These writings are about my life, starting with childhood as a Blitz Kid. The reminisces that follow are about art school; the army; and my life and career, particularly in the United States, home for the last forty years. Many friends and colleagues have asked me to write on my life in art: as a student, artist, teacher and museum director. I have attempted to do so in 'My Life', 'Corcoran', and 'Cranbrook''. More will be written but this is a beginning......
Thanks are due to many: in my early life to my mother, Milla, for her support and love. For the past twenty five years, gone by too quickly, to my wife, Agnes, for her encouragement, friendship and love. Over the past years, as I struggled with the concept of these writings, Agnes sustained me with her encouraging comments. To write on our family and beloved grandchildren could become maudling; suffice to say, these reminisces are for them.
Florida, November 2007.
Photo montage "Early Days": baby boy to art student to sergeant.
Memories are a collage of images, imagined or remembered? Childhood is elusive, blurred by time and longing. The child is shown photographs and told tales. What is reality?
Is that image, of a young boy on a tricycle, an actual memory or a faded photo? Yet the memory of that bike is real enough. So difficult for a frail five year old to push the pedals and turn the wheels. The frustration and falls, with the scrapes and sobbing, remembered well. A year later, the War broke out. Life changed for everyone except that little boy, for he knew no other childhood than that of a Blitz kid. He had no other memories. Those memories are mine for I am that boy.
The air raid siren was real, wailing and screaming every night. The darkness came and so did the Nazi bombers. The screeching sirens warned of the approaching terror and death. Mother and I lived in the center of Cardiff, capitol of Wales, and, as the major coal exporting port, a prime target for the enemy. Air raid shelters were built to protect the populace. Our shelter was built against an enormous and thick wall. Unfortunately for us, the wall ran along the main railway line from the coal mines up in the valleys. To bomb the port and railways was a major objective for those planes.
For this young boy, every night was the same, pretence by my loving mother that everything was normal. Changing into my pajamas, I was told a story and tucked in with a goodnight kiss. Then came the inevitable siren screech and waking wail for the bombers were coming. The sleeping boy was awakened and the nightly confrontation began about clothes. Mother insisted that I keep my pajamas on but wear my shorts and blazer. The wails of protest were louder than the sirens, as I did not want my 'jammies’ showing under my shorts!
Every night, the same ritual of siren and protest, always in vain. To this day, I never understand why we didn't dress for the shelter and go there to sleep? We always ended up there anyway. I suppose that going to bed deceived us into thinking everything was going to be alright that evening. Never was, as the raids and bombs came and came again. Yet to act normal and have dignity was important, as was concern over those pajamas showing under my shorts. Say if anything horrible happened and I was found with 'jammies’ showing? In the face of the horror of war, pride and appearance means everything, even for a little boy.
I was born July 1933 in Cardiff, my father died when I was two years old. My mother, now a young widow, saw her mother die that same month. My grandfather, also widowed, became the man in my life. I adored my grandfather, Jack Stone, as a child and forever, as ‘Granpy’ help raise and bring me up. Jack was born a cockney, within the sound of the bow bells, and came to Wales as a young man. He drove an ambulance; became a chauffeur; opened a fish and chip shop; and, eventually, became transport manager for the largest retailer in Cardiff. I remember his magic tricks; love; humor; and grey hair. My mother had curly grey hair and blue eyes, as now do I. In those early days and throughout my life, my mother was always there, supportive and loving. Words can not express my love for her and my enduring gratitude; more on that later. In 1939, when the War and the Blitz came, I was distraught, as a young boy, to be taken from my mother.
Early in the War, evacuation of children started with those in cities being bombed by the Nazis. Children were taken from their families and sent to the quiet country away from devastation and death. I was such an evacuee, standing on a train station platform, with tearful farewells to my beloved mother. My wartime childhood experiences are those so vividly depicted in the movie "Hope & Glory", from ruins and rubble to bombs and barrage balloons.
My train was packed with tearful children, gas masks in small boxes carried over tiny shoulders. The gas masks made to look like Mickey Mouse, complete with big ears, were not visible but large tags were. These labels were attached to our chests and gave our name and age. Later these facts with other relevant, or irrelevant information, were proclaimed aloud when we arrived at our destination.
The train took us about twenty miles up the valley to a small Welsh mining village. The children, strangers to one another and everyone around them, were herded off to the Village Hall. Children were told, one by one, to stand on the stage to be offered to the local populace. "A boy, seven years old, quiet and polite" was how I was introduced, rather like an auction item or a slave. Someone in the crowd offered to take me and another boy into their home; so started my brief life as an evacuee.
In the same day, to be taken from my mother and be given to strangers was a rude shock. Even more so, for an only child, was sharing a bedroom with another boy. Danny was an evacuee, taken the same day by the family, who received an allowance for each child. The family lived in a mining village. Their small row house was one of many that were built and crammed on the hillside of the valley. The pit head and its shaft dominated the landscape, as did the dark mounds of shale, covering and creeping over the green valley.
The head of the household was a Welsh miner. Every evening, he returned home covered in black coal dust. The house was small and the tiny kitchen was where the daily ritual of bathing took place. The grimy miner sat crammed into an iron bath tub, while warm water was poured over him, a task for small boys. Often at sunset, us boys would see miners emerging from their shift far below in the pit. These coal miners would walk in a line, from the pit, across the valley. They would be singing, as only the Welsh can sing, with rich voices that harmonize spontaneously and spiritually, their passion and sound filling the valley. Moments that are remembered forever, as is the miner's response to a small boy.
One evening, during the daily bathing, I asked the miner, in the naive way of a child, "Why do you sing?" With face grimy with coal dust and bright white eyes, the miner looked at me and, normally a man of few words, replied, " Son, when you have spent the day in the blackness of pit, deep in the bowels of the earth, and come up from that endless darkness to see the brightness of day, we have to sing. We are grateful to be alive. With feeling, we sing to thank God for his light and mercy"
The passion of that response and the sound of those Welsh miners, I will never forget. Much else of that time away from home was forgotten; although, I do remember breaking my arm. To reset the fracture and apply the plaster, I was taken to the basement of the doctor's office, so my screams could not be heard. After a few months of enforced evacuation, I made the decision to run away.
In wartime, travel was restricted. However a daily bus went, from the village, twenty miles back to Cardiff and my home. In those days that was a long way, down winding, narrow roads through villages and flocks of sheep.
One Saturday morning, I was sent off to the market with money to purchase potatoes. With false bravado, for one so young, I purchased a bus ticket. To be only eight years old and travelling alone raised eyebrows and questions. I said my sister was meeting me, which, being an only child was impossible but feasible to my fellow passengers and bus conductor. With lots of glances and glares, I sat, seemingly serene yet nervous. What would my mother say? After nearly three hours, the bus arrived in the terminal at Cardiff. Pointing to a woman, telling the conductor that was my sister, I thanked him and slipped into the waiting crowd.
My mother, as most women in wartime, was working. She worked downtown, near the terminal, and usually walked home for lunch. That day, I followed her, now nervous and fearful. As she put her key in our front door, I blurted out, “Mum, I'm home!".
Surprise and shock, tears and hugs, then pandemonium and the police followed. Of course, my disappearance had been reported and the police were on the lookout for a runaway! Eventually all was forgiven and my short life as an evacuee was over. With air raids, daily bombings and nights in the shelter, I was happy to be again a Blitz kid.
Every night, the sirens screeched and screamed with searchlights scanning the sky, the Nazi bombers came and bombs rained down from the darkness. Our air raid shelter was built alongside the railroad, a prime target, and the shelter shook, time and time again. Then silence and the survivors came staggering in from nearby houses, now rubble. These shocked and suffering survivors were covered in the dust of destruction and death.
In Cardiff, like many other cities, there was debris, rubble and ruins; the gray mantle of dusty death covered the injured and innocent. With the coming of the land mines, floating slowly earthward on billowing parachutes, streets were wiped out and gone, lost in shattering explosions and horrifying force. At dawn, as the all clear sirens sounded, we would leave our shelter. Through the dust and smoke, we would look toward the city hall. The clock tower was visible for miles around and became a symbol of our survival and spirit. The city and its docks were badly damaged from the endless and relentless bombing but the tower survived, as did we, mother and I.
Sometimes, during the day, the Nazi planes would come in, flying low and strafing the streets with gun fire and cannon; bombs would fall. The swastikas and crosses on the planes could be clearly seen. Smoke and shrapnel remained, eagerly collected by us young boys, for shrapnel was to be traded and exchanged. Such barter became more prevalent with the arrival of the G.I. for the American soldiers brought candy, comics and cigarettes.
“Got any gum, chum?” became the plaintiff cry of us youngsters and the Yanks were generous. Gum was a rare pleasure but the wrappers were as important, for, with empty cigarette packs, they formed part of the barter. These wrappers, with comics, were the first color images I can remember. I was brought up with the colorful images and graphics of Batman and Robin; Superman; Lucky Strike; Camel; and Spearmint. From being a Blitz kid, I became “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with a love for all things American; for with the coming of the Yanks, the War and Blitz was over.
Celebrations occurred as the war ended in Europe (VE Day) and then Japan (VJ Day). Street parties were held; flags flew; and the troops came marching home. Eventually, ration coupons were no more; meat, chocolate and fresh fruit were available again. At age eleven, I remember the delicious delight of the taste of ice cream. I knew the war was over now for good; the sirens were silent.
Often, people will ask, "How did you get into art?"
From a child, I was always interested in making art. At the age of five, I won my first award for painting. The small ceramic figure of a lady in a crinoline is still in my possession. Painted in red, green and blue, the figurine has an inscription on the underside of the base. Mother had written, "August 10th, 1938: Roy won”; my first prize. As a youngster, I continued to draw, not too well, but with enthusiasm. Cartoon movies on rolls of paper from a cash register and imaginary illustrations of soccer games heard on the radio were among my favorite crude endeavors.
At age 11, having passed the rigorous exam, I was the only child from my elementary school to go on to grammar school, Cathay’s High School for Boys. The art classes soon became my favorite subject. The art master was Roy Saunders, same initials and first name as mine. He was a strict disciplinarian who trained Welsh Sheepdogs and young boys.
Our first project was to put our names on our art folders. The lettering was a specific size and style: Roman sans seraph with the names lettered in full. My name had eight letters and, although the "S" was difficult, the task was completed quickly and well. However, a fellow pupil, named Robert Anthony Charles Jones never did finish his art folio, a prerequisite for moving on to do original art. Always did wonder whether that long name of his, was the reason that RAC never made art and, I believe, became a scientist?
Meanwhile, I worked hard, with little natural talent, but intense commitment. Soon I became "teacher's pet", allowed to work whenever I could in the art room and invited to visit Mr. Saunders at his home to see the sheepdogs being trained. Like his pupils, the dogs were most obedient.
One day, on the sports field, I was in a cricket game, somewhere in the outfield, a long way from the ball and action. Cricket was, and is, a game I never could be interested or involved in. I was standing, looking at the grass and counting the buttercups, when Mr. Saunders came up and asked, "Slade, what ARE you doing?” In my cricket whites, I stood to attention and replied, "Playing cricket, sir?" "
NO, boy, what are you doing with your life after you leave school? What career?" At the age of fifteen, I had not really thought much about that question. In fact, I had no idea, so said what most kids say," I'd like to be a teacher, sir." "Good. You should go to art school and learn to become an art teacher"
Confused, I asked, " But, sir, can you TEACH art?" This question would remain with me forever. After a life and career dedicated to art and education, I am still not sure of the answer. I do know you can foster an appreciation of art and teach certain skills, encouraging creative endeavor; but can you teach art? My art teacher had a response, as red in the face, Mr. Saunders growled, "What the hell do you think I've been trying to do with you for the past years, Slade?!" "Yes, sir. Thank you, I'll go to art school, sir."
Thus, on the cricket field where little of consequence happens, the momentous decision was made that I should go to art school. As I stammered my apologies, my teacher stormed off but, days later, he talked to me about art schools and entry requirements. How ironic and poetic that at a cricket match, in a game I never understood, my career in art began.
In my home town of Cardiff, there was an old building that was originally a church school, called St. John's. Strangely enough, my mother told me, I had gone to that school for a few weeks when very young. During World War II, the building became a civil defense station and I was issued my gas mask there. After the War, St John’s school became Cardiff College of Art. The building where I'd gone to kindergarten and been issued with a gas mask, would become where my future studies would occur, the beginning of my career in art.
After hearing from my art teacher about art school, my mother made inquiries and found that I could go for a meeting with the principal. Mother took me, in shorts and blazer, to meet the Principal of the art school. His name was Jack Tarr A quiet, small man with moustache and hair lick similar to that of Hitler. Unlike the dead dictator, Mr. Tarr was a kindly man, who, like my headmaster at grammar school, road a bike to work.
Later in my student years, the figure of Mr. Tarr, with trilby hat, scarf and trousers clipped, was seen on his bike, cycling endlessly through my drawings and paintings. Every morning, Mr. Tarr arrived at the art school, dismounted and, slowly, would remove his cycle clips and gloves, then put a pipe in his mouth, ready for work.
On this day, he was to meet with an innocent and ignorant fifteen year old to talk about his art school. Patiently, he explained that four years of full time study was required to graduate as an artist, with a further year qualify for teaching. Like many other schoolchildren, my limited and only ambition was to be a teacher. But first, a portfolio review and entrance exam had to be taken and passed before acceptance into art school.
The coming months became a blur of activity. With portfolio reviewed and entrance exam taken, successfully, I was accepted to Cardiff College of Art. However, formal entry was dependent on matriculation from high school. Later that summer, in a somewhat archaic manner, on an August day, the results of the matriculation exams were posted on the office doors of the education department at City Hall. The crowd of kids waited anxiously. What worried me was whether I had passed in language, my weakest subject and a matriculation requirement. Pushing and shoving, I saw my results and, joy, had passed in my Spanish oral test: 'Ole, I was on my way to art school at the delicate age of sixteen!
That year, 1949, the art school had a very mixed student body. I had just turned sixteen and was in a beginning class with other young teenagers mixed in with war veterans in their late 20s and early 30s. These were toughened soldiers, some with beards, others with aftershave, unfamiliar to an adolescent, and the ladies wore perfume and lipstick. For a kid straight out of school, the mix was unusual, as was being in art school at such a young age.
I remember my first life class vividly. I did not know what to expect but had been told that we would drawing the human form, studying from a naked model. We sat around the throne or dais, a raised wooden platform, on which the model was to pose. We sat on benches that were called donkeys. At the end of each bench was a device like a small easel on which you could rest your drawing board. The students busied themselves with getting paper, pencils, brushes, whatever was necessary to avoid looking up. Out of the corner of my eye, I was aware that someone was on the platform and heard the rustle of a robe falling. I glanced up and caught a glimpse of an old woman, naked.
In that first life drawing class, I was so in embarrassed to be looking at a naked woman that I spent a great deal of time looking down and mixing my paint. Eventually, in frustration, the art teacher came to me and said, “Slade, are you going to spend forever mixing sepia?” I realized that I could not carry on this pretense of mixing a brown shade of paint much longer; accordingly I began to make marks on my paper. Again, the teacher stood over me and asked, “Slade, don't you think it would be a good idea to look at the model?!” Thus started of my first art class, in rather an ignominious way.
RS "self portrait" c1951
My first vivid memory of art school was that life class and my first nude, a glimpse of an old woman, naked and shriveled. The model was in her seventies, not the glamorous goddess that I had imagined and expected. Art school models are not fashion plates, far from it, as gravity and age wore away at the body. From that day, I began to realize that life drawing was an arduous, demanding discipline for years to come, particular in the academic style of that era.
That first life class was an ordeal, the embarrassment remains even today, as I remember sitting on my donkey. The bench with adjustable and slanted support for a drawing board is called a "donkey", which also is defined as "the ass; stupid or silly person." That day, certainly I felt stupid.
Next to me, an army veteran, just back from Egypt, was drawing rapidly with broad flourishes and confident strokes. Yet, I noticed that, increasingly, he spent more time looking at his drawing than at the model. Obviously our teacher was aware of that tendency, a bad habit that had to be corrected. The model was given a rest and the class some relief; the younger ones from their embarrassment. The art teacher told of the artist Edgar Degas who made students draw a still life. The objects were arranged on a table placed in the basement. Degas's students gathered around and studied the objects with concentration and care. The drawing class was held three flights up, so the aspiring artists had to learn to observe and memorize or face the endless stairs. In this way, to look became more important than merely to draw. From the beginning, looking at the model became a priority, not mere glances but intense observation.
After that tale, our model came back and disrobed. This time, the teacher discussed many issues from posture to proportion. Now there was no escape nor embarrassment for the nude became, and remained, a puzzling problem of line, form, mass, shape, gesture and much more.
The first two years of art school were conventional, the teaching traditional, with classes in the history of architecture, fashion, perspective, lecturing, lettering and an optional in the crafts. I chose what was called in those days ‘pottery’ and made some awkward figures in clay; obviously sculpture was not for me. After two years, students had to select a major. I decided to be a painter, feeling that this was a romantic pursuit. The reality was that we had to study painting five days a week, three of which were devoted to, again, to life painting. The models continued to be all shapes and sizes, from old to opulent. The paintings had to be most realistic, in the academic style. I was not good at figure painting but I was extremely accomplished in painting furniture that looked like furniture. I also painted actual furniture, walls and, even, garage doors to make money. In every way, I was truly a painter.
Two days were devoted to what was called ‘figure composition’. Our paintings had to follow the classical compositions of yesteryear. I was much more interested in landscape than figures, enough already in life class. The figures in my paintings got smaller and smaller, eventually losing themselves within elaborate landscapes. Of particular interest were industrial scenes of which there were many in the docklands of Cardiff. In our final exam, we had to make a painting titled “The birthday party”. My entry is was of a dockyard full of scrap metal with a background of factories and chimneys belching smoke. Within this elaborate scene of twisted and rusty metal were three diminutive figures, dock workers drinking bottles of beer and supposedly celebrating a birthday. I passed my exams and was awarded my degree in painting. I was grateful, celebrating with a few pints of draught beer with my fellow students, another raucous moment in our Bohemian life.
In my fifth and last year, I took classes for my teaching degree at the University of Wales. I never will forget studying psychology with a professor who constantly played with a yo-yo in front of the class. Also not forgotten was “student teaching’, that time where the student becomes teacher and, under supervision, conducts an art class. The young pupils, whether kids in kindergarten or teenagers in secondary school, awaited the student teacher as hunters await their prey. Somehow, I survived and graduated, with my teaching degree, after five unforgettable years of art school and Bohemia.
As a young art student, I thought of myself as most bohemian and acted accordingly with hard work and outrageous partying, isn’t that what artists did? As well as copying the styles of various artists, I emulated the life styles of those wild bohemians of “Gay Paris” of the naughty nineties who were carousing with wine, women and song. In Wales, the bohemian life was a little different. Rather than carafes of wine in a café, we drank mugs of beer in a pub. Our singing was done in raucous crowds at rugby matches where, with passion and gusto, the Welsh spontaneously sang “Bread of Heaven”. That hymn, sung as no where else, either in church or chapel, brought tears to our eyes and terror to our opponents. Many a visiting rugby team has collapsed as the Welsh players rise up, inspired by the words “Lead me, oh my great Jehovah”. Never is such singing heard in this world, only on the rugby pitch or paradise.
