Quantities of Quant

inquiring_minds_page_2_image_0002_37

Until 16th February 2020, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is celebrating the career of Dame Mary Quant whose work as a fashion designer led her to become a powerful role model for women. Spanning twenty years from 1955 onwards, the Mary Quant exhibition displays clothing from her experimental brand Bazaar, Parisian couture and her success across the pond. Popularising the mini-skirt, hot pants and other fun fashion trends, Mary Quant revolutionised fashion throughout the world.

Barbara Mary Quant was born on 11th February 1930 in Blackheath, London to Welsh teachers Jack and Mildred. Her early life was marred by food and clothing rationings due to WWII, however, she was determined to become a fashion designer. Her parents, who studied at Cardiff University in order to earn first-class degrees and become teachers, were disappointed with their daughter’s ambitions and encouraged her to think about more conventional career choices for women. As a compromise, Quant attended Goldsmiths College to study illustration with the intention to train as an art teacher. College life introduced Quant to new and exciting people and prospects, resulting in an apprenticeship at Erik, a high-end Mayfair milliner.

Mary Quant’s ambitions to become a fashion designer were realised shortly after meeting her future husband and business partner Alexander Plunket Greene (d.1990) in 1953. The couple married in 1957 and later had a son named Orlando (b.1970). Two years before they became husband and wife, Quant and Plunket Greene teamed up with a friend, Archie McNair, to open a boutique called Bazaar. The shop was situated on the corner of Markham Square and King’s Road in Chelsea in a building above the basement restaurant Alexander’s, owned by Plunket Greene.

Quant began sourcing materials, quirky garments and jewellery from wholesale warehouses and art schools to fill her new shop, as well as producing unique works of fashion. Bazaar was described as “a bouillabaisse of clothes … and peculiar odds and ends,” and stock sold out during the opening night. Encouraged by this, Quant continued to make masses of dresses in her own home to sell in the shop. Every day, she bought fabric from the department store Harrods in Knightsbridge, opposite which, three years later, she opened her second boutique.

Whilst Bazaar was successful, allowing Quant to purchase expensive fabrics, the constant repetition of selling during the day and making new stock overnight was exhausting. Nonetheless, Quant persevered and was rewarded with a flourishing business. Due to making each garment by hand, there was usually only one of each design. The examples shown at the V&A are labelled with the name of the person who wore the piece. It was not until the 1960s that Quant began to work with machinists, who were able to produce her garments more rapidly. By 1966, she was working with 18 different manufacturers, which allowed her to mass-produce her popular designs.

Quant’s designs were influenced by London’s youth culture, which included dancers, Beatniks and the Mods (Modernists). Her clothes were modern and totally different from the acceptable style of dress for women during the war years. Simple and easy to wear, Quant aimed to produce clothes that were “relaxed … suited to the actions of normal life.” More women were going to work and needed appropriate clothing but Quant believed that did not mean they could not be stylish too.

As can be seen throughout the exhibition, Quant experimented with scale, proportion, and style. She incorporated features from the clothing of previous decades and centuries with modern ideas. Collared shirts and bodices were combined with short skirts, bright fabrics, and tights. Quant also recreated some of the clothes she wore as a child, altering parts to make them suitable for an adult. She also styled dresses on men’s clothing, for example, long male cardigans or jumpers.

By “borrowing from the boys”, Quant introduced tailoring cloth, which was intended for suits or military uniforms, to women’s clothing. In doing this, Quant broke fashion hierarchies and gender rules; no longer were certain materials reserved for particular people or classes. Items that were once only considered wearable by the upper classes were suddenly available to everyone. With clothing slightly bordering on satire, Quant allowed women to dress as bankers or barristers as well as the more feminine secretary.

mary_quant_107-resized

In 1963, Quant launched her Ginger Group collection, which was mass-produced and available in 75 outlets across the UK. The name comes from a political term for a pressure group, using the term ginger as a verb meaning to “pep things up”. Whereas Quant’s clothing was already popular, she wanted to produce modern and edgy clothing for a wider clientele.

