Gardening: Why is hanging too good for us?

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The Independent Online
APART FROM this year, I have always loved the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy (until 16 August). It is what England expects of every dutiful painter. Like Wimbledon fortnight, it has the power to make one odd corner of the human enterprise compelling, even to those who take little interest in it for the rest of the year.

It is a show dedicated to the celebration of how floral and green and personable England is. Even its domestic and urban images strike one as verdant. The show is above all, and necessarily, middle- brow. Better still, it is confidently middle-brow. There must, of course, be a smattering of nervous-breakdown abstracts, but everyone knows they are there to provide cartoon material for Osbert Lancaster in heaven. There will also, inevitably, be a few nods in the direction of some grimly liberal cause (to have included one ugly portrait of Salman Rushdie was right on; to have included two looks like crawling).

Mostly, however, one is free to tour and feel one's spirits lifted. Take, for instance, the tiny offering from Hugh Casson: postcard-sized, sun-drenched holiday scenes are stripped to bare, minute essentials, and I would murder for one if my eyes were better.

All the same, as I went round my mood darkened. My friend Pete Webb, who lives beside a scrap of Epping Forest and who looks just like Stanley Spencer, has two paintings in the show. One is a striking, workmanlike portrait of a lady of whom he is fond. But the grotesque hanging committee has again missed the chance to hang a Webb owned by Mrs North and me, and I am beginning to feel slighted.

Years ago it dismissed his 6ft by 3ft Flight into Egypt, a joyous medieval fantasy filled with light and angels and field weeds (the last mostly done by the artist's wife), in which the holy family is donkeying through a hummocky English valley against a backdrop of misty mountains.

The committee's mistake in that case was egregious enough. But this year it failed to select a 7ft by 4ft portrait, The Norths in London. We look a pretty ordinary bunch, scattered around the back garden of our Victorian terraced house. We look neither bourgeois nor hippie, which is right. The boy looks a little aggressive, which he is not, although he does sometimes have the slightly bulldog scowl and manner that growing boys assume.

I asked Pete to change the boy's face, but he would not. This may be some sort of sign of the times - a Venetian patron of the arts would surely have got what he wanted - but then, my payment to Pete was small, his generosity was great and my money was late. Perhaps, after all, he was free to do as he damn well pleased.

I like the picture partly for its meticulous portrayal of hundreds of varicoloured London stock bricks, against which our resident blackbird mum flies like a love bomber. There are the greyish bricks that repaired the blast damage of the war, and the warm yellow ones I paid for when the Independent's shilling enabled me to do some gentrifying after years of slobbing along in a surprisingly rustic slum.

I do not say this painting should have displaced the ebullient, sweet family portraits by John Ward. Show that man a leggy young woman, or her mother, and he will capture an English sexiness as no other can. His slightly hammy portraits speak of frankness and reserve, of confidence that does not shade into arrogance, and they are fine.

I would not even have the North family displace the paintings of Norman Hepple, Humphrey Ocean and Ken Howard, whose work may not make the earth move, but may at least give people a reason to get up in the morning. But it stuck in my craw to see three enormous, virtually identical pieces called Alone, Also Wounded by Love (I, II and III, if you please). Any one of these could have been booted out to free up a bit of wall space for Pete's painting. Their only merit was that they were erotic.

It is curious how sexy paintings can be and odd, too, how one is free to wander around a picture gallery frankly revelling in feasts of breast and thigh and warm afternoon light and rumpled beds, plundering intimate moments in studios and bedrooms and feeling no taint.

Anyway, I know I add a third ambition to my one-man mission statement, which I hope will motivate me without binding me overly to the temporal world. All I want is a seat in the House of Lords, an appearance on Desert Island Discs, and to see in the Summer Exhibition a painting I own. I wonder how Pete is on acres of flesh?

(Photograph omitted)

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