Son's stark portrait of a family at war

`It's a very intrusive view of a very raw life. When you look at them it's breathtaking - you think, how could anyone compile such a record?'
Click to follow
The Independent Online
As a set of family snapshots, they reveal a slice of family life that is less than idyllic. But then Richard Billingham's photographs of his mother, father and brother at home are not ordinary snapshots.

Scenes from his dysfunctional family life include his tattooed mother beating up his father, his father, a chronic alcoholic, falling off a chair and passed out holding a filthy toilet. In one picture even the family cat and dog are fighting.

It is unlikely that the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, central London, has ever shown such scenes of squalor and brutality before. Or a Spar meat pie. But the photographs will form one of the highlights of the RA's "Sensation" exhibition, which opens next month.

The photographs, like the rest of the exhibits, are owned by Charles Saatchi. All the pieces from his collection are by young British artists who, according to the RA, highlight "the vitality and inventiveness of current British art".

Jenny Blyth, curator of the Saatchi Gallery, says that the photographs are astonishing. "It's a very intrusive view of a very raw life. When you look at them it's breathtaking - you think, how could anyone compile such a record?" she said.

Billingham's photographs indeed comprise an extraordinary family record. His father, Ray, rarely leaves the house, but drinks "home brew", made by a friend in a neighbouring tower block.

At one point, according to Billingham, his father kept the home- brew bucket by the bed for convenience and drank it from a plastic jug.

His mother, Liz, rarely drinks "but she does smoke a lot of cigarettes". In the pictures, her tattooed arms, and often violent posturing make her an intimidating presence.

But in one picture she beams with happiness while feeding a tiny kitten with a pipette.

The family's flat is pictured with brutal honesty - complete with filthy floors and half-eaten food, and the remaining impression is one of horror, squalor, but also occasional compassion.

It is hard to imagine that the family enjoy being portrayed in this manner. But Richard Billingham, 27, says that both his parents and his brother are "very happy" with the photographs.

"Neither I nor they are shocked by its directness because we're all well- enough acquainted with having to live with poverty. After all, there are millions of other people in Britain living similarly," he writes, in an accompaniment to the photographs. "It is certainly not my intention to shock, to offend, sensationalise, be political or whatever."

Billingham began using his camera to compile reference material for paintings, while he was still living at home. At first, he said, he did not want to let on to the other students who his subjects were, because of the difference in their backgrounds.

Finally telling students and tutors who the pictures were of, he said, was "a load off me", and since then he has been taking pictures of them not just as reference but as an attempt to understand his family.

"Sensation" will be shown at the Royal Academy from 18 September. The exhibition will feature work by 40 artists, including Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Jake and Dinos Chapman.