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The route to art

Interior at Paddington
Interior at Paddington, Lucian Freud, 1951. Courtesy of the Walker Art Gallery

A chance discovery with an intriguing painting has the potential to change you, says Laurie Taylor.

Apart from the monthly changing bathing belles on the local garage calendar which hung from a cupboard knob in the kitchen, there was only one other picture in my childhood home.

Unlike the calendar, this picture was afforded a special place of honour. It hung proudly above the china cabinet in the middle of the back wall of our rarely used, but regularly swept and dusted, front room. In this position it could readily catch the attention of the very few visitors who were considered of sufficient status to use the room.

Bluebell Wood, my mother would say when she saw them glancing in the right direction. "You can see the path going through the wood." "Ah yes," they'd say. "Lovely".

It was, I'm slightly ashamed to say, that damned path through the wood which captured my own attention. In the foreground of the picture it was a broad yellow sandy track, but as it wound its way through the bluebells, it became thinner and thinner, until it was only a speck of ochre amidst the packed trees on the horizon.

Laurie Taylor
Hear Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed on Radio 4 at 1600 on Wednesdays or 0030 on Mondays

Because it was the only art in the house, the only self-consciously framed artwork I ever saw as I grew up, it came to stand for all artistic representations.

Art, I assumed, was largely about nature and landscapes and perspectives. Painters were of course permitted to escape from the clutch of bluebells and try their hand at daffodils and roses and sunflowers.

They might even choose to place their flowers in gardens or meadows rather than woods with receding paths, but on the whole that should be the limit of their ambition.

It was this pre-conception which made my first teenage visit to the Walker Art Gallery so disconcerting. I'd only wandered into the place because it was in the same Liverpool street as the Picton Hall where I regularly attended traditional jazz evenings.

I reasoned that if it was so close to a venue where I had such good times, then it might offer some pleasures of its own.

Gallery fear

I've heard that the present day Walker Gallery is a well-organised, friendly place, but back then it was about as welcoming as a Grand Masonic lodge.

Everything conspired to give the casual visitor the sense that they were only being allowed to view the works of art on sufferance.

Several years later, when I learned about Lucien Freud's eminence, I still somehow believed that I'd been the first to discover him

In the absence of any fellow visitors, I didn't know how or where or how long to look. Was I getting it wrong?

Would I be seized by the uniformed attendant at the end of the room and marched outside for committing some error of judgement - getting too close to a painting, spending too little time in front of it, skipping past an acknowledged masterpiece?

And where were the bluebells and the woods? Where was nature? Where was beauty? Where was perspective?

It was then that I rounded a corner and saw on the wall a picture that shocked me out of all such expectations. For ever. It was simply called Interior, Paddington and showed a very small, scruffy-looking young man standing against a wall.

He wore a V-necked pullover, an open-necked scruffy shirt, and a crumpled gabardine mac. In one of his hands was an unlit cigarette.

Slightly in the foreground stood a bedraggled Yucca plant. Who was the man? What was he doing in the room? And how tall was he? Did he look so small because of the size of the plant and the wall behind him?

Word of mouth

I read that the artist was Lucian Freud. My mother hadn't heard of him. Neither had anyone at school. But that didn't stop me from taking friends to see "my sinister man". He was my discovery. My own piece of art.

Several years later, when I learned about Lucian Freud's eminence, I still somehow believed that I'd been the first to discover him, that he wouldn't have been so well-regarded without my personal approval and earnest recommendations.

Twelve years ago, or maybe more, I was standing in a Soho pub when I felt a touch on my arm. "You're Laurie Taylor aren't you?" said a voice.

I turned and found myself staring into the face of a small gabardine coated, scruffy middle-aged man. I recoiled. "Don't worry," he said. "It often happens. Walker Art Gallery? Lucian Freud? Yes?"

I nodded. Searched for something to say. Found words forming in my mouth. "You know," I said, glancing down at the unlit cigarette in his left hand, "if it wasn't for you I might have had to spend all my childhood looking at a path winding through a bluebell wood."

I couldn't have made any sense to him. But he smiled sympathetically. "I suppose anything's better than a bluebell wood," he said, and lit the cigarette that I'd come to know so well.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I can't believe how closely this article relates to my first steps into the world of art appreciation. Bluebell Wood has been a particular favourite of my mother's for many years. It's the first thing you see as you enter her house. Like Laurie, as a child I too used to stare into the arboreal depths and wonder what lied further down the path. However, it did nothing for me. It didn't make me think.

