An Englishman in New York
I'm not sure how many Englishmen and women live and work in New York City, although I do know that we are legion and yet, despite our numbers, largely invisible as a distinct group. In public life we tend to be discreet for the most part, and preferably singular in our habits and customs. We would never, for example, be caught revelling in some noisy annual parade down Fifth Avenue proclaiming our patriotic allegiance to Albion or what's left of our constitutional monarchy; and thankfully there is no official day given over to our patron saint (it's St George, by the way) nor any extravagant waving of Union Jacks or the drunken rendering of dubious loyalist anthems into the early hours to upset our former colonial subjects and currently generous hosts. While centuries have passed since the American War of Independence, we believe that any vulgar trumpeting of our continued presence here would neither be welcomed nor applauded.
And yet we can quietly salvage some gratification in the fact that we live in what is still New England, and the names of the boroughs of the metropolitan area sound comfortably familiar to us, and when we raise our eyes above the downtown traffic in Greenwich Village, we see what is clearly still a Georgian English enclave of fine proportion and grace. We have history here. We are part of the city's fabric, a muted tone woven discretely into its warp and woof, but quietly.
Bill Jacklin, an Englishman in New York for most of his working life, combines in his art an intimate knowledge of the city's visual drama with the detached eye of the outsider.
I'm reminded of Bill's epic canvas of the Tompkins Square riot. (Disclosure: I own this painting.) The police are drawn up behind an impenetrable wall of shields like a Roman cohort about to charge into battle. One of the officers mounted on a horse breaks through the ranks towards an arbitrary and motley collection of hippies and the homeless. An unequal and violent struggle is about to take place, a moment frozen in the stillness before defiance gives way to terror and panic. I have spent many hours perusing this painting: its epic theme, its fascinating figurative details, its slabs of abstraction layered into a compelling and dramatic narrative, and there to the left of the action, easy to miss under a gaily striped awning, is a tiny portrait of the artist himself, the observer, the discreet foreign correspondent in a war zone, almost hidden behind dark glasses. Bill has painted himself into the drama. It is a subtle cameo worthy of Hitchcock (another discrete Englishman).
It was the great Dr Johnson who observed that, "When two Englishmen meet their first talk is of the weather." It should be no surprise then that the vagaries and variety of our island weather should have impressed itself upon the sensibilities of our iconic artists. Turner and Constable spring to mind, but Mr Jacklin too is a great observer and renderer of the air in all of its moods and vapours. Another of his paintings which I own, indeed one of my favourites, is of a rainstorm on Fifth Avenue. St Patrick's Cathedral glowers murkily in the background, shoppers and shadows hurrying across the street under umbrellas, a Stars and Stripes bravely fluttering in the wind, and a torrential rain falling from a lowering sky. This is a painting by a man whose natural habitat has inured him to foul weather, the Turneresque drama of the brush strokes creating a palpable atmosphere, both violent and numinous.
I believe that there is a subtle spirit of melancholy that pervades English letters, English music and also English art. It may partially be a function of our weather, as mentioned, or it may be our long history, our mystical island sensibility. Melancholy is hard to define but it lies somewhere on the emotional spectrum between sadness and longing. I detect this English characteristic in Bill's work. Even his most vibrant subjects are imbued with a contemplative stillness. I have a drawing of Bill's, a portrait of my wife Trudie, heavily pregnant with our fourth child. There is quiet grace in the portrait, but also a sense of the burden of pregnancy. Behind her in the window are a pair of smokestacks pouring filth and pollution into the sky, reminiscent of William Blake's 'dark Satanic mills', a silent threat to the new life-in-waiting, a compelling and melancholic vision, a vision of the new world stripped of its optimism and its innocence by the eyes of an older world of experience.
Bill Jacklin's paintings of New York reveal his singular vision, with an émigré's unique point of view unaffected by fashionable mores or styles, navigating an exile's quixotic course through largely uncharted seas, an Englishman in New York – and to paraphrase the lyrics of the song: “Always himself, no matter what they say!”