At 92 years of age, Anthony Eyton is one of the oldest appointed Royal Academicians of The Royal Academy of the Arts. Despite this impressive nonagenarian status, Eyton’s output doesn’t appear to have waned one bit since 1947, the year he left the army and returned to his fine art studies in Camberwell. Eyton went on to travel extensively throughout Italy, India, China, Israel, Ethiopia and Sudan (among many others), painting whatever caught his eye along the way.
Settled in South London for the better part of half a century, Eyton continues to paint with steadfast regularity, as well as feeding off the profusion of contemporary exhibitions and major retrospectives London’s collection of galleries play regular host to.
I went to meet Eyton in his Brixton home-cum-studio to talk about work ethic, self-discipline, and how age might affect the artistic process. As soon as he answered the door, Eyton generated a warm and generous presence. Smiling and soft-toned, he was friendly and humble to a fault. Although his age was betrayed by a slight stoop to his six-foot odd form and the aid of a walking stick for balance, these factors did nothing to diminish the spirited vigour and enthusiasm he possessed when it came to discussing his work.
We sat down in his book-saturated living-room (among many others, I caught sight of Ai Wei Wei, Titian, Twombly, Freud and Bacon straining to dislodge themselves from the literary-compressed shelves). A piano stood against one side of the room and the walls were covered with original paintings: landscapes done by Eyton’s mother; a portrait of Eyton’s sister; a large, imposing composition of Bankside Power Station (one of a number of paintings executed inside the building in the years before it became the Tate Modern); a Euan Uglow nude with unfinished face (given to Eyton by Uglow as a gift).
Apart from the occasional communicational misunderstanding – a result of my accent (Yorkshire) and Eyton’s temperamental hearing aids – the conversation ran fluidly and the more we spoke, the more I grew to admire this artist who seems in no rush at all to hand in his paintbrush.
Alun Evans – So how long have you been painting now?
Anthony Eyton – Roughly since I was fifteen. Apart from juvenilia when I was about eleven or twelve. I was at school then and didn’t take art classes; I was sort of ‘what do I want to do them for’. But I did do drawings in a notebook, of rather strong men with medals on them, fighting. They were very aggressive in their way, the most expressionist I’ve ever got I think (laughs).
So in other words, I’ve been ‘at it’ since I was little. Quite a long time really, about 88 years of putting pen to paper.
And do you paint every day?
I try to paint every morning. Sometimes a little bit in the evening in summer. It depends on the light. At the moment I’m doing studio paintings, but I still like having the sunlight coming in from outside the windows to get the reflected light; the canvas can become luminous, catch the luminosity in the room. In fact it’s a lot about light. I think it’s light which triggers the whole response … it’s the light on the movement which sets one off I think.
Well actually, I like the word ‘mudpies’, because I think painting is a lot to do with mudpies. Like children you’re mixing paints and it’s a muddy sort of mixture, it’s real, just like the caveman used to do.
But you said magpies, what do you mean by magpies?
That they’re attracted to glittery things, things that shine in the light.
Oh, I see what you mean. Yes, magpies insomuch as anything goes, anything attractive would be interesting, yes. It catches the eye, and somehow strangely changes into a kind of structure within the eye.
What motivates you to keep painting every day?
I suppose that’s the creative thing coming out: you have itchy fingers and you want to actually do something about it. Not as a poet would, but actually to make marks on a canvas, which then becomes a thing that takes hold of you. You’re in the grips of the painting; as much as you’re in control, it controls you. It’s a strange mixture really, of being attracted to the subject… in my case it’s to capture the essence of that subject by ‘getting it right’ – as we used to say at Camberwell – with the marks in the right place, and then I have to adjust this, and adjust and adjust to get it so that it’s a potent expression of what originally happens.
Do you still feel as strongly about painting as you did when you were younger?
Oh much stronger, because there’s nothing else I can do very much (laughs). It’s not for nothing that Titian or Rembrandt, for instance, did splendid paintings in their old age, when they’d pulled out all the stops and it had become richer and far more potent, and more passionate and more human at the same time.
Do you think a lot of artists get better with age?
Not necessarily, no. I think I’ve been very lucky – okay, I’m 92 now, I could’ve popped off many a time, and I’m very grateful for being given the extra time to catch up, because I’m rather a slow starter. I’m just now beginning to feel that I’ve got something to really say, and the work I think is much more mature.
You feel you’re still developing?
I’m developing every day and very alive to exhibitions, or say, talking about writers, reading, and trying to move with the world, and to reflect it in some way. I think my painting used to be 19th century kind of origin, but now it’s somehow got more modern.
But in the end, I find Giotto or Masaccio up to Picasso, as it were, much more relevant to… to saying something not particularly ephemeral, but to the lasting qualities which make someone like Johann Sebastian Bach still relevant today. You know, in a very eternal sort of way.
