Looking back is sometimes more fulfilling as we get older – there’s just so much more to look back on. Garnet and I grew up a few streets apart, went to the same primary school and shared many friends in common. We spent a fair bit of time together in our late teens and early 20’s. We discovered life drawing in the same evening class, led by the wonderful Harvey St. Clair. It was Harvey who convinced me to accept a place at Camberwell School of Art, whilst Garnet opted not to go to Art School. I remember Garnet’s distinctive, powerful drawings, and his gifts with a paint brush, which he went on to use in so many ways, as a muralist, faux finisher, and occasional painter.
Whilst the rest of us became wrapped up in trying to launch careers, Garnet chose to avoid the competitive rat race and opted for a simpler, alternative, lifestyle. I remember him running the café in the park, doing trompe-l’oeil commissions for local homes, and evenings of song around the piano in his rambling Victorian flat. He was always a great story teller and bon-vivant. Later, when I moved, first to Sussex then on to Canada, we lost touch, but I never forgot him. Images of him singing, in a tattered evening jacket with a version of the Palm Court Orchestra, would occasionally flip through my mind.
A few years ago I decided to Google him to try and catch up and was surprised to see someone had made a film about him – “Garnet’s Gold” – which was premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, and there he was, large as life, talking about it on YouTube. The next time I was back in South London I decided to try and find him. I wandered in to the pub we used to frequent, just on the off-chance, and asked if he ever came in, never thinking he might, all these years later.
“Garnet? Oh yes. Most days. He’ll be here around 4:00, he usually sits there.” I left a note and said I’d be back. In a world where so much has changed, it gave me a warm feeling to discover that I might still find and old friend in a familiar spot, when so much else has gone.
And so, soon after 4:00, I walked back in and there he was, as promised, seated at the bar puzzling over The Times crossword. It was a wonderful reunion, he’d barely changed at all, and 30 years fell away as though the last time we had met were yesterday. I felt the occasion deserved preserving so I took photos with my phone.
Later, back at my Studio, I felt, with a few changes, it might make a painting and “The Regular” was born. I made the pub walls red, as I remembered them rather than the white they are now, removed the gaming machines and simplified the background leaving just enough clutter to convey the atmosphere of the pub. Garnet himself makes a terrific subject, the warm of the character of his face draws you in to the picture. I did change the colour of his coat to Barber Green, rather than black, as it added to the colour harmony of the painting.
The film, “Garnets Gold” (produced by Ed Perkins) is well worth seeing if a little difficult to find online. I found a version on YouTube, now renamed “The Lost Gold of the Highlands” – published by BBC Four’s Storyville (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zw_IEV3vLSw), and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a bittersweet glimpse into the life of a warm and wistful eccentric, a loveable character I am proud to call an old friend.
Garnet reading his poem “I Nearly” from The Lost Gold of the Highlands
The Lost Gold of the Highlands may be seen at: