "He just drifted into my art class, knocked off some very pleasant watercolours and oils, and drifted out again." Late in their lives he wrote of his most famous pupil and fellow Academician:

If I summed up his art in a single word it would be charm. Charming in the way Gainsborough is charming and most of the best English art.

Procktor enjoyed his National Service in the Royal Navy. He was assigned to learn Russian and after demob worked as an interpreter, visiting the Soviet Union three times at the height of the Cold War. His Marxism made him a Communist sympathiser, but he was too anarchic ever to be truly doctrinaire in anything. More important was the revelation of Russian literature and ballet. He always believed his true calling was acting but he felt his height disqualified him, so he decided to go to art school at the Slade instead. None the less he treasured an art critic's description of him as "a comic off the old boards". "One hopes to entertain," he would say.

His interest in art had been galvanised by a visit to a Francis Bacon show at the Hanover Gallery in London and Richard Buckle's 1954 Diaghilev exhibition. Buckle later became a close friend and commissioned some vast murals from him for Expo 67 in Montreal.

Procktor entered the Slade in 1958 and sold his first painting, a watercolour, at the Redfern Gallery. Watercolour suited his anarchic temperament. It was "a gamble, a throw of the dice", but it was not for another 10 years that he returned to the medium in earnest. "In all the years at art school no watercolour box was seen," he remembered. The sale of the picture began a lifelong association with the Redfern Gallery, especially sustained by its present director Maggie Thornton, his "Picture-Dealer Extraordinary".

The Slade brought close friendships with a number of artists. Among them was the Principal, William Coldstream, from whom he took over the lease on the Marylebone flat; and with a fellow student, Michael Upton, he visited Greece, instigating a taste for travel in ancient and exotic places he never lost - China, Egypt, India, Japan, Morocco, Venice, all similarly the subject of paintings and prints. He found "the light in Egypt is violet, in China daffodil, in Venice opalescent". His panoramic mural of Venice upstairs at Langan's Brasserie off Piccadilly is the most public of these works.

Hockney has described Procktor's post-Sixties career as a stylistic drift eastward, in subject matter and economy of means. Hockney by contrast moved to Los Angeles. Procktor considered America vulgar and nicknamed him "Mae West". One of Hockney's best and largest portraits is of Procktor.

In 1963 Procktor's début solo show, at the Redfern, established his reputation. The success enabled him to buy the lease on the flat, which became legendary for its bedroom wall on which he invited artist friends to paint a flower - Auerbach, Cecil Beaton, Hockney, Kitaj and many more contributing to this celebration of Flower Power.

The Redfern success led to his inclusion in the ground-breaking "New Generation" show in 1964 at the Whitechapel Gallery under the inspired direction of Bryan Robertson. Robertson cited him as an artist passionately upholding "the Marxist viewpoint of relating art to society" while attempting to "project a new image of man" without relapsing into "devitalised and academic formula" or resorting to total abstraction.

Kirsten and James Benson, founders of Odin's restaurant in Marylebone, lived in the flat below Procktor's, and when James was killed in a car crash in 1966 another friend and neighbour, Peter Langan, helped her run the restaurant. (Langan didn't found his own brasserie until 1975.) Procktor was Langan's first customer at Odin's and it was through his influence and introductions that it became what Langan called an "artists' caff", unique in London at the time.

Procktor consoled Kirsten Benson and in 1973 they married. They had a son, Nicholas, to add to his stepchildren, Edward and Juliet. The children, travel and art were his chief consolation after her death 10 years later. His inability to continue his dictated autobiography, Self-Portrait (1991), beyond the fatal year of 1984 showed the depth of his loss. In the late 1980s he made a Channel 4 documentary, My Britain, the more poignant for a soundtrack of him playing a slow blues on the piano. But he was never self-pitying. After Cecil Beaton died he cheered his friends by quipping: "He'll be photographing God by now."

His election to the Royal Academy in 1996 was a long-overdue acknowledgment of his standing as an artist and one he enjoyed greatly not least for the trouble it allowed him to cause. At an annual dinner he reduced his unlucky table companion John Cleese to morose silence by saying that talking to him confirmed what he had always suspected, that he was devoid of humour. And he mischievously spoilt a vote by placing the balls in the wrong boxes. Procktor was often perverse to his cost, but he despised consistency and convention.

The fire in 1999 was a shock to a constitution that was already frail and causing ever more frequent visits to hospital. The support of his family and friends was constant and appreciated but to no avail. His last, dark, masterpiece was painted this spring, inspired by Robert Browning's "A Serenade at the Villa":

That was I, you heard last night,

When there rose no moon at all,

Nor, to pierce the strained and tight

Tent of heaven, a planet small:

Life was dead and so was light.

He knew it was his last, defiant, statement.

John McEwen

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