Three years ago, my then girlfriend wanted to see as many galleries as possible before she started her art course at university. The Walker in Liverpool was our first port of call. The lasting impression I got of that day was of the underlying tense atmosphere of Interior at Paddington. I too had never heard of Lucian Freud but the clenched fist, the dirty mac, the stare… simply blew me way. The girl has been long forgotten about but this painting stays with me everyday. A copy of it hangs on the other side of the partition wall to where Bluebell Wood hangs at home. Some juxtaposition that is.
David, Wirral

Reading this almost made me spill my morning coffee. You have just described, more eloquently than I ever could, an incident in my life that I will never forget. The profound shock of seeing that Lucian Freud painting for the first time, will live with me forever. I was quite young at the time, maybe 14 years of age and I remember a feeling that something significant had happened, but I didn't know what.

I returned on many occasions, to stand in front of that painting and so began my lifelong appreciation of art. Thank you for bringing back the memory. By the way, we didn't have the Bluebell Wood, we had the Hay Wain in our front room (the original according to my father).
Robert Hazlegreaves, Paralimni, Cyprus

You should have mentioned that the "scruffy man" is in fact a great artist himself; one of Britain's most underrated photographers, Harry Diamond, whom George Melly described as "the only one capable of photographing the Blues". I first met Harry in '76 when I worked in Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club. He would shuffle in with the most remarkable photos in his shabby carrier bag, happy to show them to anyone interested enough to look.

I also had the joy of being his neighbour in Whitechapel and found him to be a hilarious raconteur, one of the great Soho characters. His frugality was legendary: he boasted that he never slept in an air raid shelter throughout the whole of World War II, as he was "already paying good money for a bed in a lodging house". And of organising an evening's drinking with Jeffrey Bernard: "He bought the gin, I brought the lemon. But the way I sliced it, it lasted the whole bottle!" A true gem. Lucian Freud should consider a second portrait.
Paul Bowen, Richmond, Surrey

Thank you! I have spent the last few years trying to work out what that painting was called. Interior, Paddington. When I was 16 I went to the Walker Art gallery on a school trip with the Liverpool beat poet Adrian Henry. We had to choose a picture and write a poem about it. I chose this one and wrote a very teen angst filled poem as a result. I love this painting. The odd looking man, nicotine stained fingers, distress plant. Everything about it says I shouldn't like it, but for some reason I do. I bought a postcard of the painting during the trip and stuck it to my wall. That man stared at me looking as confused as I felt for most of my teenage years, until it was eventually taken down and stuffed in a draw. When I eventually dug it up a few a years back, the name and artist had gone. So now I know. Will be getting a print up as soon a possible framed and stuck on my wall.
Russian Linesman, Nottingham

In 1957, just before I left home to work as an apprentice, I went to an art exhibition in Nottingham Castle. Whilst wandering around, I happened upon a picture entitled "The Betrayal" It consisted of, what looked like, a whole jumble of purple-ish lines. I looked at it for some time and began to turn away whe suddenly I saw it all. There, in the lines was the haggard face of a bearded man, (St Peter). Surprised I stepped back and blinked and the picture changed and I could see three cockerels depicted side by side as if a photo had been taken with a shaking camera. That memory has stayed with me, but for the life of me I cannot discover who the artist was although I have searched for the last 50 years. Does anyone know?
Bruce Parkin, Holywell Fintshire UK

The man in the picture (Harry) still lives n East London and up until quite recently was well. He has not long ago come out of hospital after a fall at home when he broke some bones, we all hope that he will soon be back at our local pub with his unlit ciggy.
Andrew, London, England

When I was a teenager I took a life drawing class at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. The teacher said my two minute charcoal sketches reminded her of de Kooning. I had no idea who he was. I wandered over to the National Gallery and found myself face to face with the ugliest painting I ever saw (one of his Woman series from the 50s). It really disturbed me, but I had to find out more about him and took out some books on Abstract Expressionism from the library. Still thought it was garbage, but I was satisfied I'd at least checked it out. The next summer I saw another de Kooning in Chicago... and suddenly all the surging power and staggering beauty of his work exploded before me. I got it. It was like a religious epiphany and I was born again, baptised in the swirling cacophony of paint and emotion. Hallelujah.
Nick, Seattle, US

I was about 12 when I first came across the picture of Harry Diamond that Lucian Freud had painted and my feelings towards the painting and the subject correspond with Laurie's.

I too was in a pub in Soho when I became aware of this man standing in the centre of the pub, not drawing attention to himself in any obvious way but he made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Thirty or more years since first setting eyes on his portrait he had stepped out from the frame and wandered into my line of vision. Talking to Lucian Freud later, he confirmed who he was.
Steve Turner, Redhill UK

I once ordered 50 copies of the postcard of this Lucian Freud picture to use as party invites. As well as being a great picture it does actually look quite like me and at the time I had some similar trousers
Guy Hollingsworth, Sheffield

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