Paul Hogarth was a painter, illustrator and draughtsman. He was born in Cumbria in 1917 and educated at Manchester College of Art and St Martin’s School of Art in London. His commitment to the radical left in the 1950s led to working trips to China, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He collaborated with many writers including Doris Lessing, Brendan Behan, Graham Greene, Robert Graves, John Betjeman and Lawrence Durrell. He became a member of the Royal Academy in 1984. His autobiography, which includes many reproductions of drawings and paintings, was published in 1997. He died on 27 December 2001. To mark the centenary this year of Paul Hogarth’s birth, here’s the interview he did with me for The Oldie in 1999, two years before his death.
You have led a varied and interesting life, but your autobiography tells us only the bare facts about the more personal aspects of your life. Was this a deliberate policy when you were writing it?
I actually blame it on the editor who, I understand, used to work for the Reader’s Digest, and so the more colourful episodes were wiped out. There was an attempt to make the book acceptable to the largest audience and since a lot of its personal character was as concerned with the disasters as the triumphs, this was eliminated, making it a rather colourless text, I thought.
I am curious about your father, for example. What sort of man was he, and were you close to him?
I think sons can be close to their fathers up to a certain age when they share their fathers’ interests. I remember being fairly close to mine when he taught me how to tickle trout in the streams of the Lake District, and how to find birds’ nests, but when I ceased to be interested in that sort of thing he ceased to be interested in me. He simply didn’t understand that I was developing in another way. He was a very limited man, in some ways canny, but limited all the same, and since I was a one off, relations cooled considerably by the time I was in my teen years.
What about later on in life?
Well, he never accepted the fact that I was succeeding as an artist, and he would take every opportunity to denigrate what I was doing.
Did you ever mind being an only child?
Yes. It used to make me introspective and I would certainly have liked sisters and brothers. But I think the experience of being an only child drives you in on yourself, and you become much more resourceful. I’ve always lived with myself, in myself, and it’s been an extraordinary source of strength.
You say of James Boswell, the painter: ‘If he was the father I should have had, I was the son he never had.’ You are referring, of course, to the encouragement he gave you, but is the implied criticism of your father entirely fair, do you think? After all, your father did not have the education or experience…
Oh yes, but Jim was absolutely what I would have wanted from my father. He was an educated man, not in the English way, since he was a New Zealander, but he was very democratic and understanding. He helped me enormously to develop as an artist; he told me the directions to go in, he encouraged me to study drawing and painting. In many ways he was much more than a father, but he also gave me that fatherly encouragement.
You won a scholarship to Manchester School of Art. Before the course was over your left-wing views caused such offence to your Conservative voting parents that you left home. How did they react?
They were appalled. What happened was that they thought that a scholarship would last only one year, and they kept going to the school of art and saying to the director, ‘Hasn’t he had enough yet?’ and, ‘When is he going to leave?’ and, ‘What is he going to do?’ To them study at a higher institution didn’t mean anything; they simply didn’t understand what it was leading to. On top of that they made it so difficult for me that I left home. I would be sitting in the winter by the fire reading books and my mother thought I would drive myself mad because I read too much. They didn’t realise this was a natural thing for an enquiring teenager, and I just couldn’t stand the atmosphere. Leaving home at the age of seventeen was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made, but I just had to get away from that regime.
Where did you go?
I found an agreeable hostel in a very unpleasant part of Manchester where I had my own room. I met students from Manchester University and discovered vegetarian meals, and so on. It was a very happy period, but then the whole balance of my life was thrown off because I became interested in political activism. In the end this destroyed my studies, and when I look back I just wonder how the hell it happened. But I got involved with a group of artists who turned out propaganda for the unions and the Communist Party, and I found a certain camaraderie and friendship there which led me to neglect my studies.
Yes, in fact you became so involved with left-wing activities that you gave up art completely and went to Spain with the International Brigade to fight for the Republican cause. Looking back, are you proud of what you did, or do you regard it as a romantic gesture?
Looking back on it now, I was completely mad. But youthful idealism is a powerful, irresistible force. Besides, I found amongst the intellectuals in the Communist Party the affection that I didn’t have in my family life, I suppose.
You became a card-carrying member of the Communist Party which caused problems for you when war broke out and you were called up…
At that time if you had any kind of military experience, you were called up. But as we have only recently discovered, there was a spy network based on former members of the International Brigade. If you had been a communist and you’d had military training, you were very much persona non grata. After seven months I was discharged.
In 1942 you were married for the first time but you tell us almost nothing about the girl who became your wife. Was she also a communist?
No, though her brother and her mother were. Her father was dominated by his son and his wife, and it was a crazy family. My wife was a maverick character with a great sense of humour, and I very much loved her. She was a natural satirist and she would create charades based on the news. She was brilliant at mime and would make up songs about the politicians of the time. The whole family was completely mad, straight out of Frank Capra.