Quant’s inspiration for the first Ginger Group collection was American sportswear. Rather than all-in-one dresses, she designed items that could be paired together with different things, thus the wearer could mix their wardrobe up without exceeding their bank balance by buying several outfits. The name of the collection led itself to an unusual “ginger” colour palette, which involved a range of red and orange tones.

quant-stones-960

Ginger Group Crêpe Dress, modelled by Patti Boyd with the Rolling Stones

Having conquered London and the rest of Britain, Quant set her sights on the United States of America. In 1960, Quant and her husband flew out to New York, just two years after the first commercial transatlantic flight. American journalists had previously written about Quant’s “kooky” look and she was welcomed to the States as a celebrity.

During her first trip to America, Quant pitched her ideas to US department stores and met fashion editors interested in her “ready-to-wear” system. Rapidly, her clothing was purchased and displayed in store windows throughout New York.

In 1962, Quant signed a contract with the American department-store chain JC Penney. When her Ginger Collection launched the following year, her clothing was suddenly at the forefront of the mass market. By 1965, Quant was regularly flying between London and New York.

Quant shared the success of her Ginger Collection with the manufacturer Steinberg & Sons, who assisted with production, supplies, and exports. By 1965, Quant was producing 50 designs a year for the Ginger Collection as well as her other dresses. Working six months ahead, Quant produced sketches for future lines, which were costed and approved at the Steinburg head office before being sent to their seamstresses. The V&A includes a couple of Quant’s sketches in the exhibition.

In 1963, not only was Quant working on her Ginger Collection, she was establishing her Wet Collection too. A new material called PVC (polyvinyl chloride) was gradually making its way into the fashion industry. It had previously only been used for protective garments but Quant was fascinated by “this super shiny man-made stuff and its shrieking colours … its gleaming liquorice black, white and ginger.” The Wet Collection was launched at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, and only contained garments produced in this plastic-coated cotton material.

Despite being unlike anything they had seen before, fashion editors and buyers were inspired by the “space-age” look and orders flooded in. This collection earned Quant her first magazine cover for British Vogue, which featured her bright red PVC rain mac. Unfortunately, there was a delay in launching the collection on the high street due to a problem with the seams of the garments. Standard sewing machines could not tightly seal the seams and often caused the material to rip or melt. Specialist machinery was needed, which was eventually found through collaboration with Alligator Rainwear in 1965.

2018kp4738_jpg_l
In 1963, The Sunday Times had awarded Mary Quant with an International Award for “jolting England out a conventional attitude towards clothes” but in 1966 she received a more prestigious award. Wearing a cream wool jersey dress with a low waist, short gathered skirt, high collar and bell-shaped sleeves with blue top-stitching and brass zippers, Mary Quant arrived at Buckingham Palace with her husband and their business partner. Hours later, Quant left with an OBE (Officer for the British Empire) as an award for her contribution to the UK fashion export trade and supporting the British economy.

Already known across the world, this event promoted her clothing further in international newspapers. Using the opportunity of all the media attention, Quant began to produce other items under her brand name. Recognised by her big Daisy logo, Quant began to sell makeup (male and female), hats, bags, stockings, underwear, colouring books, knitting patterns and so much more.

In 1966, Quant trademarked her daisy emblem, which became easily recognisable, attracting more customers to her brand. This was one of the first designer logos and it helped to establish the authenticity of her clothing and mark them apart from rival brands. The daisy logo lent its name to Quant’s next big idea, the Daisy doll. Quant moved to the toy market in 1973 with “the best-dressed doll in the world”. Daisy enabled the next generation to connect with her brand. The doll wore miniature versions of Mary Quant designs and the launch at the Harrogate Toy Fair involved models dancing down a catwalk wearing life-size versions of Daisy’s wardrobe.

“The shock of the knee”

Of all Mary Quant’s designs, she is undoubtedly known best for the miniskirt. Since the war years, the length of women’s skirts had gradually shortened to knee-length, however, Quant took it even further. Based on children’s pinafores, Quant rose her hemlines well above the knee causing scandal amongst the older generation. The teenage dance scene of the 60s, however, embraced the new fashion and by 1966 many young women were wearing the newly titled miniskirt. The style also became an international symbol of London’s youth and women’s liberation.

With the miniskirt becoming accepted in society, Mary Quant used a new type of wool jersey to produce a new style of her signature minidresses: the Jersey Dress. In keeping with her previous sporty theme, the machine-knitted dresses allowed for fluidity of movement at the same time as being fashionable. They were practical, affordable, and most importantly, crease-free.

Quant experimented with different shapes and colours. Some jersey dresses had a skater skirt, whereas others were more like long jumpers or shirts. The material allowed for embellishments, such as buttons, collars, and zips, which also became a recognisable element of her brand.

69987283_10217227557392435_8448084505251545088_n

The miniskirt was not the only new fashion Quant introduced to the modern generations. Already mentioned are her PVC rainwear but one of her greatest ideas were tights and long socks. Previously, women had to suffer fiddly suspender-belts and nude coloured stockings but Quant wanted to change this. Marks and Spencer had already introduced tights to the market, however, at 12 shillings a pair (three times the price of stockings) they had not yet caught on. Quant proposed brighter coloured stockings and tights – bright mustard yellow, ginger, and prune – that would match her miniskirts and jersey dresses.

Partnering with the Nylon Hosiery Company, Quant designed stockings and tights that enabled women to dance, run and move. The company developed a technique of making self-supporting long stockings that joined together at the top; therefore, women no longer needed to use suspender-belts.

Another of Quant’s contributions to fashion is trousers for women. Historically, trousers were a male item of clothing and, whilst Quant did not invent the female version, she pushed to make them more acceptable. Women, particularly students, were comfortable wearing trousers, however, most only wore them to informal occasions or at home. Quant wanted to make trousers acceptable for women in the workplace, at parties and other formal events. Not many Mary Quant trousers exist today, however, the result of her determination to make them a regular part of female fashion can be seen in every clothes shop today.

The last of Quant’s major contributions to fashion were hotpants and loungewear. Combining the miniskirt and trousers, Quant produced extremely short shorts that bemused department stores; which section should they sell them in?

“As I love breaking down barriers all this was great fun. Quite soon this collection was promoted as ‘underwear as outerwear’ and vice versa.”
– Mary Quant, Quant by Quant, 1966

Never before had people worn such revealing clothing but the trend caught on quickly amongst the younger members of society. Today, shorts and hotpants are acceptable forms of clothing for women but in the 60s and 70s, this was a risky, although successful, move for Quant.

Loungewear combined trousers, jersey dresses, and hotpants to create stretch towelling one-piece suits. Some had full-length legs that included feet (a precursor of the “onesie”) and others were short zip-up versions. Their purpose was to be worn when lounging at home, which was a foreign concept in Britain at the time. Women only had dressing gowns, which were worn last thing at night and first thing in the morning. The thought of laying around during the day was alien enough, let alone having special clothes in which to do it.

Quant’s inspiration for loungewear came from Babygro (invented in the US in the 1950s). This was the adult version of a baby’s outfit. When reflecting on her designs, Quant once said, “I didn’t want to grow up, perhaps that’s something to do with it.” This explains many of her designs, not just loungewear.

Most of Mary Quant’s greatest fashion achievements occurred within the twenty years shown in the exhibition. Throughout the 70s and 80s, she decided to concentrate more on homeware and make-up than only clothing. This included the duvet, which she dubiously claims she invented.

3353057385_6af29223f9_b

In 1988, Quant designed the interior of the Mini (1000) Designer. Dubbed the Mini Quant, it featured black-and-white striped seats with red trimming and red seatbelts. The steering wheel featured her signature daisy.

In 2000, Mary Quant resigned from Mary Quant Ltd, selling the company to a Japanese business; there are currently over 200 Mary Quant shops in Japan. Nonetheless, her fame lives on in Britain and she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to British fashion. Quant is also a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers and the winner of the society’s highest award, the Minerva Medal.

The Mary Quant exhibition is a must-see for those who grew up wearing or being influenced by Quant’s designs. It is also interesting for the younger generations who were not around to experience the fashion first hand, but who benefit daily from her contributions. Mary Quant is a phenomenal woman who single-handedly became known and loved for her designs long before they were mass-produced. She knew she wanted to be a fashion designer from a young age and she made her dream come true.

The V&A are exhibiting Mary Quant until 16th February 2020. Standard tickets are £12, although concessions apply. The exhibition takes place on two levels but it has been made wheelchair friendly.

Bowling on Through the Years

“The possibilities of paint are never-ending.”
– Frank Bowling, 2017

frank_bowling_09

For the first time in his career, the 85-year-old Frank Bowling has been honoured with a major retrospective of his life and artwork by Tate Britain in London. The exhibition offers the chance to view the best of Bowling’s works and discover an artist that many know little or anything about. His large canvases dominate the rooms and show off his unique techniques, including his “Map Paintings” and “Poured Painting”. Being the first black man to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts, it is surprising Frank Bowling is not better known.