Life in an attic seemed the romantic ideal for the starving artist but, during my five years of college, I lived at home; difficult for me, even more so for my mother and step father! To have their son become an art student must have been hard to deal with, particularly as he became a wild bohemian. Painting, pubs and parties became my way of life. I worked hard and played hard, with the enthusiasm and naivety of youth. How did my poor parents suffer and survive those unruly and turbulent days? How did I?
Every morning, I left our small flat and walked to St John's. The art college was housed in St John's, a building of real significance for me. St John's was my very first school, as, for a few weeks, I went to kinder garden there. Then, with the war and evacuation, the building was taken over by the government. I was issued with my gas mask from those offices. Now I was studying art in this old, red brick building, located just off Queen Street, the main shopping thoroughfare of Cardiff. My daily, leisurely stroll took ten minutes from home to school, through streets and a small park with Celtic crosses and Roman roads. I walked past the National Museum of Wales and the City Hall, both huge and white, classical architecture. I lived and studied in the center of the capital of Wales, with the museum and its art collections close by but, even closer, many pubs.
At the age of 18, pubs were legal for me; I was already familiar with them. I remember our annual college fancy dress party and, on one occasion, my mother made me a wonderful costume for Scaramouch. I created the false nose out of papier mache. Unfortunately, before the ball even began, I had partied too much, fallen and my nose crumpled, so did I. My parents suffered patiently through the wild Bohemian life of pubs, parties and picnics. The annual bus trip was organized by students to celebrate the end of each academic year. Five buses, crammed with the student body of 200, took the annual trek to Mumbles Bay for a picnic. On the return, too much beer and booze led to sickness and singing, asking Jehovah to lead us back to “the Promised Land”.
College life was not only fun but became a way of life for I became involved with the Student Union. At the age of seventeen, I ran for and was elected President of the Union, young indeed considering the student body was much older with veterans and mature students. In the election process, student candidates had to make a speech to fellow students. I had to overcome not only my youth and shyness but had been to the dentist that day, so I was spitting blood in more ways than one. Some say that I’ve been spitting blood ever since. My election as President changed me in many ways. I assumed a leadership role that has been my way from then on. In 1953, I was honored to receive the College’s Silver Medal: “Awarded to the student who contributes most to the life of the college and who also produces the best work in open competition”. A year later, a few days after graduation, I entered the British Army.
RS drawing "Backyards with laundry on the line" c1957.
RS drawing "Ferry Road, Cardiff" 1960.
RS: aged 6, with gun, a soldier to be?
Eight weeks after completing my five years in art school, I was in the British Army. At that time, in the UK, every young man had to do two years National Service with the military. The alternative was to be a conscientious objector and do work in hospitals or other public service. In all honesty, I could not claim to be a conscientious objector as I certainly would respond to any violence against me or my family. I had seen the horror of war but realized that liberty and freedom had to be defended. The day after my 21st birthday in 1954, I was conscripted and joined the British Army; a most dramatic and traumatic experience. Through the Blitz and college, I had spent my young life at home in Wales; now I was on my own.
I was drafted into the infantry and sent to East Anglia to join the Essex Regiment in Bury St Edmunds. Those first two weeks of basic training were most demanding, physically and emotionally, particularly after the freedom and bohemian life of art school. The discipline and demands were endless and exhausting as young men were turned to soldiers.
For me, what was particularly bad was that, after two weeks, the recruits were let go for the holiday weekend at the beginning of August, known as August Bank Holiday; nothing could interfere with that ritual, even the Army. I was sent home on leave for three days which then made leaving the comforts of home and the care of my parents to return to boot camp most difficult, almost impossible; the farewell was tearful.
However, a month later, I completed basic training in the British Army. Looking back, I am amazed still at the transformation, within a few short weeks, of a rebellious artist into a fighting soldier. The manipulation of the mind and the bullying of the body turned a meek youngster into a disciplined soldier. Within six weeks, I was taking commands without question; physically excelling at imposing obstacle courses and field exercises, complete with back pack and rifle. I would dive on concrete; go through tunnels of red smoke; scale cliffs; and obey whatever command; without question. The Army has every right to be proud of its abilities and achievements, over mind and matter, in training recruits; more was to come.