The marriage lasted only four years… what went wrong?
I think when artists marry young, it’s bound to be a disaster. They are developing at such a rate and although I needed someone who was non-conventional, I just got bored with the whole relationship. She couldn’t help me, you see, and I desperately needed somebody who could. She loved me, but love wasn’t enough. That’s one of life’s mysteries: you want love, and when you get it, you don’t want it.
You and Ronald Searle went to Poland in 1948 and were astounded by the extent of the destruction. At the Congress of Intellectuals for Peace, you drew luminaries ‘making fools of themselves by siding with the Soviets against the Americans’ – as you put it. Did you write that with hindsight or had disillusionment with Communism begun even then?
That’s hindsight. What I did see and what I remember feeling was that these people who were Communists had so much vanity, the same amount of vanity and ego as anybody else, and that was quite a revelation.
You speak of Searle with admiration as by far the superior craftsman, and you hoped that travel would bring out the artist in you. You say at one point: ‘Like a Christian pilgrim of old, I sought spiritual adventure.’ Can you explain what you meant by ‘spiritual’ in that context?
I tried to find things that would move me. I tried to find issues that I could draw, and dramatise, but it wasn’t until I went to Greece during the generals’ regime that I found a theme which I could interpret – the scenes of suffering outside the prisons in Athens, the political prisoners, and the lines of women carrying food parcels. Communists had done terrible things in Greece. But the generals were also very harsh and I only saw that one side. Experience of life, that’s what I was seeking, so that I could develop as an artist.
You travelled and practised your craft in Spain, France and Italy, where your Communist Party card allowed you to stay in the many Houses of Culture. What was that like?
That was principally an Italian experience. The Italian Communist Party was different from any other Communist Party, having much of their intelligentsia in its ranks. They opened these palaces in places like Siena and Florence, Verona and Pisa, indeed throughout Italy, and to stay there made me feel that in being a Communist you could embrace culture. There were always art exhibitions and you could talk to artists of your own age.
Post-war London under a Labour government, in your opinion, wallowed in an afterglow of misplaced optimism. What did you mean by that?
I meant that nothing changed, and yet there was all this talk about a new Jerusalem. Capitalism flourished, and it didn’t seem to me to be any different. The Labour Party didn’t seem to make any headway.
But you have changed your mind about capitalism since?
Oh yes. Some kinds of capitalism are unacceptable, but I think private capitalism is a personal achievement. State capitalism seems worse, eminently worse, than the private variety.
Despite the fact that the Labour government was struggling with post-war difficulties, wouldn’t you say that it did great things? For example, granting independence to India, establishing the welfare state, creating the National Health Service… weren’t these positive steps?
I suppose they were, yes, but strangely enough, when you held a particular political view, these things could still seem flawed. I thought, well, they’re breaking up the British Empire for Christ’s sake, and I couldn’t see that it was in any way necessary at that point. I suppose the whole cultural atmosphere seemed to be so depressing. I couldn’t stand those bloody Ealing films, the awful ludicrous British eccentricity. I thought there had to be something better. I was wrong.
It was the beginning of what you call your literary life when you started working with distinguished writers on the literary left, such as Angus Wilson and Joyce Cary. I was slightly surprised to read that when the financial backer of Circus, one of the magazines you worked on, learned of your Communist Party connections, the magazine was closed down. I know this was the Cold War era, but wasn’t this an extreme, almost McCarthyite reaction?
I think it was a natural reaction. We were slightly unfortunate in our literary editor, John Davenport, who went to Paris one weekend and was overheard to say that Randall Swingler (the managing editor) and I were Reds. This got back to Tony Hubbard, our financial backer, who promptly closed what he thought was a subversive enterprise. What he didn’t realise was that we were good communists, and that we were trying to develop an interesting and progressive magazine, which would be better than Lilliput. We weren’t interpreting the party line at all because we hated the party line, we hated the political leadership of the Communist Party.
Did your Communist Party connections ever work to your advantage in your career?
I think so, yes. I was invited to China in 1954 because I was considered a talent worth developing, and China was the inspiration that turned me into an artist. I was ambitious and I let it be known that I’d go anywhere, and this earned me the hatred of my fellow Communist artists who weren’t interested in working. They just sat on their backsides and argued about what constituted socialist realism.
After dropping your magazine work you went back to travelling and drawing, again in Eastern Europe. You say of that time: ‘Life there seemed to have a sense of purpose, or so I imagined then… I recall those days with a sense of nostalgia.’ What was it that you remember with such fondness?
In the early days of the communist regime in Poland the major task was to rebuild the country; that was the priority. The whole population was organised like an army and it seemed to me that they were getting things done, and there was a spirit of euphoria. Then one gradually began to notice that it was becoming a totalitarian state on the Soviet model, with marches and statues of Stalin everywhere, and I didn’t like this. It made me very nervous. It seemed to me that all the effort was being channelled into developing a martial spirit, with soldiers on the streets and with every May Day parade full of tanks and weaponry. I saw and heard too much, I suppose, and began to realise that a regime was evolving which I didn’t have much sympathy with.
Travelling through China in 1954 in the company of people like A.J. Ayer and Stanley Spencer was a wonderful experience for you, increasing your visual awareness and reshaping your artistic taste. But what was your reaction to China itself at that time – five years after the revolution and before the horrors of the Cultural Revolution?
At that time China was completely different, and it was a cultural shock for me. China was a country which had yet to be affected by any industrialisation, and I was stunned by the novelty of what was essentially a feudal regime. If you were out in the street you could go into a market and have your ears cleaned, or your hair cut; everywhere there was a kind of medieval pageantry, a sort of visual spectacle straight out of Breughel. This was what interested me.
In 1956, while on your way to Poland via Hungary, you found that no one was allowed to leave the train in Budapest because a state of emergency had been declared following the invasion of Hungary by Soviet troops and tanks. In Warsaw there was an uproar of anti-Soviet protest and it was there that the scales fell from your eyes and you saw that communism as practised by the Soviet Union was tyranny. How far reaching was this insight?
Although the scales certainly fell from my eyes in Warsaw in 1956, there had been a steady process of disillusionment going on before that. I used to attend a lot of conferences and peace congresses – I was commissioned by various magazines to draw them – and I met a lot of Communist intellectuals there and observed a mood of mounting disillusionment. We already knew about the persecution in Soviet Russia, and there was a feeling that in these Communist regimes everything was not as it seemed. Even amongst the Communist writers with whom I mixed, there was a mood of criticism. I went on to Warsaw in the train to attend a congress of the International Brigades and was welcomed at the station by my old friend and caricaturist, Jerzy Zaruba. He took me to the offices of Swiat which was the Polish equivalent to Private Eye, where editors and journalists listened to the radio and wept at the accounts of the bitter street fighting in Budapest. Eventually Khrushchev himself agreed that the moderate Gomulka should be released from jail to form the new government. He made a speech promising reforms, though we now know that behind the scenes a gun was being pointed at his head, and Khrushchev was waiting with the tanks to move in. After Gomulka spoke there was another demonstration which demanded that all the Russians get out, but this was subject to incredible violence, and squads of riot police launched a series of savage attacks on the people. There were also scenes of violence at the congress I attended where Russian observers were being challenged by Polish and Hungarian delegates to produce their heroes of the Spanish Civil War. According to one delegate they had all been shot on the orders of Stalin. That really opened my eyes.
Was it only the Soviet version of communism you rejected, did you still cling to the idea that had first attracted you?
Yes, I did, and then I gradually lost that belief too. But before that we were simply ignorant of the issues; we didn’t know what was going on really, the extent of the horror and the persecution. It beggared belief.
When you sent an account of what you had seen to the Sunday Times you say you felt like a Judas. How long did it take for that feeling to disappear completely?
It took a long time because being a communist is like being a member of an army, or a religious sect. I felt that I was letting the side down. On the other hand, I had to report what I saw, and my old friend Randall Swingler said, ‘Well, you did right.’
You married for the second time in 1953, a journalist called Phyllis Hayes, and with borrowed money bought a house in the country – a good place to bring up the children Phyllis longed to have. Was the fact that you did not have children together a major factor in the break-up of that marriage?
Not really. She’d been a journalist for the Hungarian news and information service, so she was a Communist, and I was growing away from communism. It was a relationship which was really born out of shared ideas, but when we no longer shared the same ideas it fell apart. She was very didactic, and I just felt I couldn’t go on with the relationship, so I gave her the house because I had borrowed the money off her father, and that was that.
In your memoirs you tell us in a few sentences that in 1959 you eloped with a woman artist, Pat Douthwaite, with whom you had fallen in love, leaving behind Phyllis who, you say, had become ‘increasingly tyrannical’…
Well, she wouldn’t let me work with Brendan Behan, who had offered me the chance of collaborating with him on a book about Ireland. She said she was sick to death of these drunken writers I worked with – indeed she showed a general hostility towards writers. I was having an affair with Pat at the time, and she told me I was an artist and a free spirit and that I should go. So we eloped together.
You were invited by Life magazine to do the illustrations for their issue commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and you were paid twenty thousand dollars. Did this mark the beginning of real success and recognition, as well as an end to money troubles?
Yes, it did for quite a while, because I was able to buy a house and cover overdrafts. When I left Phyllis I was really on my back, doing drawings for local magazines at a guinea a time, living in a rented farmhouse in East Anglia and painting potatoes to survive. Then Brendan Behan’s Island really took off. It became a bestseller and book-society choice, and then Life magazine got in touch with me after seeing drawings I’d done for a local magazine. I was suddenly discovered.
It seems you were never really able to impress your parents with your success. When they turned up at the opening of your ‘Looking at People’ at the Whitworth Gallery your father refused to enter the exhibition… was that hurtful?
I think the occasion intimidated my father, and my mother was too timid to urge him to go in. When Margaret Pilkington, the director of the gallery and a wonderful woman, came out with a glass of champagne, my father just took fright. He’d never had a drink in his life, and after glimpsing the private view in full progress, I think he got scared. They were both dressed up and obviously had the intention of going in, but when they saw this grand art gallery with columns and lights everywhere and champagne being quaffed, they just couldn’t take it. Well, my mother could take anything – she was very gregarious, a lovely, friendly woman – and she tried to talk my father into it, but he just turned away. He was a farmer’s son from the hills of Cumbria, and they were different people from the townspeople in the plains. He was rather silent, uncommunicative and inarticulate. My mother was very articulate and could make people laugh, but at the same time she respected her husband and deferred to him; it was that kind of marriage.
The death of a man’s father, whatever the state of their relationship in life, is an important event for most sons. What was your own reaction when your father died in 1967?
I was very saddened. I was in Tangier doing a story for the Daily Telegraph and when I went back he was laid out in his coffin. I was very moved, very remorseful that I’d been so awful to him, that I’d been such a bad son. Of course, I hadn’t been so very bad; it was just that a man of his background found it difficult to understand a son who wanted to be an artist.
Your mother lived to the age of ninety-seven and you say that in her widowhood she began to be a little more appreciative of your achievements. Only after she died, however, did you find the complete collection of your books, wrapped in transparent film. How did you react to this discovery?
I burst into tears. I used to send her the books, but there would be no reaction. I never knew that she cared.
Which of all the famous writers with whom you have collaborated impressed you the most?
Graham Greene. There are writers who are immensely sympathetic towards artists and certainly he was one of them. He was easy to work with, but very exacting. He had an innate understanding of artists and what interested them, and it was there all the time. He was a man’s man and yet a woman’s man too; he had both a feminine side and a masculine side to him. He came out of that tradition of English writing – extremely sophisticated with a great sense of humour. However, he did need nudging by Yvonne, his partner of the later period, who used to challenge a lot of his statements and was able to make him slightly less pompous than he sometimes was. But he was very moved by my effort to portray his world and he paid me a great many compliments over certain drawings which evoked memories for him.
You went to Majorca to do a series of drawings, and it was at this point in your autobiography that you mention the existence of a three-year-old son. When and where was he born?
Toby was born in 1960 when my partner was Pat Douthwaite. He’s a lovely boy and we’re very close, though he’s been a bit of a prodigal son, a wild boy on a motorbike, part of that generation. He had a terrible accident when he nearly lost his arm, but it was saved by a doctor in Palma who specialised in putting bullfighters back together again – an incredible man.
You have been married several times… do you look on your relationships with women as successes or failures?
Oh, that’s a hard one. Pat and I divorced too. I was away in America a lot and she was feeling increasingly that she was neglecting her own career. I was very much in love with her, and the idea of having a young son was wonderful but she wanted to be a famous Scottish painter, so she went off to Edinburgh. I think perhaps you’ve got to have a few failures to have a success. My fourth marriage, my present one, is the most successful I’ve had. We almost certainly couldn’t have made a go of it if we had been younger – she has three children, and I would probably have shied away from that commitment before, but now I can cope with it, and we have a good life together.
In 1974 you became a Royal Academician, and as a member of the selection and hanging committee you had to choose a painting by an unknown artist who turned out to be Prince Charles. You have come a long way since your communist youth, but would you describe yourself as a monarchist?
No, I’m not a monarchist. I like people for what they are. Besides, the royals don’t do things right any more than anybody else. As regards the painting, I just reacted to the standard of the work, and it was quite competent.
I’m assuming that as a communist you are not drawn to religion, even though many Italian Catholics are also communists… am I right?
I’m drawn only to religious music. I love the music of the Catholic composers, particularly Purcell and that period. I do go to church now and again because my wife is a Scottish Episcopalian. I feel Christianity is a myth, but I like the culture it created.
What do you think will happen to you when you die?
I would like to think I could join some Elysium and meet up with some of my old friends. But what I actually believe is that it will be ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And that will be it.
Interview conducted June 1999