Speech by Sir Colin Blakemore

Presentation of Patrick Hughes for an Honorary Degree at the University of London

Presentation of Patrick Hughes for an Honorary Degree at the University of London

by Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, 12th December 2014

Vice-Chancellor, in accordance with the Charter, Statutes and Ordinances of the University, I present to you this person on whom we wish you to confer the Degree of Doctor of Science Honoris Causa.

In 1969 a young artist arrived in London on a scholarship to study for the Diploma in Art Education at the Institute of Education. He was only 29 years old, but was already a Senior Lecturer in Painting and Drawing at Leeds Art College. Why, you might ask, did he want a Diploma in Art Education? Well, the empirical evidence suggests that he didn’t - or at least that he didn’t want it enough to sit through the classes with the school teachers for whom the course was really intended. Instead he did what he already knew how to do: he painted.

I presume that this young artist, Patrick Hughes, enjoyed the paradox of being an art teacher, from what was generally recognised as the best college of art in the country, studying art education in a place that didn’t teach art.

The problem with this paradox, unlike the endless railway lines and roads in some of his early work, is that this journey had an ending - an examination for the Diploma, which Patrick sat, here in Senate House in 1970. He failed!

Sonia Rouve, one of his teachers (who is here today), puts a bright gloss on what happened. He failed, she says “in the most brilliant way”. She also notes that “his attendance had not been great”.

Patrick’s biographer John Slyce noted that: “Few have encountered a childhood as resoundingly bleak as young Hughes”. Patrick himself has written: “I did not much like my childhood, a place both miserable and over-emotional”. But nevertheless stories of discovery and wonder run those early years.

He was born in Birmingham on 20 October 1939, but grew up in his grandparents’ cottage in Crewe. Unfortunately the Luftwaffe had taken a shine to Crewe because, as Patrick wrote, his grandfather was making Rolls Royce aero engines there. In the absence of an underground air-raid shelter, 4-year-old Patrick and his mother spent each night in a cupboard, known as the “Glory Hole”. Patrick says that he slept not under the stars but under the stairs! But they were “inside-out stairs that only a spider could walk up”. This curious experience made a strong impression on young Patrick. There he was, as he says, “being bombed, and in the dark and in bed with my mum again where things were the wrong way round.”

To the contrary mind of Patrick, the cottage contained many other Alice-in-Wonderland experiences. The front parlour that was, of course, never used, with a clock that was always set 10 minutes in advance of boring reality. The pair of mirrors on opposite sides of the room that gave a young lad standing between them a view of endless reflections - a glimpse of infinity.

And he tells the story of being given the job of polishing a brass wall plate that had on it an embossed, raised image of a galleon. This chore gave Patrick the chance to discover magic in the reverse surface of the plate, on which the inside-out galleon continued to sail, on an inside-out ocean.

Patrick’s home environment was not a strong stimulus to scholarship. The only literature to be seen was the Radio Times. But young Patrick discovered the local library and developed a life-long love of reading. His “dull real world was replaced by the imaginary world of the novelist”. For Patrick, books were “like little doors - you open the little hinged rectangle of the book and step out.”

Patrick’s parents moved to Hull and he went to Hull Grammar School, where his teacher for O-level art constructed sets for the school plays. Patrick played a middle-aged vicar’s wife in one play, but was more interested in the sets, because of the tricks they played with perspective and because of the artificial shadows painted on false walls. Patrick wrote an essay in defence of Picasso for the O-level exam and scored exactly 47% - the pass mark.

He left school at seventeen, went to London, got a job as a window dresser and never looked back. In 1959 he enrolled at Leeds Day Training College to train to be an English teacher. At the very start of his course he had to write about six books that he had recently read and enjoyed. His teachers expected George Eliot, Jane Austen, Dickens and the Brontes: Patrick gave them Franz Kafka, Christian Morgenstern, Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Butler, Laurence Sterne and NF Simpson.

His penchant for brilliant failures had begun! He was rejected for English, but adopted eagerly by the Art Department. His already well-honed love of paradox, contradiction and ambiguity burst out through his art. Magritte, Duchamp, di Chirico and Klee were strong influences: like them, Patrick developed his own ways of both amusing and disturbing the viewers of his work.

He was technically versatile, using collage and constructions as well as flat paintings. Every work was intended to provoke contradictory interpretations. An example of particular interest to me is a work from 1962 called Cloakroom Ticket - a painting of a large digit “1” with the word TWO written on it. Patrick had discovered, perhaps independently, one of the most significant phenomena in the science of perception, the Stroop Effect - the way in which contradictions of visual and linguistic information confuse and slow down the interpretation of images.

