Britain’s most prolific creative force reveals the secret to his productivity ahead of a London residence at Lehmann Maupin
Billy Childish is striding around his studio, brandishing a stick of charcoal and talking about his reputation. He keeps turning towards a huge blank canvas, feathering a few lines, then abandoning it to make another point.
“The trouble with having a public persona as a grump,” he says, “is that the public and the press are more in charge of Billy Childish than I am. They use words I wouldn’t use, and phraseology I wouldn’t use, and they cut out all the jokes.”
That, says the UK’s most prolific creative force—painter, poet, musician, publisher, memoirist and novelist—has led to people mistaking him for a disagreeable person.
By agreeable, does he mean polite? “Yes. And that is because if someone asks me if I like something, and I don't, I say no. So it’s interesting that being ‘not-agreeable’ is being grumpy.”
Childish is no curmudgeon. He is genial, gossipy and a sharp theorist on everything from the culture wars to the state of the art market, scattering his arguments with references to Van Gogh, Kurt Schwitters and Morecambe and Wise (“We’ve lost silliness—we’ve got plenty of stupidity.)”
But he is opinionated, which is why Childish thinks he upsets people. As co-founder of the “anti-anti-art” Stuckist movement in 1999, he proclaimed figurative painting superior to the conceptual work of the then-influential Young British Artists. (The Stuckists took their name from an accusation by Childish’s former girlfriend, YBA-er Tracey Emin, that his work was stuck.) Some have never forgiven him, he says, which is revealing about art-world preciousness: “I was only in it for six months! Tracey’s over it ...They don’t want any dissent. Art doesn’t like dissent.”
Today Childish is working in Chatham, Kent, the town where he was born. His studio is a Victorian warehouse in the Royal Dockyard, where he worked as an apprentice stonemason in the 1970s. At 60, he looks remarkably vogue-ish, a lean figure in paint-splattered overalls, with a keen energy common among people who practise yoga, which he has done for three decades.
His son, Huddie, a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, is working there too. Evidence of the fabled Childish productivity is everywhere; hundreds of canvases and layers of congealed paint. What did he do during lockdown? “Five albums and about 40 large paintings.”
Childish often draws from photographs. Today he is working from an image of his wife, Julie Hamper (Hamper is his real name), wading through a lake, her hands trailing in the water. He draws her outline in charcoal before rubbing the sketch out, flicking at it with a rag, and starting again—a process he keeps repeating.
He is about to move his studio to a temporary residence at Lehmann Maupin’s new London gallery in Cromwell Place for “Billy Childish in Residence”, an event that allows the public to book slots to watch him work. It is timed to mark Frieze week in London, and the New York gallery’s move to capital; director Isabella Icoz calls it Lehmann Maupin’s first “interactive residency”.
The new gallery will forego a fixed exhibition programme and instead focus on performances and residencies. “We want to be dynamic here,” Icoz says, “a salon-like place where we’ll be slowing it down and [making it] much more intimate.”
Childish will produce work based on his new book, Billy Childish, Photography 1974-2020, a startling collection of black-and-white images from his private collection, assembled in “roughly” chronological order to form a visual autobiography and a document of his closest relationships.
It is a disarmingly intimate series: partners come and go (Emin makes an early appearance) until his wife arrives and stays. His children appear and flourish, Huddie and daughter Scout. Others float in and out: Childish’s mother, who died this year and who, he spent many years caring for, is photographed in stark vulnerability; elsewhere is an arresting portrait of Bill Lewis of the Medway Poets, the punk poetry group Childish co-founded in 1979. Chatham residents goof around with their dogs.
The project suggests advanced photographic skill and years of planning, but Childish says not. “I rarely take photographs,” he says. “When people came round I occasionally took portraits, if I was in photography mode.”
Leafing through these images feels almost intrusive. That, says Childish, is down to the positioning and ordering, a process he was heavily involved in with the book’s editors, Rikard Österlund and Albirt Umber. “My mum’s knitting opposite a photograph of me shaving. That was not done on purpose but it’s an interesting juxtaposition. It looks like I’m cutting my throat, with my mum sat there knitting.”
After his mother died, her house was cleared. “They found about 60 paintings in the loft from the early ’80s that I didn’t know about. Come and have a look.” He rummages about on the other side of the studio before pulling out a canvas, a stylised image of two bony figures, one with an enormous bow in her hair: “There’s a really early one. That’s me and Tracey in 1982.”
How do those from his past feel about being in the book? “People said to me: ‘oh, you need to speak to the people in the nude and ask them.’ That’s what I hate about the English. We’re meant to be bohemian, liberal art types. But then it’s like, ‘Nudity! How terrifying!’”
But weren’t some of the photographs taken in a private context? “A lot of them were also taken in the context of art. I was going to make them into pictures anyway. The illusion with all my work is that it is intensely me.”
The secret to productivity, he says, is not to care about success. “If you’re not worried about seeing work as a justification for yourself, it gives you a lot of freedom. I don’t over-identify with what I do. But then people see it and think I’m really identified.”
His photographs look like the work of someone who cares very much, I say. “We did spend a lot of time editing, that’s true,” he says. “But, you see, love is willing attention. And willing attention is all that is required in whatever you do.”
Childish returns to the sketch of his wife in the water, which he has drawn and erased seven times over the course of nearly two hours, in search of the right form. Watching him work is mesmerising. “If you can get an illusion of weight, you can get away with murder. It doesn’t matter how wrong it is, as long as it looks like it’s there, and then it’s a doddle.”
We talk about his week. He usually paints only on Mondays (though he is making an exception for the Frieze event with Thursday and Friday sessions), and records music once or twice a week. Otherwise, he says, he does little other than exercise with Indian clubs, yoga, and poetry.
Lehmann Maupin clearly trusts him to be a genial host for Frieze week. “Yes, it’s a big mistake, isn’t it? Ha ha ha! No, I will be charming.” The woman in the water, alone in the huge canvas, is rubbed out again and we say goodbye.
An hour later, Huddie sends a text: “My old man asked me to send you a picture of the drawing.” Attached is a photograph, and there she is: the woman striding through a vast lake surrounded by trees. Every inch of the canvas is covered.
Image: ‘Members of Medway Indian Clubs with Dog. Rochester’ (2020) is among the works in the new book ‘Billy Childish: Photography 1974-2020’ © Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin