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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."


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