Show Hide image

Vision sees the body through

Many artists never retire, and some produce their best work in their later years. Joan Bakewell introduces reflections from four older artists on what keeps them going.

For one group among us, age seems to be ageless. Many creative artists know no retirement and seem scarcely to notice the passing years. There are writers and painters, sculptors and musicians in this country continuing their lifelong preoccupation with interpreting the world for the rest of us to enjoy. Their pensionable age has come and gone and their bodies may be tiring, but their passion for what they do still fires them. They keep on keeping on.

Consider some among them: Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Tom Phillips, Peter Blake, Albert Irvin, Mary Fedden, Anthony Caro, Bridget Riley, Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, A S Byatt, Alan Bennett, Ruth Rendell, P D James, David Lodge. Those are the names that come within a moment's thought; there are many more of equivalent merit and energy. All are over 70, two are in their nineties. Nor does this list include all the interpretive artists - actors, conductors - who continue to flourish: Judi Dench, Colin Davis, Vanessa Redgrave. Is this more than an accident? And is there something about the late works of creative people that has a peculiar character?

One finds late flowerings of genius throughout art history. Picasso's mature work, especially his drawings of lecherous old satyrs and gorgeous nymphs, has a palpable poignancy. Goya's late work expresses a darker mood. Edward Said described Beethoven's late quartets as having a late-in-life intensity, though the composer died at 56. Some critics hail Titian's Flaying of Marsyas, completed in his eighties, as his greatest work; Verdi's Falstaff, written in his eighth decade, is among his masterpieces.

We are creative creatures: prehistoric man, who left images on the caves of Lascaux, was making art, and the human race has continued to do so ever since. It is a deep-seated impulse, part of our very essence, and those who have tapped into it over a lifetime with diligence and skill are able and eager to continue. It may be that there is something within the creative brain that reinforces its own capacities.

For the rest of us who are ageing, there is comfort and reassurance. Many of us who have no claim to being artists feel the draw of the creative instinct. There are plenty who take up gardening or pottery when they retire. Many benefit from the £3m the Baring Foundation is giving to arts organisations that work with older people: dance groups and painting sessions are sprouting up around the country. It may be that, with the passing of the years, we enter a serenity of life, less torn by the ambitions and frustrations of the daily grind, and have space to allow more profound energies to emerge. All the evidence is that people find it very satisfying. JB

Michael Holroyd, writer
I see my writing going ingeniously backwards rather than forwards as I grow . . . less young. This process began almost 20 years ago. I found myself in an odd position: a natural miniaturist who had been publishing multi-volume biographies. So I set about recasting my lives of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw, adding material to all of them but, at the same time, reducing each to a single-volume edition. In short, a miracle.

I have enjoyed growing more slender and succinct. But there was another problem that worried me. I am essentially a comic writer, yet I have been producing a series of inevitable tragedies: books that ended, as lives tend to do, in death. So I changed direction and wrote memoirs and group biographies - family sagas crowded with miniature pen portraits of significant minor characters and covering two or three generations, as with the families of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in A Strange Eventful History. This prolonged the comedy but did not eliminate tragedy. So, in my most recent and eccentric family story, A Book of Secrets, I finished with a fantastical epilogue that turned tragedy into a dream of understanding and happiness. I couldn't go further without abandoning biography altogether.

But that is what I have done. A Book of Secrets is my final book. I shall not write another. How will I fill the time? There's so much to do that
I find it hard to believe I ever wrote those biographies - all that research, all that penmanship. I must get out of bed on the right side, find my clothes, remember everything I have forgotten, make lists, go shopping, take a siesta, keep breathing. I still read and I still write. I am writing now - not 100,000 words, but 300. This suits me fine. Retirement? Never!

John Bellany, painter
I have just turned 69 and my health is in pretty poor shape. For any distance longer than from the house to the car outside, I have to use a wheelchair. Climbing stairs is a minor torture. I received a liver transplant 23 years ago and in spite of alarming my family with heart attacks, mini-strokes and even a cardiac arrest, I have been able to enjoy a rich and exciting life. I have got to be one of the most fortunate human beings.

And yet, for the past two years, all my faculties seem to be in decline. The most worrying of all for me, as a painter, is the deterioration of my eyesight. But, using strong lighting, I soldier on. Every day. It is an inner need. I breathe, therefore I paint - simple as that. My greatest fear is of the day coming when I might not be able to paint. I don't want to contemplate that. What drives me on? It's the old fire in the belly.

Every artist works in a different way. On waking, I want to rush to the brushes in the studio and start on the picture I have been ruminating over during the night or for the past weeks.

Although I am in considerable pain, I continue painting on the same large scale I have always done. That said, the important thing is to continue the vision. If my vision is strong enough it will see me through.

I paint for about six hours, then have a long siesta, and in the evening I do watercolours and drawings. You must love painting with a passion, sincerity and integrity and from the depths of your soul, and let the painting flow from your heart with a gusto and sense of wonder, all of which will show through, you hope, when the painting is finished.

My motto is a quotation from Hugh Mac­Diarmid, Scotland's greatest poet of the 20th century:

Tae be yersel and tae mak that worth bein
Nae harder task tae mortals has been gien.

That is the inspirational feeling that permeates all my endeavours.

Quentin Blake
It's nice to be asked, but I have to say that I am not quite sure that I want to find myself in this group. I have never thought age had anything to do with drawing, and the assumption (it was Hokusai's) has to be that you go on getting better with practice. At least as far as drawing is concerned, it isn't much to do with muscle power, more with hand-and-eye co-ordination. So, until that begins to deteriorate, or is interfered with by illness and injury, you just keep going.

I have also been very lucky, in that people have gone on wanting what I do and, more than that, I have discovered new areas in which to do it. As the inaugural children's laureate, I was able to curate an exhibition at the National Gal­lery in London where I was invited to draw on the walls -- or, at any rate, make drawings that appeared to be drawn on the walls. That launched me into what I think of as Big Illustration: producing a panorama for the 800th anniversary of Cambridge, wrapping a building in St Pancras, illustrating an exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris. Since then, there have been sequences of pictures for hospitals, mostly for mental health departments.

Each sequence of pictures is directed at a specific audience of patients, so what is involved is not simply a change of format. After years of trying to identify with characters in books, I now have to direct the same imaginative attention to people with various problems. