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Ironside, Robin

Category: Artist and sculptor

 

Robin Ironside (1912-1965) was an English painter. Despite having no formal training, Ironside was one of the most individual artists working in Britain in the mid-twentieth century, a painter who was exhibited alongside Paul Nash, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon, Ironside was also a writer, illustrator and designer, Assistant Keeper at the Tate Gallery in London (1937-46) and Assistant Secretary of the Contemporary Art Society (1938-45).

He was addicted for a large part of his life to Collis Browne's mixture, a medicine he originally took for stomach pain.  His paintings and stage sets are an extraordinary entry into the world in which he was flung by this and a number of other drugs, a world at times both horrifying but it seems also full of light.

Robin Ironside, painter and writer, 1912-1965  by Virginia Ironside

The Artist's Backyard

Robin at lunch – that is how I best remember my uncle Robin – painter, writer and theatre designer. I was only a little girl, and he would ring the bell very late, maybe at four in the afternoon, and my father, Robin’s brother Christopher, would open the front door of our house in Neville Street in South Kensington, and I would hear Robin groaning – about the taxi, the cold, or his new, uncomfortable false teeth. As he came up the stairs, an intense, gaunt, sepulchral figure, with feverish eyes, a stiff collar, fin de siècle clothes – he’d sometimes still be wearing his pyjamas under his black jeans – he would cry, in a melancholy way: “I’m late, I’m late, I should not have trifled at the gate!” My mother Janey, then a society dressmaker, would boil him an egg and he would sit at the end of the dining room table, which doubled as a cutting table, among the pins and the pinking shears, just groaning: “Oh no, oh no!” in a half facetious, half poignant tone; or he would remain in complete silence for about an hour until he had finished his egg when he would start talking to my father about art, how to draw things …

After he died, my mother said of Robin: “I always remember the absolute horror of having lunch with him, Christopher and Phyl [their mother], in our basement. They’d both argue with her in this very superior way, but sometimes Robin would stay completely silent with his head in his hands. And when Phyl said: ‘What is it?’ he’d just answer: ‘Cosmic gloom, mummy’. And she’d be saying ‘Cosmic gloom? What do you mean, darling?’”

 

Portrait of Colette Clark, Kenneth Clark's daughter and
said to have had a strong friendship with Robin

Robin died at 53, after a life devoted to the pursuit of art. After nine years as Assistant Keeper at the Tate Gallery, he gave it all up in 1946, driven by the internal creative demons fuelled by morphine, to live in penury and devote himself to writing about art, and painting his minutely detailed romantic pictures. After his obituary in the Daily Telegraph, an anonymous contributor, probably Sir Kenneth Clark, one-time Director of the National Gallery and Chairman of the Arts Council, wrote of Robin’s darker and more self-destructive side:

Conspicuous among Robin Ironside’s many talents was a talent for bad luck. If he did the designs for a theatrical production it was transferred to a new theatre at the last minute so that none of the scenery fitted or the management decided to cancel the production altogether; if he was an admirable portrait painter, his sitter became mortally ill and had to leave the country; if he collected his essays for publication, his publisher went bankrupt and lost the manuscripts. He belonged in spirit to France of the 1850s, to the world of Berlioz (whom he so strikingly resembled), Baudelaire, and Grandeville, but his lack of success was also the cause of his early death. Like Piero di Cosimo, he used to go for days with no food except a few boiled eggs.”

 

The Nativity on a Lace Collar

Robin’s father, Reginald, had no interest in art whatsoever. His attitude to Robin’s interest can best be summed up by his remark to his son: “Get your hair cut. People will think we have an artist in the family.” He was described by Virginia Ironside as a bone-headed but immensely attractive society doctor, a roué and an adulterer.  He used to get his richer female patients addicted to various drugs and then milk them of their fortunes.

Robin’s mother, who finally divorced Reginald, ‘never did a day’s work in her life except briefly during the Great War’. She was described as a delightfully frivolous, pretty, warm and entertaining woman who had been prevented from going on the stage by her father. She rarely read a book and ended her life playing bridge with various other elderly ladies 'in a hot little flat' near the Cromwell Road in Kensington. Her only interest in art was a passion for a very gothic picture called Amy Robsart Falling into an Oubliette.