Richard Sheridan Patrick Michael Aloysius Franklin Bowling, shortened to Frank, was born on 26th February 1934 in Bartica, British Guiana (now Guyana). His father, Richard Sheridan Bowling, was a police paymaster and his mother, Agatha Elizabeth Franklin Bowling was a seamstress. When Frank was six-years-old, the family moved to New Amsterdam on the Berbice River in the north-east of the country where his mother established the Bowling’s Variety Store. Frank grew up helping his mother, which included washing the feet of beggars who came to the store for a meal. His father, on the other hand, showed him very little love.

In 1953, Bowling flew to England to live with an uncle and finish his education. He dreamed of becoming a writer or poet but soon after he had finished school, he was drafted into the Royal Air Force for two years. After this, the young South American decided to train as a painter, first enrolling at the Regent Street Polytechnic, then the Chelsea School of Art. In 1959, Bowling was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art’s (RAC) Painting School where he became acquainted with other talented students, including David Hockney (b.1937) and Ronald Brooks Kitaj (1931-2007).

In 1960, Bowling was expelled from the college after marrying Paddy Kitchen, a writer and art critic, who was a member of staff at the time. Despite this, Bowling was determined to persevere with his art and enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London for one term. Here, he began to develop a taste for the artist Francis Bacon (1909-92), which is evident in his earlier work. Fortunately, the RAC was persuaded to readmit Bowling, which is where he finished his art training. His letter of readmission is on display in the exhibition.

Birthday, 1962

Birthday, 1962

Bowling’s penchant for abstract art was clear during his time at art college. When the students were asked to produce a painting on the theme of birthdays, Bowling did not go down the obvious route. Instead, he produced an impressionistic oil painting of a woman giving birth. When he was younger, Bowling witnessed a neighbour giving birth and the intense pain he observed stayed in his mind for many years.

Titled simply Birthday (1962), Bowling appropriated Francis Bacon’s style of composition, including line work and brushwork. Whilst the open window is fairly lucid and geometric, the figure of the woman in labour is blurred and distorted.

As well as Francis Bacon, Bowling was influenced by a number of artists he met. In 1961, he visited New York where he viewed work by people such as Jackson Pollock (1912-56). Pollock’s technique of pouring or splashing liquid household paint onto a horizontal surface was something Bowling would incorporate into his own work later in life.

Unfortunately, many of Frank Bowling’s early works have been destroyed or are missing. He worked in many different London studios during the early 1960s and many paintings were left behind or mislaid whenever he moved. Amongst the missing is a painting Bowling produced in response to a political event. In 1961, the Democratic Republic of the Congo earned their independence from Belgium and installed their first president, Patrice Lumumba (1925-61). Martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba was produce after the president was murdered later that same year.

The year 1962 was quite significant for Frank Bowling. Firstly, his eldest son Dan was born to Paddy Kitchen, shortly followed by his second son Benjamin to another woman, Claire Spencer. Evidently, his marriage to Paddy did not last long. In the same year, Bowling graduated from RCA after writing a thesis about Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). The Dutch painter’s style was another influence for Bowling’s work.

On graduating, Bowling was awarded the silver medal for painting, with David Hockney winning gold. He was offered a travelling scholarship to Rome but requested he visit Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana instead. This was his first trip home in over a decade.

Toward the end of 1962, Bowling held his first major exhibition at Grabowski Gallery in London. His painting Birthday was purchased by the Arts Council and he was able to meet lots of new people who would become friends and mentors.

In his early career, Bowling frequently produced artworks in response to events or things he had witnessed. He produced a series of paintings titled Swan, which was based upon a dying swan drenched in oil he had come across on the River Thames. He used thin, rhombus-shaped canvases for these paintings, an idea he took from an American painter, and filled them with coloured stripes, which was a concept inspired by someone else. His dying swans are painted on top of the geometrically decorated canvases in a less precise manner, almost as if they are moving in an attempt to escape.

Bowling’s swan theme continued in his large scale painting Big Bird (1964). The pattern of the background, reminiscent of Mondrian, is a stark contrast to the expressively abstract birds. In 1965, this painting was submitted to the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal where it won the grand prize for painting. Bowling was not overly keen about participating in the exhibition because he did not want to be categorised as a Black painter. He wanted to be regarded as an artist without his ethnicity taking centre stage. Later in life, he remarked that he felt suffocated by his background and frustrated that the art world focused more on his skin colour than his paintings. He observed that Guyana often felt like the heavy rock the Greek king Sisyphus was doomed to repeatedly roll up a hill.

Despite his aversion to being remembered for his geographic and ethnic backgrounds, Bowling’s life in Guyana featured heavily in his paintings, particularly his childhood home. Bowling continuously experimented with different pictorial approaches and techniques, which included photography and silkscreen. Using photographs of his childhood home, Bowling created a stencil that he could repeatedly use to print the image onto his canvases. In his painting Cover Girl (1966), for example, the image of his old house floats in the background. The “cover girl” in question is based on a photograph of the Japanese model Hiroko Matsumoto (1926-2003) that Bowling found in a copy of the Observer. The dress is inspired by the designs of the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin (b.1922) and the hairstyle by British-American hairstylist Vidal Sassoon (1928-2012).

Painted at a similar time was the carefully worked out composition Mirror (1964-6). Whilst it contains many similar features, for example, the geometric backgrounds and Bacon-esque figures, there is no screen print of Bowling’s childhood home. Instead, Bowling includes two portraits of himself, one standing at the bottom of the stairs and one swinging from the top. The figure in between is Paddy Kitchen to whom he was still married. This particular painting fuses together several different styles, suggesting a rebellion against convention.

By 1964, Bowling had a third son, Sacha, with yet another woman, Irena, who he later married, although they would eventually divorce. The same year, he returned to New York and became acquainted with abstract expressionist Jasper Johns (b.1930). As well as painting, Johns was a sculptor and included found objects on his canvases. This is another idea Bowling would take up later in his career.

Frank Bowling relocated to New York in 1966, the same time that his marriage to Paddy came to an end. The following year, he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, which helped him establish himself in America. He moved into a studio in SoHo, New York, where he lived and worked until 1975.

From 1967 until 1971, Bowling worked on what would become known as his “map paintings”. Tate Britain described these as “Fields of colour … overlaid with stencilled maps of the world and silkscreened images.” Bowling applied paint to the canvas by pouring or spraying, whilst using cut out stencils of various continents, particularly of the southern hemisphere, to block out certain areas, leaving a print of the shape in its place. He also used photographs of his sons or people he met in Guyana on a trip in 1968 with the photographer Tina Tranter.

South America Squared (1967) was the first “map painting” Bowling produced. The square shapes on the red canvas show that he had not quite left behind the influence of Piet Mondrian. To create the shape of South America, Bowling created a stencil with an epidiascope. This technique was introduced to Bowling by his American mentor Larry Rivers (1923–2002).

Polish Rebecca (1971) was named after Bowling’s friend Rita Reinhardt, the widow of the abstract painter Ad Reinhardt (1913-67). She had suffered tragedy during the Second World War when both her parents and sister were murdered during the Holocaust. Although the only “maps” represented are of South America and Africa, Bowling is hinting at the connection between the extermination of Jews in Europe with the dispersion of Jews in the southern regions.

Despite not wanting to be dictated by his past, all of Bowling’s “map paintings” are connected to his roots. Barticaborn I (1967), which was used on promotional material for the exhibition, refers to Bowling’s place of birth. Bartica is situated at the junction of three rivers: Cuyuni, Mazaruni and Essequibo. When visiting New Amsterdam with Tranter, they also went to Bartica to gather inspiration for Bowling’s work.

Around 1973, Bowling began using a new technique, which, although no mention was made in the exhibition, is likely inspired by the work of Jackson Pollock. This sudden change in his method may also be associated with the end of his marriage to Irena.

Bowling began experimenting by pouring different coloured paint onto a canvas and watching them merge together. In his New York Studio and later in his London Studio, which he took up in 1984 and still uses today, he set up a tilting platform, which allows him to pour paint from a height of two metres. The colours spill down the canvas, producing an unpredictable pattern.

