Interiors: Time capsule

Victor Pasmore's art was characterised by change, but his house remained frozen in time. Jane Burton finds his son living in a slice of the Sixties

Jane Burton
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:51
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AS AN artist, Victor Pasmore, who died in January last year at the age of 89, never stood still. Having first made his name as a painter of sensitive landscapes, he converted to abstraction in 1948, a move which was hailed by the critic and writer Herbert Read as "the most revolutionary event in post-war British art". In the Fifties his wooden and Perspex wall reliefs gained him a reputation as one of the leaders of Britain's constructivist revival. Later he turned from rigid geometries to more lyrical and organic forms, painting delicate, quivering harmonies of line and saturated colour.

Pasmore's late-Georgian house in Blackheath, London, is something of a monument to the many stages of this various and distinguished career. Canvases pepper the walls and are stacked four or five deep in any spare corner. Spiky, large-scale constructions rub shoulders with fluidly abstract prints and impressionistic views. There are paintings by Pasmore's wife, Wendy, photographs by his artist son John; even an imposing still life by his friend and contemporary William Coldstream hanging, rather incongruously, over the bath.

Curiously, though Pasmore's art continued to evolve, the development of his house halted abruptly in the mid-Sixties. For the last 30 years of his life, Pasmore and his wife spent most of their time at their second home in Malta, entrusting the Blackheath house to the care of their son. It remains, to this day, just as they left it in 1968, with floating wooden ceilings, an acreage of tongue-and-groove panelling, and a now fashionably retro selection of furniture; a perfectly preserved microcosm of the tastes and styles of the decade.

"I don't see it as a time warp at all," says John Pasmore, who, at 57, has spent the best part of a lifetime in the house, having grown up there, and returned as a young man of 27 when his parents moved to Malta. "It's alive for me in terms of memories, so it's not at all oppressive." The Pasmores bought the house, on the Heath, in 1947 at a knockdown price: "I think Blackheath was rather out of the way then - still is perhaps," says John. "It was in a bit of a state because a bomb had dropped at the end of the road, and there was no real roof on the place."

When the Pasmores decided to uproot and asked John to move back in, they agreed to shift their bedroom down to the ground floor, and to install another kitchen and bathroom, effectively creating a self-contained flat for themselves. It is this part of the house, indelibly stamped by Pasmore's creative eye, which is least altered, and so the most intriguing.

John has taken over the upper floors (he separated from his wife in the Seventies). His daughter Emma, 27, a psychology student, lives in the basement with her fiance. John's mother Wendy, now in her eighties, still makes the occasional visit, though less these days. "She's developed a sort of sanctuary with 40 cats, six dogs, doves and pigeons over in Malta. That's one of the reasons she rarely comes back."

This flexible approach to extended family living has seen the house remoulded over the years, as children and friends have passed through. The result is a comfortable, if slightly chaotic warren of oddly collaged spaces, an office in what was once a bedroom, a kitchen in a sitting-room."I was asked how many bedrooms there are, for some sort of insurance quote," says John, bemused. "I didn't know. I suppose it depends where you put the beds. There are about 15 rooms."

He seems quite content to coexist with the relics of his parents' past, and rather than stripping away the panelling that covers almost every fireplace, or turning out the old furniture, he prefers simply to add another archaeological layer. "I tend to go to boot sales and second-hand shops," he says. "My taste is fairly minimal and practical."

For the most part, the Sixties reign unchallenged. "My father was never very good at handiwork - he had a one-track mind on art. I did a lot of the carpentry and decorating for them," John explains. "In the early Sixties they put in the floating ceilings. If they'd stayed on, things would have changed again, but they were never here. They came back to renew their visas, but never stayed for more than eight days."

The cross-over between art and architecture had long fascinated Pasmore. From 1955 he was involved in the planning of Peterlee New Town, in County Durham, an enlightened attempt to inject some artistic imagination into the sprawling estates of the post-war housing boom. He designed a sculptural "constructivist" pavilion by a lake and collaborated on the spatial layout of homes and roads.

On a humbler scale, the same interest in spatial relationships is evident in this house. The large, airy sitting-room in the ground-floor flat is a pristine white rectangle, with crisp louvre blinds at the windows, and neutral rush matting on the floor. "He took off all the picture rails because they interrupted the space," says John. "Some people think it's absolutely shocking."

One end of the room is sectioned off by a slatted wooden screen which hides the kitchen - a gleaming homage to formica, complete with period Magimix and ancient hotplates. A suspended pine canopy hovers above it, like the lid on a box. The structure, with its carefully balanced planes, echoes the shapes of Pasmore's geometric reliefs, which hang on the adjoining walls. "It serves no particular purpose, but it makes the space more dynamic," says John. "It is part and parcel of his way of looking at things."

The sitting-room's low-slung sofa was made by the firm Hille, and came from Heals. The rest of the decor is a mongrel assortment of anonymous finds, coupled with some of John's impressive DIY - he constructed the one-legged dining table which sprouts modishly from the wall. There is a cluster of chrome and leather Bauhaus-style dining chairs, and an ascetic "z-bend" wooden chair, a fine example of the Sixties predilection for a hip kind of form over function; it was, after all, the decade that brought us the lava lamp.

Pasmore's favourite was a rather more comfortable, s-shaped, bent-cane affair, in which he liked to sit for hours poring over what he called his "Bible", a scrapbook of pictures of art. The well-thumbed album is still there, shelved between the cookery books in the kitchen. In the bedroom next door, the spatial games continue. An expanse of tongue-and- groove lends the room the air of a ship-shape cabin. Another suspended ceiling is pierced by what looks like a fireman's pole running down to the floor. As John points out: "It wasn't intended as a support, just pure design."

Arranged on top of a "two-tone" chest of drawers at the end of a double bed are various mementoes, sentimental rather than valuable objects; among them the tender love tokens which Pasmore gave to Wendy every Valentine's day, including bits of painted wood, and a tiny picture made from Perspex, emblazoned with red hearts. The drawers are still full of clothes. "I pinched his suit, which is what I'm wearing to my daughter's wedding in July. I don't need Moss Bros," John laughs, demonstrating the bluff practicality which characterises his attitude to living with his father's legacy.

Just along the hallway is Pasmore's studio. High windows open on to the long walled garden and, to judge by old photographs of Pasmore at work, it is little changed. His easel is still in its place, even the chrome chair is exactly the same, but it is now John's black and white photographs that line the walls. Abstracted from natural forms such as stones and trees, they share a certain familial resemblance to the biomorphic shapes of Pasmore's later paintings.

This is John's only real incursion into his father's space, and he had discussed the idea of taking over the studio the year before Pasmore died. As for the rest, frozen in its immaculate Sixties moment, how much longer can it last? "It's a bit silly having such a huge place. Ridiculous, really. Emma's getting married and will want her own house soon," he sighs. "My attachment would make it difficult for me to get out. But I wouldn't want to rattle round here forever."

Victor Pasmore: Changing the Process of Painting, Tate, Liverpool until next year (0151 702 7400). A Retrospective, Marlborough Fine Art, London W1 until 30 July (0171 629 5161)

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