By Clive Jennings
A visit to Reg Gadney’s generously proportioned studio, which occupies most of the ground floor of the large Georgian house that he has shared with his wife, restaurant critic Fay Maschler, for 20 years, reveals a man who has spent over fifty years immersed in the worlds of education, literature and art.
The walls are lined from floor to high ceiling with books, paintings and memorabilia. He has received the highest accolades in all three disciplines: teaching at the Royal College of art for 15 years in the 1970s and 1980s, he became its youngest ever Pro-Rector, and lectured at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale; his parallel career as a writer then took over, including some16 published crime thrillers and many screenplays, several of which have received BAFTAs and Golden Globe nominations; and latterly he has built a following for his painting, a lifetime pursuit, with several well received solo shows of his paintings, and works in collections around the world.
Film posters and autographed photos recall a life long love of film, and an 18 month stint in his late twenties as Deputy Controller of The National Film Theatre. (Though Reg refers to his role there as “Deputy Manageress” as he recalls doing everything from cashing up, counting the ice creams and picking up used condoms to organising the first tribute to Cinematheque Francaise). Paintings by students, friends and other artists that he admires are everywhere. Everything from a small, exquisite Lucien Freud ink drawing to the first painting that Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili ever sold (to a prescient Reg for £100) – a magnificent colourful canvas. He still paints or writes for at least three hours on most days and the room has two distinct areas of activity – painting at one end and writing at the other.
The son of B C Gadney, a schoolmate of David Niven, who, as captain of the undefeated England Rugby Football XV during 1934-6 was something of a national hero, and a difficult act to follow. It was decided that Reg should join the army, “to make a man of me – but it didn’t work!”, and he served three years in the Coldstream Guards, serving in Libya and France and ending up as a military attaché at our embassy in Oslo, gaining insights into the machinations of governments and the military that were to serve him well as a thriller writer.
The army was followed by studies in English, Fine Art and Architecture at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, where he was editor of the literary magazine Granta. His undergraduate thesis on John Constable was subsequently published, the first time this had happened, and his catalogue of Constable’s drawings in the Fitzwilliam Museum prompted much interest in an area previously largely overlooked.
This experience was to prove useful when he met Francis Bacon, who also favoured Constable over Turner – “too many views” – and was inspired in his own paintings by the white lead pigment oozing through the back of Constable’s paintings, and had asked curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum to take a painting down so he could examine the back. When Reg explained to Bacon that he had to leave to teach at the Royal College of Art, Bacon rather grandly remonstrated: “Art is more important than jobs, jobs are for ordinary people”. Giving the great artist a lift back to his studio at a time when compulsory safety belts had just been introduced, Reg suggested that Bacon put his safety belt on, Bacon, known for his strict sexual tastes, demanded, “Only if you strap me in tight, tight, tight. Please do it tighter.”
While at the Royal College of Art, Reg lectured on “Art and the Popular Imagination” showing pop music, film and contemporary images that affected painters’ work. This was so popular with the students, mainly because he would show Fred Astaire and John Wayne movies, that he recruited an assistant in the person of the young Sir Christopher Frayling, now a former rector of the RCA and popular culture guru, who was then a porter at the Imperial War Museum, to help out. Amazed that his students hadn’t heard of the holocaust or ever seen a dead body or a birth, Reg arranged to show them films of Belsen to give them a taste of the dark side of humanity. He is slighting of current policies in art education, at the “Royal College of Hobbies”, as he dismissively describes his former home, and sums it up thus: “The glory of art schools is that nobody quite knows what they are for, which makes them so wonderful.”
Since his college days, Reg had wanted to write “seedy thrillers”. He admired and kept in touch with Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier, who were both very supportive. His sixteen “literary thrillers, include six novels featuring his anti-hero, Alan Rosslyn who Reg describes as “dull but a very good listener, which makes him a successful seducer of women”. Of particular interest to Fitzrovia residents is his 2000 Rosslyn adventure “Strange Police” which finds our man involved in foiling an audacious conspiracy by Greek Nationalists to steal the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum and return them to Greece. With many scenes set in and around the familiar streets of Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury, he draws on his local knowledge to give it a sense of reality, making it probably the only novel, ever, to feature a scene set in the 24-hour store on Grafton Way. Reg ingeniously and topically wove the construction of Norman Foster’s spectacular Great Court at the Museum, completed in 2000, into the story. Research included walking atop the magnificent glass roof constructed of triangular sections that encloses the Court, which covers two acres and is the largest covered public square in Europe.
Film and TV writing followed. His 1984 screenplay “Kennedy” about the 1961-3 presidency of JFK for Central TV and NBC, starred Martin Sheen as Kennedy, and won a BAFTA for Best Drama Series/Serial and four Golden Globe nominations. In 1996, his adaptation of Minette Walters’ novel “The Sculptress” was shown on BBC1, starring Pauline Quirke, and earnt Gadney another BAFTA nomination. He also adapted Iris Murdoch’s “The Bell” for the small screen, and became good friends with the writer. Reg lays great store in the opinion of his wife, and his son and daughter, when a work is complete, and also that of his close friend, the playwright David Hare, who reads all Reg’s manuscripts, and with whom he collaborated on a film script.
Although he has painted since he was nine, when encouraged by his watercolourist mother he entered and won a competition with a painting of the boxer Rocky Marciano, he kept it quiet during his Royal College days, partly on the advice of Patricia Highsmith, also a “closet painter” apparently. Over the last 12 years or so, since hitting 60, Reg has increasingly come out as a painter, a subject about which he is zealous. “Painting is like a vocation, like a religious belief, you either believe in it or you don’t and I believe in it. I have a passion for painting.” His work is largely divided between two themes: portraits and figures, and landscapes. The paintings, in oil on board, are all quite small in size, rarely larger than 60cm x 45cm and frequently much smaller.
The figurative works are usually heads, or female nudes, and the landscapes, brisk atmospheric impressions. Reg points out an important connection between the two genres, “the portraits are landscapes without the greenery. They are maps of somebody.” Despite their modest dimensions, these works sing out with a contained intensity, enhanced by a palette of pure, bright colours. Reg explains: “There is a moment when you see a painting, perceive it as a painting, as smears on canvas. You then look away, and you see it as a work of art. Somewhere in between that communicates something. That’s what happens and we still don’t know quite what it is. … It’s in that weird space that the thing has power.”
Reg loves Fitzrovia, particularly the cultural mix of the small local businesses, and has many friends amongst the people that work in the area: newsagents, shopkeepers, café owners. He recently insisted on being paid in haircuts when a Warren Street hairdresser asked if he would coach her son in the finer points of painting. Many of his portrait subjects are locals, and he particularly enjoyed painting an exotic transsexual friend, who lived locally. Despite all the recent changes in the area, Reg finds it, “still pretty anonymous – people leave you alone.”
This article was originally published 4 December 2012 in the printed edition of Fitzrovia News.