You know those scenes in classroom movies where the teacher asks a question and one particularly keen pupil shoots up a hand and shouts “Please, Miss, I know, please, Miss, please” until he or she is chosen? Well, that is how it was with art and me. I don’t remember a time when art didn’t have its hand up and wasn’t demanding to be the one.
I grew up on a Polish camp in Chandler’s Ford, near Eastleigh. The camp was full of refugees who’d survived the Second World War. My father died when I was eight months old — run over by a train in Basingstoke — so my mother had to bring up three children on her own. We lived in a communal Nissen hut divided into family rooms. In the evenings, drunken Polish men would fight in the corridor outside our door. In the bathroom, people would wash their dogs in the bath and leave it full of dog hair.
Later, we moved to another camp in Daglingworth, near Cirencester. That camp had a nursery, and that’s where art entered my life. Next to the camp was a golf course, and I remember chasing sand lizards in its bunkers, then trying to draw them in the nursery. It’s my earliest clear memory.
When I was five, my mum found herself a man and we moved into a big house on a hill in Reading. At first, we all lived in one room — my mother, my sister and me. (My brother had died from a failed appendix operation a few months after my father.) I was sent to the local school, St Anne’s, in Caversham, where I learnt to speak English.
The big house was full of lodgers. I wish I could remember something nice about it. The strongest memory is of everybody arguing all the time, especially my mum and the man. With three of us living in one room, there was nowhere to do any homework, so they cleared out a cupboard for me under the stairs. I got into it by climbing over the top of the door. My den.
Although Poles are incredibly good at arguing, they also know how to stick together as a family, and by far the best member of my family, who would occasionally visit, was my cousin Tad. Tad, who was much older than me, was at art school in Winchester. Excuse the hero worship, but to this day I believe Tadeusz Mandziej was the most talented person I have ever met. On the dancefloor, he was the best dancer. At the card table, he was the best card player. Give him an instrument and he could play it: guitar, banjo, mouth organ and, most surprisingly, the Northumbrian pipes. Give him a piece of wood, he’d carve it. Give him a piece of paper and he’d draw something marvellous on it. He had magic in his fingers.
When he came to the house, he would always draw something for me — a face, a tree — and I would watch the process, the magic, transfixed. Down in my den, I began sticking pictures on the walls cut out from a magazine called Knowledge, which my mum had subscribed to for a year as my birthday present. Knowledge always had a page of art in it, a large illustration with a caption. I remember all the pictures I cut out and stuck on the wall. There was El Greco’s St Martin and the Beggar, with its strange elongations. There was Mondrian. There was that beautiful yellow painting by Arshile Gorky called Betrothal ii, which turned up at Tate Modern a few years ago. And there was Van Gogh’s night cafe at Arles, the street scene, not the interior.
Interestingly, I never separated old from new, traditional from progressive. It was all art. And I gobbled it up like a hungry fledgling on Springwatch. As soon as anyone began arguing, I headed for my den.
When I was 10, I was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Henley-on-Thames, run by Polish priests. It was housed in a large country house supposedly designed by Christopher Wren. Unfortunately, any artistic pleasure offered by these choice surroundings was choked at birth by the priests, who spread God’s goodness among us by whipping us and caning us on a nightly basis. In my case, it was usually for talking out of turn. Once, a woman teacher hit me with a wooden coat hanger, leaving bruises that lasted until the summer holidays, when my mother saw them. Another time, one of the kinkier priests made me take my trousers down and flayed my bare arse with a leather belt buckle. Not once did I flinch.
The worst torture was the incessant going to Mass. It never stopped. Mass, Mass, Benediction, Mass. Day after day after day. The service was always in badly pronounced Latin and essentially meaningless. Once again, art came to the rescue. On the walls of the converted chapel we used, left behind by the previous owners, I suppose, was an assortment of paintings. The largest was a huge Edward Poynter of St Peter escaping from prison. There was also a version of Raphael’s Holy Family. And, best of all, a copy of Leonardo’s Virgin and St Anne. The art teacher told us the story one day about the secret vulture that Freud said was hidden in the image. Mass after Mass, Kyrie after Kyrie, I would try to see it. By the end of my five years there, before they expelled me for blowing up the school’s electricity supply, I knew every centimetre of every painting in that chapel.
When things got too bad with my mum and the man, she moved to Bournemouth and opened a guesthouse. A local Catholic school, St Peter’s, took me in, despite the expulsion, and I did well enough in my A-levels to get a place at university on a full grant. At first I wanted to do art itself. But then I got interested in Rubens, who’d featured somewhere on the curriculum, and learnt about this other subject you could study called art history.
In those days, not many universities did it as a degree. The one I chose, Manchester, felt like the farthest away from home. That’s why I chose it. The head of the department, Dr Dodwell, was a respected medievalist who made sure we received an old-fashioned grounding in the full story of art. My private weakness, modern art, was taught by a brilliant expert on Paul Nash, the laconic Andrew Causey. My Van Gogh teacher was the cuddly Griselda Pollock, who went on to become one of Britain’s fiercest feminist art historians. At some point near the end of the course, someone called Nicholas Penny arrived. He’s now the director of the National Gallery.
I was still drawing whenever I could, and when a new listings magazine started up in Manchester, called the New Manchester Review, I volunteered to be their cartoonist. This lasted a few months before the editor, Andrew Jaspan, who went on to be the editor of The Observer, looked at what I was offering that week and said: “These are really shit. Is there anything else you can do?” So I suggested writing some art reviews.
A few weeks after that, the features editor of The Guardian, then still partially based in Manchester, came across something I’d written in the New Manchester Review lying next to him on the bus. He was looking for an art critic to cover the north of England. For my test, I was told to go to Whaley Bridge and write about some new pieces by a painting nun. On April Fool’s Day, 1977, I opened up the local edition of The Guardian, and blow me down, there it was. I was in.