All of Bowling’s “poured paintings” are a result of chance. He never began with an idea in mind; he let the flow of the paint take charge. He always titled the outcomes once he was finished, using the events of his daily life and the people he knew for inspiration. The ambiguously titled Ziff (1974) is a typical example of this style of work. Bowling filled the background with colour in a similar manner to his “map paintings” before applying liquid paint whilst the canvas was on the tilted platform.

Kaieteurtoo (1975) was named after having a conversation about the Guyanese tourist attraction Kaieteur Falls. This is the world’s largest single drop waterfall by volume of water flowing, which stands at a height of 226 metres and has a width of 113 metres. This name felt appropriate because the dripping paint almost resembles a cascade of water.

Toward the end of the 1970s, Bowling was applying a growing number of contrasting techniques. As well as using his tilting platform, he used combined washes of paint, spattering and splotching. Although these were similar methods to the aforementioned Pollock, there is no doubt that the results are unique to Frank Bowling. An example of this is At Swim Two Manatee (1977-8), which has a greater density than some of his previous works. By using these unpredictable techniques, Bowling said he was making “painting happen almost as if I didn’t do anything about it.”

Due to the randomness of the applied paint, some of Frank Bowling’s works were the result of happy accidents. Vitacress (1981), for example, looks like a cosmic sky featuring a moon or planet. This round imprint, however, was the result of leaving a bucket on a drying canvas. Despite being unintentional, Bowling loved the result and used the “technique” in future paintings.

A selection of paintings at the Tate Britain is labelled “cosmic space”, however, this was never Bowling’s intention. As previously stated, Bowling never began an artwork with an idea in mind but let the flow of the paint dictate the outcome. By adding ammonia and pearlescence to the acrylics, the blending of colours produced a marbling effect, which in turn made them resemble cosmic space. Despite this, Bowling did not give them space-related titles, for instance, Ah Whoosh Susanna (1981).

As well as out-of-this-world results, some of Bowling’s artworks also resembled underwater scenes, for instance, Moby Dick (1981). The ammonia and turpentine also produced chemical reactions, which along with the water, altered the consistency and colour of the acrylic paint, allowing a smoother finish than other “poured paintings”.

Bowling was still experimenting with techniques and media well into the 1980s. In 1983, he purchased a flat in Pimlico, not far from the Tate Britain, where he still lives today. He spent his time being with his sons, visiting Tate and working on his art. At Tate, he became familiar with J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837), whose use of colours sparked future ideas.

Perhaps inspired by Jasper Johns, Bowling began sticking found objects onto his canvases. These included plastic toys, packing material and oyster shells. As well as acrylic paint, he also used acrylic gel, acrylic foam, chalk, beeswax and glitter, all of which added to the texture of the final outcomes. Bowling tended to stick the items onto the canvas before applying paint using his pouring method. The weight and fluidity of the mixture occasionally dragged the items downwards into unplanned positions. Towards Crab Island (1983) is an example of this.

As always, Bowling named his paintings after they had been created and they were usually an unplanned experiment. During a summer residency at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, however, Bowling was inspired by the rural landscape and forests, which he attempted to explore in his work. Without changing his method of working, Bowling produced Wintergreens (1986) using earthy colours to represent the scenery. He added several strips of acrylic foam, almost reverting to his geometric patterns from the 1960s. Although the paint obscures most of the found objects, there is apparently a cap of a film canister and a plastic toy owl hidden on the surface.

In 1987, Tate acquired its first painting by an artist of Afro-Caribbean descent: Frank Bowling’s Spreadout Ron Kitaj (1984-6). The title pays homage to Bowling’s fellow student at the RCA, R.B. Kitaj. Once again, Bowling created a design with acrylic foam, which was then dislodged when the paint was added. He describes these strips of foam as “the ribs of the geometry from which I worked.” Amongst the strips are bits of plastic jewellery, toys and oyster shells.

Bowling’s engagement with colour came to a height at the end of the 1980s. With landscape artists such as Turner, Constable and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) in mind, Bowling began work on a series titled Great Thames. Two examples are on display in the exhibition. His choice of colour and luminous paint capture the play of light on the water at different times of the day.