Do you find it harder to paint now than when you were younger? As in, is it more physically taxing?
I sit on a tall stool because I can’t stand and pace backwards and forwards or else I’d fall over. Another thing I do is to use long brushes now – they’re about three foot long – and sit further back from the canvas and refer to a kind of piece of mess in my studio. I’m very fond of the architecture of the studio – the windows, the walls, the stuff lying around… the detritus I suppose you’d call it (laughs).
Why do you like that so much, the detritus?
Because it’s order. You’re making order out of chaos. I mean, it looks chaotic and that’s what is so attractive. [When it is painted] it becomes sacred, this sort of mess. I have to say to visitors ‘Please don’t touch that!’, ‘Don’t open that door’, because it’s very important to get the thing absolutely as it is. That’s what I think is unusual: you want to make it sharp. Not romantic, not kind of carelessly making things up. You don’t make things up, you just try and get the vivid sensation through touch of the actual object and how they relate to one another.
You’ve been painting nearly every single day for so many decades now. Where do you think your work ethic comes from?
There’s my mother’s side. She was a wonderful painter. She died very young – 29 – and she was just getting going. But she did wonderfully in those ten years since leaving Heatherley’s Art school, then getting married and going out to India with my father, painting very vivid little pictures ‘on the go’ as it were. Since I inherited her paintbox, there’s a sort of work ethic suggested to me that I’ve got to do it.
I think the word ‘passion’ comes into it too. So you can’t help yourself, you’ve just got to do it. It doesn’t feel like work; it’s pleasure. But it’s uphill sometimes, and very worrying all the time. And I think that’s a very good thing: to keep the worry, to keep the problem going.
The worry is a motivation?
Yes, it keeps you on your toes. I mean, I’m so surprised when people say ‘oh that’s good’ and they’re talking about their own work. I could never say that. In fact, I go the opposite in rather running myself down (laughs).
But you’re happy with some of your paintings, right?
Sometimes you can look back and say, ‘that’s a good one, I didn’t know I was so good at that’. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing that… I think I make a speciality of doubt. But that’s the thing with age too, of course. Any painter worth their while is full of doubt. It’s one of the ingredients.
You think in your old age that you can do it, that you know how to do it, but you don’t know how to do it. And so every new picture you paint is a worry (laughs), it’s a challenge… and you expect a lot from yourself.
And is that part of a motivation too, waking up each morning and having that challenge to face?
Well, there’s nothing better than a painting that doesn’t work because you’ve got to change it. And it’s a god-sent kind of opportunity… If you have a really bad painting then you’ve got a marvelous thing on your hands, because you can’t get it worse, you really have to go at it.
I have a silly thing I quote sometimes by Marshal Foch, from 1918 when the German army was at the last push towards Paris and they nearly made it. He said: “Mon centre cède, ma droite recule,” – My centre gives way and my right retreats – “situation excellente, j’attaque.” – the situation is excellent, I shall attack!
So “J’attaque” is when everything is crumbling. It’s a military way of doing things (laughs).
You were in the army in the 40s. Did this have any influence on your self-discipline when it comes to painting?
I failed in the army because I was so bad at paperwork, and not having initiative and leadership values and all that kind of thing that I was supposed to do as an officer.
Something maybe did stick in the army: an interest in strategy and how to win battles, because painting’s a sort of battle. I don’t know whether it gave me discipline though.
But it requires a certain amount of self-discipline to paint every day, right? I don’t think that’s something everyone has in them.
We’re back to the excitement – rather than being disciplined, you get the excitement of what the experience is. The visual experience and how the painting is going. I’m not very good at dogged sort of preparations, I just have to get on with it.
So it’s not discipline really, it’s mudpies. You just enjoy it. As a child you enjoy making things. It’s very elementary in a way.
What about being described as ‘prolific’? What thoughts do you have on that kind of labeling?
I’d take umbrage (laughs). It suggests sort of just churning out stuff. I don’t want to do that, because that means I’m conveying with skill and repetition, and that’s the last thing I do. It might be that there’s some skill in manipulating the paint, but it’s always in… it’s not facile, it’s hard-won in the sense that it takes time to sort it all out, sort the problems out.
So how would you rather be described?
Getting better (laughs). Wait a minute, there’s a better answer than that.
Anthony pauses for a long time, and then:
‘It strikes like lightning to hear him sing.’ That’s a Gerald Hopkins quote. ‘It strikes like lightning to hear him sing.’
And is that how you’d like people to react to your paintings?
I’d like them to react in both an immediate way and also in a slow-burning way.
To be hooked in the first place, and then to go on looking… That’s what I’d like.
A Closer Look Back, a documentary exploring Anthony Eyton’s life and work, is available to order at the Royal Academy website. His latest paintings will be exhibited in the RA’s Summer Exhibition which runs from 13th June – 21st August 2016. You can also view an online gallery of his work at the BBC’s Your Paintings site.