Why I retired early

This will probably get read by three people, provided I count myself, so I’m posting it so I don’t forget. I’ll start with my experience of working in education through a few episodes. 

Phil Gibson using an adze,  some of you are asking what’s special about that? Others what’s an adze? In my experience the latter outweighs the former by a significant factor. When I started teaching at Leeds in nineteen ninety something Phil was my first line manager and he was effectively forced out of FE through incorporation, he was expensive and had an attitude to craft that eschewed targets. After he left he worked for a while on historic renovations, Phil was a designer furniture maker who had built his own house, and the job stopped when he used an adze to match new sections of beams to the sound parts of existing beams. All the other trades came to see an adze being used. 

Some years later I ran my own course at Leeds. The idea was to run a design foundation course, like a traditional FAD but with a focus on the practical over the conceptual. The other USP was that entry was post A Level but no previous art experience was required. What I felt, and still feel, is that education is a space where we teach people how to learn and let them loose on particular knowledge. Teaching in this scenario is about the environment you promote rather than the knowledge you dispense. The course started with 18 students, went to 48 then to 112 in three years, then settled back to 60 and I left to do an MA. A year later it closed. In the years I ran it we were inspected by Ofsted and slammed as our inspector had no idea what we were trying to do or why and no amount of explanation would enlighten him.

In the last few years as a manager I’ve juggled the pursuit of financial efficiency with retaining a skilled body of staff against a backdrop of government cuts, an agenda to ‘vocationalise’ arts and culture out of education into training and a pernicious limiting of people’s ability to extend themselves. My attitude of putting students first has led to my being criticised for overspending in every one of four years worth of quarterly performance reviews, through my spending too much on staff. I do not see myself as any kind of martyr regarding this, it’s simply fact. At the same time our Ofsted metrics were amongst the best in the country, more than 90% of our students achieved and progressed from a strongly working class area. I should add that the department became cheaper, but not more financially efficient, each year.

What led to my despair was the constant refrain of austerity, the refusal to view this a choice we make, the insensitivity to reality that measures hairdressing against catering against sculpture against business studies. I lost sleep worrying about whether to sacrifice the students experience by streamlining the staffing. So which skills I can lose as no longer fit for purpose, which resources I should dispose of, or whether I should scrap particular courses thus limiting the students opportunities. Eventually it wears you down, but this relentless pressure to reduce the cost of everything has been going on for all of my career.  What exacerbated it for me was the fact that for the last five years or so the opportunities available at school in Creative subjects have been cut back to such a degree that fewer of students each year have been choosing to follow these subjects in what used to be post compulsory education. 

In education at any level these days students are money, fewer students equals less money equals greater need for efficiency equals fewer choices to offer them, and repeat.

Alongside all of this has been the joy of learning alongside people who want to learn. Gradually they have become less prepared for the experience, less able to understand the act of learning, particularly how practical work translates into intellectual stimulus and progress and the sheer amount of physical and mental work required for that to happen. Increasingly students have an education that requires them to respond, so they await instructions and can carry them out diligently but cannot, in the main, make decisions for themselves – all but the best have had that knocked out of them (or have never had it developed into them). So it takes longer and longer to break down barriers to learning that are ingrained and for students to contribute effectively to their own and their peers learning. It meant that I had some staff whose horizons were limited to a narrow specialism rather than to a broad understanding – the idea that any art tutor could not teach drawing would have been anathema when I started – and who lacked the personal resource to develop when one of the, admittedly few, development opportunities arose.

So that’s why I took early retirement, which I can’t really afford, to find a way to reengage with the joy of working with people towards a common goal and to find ways to address the way the systems we run are denying opportunities for people to have the life that I have.

Oh, and also because I could!

Catching Up

Having just retired, partly through frustration at the lack of studio time afforded by full time employment (but more of that later). I have been catching up with the things I’ve been doing/not doing with my evenings and weekends. As a first post for a while here are some images I made around Easter. Ash Wednesday Variations.

Valentines Day 2 - Ash Wednesday variations - 2018

Valentines Day 2 – Ash Wednesday variations – 2018

This was the first begun and you can see where I got the eyes wrong and had to cover them with paper tape and redraw.

Valentines Day 1 - Ash Wednesday variations - 2018

Valentines Day 1 – Ash Wednesday variations – 2018

This one was next.

Valentines Day Blue - Ash Wednesday variations - 2018

Valentines Day Blue – Ash Wednesday variations – 2018

Then this one. All made from a self portrait photograph by my wife. I was listening to a recording of TS Eliot reading ‘Ash Wednesday’ and it was Ash Wednesday (?).

I have been playing around with using text in conjunction with these images.

this is not that place

this is not that place


Summer Drawings & Paintings

A series of drawings and paintings based on walks taken while on holiday in the peak district, where we stayed in Hathersage, and in Seahouses on the Northumberland Coast.

Near 'that' rock on the way up to Stanage Edge

Near ‘that’ rock on the way up to Stanage Edge

The drawings and paintings were created in my studio in Doncaster after the holiday, based on photographs and memories, I didn’t make any sketches on site on these trips and ended up wishing I had.  The hardest part of the process is finding the colour of the elements in the scenes given the inaccuracy of photography and the difficulties of seeing digital photographs in varying lights and at various angles.

The Farne Islands from Seahouses

The Farne Islands from Seahouses

The Seahouses images were very difficult in that regard and I remain unconvinced, the images from walks around Hathersage were/are equally difficult, they’re all still on the boards and I’m not sure they’re finished.

From Burbage Rocks 3

From Burbage Rocks 3

There are more images, six seascapes at various sizes and three 1000mm square paintings as well a large, 1500x1200mm, drawing and three A1 drawings in the Gallery





Rediscovered 1982 Final Show

Unemployment in the United Kingdom increases by 129,918 to 3,070,621, a post-war record number. Thatcher! (The year Mark Thatcher got lost in the desert).
February 19 – The DeLorean Motor Company Car Factory in Belfast is put into receivership.
February 28 – Adobe Systems was founded
April 2 – The Falklands War begins: Argentina invades and occupies the Falkland Islands
June 6 The 1982 Lebanon War begins: Forces under Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon invade southern Lebanon in their “Operation Peace for the Galilee,” eventually reaching as far north as the capital Beirut.
June 14 – Falklands War: Argentine forces in the capital, Stanley, conditionally surrender to British
June 19 – The body of “God’s Banker”, Roberto Calvi, chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, is found hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London. The first emoticon posted 🙂 The first computer virus, infecting Apple II computers by floppy disk. Italy win the World Cup in Spain, Aston Villa win the European Cup, E.T. is released.

All of this happened in 1982, when I had my Final Show in the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University throughout June.

there are more images in the gallery under the tab.

A child plucking a rose

Maquettes for ‘a child plucking a rose’

The maquettes serve as sketches, experiments towards resolving ideas for a transcription of Caspar Netscher’s 1669 painting in the Wallace Collection. The key points of the work are the child, her hands, the rose and the colour of the dress. In particular because these reflect the content of Netscher’s young woman playing a guitar, widely regarded as a companion piece – the dresses are the same style, and the same colour in essence (the catalogue descriptions of the colour are different).

Of the issues to resolve the most prominent is the translation from 2d to 3d, the invention of the reverse face and the 360 degree view. The maquettes sketch out various options for this without presuming to provide a specific solution. If they provide anything that is taken into the final piece it is a series of gestures when building that scale up into a solution. If a maquette were a pure scale model it would be given to someone else to build. They might better be described as practice for the process of building.

As the series grows the problem becomes the juxtaposition of the dress, representing the child, and the rose. How to place the rose in a position to be picked. The pieces use clay, acrylic sheet, paper, cardboard, wood fence panels, wire, acetate and drawn elements to solve these problems.

Transcription continued

Continuing to work on the transcription of Caspar Netscher’s ‘a child plucking a rose’.

There is a third macquette underway and I have ordered 7.5 kg of air drying clay to develop more. The scope of the transcription grows, as all work inevitably does, as it progresses. I was reminded of James Joyce’s ‘on a flower given to my daughter’ from Pomes Penyeach.

Frail the white rose and frail are
Her hands that gave
Whose soul is sere and paler
Than time’s wan wave.

Rosefrail and fair — yet frailest
A wonder wild
In gentle eyes thou veilest,
My blueveined child.

Obviously the connection with ‘Rosefrail’ but also, and for my own reference, the Imaginary Daughters project. Of which more later.



A project with the Wallace Collection and Barnsley Museums, in particular Cannon Hall where there is a collection of Dutch paintings. This macquette is for a sculptural transcription of Caspar Netscher’s 1669 oil on oak panel ‘a child plucking a rose’. Very early stages of this project. There will be an exhibition of students work at Cannon Hall during 2018 paralleling a loan collection from the Wallace.

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