Over ten years ago, Darren Lock and myself, began our series of books on the area of Walworth. During the research for that first one, I spent a lot of time in and around the tenement blocks that make up ‘The Pullens’ as well as the yards that surround them. During one visit a resident told me that the artist Frank Bowling worked out of one of the studio buildings that line the yards.
I had to admit I didn’t know the name, which my companion recommended I immediately rectified. Over the past ten years I have, and feel a bit of pride whenever Frank’s name is mentioned, for I have adopted him as ‘one of SE17’s own.’
He was born Richard Sheridan Patrick Michael Aloysius Franklin Bowling in Bartica, British Guyana in February 1934. Dad Richard, worked for the police and mum Agatha, was a seamstress and milliner as well as owning her own store. Frank initially had an early interest in being a writer and a poet, influenced by the literary history of New Amsterdam, the town the family moved to and where Frank grew up.
He then moved to London in 1953, and he completed his National Service in the Royal Air Force. There he met Keith Critchlow, who introduced Frank to the world of art. Upon being demobbed, he decided to pursue this new passion and he moved away from being a writer.
‘Painting got a grip on me and so I just painted all the time, it became more engaging and satisfying than writing.’
He first studied at Chelsea School of Art, before winning a scholarship to The Royal College of Art from1959, alongside the likes of Derek Bolshier, R.B.Kitaj, Peter Blake and David Hockney. Indeed Frank was tipped to win the graduation gold medal in 1962, but by then he had married writer Patricia ‘Paddy’ Kitchen, who worked as a registrar at the RCA. This was frowned upon from those up above, as relations between staff and students were banned. Frank was temporarily expelled from the college and studied instead at The Slade, until Kitchen left her post.
Hockney then picked up the gold with Frank taking the silver. What part the marriage played in the decision is I suppose open to conjecture, but it seemed pretty clear, it had some influence on the final outcome.
Upon leaving the college, his career at first hit the ground running with a one man exhibition ‘Revolt’ taking place at the Grabowski Gallery, but in truth, Frank was already feeling the weight of being constantly referred as an artist from the Caribbean, instead of just ‘an artist.’ There was also a feeling of exclusion from the art establishment, something common to many to those who came from the Commonwealth.
He was then left out of the ‘New Generation 1964’ exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery, with curator Bryan Robertson claiming ‘England is not ready for a gifted artist of colour.’ Instead he was persuaded to represent Britain in Senegal at the First World Festival. He later said he found this ‘personally insulting’ and went on to say ‘I still insist that I’m not a black artist, I’m an artist. The tradition I imbibe and the cultural ramifications are British.’ His painting at the festival entitled ‘Big Bird’ won the Grand Prize for Contemporary Arts. Always proud of his Guyanese roots, the colours green, red and yellow, the colours of his countries flag, run through this painting, as they would in many others, for years to come.
To escape further ‘pigeon holing’ he moved to New York in the mid 1960s, first staying at The Chelsea Hotel until 1967, alongside Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol. At that stage of his career, he was known for his ‘Francis Bacon influenced’ figurative work, but then found a path to ‘geometric’ abstract art via a Pop Art detour, once Stateside, and finding an ally in the critic Clement Greenberg.
‘Clem said “In America, there is no no-go area for anybody” – in defiance of the racism that was rampant. I took him at his word. I found my work was freed as my head was freed. Indeed, I think it would be true to say that he watched over my anxious moving through from figuration to abstraction. His series of ‘map paintings’ were particularly well received during this period.
In New York, he found freedom among the like minded and became contributing editor of Arts Magazine from 1969 to 1972. Frank then returned to the UK in 1975, but always maintained a studio under Manhattan Bridge, as well as in London. Coming to art later than most, Bowling has never lost the delight in finding ways to apply paint to canvas.
‘With brushes, poured, spilt, dripped…but it still moves around, nothing stops still. It holds sway over my physicality. I feel good working.’
He has taught both here in the UK, including the Camberwell School of Art until 1982 and in the States and though now in his 80s, he continues to work everyday, with help from his wife and grandchildren.
He became a Royal Academician in 2005 – the first black artist in its history to be so honoured – the OBE in 2008, then knighted for services to art in 2020.
His work is represented in 50 countries and on display in the permanent collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Gallery
I think it’s fair to say that the establishment finally caught up with this remarkable man.
The Mumper of SE5
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