Jack Heath

2009-07-18 00:00

SO I’m just back from family in Venterspos and what do I see amongst my six weeks’ collection of in-coming e-mails but a lapsed invitation to a show of Jack Heath’s paintings. Oh dear oh dear, I’ve missed it by a week. Not that I remember ever seeing much of his painting fifty-five years ago, come to think of it, he seemed strangely diffident about his art. Curious, that; he wasn’t what you’d call diffident about anything else, really. Indeed, what I’d like to commemorate now is our consumption without any trace of diffidence of much friendly gin of nice Sunday morns in his hillside garden. Also to commemorate his Italian ice-cream vendor’s curly-type moustache and and his funny foot from being shot there the moment he set it on the British beachhead in Normandy. Well I think it was his foot, all is hazy after half a century plus, but some kraut plugged him all right and it much tickled Jack’s British sense of humour that he became a wounded warrior hero after five minutes of battle. I wish painting were as easy as that, said Jack.

What I do remember vividly after half a century plus is the dreariness of the Fine Arts Department in my student days: a dismal old professor with grey hair would display dismal grey photographs of greystone Gothic cathedrals before us on dismal grey winter mornings. Then a repellent old skinny bag with lead-poisoning sores on her legs from sucking the end of her brush would teach us dismal painting, demonstrate the technique of mixing miserable pigments into a fundamental mud and tint it to imitate the colour of apples, people, whatever, and lay this mud on to a prepared charcoal drawing of the subject which turned the mud a funereal sort of grey, like the cathedrals. Also she taught us figure drawing only she wouldn’t allow me in because the model was starkers and she fancied her sexually. Furthermore she fancied all the girl students sexually and hated my guts because I fancied them all myself. It was darem a dismal place. So you will understand my surprise, nay delight, when I returned to this cemetery a couple of years later to teach and lo! the place was one blaze of full-colour oil paintings, and big, man, big like the new professor. A certain senior student name of Mips was doing an entire wall for a master’s degree. Art arises out of technique, said the new prof, name of Heath, and the techniques are simple: keep your brushes clean, keep your colours clean, and don’t be afraid of the world.

Now Mips had been round the block a few times, as they say, and one Friday I said to her Mips, said I, would you like to attend a meeting of the Liberal Party tomorrow afternoon, kind folks all, and we’ll take some small cakes for tea? Great, it turned out great, not only the small cakes but curry for supper with Sam Chetty. Mips had to be back in the Womens’ Hostel only at eleven and locked in by a certain Mrs Kirwood of dread demeanour, see, whose employ it was to keep everybody’s daughter intact, and it was now only eight or so, and thus it was that coming past Alexandra Park in my mighty Morris Minor we noted the moon rising above the jacarandas and thought it a good idea to pull in there and kiss each other a little bit. You know, just a bit of advanced friendship, sort of. But round about tennish we noted the moon sinking again behind the same jacarandas, and climbing out of the Morris found we were parked and subsiding in the middle of a great compost pit. Eek! cried Mips, what about Mrs Kirwood? Never to worry, said I and strode over to the phone booth outside the swimming baths and phoned Jack. There you are, said I to Mips, Jack will come and rescue us with his Land Rover. Oh thank God thank God! said she. Jack who? Heath of course, said I. AAAUUUGH! she cried. How on earth can I explain? I will die of embarrassment! Well Jack arrived in his dressing gown and gumboots and great big 4x4 with a winch in front. I myself have spent many evenings of advanced friendship in compost pits by moonlight, said he. So she didn’t die after all.

Anyway, it took some heaving to get us out, let me tell you. It was nigh midnight when we were done. Please please Professor, said Mips to Jack, would you come and explain to Mrs Kirwood? What, in my dressing gown? said he, I would die of embarrassment. So we went to his place and drank gin and made a plan, but by the time we had made it the sun was up so we ironed Mips’s clothes and smartened her up a bit and took her home. Aaah, Mrs Kirwood, said Jack, what a lovely early-morning walk we have had. The world is such a beautiful place!

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