A Recollection, a Reawakening and a Revelation

by Margaret Priest


How did an Englishman come to be one of the great chroniclers of the New York crowd scene in our time? The explanations for his urban engagement and the roots of his practice lie in the distant past. They lie in a time long before he arrived in the city. It is perhaps for this reason that Bill Jacklin, one of my oldest friends, has asked me to write an introduction to accompany his latest exhibition of New York paintings. I will begin at the beginning, at the time when I first came to know him.

A Recollection:

On a sunny autumn day in 1963 I entered the crowded refectory at the South West Essex Technical College and School of Art in the east London Borough of Walthamstow. The refectory was definitely not the venerable academic dining hall that might come to mind in association with the term. It was a characterless municipal expanse on the scale of a vast factory canteen. I entered from a door at the rear and walked past row after row of noisy students sitting at long wooden tables. It was a motley student body and it remains in my memory as quite unlike anything I have since encountered in colleges and universities in England and North America. Crowded around the tables were groups of noisy East End mods, Essex girls, county debs, earnest Africans and minor Saudi royals. The long walk culminated in a food counter and here a group of cockney, and engagingly cocky, dinner ladies in overalls and caps presided over elevenses - over trays of strong tea, already milked and sugared and piles of crispy cheese rolls. The art students occupied all of the first two rows of tables by the counter, after the art students came the rest - rows of student architects, civil engineers, mechanics and secretaries - all following some esoteric pecking order worked out long ago and now strictly adhered to. In the centre front of the first row sat the most senior and successful art students. (Local lore in Walthamstow held that they were the ones who would succeed. And indeed they often did. Ian Dury of the Blockheads once held court at this table, Ken Russell the film director and even Peter Gould of LA Louvre fame). As I reached the counter, it was from the centre of the A table that Bill Jacklin suddenly immerged - though it was less of an immerging and more of a violent darting. In a Levi jacket and jeans he leapt up from his place in the fray, wrestled an astonishingly large sketchbook under his armpit and tore off down the length of the refectory. Students stopped eating and talking, they stopped and stared. His extraordinary three feet by three feet bound sketchbook captured their attention. His energy ignited the mood in the room. Everyone began to point at the man and the sketchbook as they disappeared from view and exited at the back of the hall.

Of course it wasn’t possible to purchase such a large readymade sketch book. Bill Jacklin had to buy himself a roll of metre wide handmade paper, several yards of sturdy book cloth, a length of leather and had then sewn and bound a sketchbook of a size sufficient to meet his ambitions for an outsize outdoor drawing project. He wanted to document the crowds he lived amongst, the vendors in the street markets of the East End, the riotous cabbages teeming in the crowded postwar allotment gardens and even the bed-bound mental patients lying sedated in the local asylum. It was an old-fashioned plein air approach made fresh by his brash contemporary aspirations. The drawings were made energetically as though he were infected with the hustle of the street vendors, the frantic pace of the passing traffic, the throng of the vegetation and even the locked in agitation, bound into the memories of the old men still suffering from the lingering effects of shell shock incurred through service in two world wars.

It was those animated drawings among other projects that took Jacklin to grad school where he deepened his commitment to his work but ultimately fell under entirely different influences. For many years he was known for austere graphic abstractions and then later for serene still life paintings of anemones and lemons.


A Reawakening:

“[New York] There is no place like it, no place with an atom of its glory, pride, and exultancy. It lays its hand upon a man's bowels; he grows drunk with ecstasy; he grows young and full of glory, he feels that he can never die.” –Walt Whitman

On an October day in 1985 Bill Jacklin moved to New York and rented a studio. He anticipated a year away from England. Canvases were stretched and still lives were set up in the new studio, but outside on the streets the anonymous crowds pulled him into the melee and cast a spell on him – he grew young again. The city fuelled his energy and reignited his imagination. He felt free and exulted as he had been so many years ago at art school in the East End of London. Lost in the crowd, he found himself. For the first time in years, Jacklin took up his sketchbook and plunged out of the studio – into the open air – and onto the streets. Meat packers eating on West 14th Street, mobs rioting in Thompson Square, Rastafarians playing chess in Washington Square, skaters in Central Park, dancers at Roseland, bathers on Coney Island and hustlers on Broadway – all these and more – crowded onto the pages of his sketchbook. It was not a mammoth sketchbook on the scale of his Walthamstow days – in truth that sketchbook had always been too unwieldy to maneuver – but it was sketchbook with mammoth ambitions. The seeds of the ambition were sewn in the streets of London in the early 1960s, but they have grown to full fruition in the years that Jacklin has spent putting New York City’s streets, cafes, bars, parks and beaches onto canvas.


A Revelation:

Though he has lived in the USA for nearly three decades now, Bill Jacklin remains an unreconstructed Englishman. It is while remaining quintessentially English that he has distilled all that is quintessentially New York and put it onto canvas. Energetic and expressive glyphs in pencil, ink and paint swirl and coalesce to create an expression, not so much of what New York looks like, but more of what it feels like. In capturing a likeness, he conjures a feeling. It is this capacity of Jacklin’s to express the mood of the city that distinguishes him from other artists documenting street life. He is not a documentary artist cataloguing his surroundings. He is arguably an existential artist affirming his place in the world through his insistent marking of where he is and what he is seeing.

Jacklin’s contribution to the discourse on New York street life has sometimes been compared to the role the Impressionist painters played in bringing the street life of Paris to the fore. As Caillebotte, Monet and Pisarro portrayed the citizens of Paris at the close of the 19th century, Jacklin was deemed to be portraying the citizens of New York at the close of the 20th century. In the second decade of the 21st century the comparison seems less apt. It doesn’t serve as a useful framework for the paintings in Jacklin’s current exhibition. The longer Jacklin remains in New York the more he masters his medium and the more his Englishness is revealed through his revelation of New York. His is not a visual impression of how he sees New York. It is an expression, a baroque confection of the extraordinary city seen through the eyes of the outsider.

Consider Monet’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. It is a composition made up of friends like Gustav Caillebotte, Paul Lhote and Aline Charigot, Monet’s wife-to-be; of collectors like Charles Ephrussi; and of the proprietor and his family. The individuals in the group of some fourteen figures are identifiable. They represent Paris at a particular time and place. Meaning is drawn from Monet’s membership of that mixed cadre of rich and poor, society and demi-monde. The individual members of Jacklin’s group of diners at The Feast of San Gennaro cannot be named. They are not Jacklin’s friends and family, they are not famous New Yorkers. They are members of the crowd. It is their lack of a particular identity that is their strength and the manifestation of Jacklin’s continued outsider status. Who the diners are is not important, more important is the fact that the diners are anonymous. Jacklin describes the particularity of each anonymous individual within the crowd as a recognizable whole. It is an unusual viewpoint and Jacklin has made it his own. This is his contribution to contemporary figurative painting. It is as though he becomes even less American the longer he lives in New York – and the less American he becomes the more he wonders and marvels at what it is to be in America. Over time, his difference and his inner English lens has allowed him to become more and more attuned to the particularities of life for the others on the streets of New York. He participates on the peripheries. Why wouldn’t an artist with a sketchpad be present on the fringes of the red checked table clothes in Little Italy as New Yorkers enjoy their feast?

—Margaret Priest, 2012