Ian Dury: "More Than Fair" Art Exhibition

Sammy Stein By

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By the time Ian Dury had his first major hit, he was 35 years old. With frightening speed he and his band became household names and Dury remained a national treasure until his death at the age of 57 in 2000.

However, before the Kilburns, the Blockheads or the Music Students, before he was bewitched by the overpowering enchantment of fame, sex, drugs or rock and roll, Dury had a different life. He was an artist, a teacher and creator of images. Now, over 40 years since the creation of some of those works, his first solo exhibition is taking place at London's Royal College of Art, Kensington.

Dury was enigmatic, his characters for public consumption carefully molded after years of observation and emulation. His lyrics and music conjured up a myriad cast of characters pulled out of the imaginings of a creative soul. However, over half of Dury's life was played out away from the spotlight and public gaze, in classrooms and art lessons, first as a student, then as a teacher.

Willful, opinionated and very aware of his public image, Dury at one point was in dire danger of becoming something of a beloved old fart in the eyes of the public once his star began to wane. He turned things around, however, coming out in support of charities and presenting to the public a genial, lovable rogue. He was still performing in spite of being unwell. The public fell in love with him all over again.

What this exhibition offers, in the form of a range of portraits, mixed mediums, pencil sketches, styles and subjects, is a chance to glimpse the Dury of his youth. These are images created before commercial dictates, greed, hunger for success or any other influences took their effects. Dury was a follower, learning from teachers like Peter Blake. He had not yet benefited from the kindness of those who helped him in his musical career, wrote or played with him and had not yet suffered the setbacks which would later beset him.

Most of the pictures were created between 1961-1972. Dury was clearly fascinated by people—subjects gaze back at the viewer with confidence. There are many images of pouting or grinning ladies, some gleefully displaying their breasts while others coquettishly cover (just) their most private parts but reveal much to the artist. Dury painted a lot of boobs and fannies and was evidently enamored of the female body, yet there is a line he does not cross and not one picture verges on the pornographic. The sitter's "come hither" expressions suggest they were willing participants in the creation of Dury's art. Other subjects include collages and sketches, pictures of Lee Marvin, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Laurence of Arabia, Errol Flynn James L. Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Roy G. Rogers and many other film, sport and media stars of the 1920s-60s. These reflect influences on Dury, and many he would draw on in later life.

There are also images created after Dury's first brush with musical success and two pictures from the Kilburn and the High Road days sit proudly, loaned by Terry Day of the band, and some magazine and album covers Dury did artwork for are shown, too.

Dury's attention to detail is impressive. Some pictures display dates spanning 2 or more years, such was the time Dury spent perfecting them. Sequins are used on many, and the painstaking, precise positioning of virtually each one is appreciated close up. There are notes on some of the pictures—"Natasha, see what you can do with practice" on one, and "Please frame to edge—matt black" on another (it remained frameless).

Dury's daughter, Jemima, was curator for the exhibition and commented that this meticulous care was typical of her father in everything he did, from the carefully constructed images he presented to the public, to his lyrics, music—everything. Visitors appeared in a slow but steady stream, and she made a welcoming host with a word for nearly every one who wanted to discuss Dury or his art. Jemima was, of course, knowledgeable about the pictures. The exhibition was her idea, along with Kosmo Vinyl, one time "arranger" extraordinaire for the Blockheads. To an observation that the fascination with women's bodies was perhaps normal for most men of his age at the time, she responded with a grin and a comment that the fascination never diminished.

"The exhibition has been very worthwhile and such a pleasure to curate," she said. "The response has been very positive indeed. It's the missing piece of the jigsaw—people are aware of the music and the writing, the wit and intelligence. Now they know about the art and I'm very happy about that."

When Vinyl and Jemima came up with the idea of the exhibition and discussed it with designer and author Jules Balme, who also came on board, they had no idea if there would be enough interest. But many friends offered to lend pictures given to them by Dury, who used to present pictures as tokens of affection. Some were framed, others looked like they had been stored down the backs of cupboards or tacked to walls. But wherever they had been all these years, they, along with ones kept by the Dury family, were found, dusted, straightened, posted and brought to the exhibition, some making their way through various hands or personal deliveries, from parts of the capital, whilst others had to be carefully shipped from Cornwall and further afield.

There is a diverse range of styles, mediums and even the presentation varies. Some images have frames covered in lurid tartan or leopard skin, whilst others have no frame, simple ones and no covering. A few have quality frames and glass protection.

The 1960s was an age of changes, but in these images there are no politics or indications of the huge social changes going on around the artist. For Dury, the people were what were important, and his images reflect this.

After he became famous as a musician, lyricist and front man, as well as an actor and playwright, Dury rarely mentioned his art. Some people never knew he painted, some knew he did but never knew how prolific he was for a time, or how good. Some wonder that he never exhibited before. He was in turns irascible, selfish, selfless, generous, kind and dismissive, but he was a character and he was human. The pictures displayed show no trace of sadness, self pity, anger or melancholy; they are fun and intriguing. Particularly interesting are two self portraits Dury created at a similar time, one showing Dury thin, looking much older than his 27 years, the other showing a bloated, older Dury, but both titled "Self Portrait."

The Royal College of Art is a great setting for an exhibition like this. The room is accessible from the street easily, airy and well lit, with ample room to allow each picture enough space to be looked at closely or viewed them further away.

This is a glimpse of Dury before "Clevor Trevor," "Byline Brown," "Plaistow Patricia," or even a "Rhythm Stick" had been thought of. Dury's images are not everyone's cup of tea, but they are strong, simply displayed and show an opening into a world of make-believe into which Dury dipped many times during his life. In some, the subjects are parodies of reality, realistic portraits presented in a sea of fantasy plants or a fairytale setting of sequins and boas. Reality and fantasies mingle and blend. Dury never lost this art of creating characters, piecing together many used in his songs from bits and threads of people he knew, met or admired, mixing reality with the unreal and fantastical.

There is something about a few of the images which discomfits and it is difficult at first to pinpoint why this is, but it is perhaps the fact that many of them are images of private things—a girlfriend in the nude, the woman looking provocatively at the painter so the viewer becomes something of a voyeur, glimpsing a private scene between Dury and the girl. You sense that when they were created, maybe some of the images were never meant for public display.

A line from a Dury song, quoted after the opening of the exhibition by musician, actor and lifetime Dury follower John Kelly, says "very good indeed." I could not agree more.

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