Robin Ironside, painter and writer, 1912-1965  by Virginia Ironside

Florence Dombey struck by her Father

I remember Robin as an immensely attractive presence, a dark flame of eccentric life that flared up the stairs like a frightening genie from a bottle and lit up the dark corners of my parents’ silently unhappy marriage. I can still see his taut, slightly yellowish skin, stretched over high cheekbones, watch the liveliness in his eye, hear his voice and his laugh, though I can’t distinguish what he’s saying. He talked as fast as an Italian, in flawless sentences. He was probably high most of the time, but brilliant, too. When he left, in a whirl of late taxis, high drama and intense anxiety, I felt both bereft and relieved. The brothers had been born one year and one day apart. Robin was the elder and his mother’s favourite. He was thin, lively, wiry and original; my father solid, dogged, contemplative, sedentary. Robin had never been to art school; my father, who later designed the reverses of the decimal coinage, had studied life drawing at the Central School, taught at the Royal College of Art, and could draw anything from ears and tigers, to flying saucers and gasworks. On the occasions they worked together on theatre designs, Robin was the designer of the two; my father the one who did the donkey work.

Secret burial

Robin loathed his public school, Bradfield College, in Berkshire. A contemporary reported that Robin had once been held down on a table and raped by an older boy while others watched.  

“The idea of razing the establishment to the ground and sowing the site with salt gave us both pleasure and spiritual refreshment,” Robin's brother said later.

Having failed to get a position at the Foreign Office in the Diplomatic Service – the problem was maths, for which he got one mark for neatness – Robin, aged 17, went to Grenoble to learn French. From there, he attended the Sorbonne.

He then toured Germany where he met Maurice Bowra.  It was during this period that he became fluent in both French and German.  “Robin was a wonderful sightseer,” said Bowra. “He would miss nine things but when he came to the tenth he would be fascinated by it. It was he who said you must never spend more than one hour in a museum and never see more than five things and you’re lucky if you see that number. Quite right.......Of course you know it was me who put the old boy onto Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, don’t you? I was staying with the Clarks and he was suffering terribly from indigestion so I said, try this, old boy, and he adored it. You know you can get it without a doctor’s prescription. A lot of people say I killed him, but I think I saved him a lot of pain for ten years.”

Drawn in a Paper House

Bowra was the first of a number of relationships Robin had with men and it only became clear later in life that he had homosexual tendencies. The repression experienced by homosexuals and the fear it generated, became a subject he returned to via his painting and his writing.  He argued in the monthly magazine, Horizon, in 1944, for example, that the scandal of the Wilde trial and the early death of Beardsley had cut short the imaginative tradition which, he wrote: “had been kept flickering in England since the end of the eighteenth century, sometimes with a wild, always uneasy light, by a succession of gifted eccentrics.”

Robin attended a course at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and eventually landed a job at the Tate Gallery as Assistant Keeper in 1937.  But it was not a particularly happy time for him, and he eventually left after the War, disillusioned with the Tate machinery.

Robin Ironside, painter and writer, 1912-1965  by Virginia Ironside

He moved into a minuscule, freezing and wretched flat in Clarendon Street, a row of tiny peeling Victorian houses in a little road behind Victoria railway station. It has never become gentrified and is a grimy backwater full of dingy hotels.
 “The flat was tiny and messy but it didn’t smell because Robin was very hot on smells,” said my mother. “He was a tremendous bather – he’d have about three baths a day. I remember him once saying, ‘I don’t smell do I?’ He had a tiny kitchen and a bathroom with a lavatory and no seat. And he always used George Dix’s father’s winding-sheet as a dressing-gown.” (George Dix was an influential New York art dealer.)

 

As well as his own paintings, Robin and Christopher also worked together on larger projects.  Along with various designs for scenery and costumes for ballets and operas, for example,  they designed the huge coat of arms which was the centrepiece of Whitehall’s Coronation decorations and designed the setting for the Ideal Home Exhibition, Robin having conceived a giant classical chariot with horses which leaped out above all the bungalows at Olympia threatening, it seemed, to stampede all the visitors beneath their hooves.

Apart from illustrations for his friends’ books, Robin carried out a variety of other commissions, from Rococo wallpaper for a music room to murals, usually for the benefit of rich friends who would patronise his work. For instance, he was commissioned by Ann Fleming to design a four-foot obelisk as a memorial to her husband Ian. It stands in Sevenhampton churchyard in Wiltshire.