By 1961, at the age of 21, he had his first show, at the Portal Gallery in London - the first one-man show by a so-called Pop artist. Two thirds of the works were sold; there was critical acclaim from such doyens as George Melly and David Sylvester. He was compared not only with Klee but with Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Spike Milligan.

In 1963 he got a job at Bradford School of Art and the next year he moved to Leeds College. From there, in 1969, he came here, for that magnificent failure at the University of London, and he then struck out as an independent artist, living and working in London.

Two works in the 1960s set Patrick on a path that he is still doggedly exploring - like one of the characters in an early illustration, sitting on a train rumbling forever around a circular track.

In 1963 he made a construction entitled Infinity - a pair of railway lines not just tilted towards each other in deference to perspective but literally touching at the top, making explicit a glimpse of infinity, like the view through the pair of mirrors in his grandparent’s cottage.

And in 1964 he made Sticking out Room - a solid construction of a living room, with wallpaper and a door, but the room is reversed in shape, with the smaller, apparently distant wall actually protruding towards the viewer. What is remarkable is not just that it looks like a real room, but that it then seems to swing and sway in a very unroomlike way when the viewer moves around it.

This was, with hindsight, the first work in a style that he has called “Reverspective” and which is now his singular mode of art.

In the 1970s and 1980s he continued to explore paradoxes through his art - doors made of brick; a hole in a wall forming a portrait of Desperate Dan, who had jumped through the wall; rainbows stacked up in the corner of a room or turning grey as they stream in through the bars of a prison cell. But increasingly he focused on reverspective as the culmination of his exploration of pictorial paradox.

Stand still in front of a Hughes reverspective painting and you will admire the precision of the graphic technique and the power of perspective in the images. But these pictures all employ the trick of the Sticking out Room, pitting perspective, and other so-called monocular cues to form and distance, against the reality of the solid surfaces on which they are painted. This causes them almost literally come to life when you move past them. As if controlled by you, the viewer, the pictures obligingly swing in the same direction. Doors in the image open, bookshelves move around their library, the palazzi of Venice sail like boats through their canals.

His work is now regularly shown at Flowers Galleries in London, and he has had exhibitions all over the world - in New York, Santa Monica, Seoul, Chicago, Munich and Toronto. A Hughes reverspective painting, Paradoxymoron, hangs in the foyer of the British Library, where you will always find a little group of viewers, bobbing and swaying, and usually laughing too.

Patrick’s works hang in many galleries, institutions and commercial buildings. And significantly they also hang in university departments and research institutions, reflecting the fascination that they have for scholars, especially those who are interested in how our brains deal with the apparently impossible task of understanding the outside world.

We are fortunate to have one of Patrick’s works here in the School of Advanced Study, and Patrick is collaborating with our research group in the Institute of Philosophy, helping with the design of stimuli that we are using in our efforts to define the parts of the brain that analyse information in the two-dimensional retinal image in order to guess the nature of the mysterious third dimension.

Patrick has a long history of interaction with academic researchers, including Thomas Papathomas at Rutgers, Brian Rogers in Oxford, Nick Wade in Dundee and the leading expert in visual perception, Professor Richard Gregory, who died a few ago. A photograph in Gregory’s obituary in The Times shows him in his study, with a work by Patrick in the background.

He has co-authored academic papers on visual perception and he has written or edited six books of his own, exploring themes that parallel his art. In his book Paradoxymoron, he examines contradiction and paradox in literature as well as in art. The book is infused with scholarship, and full of glorious quotations. One heading in his Preface reads: “The book fills a much-needed gap”. His most recent book, A New Perspective, was published just a month ago, on his 75th birthday.

Patrick is, then, a man of extraordinary talent and a cheeky fascination with life. He is a table-tennis player extraordinaire; he runs 10 Km every other day; he dresses with elegance; he is a brilliant conversationalist. And this in addition to being one of Britain’s leading artists of the last century and this.

So, Vice-Chancellor, I ask you to participate in the ultimate paradox in the life of Patrick Hughes - returning to the site of his greatest academic failure 45 years ago, to receive an honorary degree.

Vice-Chancellor, it is with great pleasure that I ask you to confer the Degree of Doctor of Science, Honoris Causa, on Patrick David Hughes.

Colin Blakemore Professor of Neuroscience & Philosophy School of Advanced Study