“It’s exciting and challenging to work in London, Turner’s town, and the pressures of the weight of British tradition is exhilarating.”
– Frank Bowling
b80dd2b12e7edf05b4f8669d9cabd12a

Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams, 1989

In 1989, Bowling was persuaded to participate in The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post War Britain at the Hayward Gallery. Despite his scepticism about being labelled by his ethnicity, curator Rasheed Araeen (b.1935) convinced him it was worth taking part. At this time, Bowling was thinking a lot about Guyana and his childhood, particularly following the death of his mother in 1988. Accompanied by his son Sacha, he returned to Guyana where he produced paintings based on the landscape. In 1990, Bowling purchased a loft studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn and split his time between London and New York.

In 1993, Bowling made his first trip to Africa to attend A/Cross Currents: Synthesis in African Painting in Senegal where he won the Pollock-Krasner award. He won the award again in 1998.

In the 1990s, Bowling experimented with composition, occasionally sewing more than one completed canvas together, for example, Girls in the City (1991). He also began to work on smaller canvases than in the past and began to reduce the number of found objects he incorporated into his work. He stopped using acrylic foam completely and smoothed the acrylic gel with a spatula, rather than leaving it to dry in textured lumps. Bowling stated the reason he stapled seven canvases together in Girls in the City was to represent “the way people structure themselves … we live in buildings and express life in opposition to minimalism, enclosure and death.”

In the exhibition, there is at least one painting named after each of his sons, for instance, Benjamin’s Mess (Hot Hands) (2006). Unfortunately, Bowling’s eldest son Dan died in 2001, which prompted him to start using a lot of white in his works as a form of memorial. Despite the grief, Bowling continued to take part in exhibitions, for example, at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and at Tate Britain in 2004. The following year, 2005, Bowling became the first Black artist to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

As well as naming paintings after his sons, Bowling titled them after other people he knew or admired. Orange Balloon (1996) was produced for Paul Adams (b.1977), who was both the youngest player in the South African cricket team and the first Black player. The painting itself has little to do with cricket or the cricketer.

Despite needing to sit down due to his age and diminishing mobility, Bowling continues to create art today, employing all the techniques he developed over six decades. Looking at Remember Thine Eyes (2014), it is evident that Bowling still uses his tilted platform, however, because he needs to stand in order to do this, he has only used the one colour (yellow) and possibly only one lot of pouring. The “eyes” have been created by resting two buckets on the wet surface – a technique he accidentally invented in 1981. The title comes from a line in Shakespeare‘s King Lear.

For parts of his artworks, Bowling is assisted by his wife, Rachel Scott who he married in 2013, although had been with since 1977, and his long-term friend Spencer A. Richards. Due to the spontaneity of Bowling’s work, it does not matter if either of them makes mistakes when carrying out Bowling’s instructions.

One of Bowling’s most recent works is Wafting (2018) in which he reverts to using tangible material. The polka dot material, purchased by his grandson Samson in Zambia, has been torn into strips and positioned on top of the canvas. It is not certain whether Richards or Rachel assisted with the fabric, however, Bowling does most of the painting himself, laying canvases on the floor so that he can pour on different colours from a seated position.

Although Frank Bowling’s artworks may not be palatable to everyone, it is a shame his name is not well known. Surely being the first Black man elected to the Royal Academy would have cause for celebration and be an event people would remember? On the other hand, Bowling does not want to be known as a Black painter, he wants his paintings to speak for themselves. After viewing a lifetimes work, it is easy to pick Frank Bowling’s paintings out of a crowd. Beforehand, however, you could be forgiven for expecting him to be a white man; after all, how many Black artists can you name?

By putting emphasis on Bowling’s wish not to be labelled as a Black man, Tate Britain inadvertently draws attention to his geographic and ethnic background. As Bowling said himself, it is something he cannot escape from. Even his artworks continually refer back to his homeland, whether in title or theme.

In the Tate Etc magazine, art critic Matthew Collings mentions that Bowling was disappointed not to see any literature about himself in the lobby of a past exhibition. There were plenty of publications about the other (white) artists who took part, which made it hurt even more. Although racism is less of a problem today, the majority of Bowling’s career as been plagued with adversity.

Some people will love his paintings and others will not understand them, however, regardless of this, Frank Bowling has received what he deserves: a retrospective of his life and career. With the exhibition virtually on his doorstep, Bowling can see his work being appreciated and enjoyed by different generations and know that it is not his skin colour they are interested in but the paintings on display. Finally, he has achieved what he has always wanted.

The exhibition Frank Bowling closes soon on 26th August. Tickets are £13, however, members of the gallery can view for free.