As a young child and art student, I had shown a tendency to be first and to direct; now the potential for leadership, evidently apparent in basic training, was to be tested by the Army. I was selected for Officer Training; even more demanding physically and emotionally. Nevertheless, I passed and was given the rare opportunity to be an officer as a second lieutenant in the infantry. Much to the disgust of my regiment, I turned down the commission; much sought after. But a commission was for three years not the two I had to serve. As a graduate teacher and showing a potential to lead, I was sent to the Royal Army Educational Corps in Beaconsfield, outside London. My military life was to become considerably easier and much more fulfilling in every way; now I was to become a sergeant
After more weeks of training at the Army School of Education, much of which repeated my university courses, I was made a sergeant in the Royal Army Education Corps. I requested to be drafted to the Western command as I was hoping to go back home to Wales. I went back to Cardiff for a weekend, out carousing with friends and on my return to base, I found that I had been posted to the Far Eastern Land Force. Typical of the Army that my request was totally ignored and the opposite was decided: I was to go East rather than West. I was to go to Singapore and serve in the Malayan campaign.
At that time, the journey by plane took three days; a military flight of officers and non commissioned officers. Leaving London, our first fueling stop was Cyprus, in the throes of civil unrest and turmoil. The next stop was Bahrain; a different land of desert, sheiks, Arabs, camels, sand, palms and toilets that were holes in the ground; I will never forget. Now I was abroad, going through and to foreign lands.
As our flight went through India, freshly independent, we had to wear civilian clothes. We landed and stayed overnight at Karachi and then, after a fueling stop at New Delhi, we arrived at Calcutta. The officers that had served in the Indian Army had seen the collapse of the British Raj and rule. Now these officers were upset by the poverty; beggars; cripples; crowds and chaos. As an artist, I admired colorful fabrics; exotic plants; striking architecture; towering temples; strange smells; noisy streets; screeching music; bustling life; different peoples. Women, colorfully clothed, walking proudly with huge vessels balanced effortlessly on their heads; men, dressed in white, chattering and bartering; soldiers squatting, turbans on their head, rifles in their hands, bandoleers on their shoulders; camel herders; taxi drivers; priests and paupers: intermingling in a crowded cacophony
Eventually, our flight landed in Singapore. The heat and humidity was oppressive for the city lies just north of the equator; with no seasons, endless rains and monsoons. The Malayan Campaign was to resolve the growing conflict between the Malays and Chinese. Chinese Communist insurgents were trying to infiltrate Malaya and take over the country. The Chinese were industrious and hard-working while the Malays are easy-going and happy. The differences were much more than that and led to mutual dislike, even hatred. As Muslims, the Malay looked upon the pig as the devil incarnate; on the other hand, the Chinese looked upon a pig as a domestic animal. At that time, there was hatred between Malay and Chinese; this certainly made the task of the British army much easier.
The British Army had decided that the way to defeat the Chinese communist insurgents was to deny them food and information. Accordingly, at night, the Malays would be in their villages, protected by the British, and the Chinese could gain neither sustenance nor information; critical to success in a jungle war. Moreover, this was not a civil war but a conflict between people who were different in every way: culture, religion and appearance.
The conflict in Malaya was resolved in 1963 by the formation of Malaysia, a merging of the former British colonies of Malaya and Singapore. The secession of Singapore occurred in 1965. Nowadays, Malaya and Singapore independently flourish in the world of finance and trade.
During the Malayan Campaign, the British had the support of the Gurkhas and the Fijians; both were ferocious fighters, yet very different. The Gurkhas, from Nepal, were small and fierce; whereas the Fijians were tall and jovial. Many a story can be told. The Fijians were feared for their size and speed; dressed in their native sarongs, they were colorful in every way. The Fiji Rugby team was renowned for its drinking, carousing, singing and play. Their huge hands held a rugby ball or a machine gun with ease; stories are told of them charging through the jungle undergrowth, with bloodthirsty yells, killing the enemy with their bare hands.
The Gurkhas were obedient, obeying any order without question. The Gurkhas became legendary after a platoon of Gurkhas was taken downtown in Singapore to dispel a group of unruly Chinese. The young British lieutenant told his troops to draw kukris not knowing that to draw the sword, Gurkhas had to draw blood. The Gurkhas withdrew their kukris and, in moments, beheaded a group of Chinese, bloody heads rolling in the streets. Never again would the Chinese go near any Gurkha. Up north, the Gurkhas were patrolling and protecting the border with Siam (Thailand). News came that communist infiltrators had been spotted in the jungle, trying to cross the border. Two Gurkhas were sent off in a Jeep; their appearance, at the crest of a hill, led to a hasty retreat by the Chinese enemy, fearing for their lives and their heads. Another tale of the Gurkha is of the soldier, who was told to get off a train at Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, he was on the wrong train; an express that did not stop in Kuala Lumpur. Nevertheless, as the train sped through the station, he got off; breaking both arms and legs.
The Gurkhas were fearless and obedient to a fault. To say the least, my experience with them was interesting and informative. I had been sent up north to the Gurkha headquarters to do some drawings for a book. The book was on teaching English ’the direct method’ and needed drawings of Gurkha troops.
A year earlier, after arriving in Singapore, I had taken a course on teaching English to Malayan troops. The classes were held at the Army School of Language and Method; I was most successful with my teaching. My outgoing enthusiasm and ebullience served me well, as did my abilities as an artist. I could do quick sketches to illustrate the direct teaching of English. My success, in teaching basic commands in English to the Malays, led to permanent posting at the School. In addition to my teaching duties, I illustrated a simple primer for use with Malays. I was most happy to be in Singapore. My one trip into Malaya was to go north for six weeks with the Gurkhas.
The drawings I did were in my most academic, figurative style. The drawings were in black ink on white paper, with the normal shading and cross hatching that is done when drawing the figure and face. However, Gurkha soldiers were most upset; the marks on the face which I regarded as shading, to show form, to them were evil marks. I realized that in their art, there was no shading, just the two eyes, nostrils and lips. Obviously, I did not want to upset a Gurkhas soldier in any way! I modified the drawings accordingly.
For the first time, I began to realize the difference between our cultures. Up to that moment, the difference had been in language and appearance. Now, I began to consider that other races may see and comprehend differently? I had been brought in the West, with traditional perspective being the way to see and represent nature. Sir Herbert Read, the renowned art critic, described perspective as a “visual hypocrisy”. As I looked at the art of the East again, I saw that nature was represented in a different manner. In a Chinese watercolor, I would see a branch, a bird, the tip of the mountain and that was all. There was no attempt, in the Western way, of trying to give depth and the illusion of space. I became more puzzled and curious about this way of seeing. The more I looked around me, at the customs and art of the East, the less I knew.
I was teaching art classes for the British Council in downtown Singapore. The Army looked kindly upon this teaching, as a service to the community. I met some Chinese artists and, through an interpreter, talked about painting. Again, I knew nothing about how these artists felt about their art, even a simple brushstroke. The Chinese talked of the brush; the amount to paint; the weight and feel of the brush; the time; gesture; speed; contemplation; and the movement and moment of the stroke. The more I heard, the less I understood. The people, language and art are so colorful and exotic; of other lands and differing cultures. “The Mysterious East” remains that for me to this very day.
In summer 1956, I left Singapore by troopship to return home. Our troopship was the last military vessel to pass through the Suez Canal. The Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the canal that July. The hostility was evident, as our troopship moved through the narrow canal, with crowds jeering, spitting and yelling. The Seven Day War occurred in October but, by then, my Army days were over. For military service in Malaya, considered a war zone, troops were awarded the General Service Medal (GSM, Malaya). My Army discharge papers of August 1956 include the following testimonial from my Commanding Officer: “An intelligent and highly qualified Non Commissioned Officer (NCO) who has carried out duties with complete success; duties considerably beyond those normally assigned to a soldier of his rank. He is a first class artist and has proved himself a very good instructor”. So ended my Army service, now my teaching career was about to begin.