“THE INDEPENDENT” Obituary by John Calder, 6th January 2004
Artist, poet, actor, and pioneer of the 'happening'
JEFF NUTTALL played Friar Tuck on screen (in Robin Hood, 1991), good typecasting, and he would have made an excellent Falstaff. His natural bonhomie overflowed in every direction and his boundless enthusiasm for art in all its aspects found its outlet in teaching, acting, writing, painting and much experiment: he did nothing by halves. His paunch was well earned, his large florid face, that of a fox-hunting, port-drinking squire, was evidence enough of his liking for good times, good company, eating and drinking. It was impossible to be depressed for long in his presence.
He was a Renaissance man without much ambition, but with a compulsion to communicate, who did nothing badly, but the ubiquity of his talents and interests often made it difficult to evaluate his finished work.
Born in 1933, he was of just the right generation to get the full benefit of the Sixties, not as a flowerchild or a pot-head, but as a mature artist who could exercise creative influence at a time that was receptive to new ideas and experiment. He believed that art was good for you and that life meant little without it: its function was to shake people out of dull habit-orientated lives and clichéd thinking.
When, in 1970, the House of Commons debated the puzzling attitudes and behaviour of the youth of the day, his 1968 book Bomb Culture was cited: it argued that a generation that has grown up under the ever-present threat of nuclear extinction could hardly be expected to think or behave as if it had a future ahead of it - "Seize the day" was its motto.
Born and educated in Lancashire, he went to the Hereford School of Art, leaving in 1951. He did his National Service in the Royal Army Education Corps and then became Art Master at Leominster, going on to schools in London and then the Art College in Bradford. While developing his own reputation as a painter, moving from conventional styles into semi-representational colourism, he became a lecturer at Leeds Polytechnic and then Head of Fine Arts in Liverpool. He was an inspiring teacher, but he had long before begun to use the theatre as another didactic medium.
In 1966, together with Mark Long and others, he founded the People Show, a touring company of actors (some untrained), musicians, poets and artists, who performed the scripts he wrote for them, sometimes in small theatres, but more often in specific environments where the script was only the starting point for a largely improvised spectacle. Open spaces, docks and public squares were usually the settings and casual passers-by often did not realise that the event they had stopped to watch was a theatrical performance. By 1980 the group had created more than 80 productions and had toured Europe and the United States as well as Britain.
Jeff Nuttall was one of the first British creators of the "happening", a loose informal type of theatrical presentation that depended on surprise and audience participation for its success. In one such early event, held in Better Books' performance space on Charing Cross Road in London, the audience had to endure large pieces of meat being flung around. By the end the whole room was covered in blood.
His Performance Art (1979) contained his memoirs of the People Show, with his scripts in a second volume. Nuttall was nearly always part of its performances, playing parts that were often menacing - he was a fine character actor - and he would find ways to explore the audiences' reactions and comment on them. The group sometimes performed in department stores and hotels, without informing the management, situations that would gradually get out of hand - one involved a mock murder in a hotel, the actors spreading rumours for days in advance - and the arrival of the police was often part of the scripted action. Although they were not overtly political there was much social and radical comment in these presentations.
Nuttall wrote several novels, of which Snipe’s Spinster (1975) was the most successful, and many other books based on his experiences, theories and interests; one, King Twist (1978), was a study of the North Country comedian Frank Randle. He was also a prolific poet with over a dozen volumes published – the most substantial being Poems, 1962-69 (1970) – and was featured in Penguin Modern Poets (no 12, 1968). His Selected Poems was published only last month.
Political correctness was foreign to him: he was an élitist who believed in bringing high culture to everyone, whether they wanted it or not. His teacher’s salary had to finance many other activities, including the magazine he founded and edited in his early years My Own Magazine (1964-67).
He loved women, was married once, but had no children: they might have competed with art.
Addition by Dr. MICHAEL HEREBENIAK, 7th January 2004
JOHN CALDER'S otherwise excellent obituary of Jeff Nuttall contained a major error. Nuttall in fact fathered a girl and five boys - complementing his overwhelming masculine exuberance - all of whom he regarded with a characteristically visceral passion.
Accordingly, as a lifelong socialist he loathed the bile and cant of the Blair administration, and his overlooked book Art and the Degradation of Awareness, which Calder published in 2001, remains a peerless analysis of New Labour's venal Year Zero aesthetic, and what Nuttall saw as its complicit Brit Art racketeers, led by the advertising millionaire Charles Saatchi.
The poet and cultural critic Eric Mottram called Nuttall "the only genius l've known" - Mottram was in a good position to judge, having moved freely within the circles of the post-war American avant-garde. And indeed as a painter, sculptor, poet and "instigator of the drama", Nuttall probably had few equals in Britain. He also played jazz trumpet with a nod to Henry "Red" Allen, thereby completing his mastery of art disciplines. With his passing, to join Mottram and Bob Cobbing, the New British Poetry has lost its final most significant proponent. He was a true Dionysian, whose energies - emotional and physical - would brook no compromise.
Addition by Professor TIMOTHY EMLYN JONES, 12th January 2004
WHILST JOHN Calder argues that it has been difficult to evaluate Jeff Nuttall’s work, the time has come to meet that challenge. In my view his contribution to contemporary culture will come to be seen to be far greater than many may have suspected up to now.
The manner of discourse in Bomb Culture (1968) is strikingly innovative for its time. In giving an account of counter-culture in the 1960s and in advancing his hypotheses for cultural strategy he put his own perceptions and passions right at the centre of his style of analysis and writing. When I first read the work shortly after publication I was surprised to find a book of ideas written as a kind of autobiography. As the women's movement of the time developed, and advanced the concept of the personal as political, I came to read Nuttall’s work in a new light. That he was at times outrageously and self-consciously politically incorrect, to the chagrin of many women, lent irony to his achievement and I think largely obfuscated it.
Jeff Nuttall further advanced his personalised style of cultural discourse in subsequent books such as Performance Art (1979), The Pleasures of Necessity (l988: in which he introduced dramatic writing as part of his cultural analysis), and Art and the Degradation of Awareness (2001). These four books deserve to be reread against the ubiquity of authorial personalisation in much contemporary critical writing. I consider his principal contribution to contemporary thought to lie here as much as in his vigourous and original poetry, painting and acting.
I put this thought to him when he asked me to critically analyse an early draft of Art and the Degradation of Awareness (then entitled Dumbdown) and he accepted the point, though fearing that generational differences of perception would not allow recognition of his literary and artistic achievements. In an earlier time, such as that of the beat generation with which he is importantly linked, his boisterous passion for truth and love of outrage would not have disallowed recognition of his deep seriousness.
It is in the difficulties as well as in the pleasures of this man’s art that its worth may be found.
Addition by KELVIN HOPKINS, 12th January 2004
Jeff Nuttall was one of the most cheerful people I’ve ever known, laughing a lot and making others laugh too. I knew him from the late 1950s through the 1960s when we lived in High Barnet. We both led local jazz bands and shared platforms at CND fund-raising events. His robust traditional jazz trumpet was unmistakable. He loved the spontaneity of traditional jazz – the more calculating and technically advanced jazz of later times was not for him.
Spontaneity was the essence of Jeff’s poetry too, which was often enthusiastically erotic. I once met him returning by Tube from an art exhibition with an example of his erotic relief sculpture. He had been asked by the gallery to change the title of the work from its original four-letter word to something more seemly.