In the world of rock music you don't get a greater icon than Syd Barrett, the founder member of Pink Floyd. After his time in the band that changed the face of rock in the Sixties and having succumbed to LSD, Barrett turned his back on psychedelic music and returned to his hometown, Cambridge, to live out his days as a recluse and to paint. Now for the first time we can see the results.
More than 30 of his artworks that until now have never been viewed will be exhibited in Cambridge, as part of The City Wakes, a series of events in tribute to him. Few of the original paintings Barrett created during the last 25 years of his life remain due to his tendency to spend weeks on a project and then photograph the piece before burning it. Among the large, colourful abstract canvases that will be shown at the exhibition are the photographs he took of the pieces he destroyed as well as rare memorabilia, including love letters, photographs of the young Barrett and song lyrics. The exhibition has been curated by Stephen Pyle, his close friend and contemporary at Homerton College and later at the Cambridge School of Art, as well as Barrett's family.
Barrett had been a keen artist as a child. In an interview, his younger sister Rosemary Breen said of her brother: "I suppose people first realised there was something a bit special about him when they saw his paintings as a child. He would do pencil drawings that were just exceptional and he had what it took to draw what he saw."
When Barrett moved to London he gained a scholarship to the prestigious Camberwell College of Arts, but he stopped painting while singing, writing music and playing guitar in Pink Floyd. When Barrett moved back to Cambridge in 1981 not only did he revert to his childhood roots as a painter, but he spurned the name that associated him with his role in Pink Floyd and reclaimed his birth name Roger.
According to Rosemary Breen, Barrett "always considered himself an artist not a musician. For him music always went alongside art and if anything he was probably moved off a more obvious path by music. Music was a fun thing but art was where his real love was. The music came to the fore because of Pink Floyd but without that he would have carried on the art and I think would have had a much more fulfilling life."
Barrett would only ever paint for himself, rejecting requests for commissions. In an auction which followed his death in July 2006, aged 60, his artworks, which included nine original paintings, raised £121,000 for art training in Cambridge.
The City Wakes, Cambridge (www.thecitywakes.org.uk), 22 October to 1 November
'GENTLE SOBRIETY': THE CRITIC'S VIEW
The sad story of Syd Barrett's decline has been re-told and sensationalised beyond measure. And yet behind the self-destructiveness there was an interesting and talented painter always striving to emerge from behind all that inner chaos, and not one who was merely self-taught either – as so many rock stars have been. Think of Ronnie. Think of Paul. And in certain respects, the later paintings of Syd Barrett show a man who is not so much resigned to destroying his life as systematically trying to re-build it. Painting, after all, had been his first love. Born in Cambridge, he went to Cambridge Art School, and then to Camberwell College of Art in London.
But it is the paintings of his later years which demand most attention. Syd could be wild with paint when he was a young man – his violent abstractions seem to mimic the wildness of his behaviour on and off the stage – but later on, his paintings began to attend to the facts of the world, and even to the hold that his local Fenland landscape had upon him. He even did a painstaking watercolour portrait of a tortoise, gently ambling, as tortoises are wont to do. The unpretentious titles of some of these paintings testify to their gentle sobriety too: 'Field and Flowers', 'Big Green Landscape', 'Flowers'.
Although they nod from time to time in the direction of abstraction, and have remnants of wild mark-making, they are, beneath all the stylistic flurry – and that's what it feels to be – unadorned transcriptions of things seen and valued. 'Flowers', for example, approaches the delicacy and fragility of touch of a painting by David Jones, for example. 'Field And Flowers' looks like a landscape of East Anglia – the cluster of flowers in the foreground, painted with a kind of raggedly spontaneous ease; the long rake of a field in the middle ground, topped by a high sky. Only in the turbulent smears of 'Blue and Red Landscape', with those furiously squiggly smudgings, do we feel the world closing in on Barrett. For the most part, these paintings feel like an area of his life in which he was managing to re-find himself, a kind of rest from all the torment – and the hard-won triumphs – of the psychedelic years. The paintings even feel a touch serenely paradisal, as if somewhere just beyond his mother's semi in Cambridge, Syd could half-glimpse the long vanished world of Samuel Palmer.
By Michael Glover
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