By 1967, Syd Barrett had officially requested a sabbatical from Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. He would never return. His contemporaries relate his decision to interrupt his painting course as a bad move, but it was Syd’s innate ability to apply an art school sensibility to making music that was moving Pink Floyd towards the spotlight. The world knows Syd Barrett formerly as a musician who became a virtual recluse, but what kind of artist was he before his swift ascendancy into rock stardom? And what art, if any, did he make post- 1971 when he retreated from music and public view? In an exclusive extract from Barrett: The Definitive Visual Companion, Will Shutes
sheds light on Syd Barrett’s creative life.
It is often said that Roger Barrett – the name Syd Barrett used for much of his life and indeed as an artist – presumed he would be a painter; the implication being that this status was never achieved. Barrett left Camberwell to pursue his burgeoning music career, subsequently commenting in 1971 that he “spent a little less time painting than [he] might’ve done”, but across his lifetime he was in fact prolific. In the same interview, Barrett stated “I’m a painter, I was trained as a painter… I think of me being a painter eventually.” Until now, Barrett’s artworks have featured, in most cases, as mere description. This spring, for the first time, Barrett’s entire oeuvre – that is, every image known to exist – will be on show in a book, Barrett, The Definitive Visual Companion (published by Essential Works) and an exhibition, Syd Barrett: Art and Letters, which together should replace speculation with physical evidence of his creative output. It would seem that finally we too can think of Syd Barrett as a painter. Painting had been an interest of Barrett’s since childhood. In the 1950s, he attended a children’s painting class at Homerton College in Cambridge (opposite his home) and had already set his sights on the foundation course at the Cambridge School of Art. With this in mind, and in addition to enrolling for a Saturday morning art class at Homerton, in late 1961 he also signed up for evening classes in life drawing at the School of Art, which he was invited to attend in September 1962. Barrett’s time there was followed by a projected three-year course at Camberwell. According to Anthony Stern, with whom Barrett held a joint exhibition in 1964, Barrett enjoyed learning how to use materials, rather than being taught art. Stern recalls that his work showed a “consistency in randomness”, each piece being experimental in its own right. In 1967, having left Camberwell, Barrett commented, “I made a painting the other day… and… I could… see and hear very clearly… different instructions and different criticisms going in to the picture which were in fact criticisms that I could relate back to art schools and teachers and various things that’d come at that time.”
Although he may not have completed his course, Barrett clearly recalled his art school training, but with his focus centring on his art once again he was able to return to something less institutional. While his still life depictions of chains and flowers demonstrate Barrett’s ability as a figurative painter at this time, the more idiosyncratic works that survive show that he brought his own artistic sensibility to bear on his work at Camberwell. The apparent influences on Barrett range from Richard Hamilton’s approach to basic design in the late 1950s, through the Abstract Expressionism of Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell, to the popular abstractions of Paul Klee. Frank Auerbach’s heavily worked canvases would have been prominent models for 1960s students at Camberwell, and, indeed, Barrett is remembered applying his paint thickly, alongside and on top of found objects such as a shirt. Throughout his life, Barrett would enjoy experimenting with surface texture in mixed media, latterly using wax most commonly, to build up his depiction of a range of subjects, from flowers and characteristically English landscapes to purely abstract shapes. Over the course of many years he designed geometrical patterns, much like those of the Omega Workshops, while other work bore evidence of a sustained interest, retained since his student days, in styles of abstraction that had been current in America, from Willem de Kooning back to Arshile Gorky. While it is true that Barrett’s work lacked “consistency” (according to former flatmate Duggie Fields), the variety that this implies is at the core of his originality.
That Barrett painted on and off for the majority of his life, and solidly for much of that time, suggests a personal commitment which never sought or needed approval from anyone else – one which bears testament to the desired freedom which art gave him. Barrett’s sustained artistic output indicates a high level of pure enjoyment, too, not to mention a sense of accomplishment. Although by now well-known, Barrett’s habit later in his life of destroying his own work is generally misunderstood, not least since it might have begun much earlier than is often supposed. Libby Chisman, née Gausden (Barrett’s girlfriend for many years in the 1960s), was often “called into the art school [in Cambridge] to look at what he’d done.” Barrett was “very, very proud of it, but then again,” she continues, “[she] never saw any of it again, so [she didn’t] know what he did with it.” Libby doesn’t remember Barrett destroying his art, but it “didn’t surprise her to hear” that he did so subsequently, recognizing that when a painting was completed, it was a “job done.” She supposes he must have left them at college, since she does not recall the “hundreds of things he had to produce there… ever coming home.” Similarly, Rosemary Breen (Syd’s sister) has said that in later years Syd would occasionally show her a picture, “or just have it in the house for a couple of days”, often photographing it repeatedly.
At one point during his later years, Barrett was known to paint ten pictures in a single day. The dates of the works that survive, or that survive as photographs taken by him, certainly suggest he worked swiftly. These works included paintings and drawings on paper, and occasionally board, employing pencils, acrylics or watercolours with a shifting focus between figurative and abstract subjects, and with impressive overlaps between these impulses. Considering the volume of art he is likely to have created in his lifetime, Syd must indeed have destroyed most of it as the many anecdotal reports suggest. However, many pictures – and photographs of pictures – do remain.
It is not true that Barrett disposed of those works “that he didn’t consider perfect”, as one biographer has written. Rather, once “they were finished and his head was free of them,” as Rosemary puts it, he burnt them or threw them away. As Libby says, “I don’t think it mattered to him… I think once it was done, people had looked at it… that seemed to be the end of it.” And yet, Barrett’s art was crucial to him, if not in terms of possession, then as an exercise in perpetual creation. Barrett’s own documentation of his work, and thus of his life, in its constant process of creation and erasure defies the ability to tell a full story. Yet Barrett was committed to his art, creating then erasing evidence in a way that is at once the denial of a narrative and the narrative itself. His art, in substance telling us quite little, tells us everything.