Jay Rayner wrote in The Observer of Sunday 11th November, 2012:
“My father, Desmond Rayner, has never seen himself as part of the in-crowd, or any crowd at all for that matter. Despite working for years in womenswear, Des always dismissed the diktats of fashion as a crude money-making racket; what mattered, he always said, was style, and he very much had his own. He has never had a taste for the new hot restaurants or the latest bars. And when he started painting in earnest in the 1970s, it was not out of a desire to fit into any particular school or movement. “I wasn’t aware I was a part of anything,” he says now. “Frankly, I wasn’t interested in what was going on out there. I was just doing something I wanted to do.”
It turns out Des was wrong. He may not have been interested in an artistic movement. He may not have considered himself part of anything. But this week, at the age of 84, my father will find himself included alongside established names of the non-figurative art world such as Tess Jaray, Albert Irvin and Frank Bowling in New Possibilities: Abstract Painting from the Seventies. It’s a major exhibition designed to restore to a particular period of abstraction in art the full recognition it deserves.
It’s an ambitious project, but then so is the gallery staging it. In an age when the contemporary art world is forever chasing the new and the young, the Piper Gallery has turned in entirely the opposite direction. It is committed to representing only older artists. If the gallery were the work of an art world veteran it could simply be dismissed as an act of solidarity born out of outrage at the tiresome cult of youth. But it’s not. The gallery is the brainchild of Megan Piper, who is 27. The rest of the market can be obsessed by the legacy of the YBAs, Young British Artists, such as Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers; Piper has what one of the older painters she represents calls her BPAs, her Bus Pass Artists…
…It was 1974 and I was seven years old. I remember the way the family went to view it. My mother, siblings and I trooped into the dining room of our tight semi in north Wembley, the bit of the house Des had requisitioned as his studio since giving up the day job, to act as agent to my mother, Claire Rayner, and to concentrate on his art. There was something thrilling about this simple elegant sweep of jade and turquoise, which I found hard to associate with the man who had made it. My dad had painted this. How did that happen?
My parents had struck a deal back in 1972. He had supported her by spending 12 years as a PR man for the Alexon label, a job he did not much care for. With her career as a novelist, broadcaster and agony aunt taking off, it was his turn. He would look after all of Claire’s contracts, and the rest of the time he would paint. The peacock was framed and hung on the wall, the first major product of their arrangement.
…He all but ignored art nouveau after that and headed instead towards the geometry and vibrant colours of art deco. That’s the way it is, when you are growing up with a painter. There is always change in the house. There is always movement and progression. His interest in deco took him back to the Egyptian motifs revealed by Howard Carter when he discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun; in 1976 his series Deco in Egypt opened on the PS Tattershall Castle, a floating gallery on the Embankment…
…”I like colour for its own sake,” he announced. “I enjoy juggling with space. My emotions are entirely my own affair.”
…As he reminded me recently, Des has it written into his will that his ashes should be scattered on the steps of the Tate Gallery and along Cork Street, where all the most prestigious commercial galleries are, “because it’s the only bloody way I’m ever going to get some of me into either”.
Some paintings sold better than others. Despite having seen to it that Claire’s career was booming, and that we were more than comfortably off, sales of paintings still mattered to him. “Of course, I cared about people spending money on my pictures. It’s about someone liking my work sufficiently to want to buy it and live with it.”
Not that this always went down well at home. Claire had an intense and emotional relationship with her husband’s paintings. There were some she didn’t much like. But there were others she adored. There was one picture, of Broadcasting House, that my mother refused to part with. “She didn’t want me to sell it because she had spent so much time there, so I let her keep it,” Des says. She also accepted that his painting of the Chrysler building in New York had to go, but in later years missed it so much she begged him to paint it again. By then Des’s output had slowed and at times seemed to have stopped, despite Claire imploring him to return to the studio. It gratified all of us that he eventually did as she asked and repainted the Chrysler building. Some of us thought he might simply repaint the original. He didn’t, instead finding a whole new take on the skyscraper; it was a sign of what was to come.
When Claire, his wife, companion and soulmate of 55 years, died in 2010, Des said he had made her a promise: that he would return to the studio. He kept that promise. In the depths of grief I expected him to find solace in the cold, unemotional mathematics of the geometry that featured so strongly in his early abstract work. Instead he headed deep into whimsy. At various points in the past he had painted what he called his “contraptions”, nonsense machines made up of both recognisable engine parts and simple blocks of colour joined together by carefully knotted bits of twine, part Kandinsky, part Heath Robinson. Now he returned to them. There was a huge machine for generating the hot air of debate, there was a construction site for the building of a fairy castle in shades of sugar icing, and another machine that takes square blocks and transports them to round holes. He interspersed these with big impressionistic landscapes.
Only after a couple of years would he return to the patterns and maths of hard abstracts. Des is upfront about the work he is producing now. It is a way of dealing with the grief of losing Claire. “It’s been very therapeutic,” he says. “No doubt about it. And by swapping between different types of work I don’t have to stop.”
It was in this first period of intense grief that he was introduced to Megan Piper. She had found backing from Andrew Morris, a successful businessman involved in both the art and exhibition worlds, and had found a space in the fashionable art quarter of London’s Fitzrovia. Now she was recruiting artists. As uncomfortable as it is to admit it, there was always a sense that Claire, being better known, had overshadowed Des’s work. Piper was too young to really know who my mother was, and so saw Des’s paintings in isolation. She was immediately a fan…”