Robin Ironside, painter and writer, 1912-1965  by Virginia Ironside

His over-excessive attention to detail did, however, slow down his rate of production. Often the owner of a country house in which he spent a weekend would hear a sinister rustling in the middle of the night, and come downstairs with a poker in hand only to find Robin, next to a wall, working by the light of a torch, obsessively touching up a picture that he had sold to his host years before. Yet, despite his slow rate of production, he did succeed in having fourteen exhibitions during his lifetime – including one at the Hanover Gallery in 1949 with Francis Bacon.

 

 

During this time, Robin's addiction to Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne had become extreme. He used it for prolonged sessions of work throughout the night.  His addiction became so great that he was constantly having to change chemists to get his supplies lest they become suspicious.

But Collis Browne's was not the only drug.  He tried LSD, was on amphetamines for a while and also tried mescaline.  He was thus a very heavy drug user.  Needless to say this habit cost money............

Robin Ironside, painter and writer, 1912-1965  by Virginia Ironside

Robin was always chronically short of money. In 1953 he wrote in answer to a questionnaire entitled ‘The Cost of Letters’ in Horizon:
“I require, for the satisfaction of my aspirations and having due regard to the present cost of living, a net income of £15 a week, an amount I have never possessed and am never likely to possess … Because I am too poor,” .... His only extravagances were taxis and the occasional meal out. When my father protested that he should learn to cook, Robin replied edgily that if he didn’t go out some days he would stay at home working in his dressing gown and “go funny.”
He was always so overdrawn that whenever he got a cheque he would assign it to Christopher and get him to give him the cash. A picture project that never got painted was A man in church praying for money.

Rose Offered in a Coniferous Wood

Robin’s enormous anxieties about money, however, were partly answered. In 1960, just when he was at the end of his financial tether, his father died. Reginald had been struck off as a doctor but had got a job as a private anaesthetist. One of his patients was an unattractive millionairess called Dolly. …The moment this wealthy lady woke up from an operation for which Reginald had administered her anaesthetic – she decided to marry him. He spent the rest of his life in a mock-Tudor house in Esher, kept on an extremely tight rein and never allowed up to London except in the company of her chauffeur, who dogged his every move. Thus the wicked Reginald got his come-uppance and, when he died, Robin got his reward in the form of a small legacy from his rich stepmother.   And Robin used the money to buy a flat in Kensington.

Robin Ironside, painter and writer, 1912-1965  by Virginia Ironside

A part-time friend was Hugo Williams, the poet. We met at Daquise in South Kensington, near the London Magazine, in whose offices he first met Robin. It turned out they had lived near each other in Kinnerton Yard. “I always thought Robin looked iller every time I saw him. But he was so good-looking. He always seemed to me to be a rather lonely person. I remember his tiny flat in Kinnerton Yard and him showing me his studio and the pictures and quite honestly I thought they were awful. Oh, he was hooked on Collis Browne was he? That explains it. They’re very acid-trip pictures, really, aren’t they? They seemed to me to be just like architects’ drawings, just columns and pediments. I always felt a bit ill at ease with him. But I was at a stage in my life when I thought really good relationships were ones which made you feel ill at ease.”

Gradually, Robin did indeed look iller and iller. He apparently wanted to live for as long as possible, but he was burning himself out with non-stop creative activity. He never took care of himself, he smoked over 60 cigarettes a day, stayed up till all hours and slept less and less, he took drugs, had irregular meals which resulted in him getting progressively thinner, giving his eyes a nervous, glittering look, and he suffered regularly from acute indigestion.   He had a minor heart attack.

Then the news came that he had had a massive heart attack and died. Robin’s brother was devastated. Virginia Ironside had to break the news of his death to her grandmother because her father was too upset to do so.

After Robin’s death, a critic, commented: 

“He could have been found among the poètes maudits of the fin de siècle or, perhaps, at some small German Rococo Court, where his strain of fantasy would have been appreciated by a ruler of like artistic caprice; nor would he have been out of place designing sets for Ludwig of Bavaria. His intense feeling for art was adequately matched by his intellectual prowess.”

 

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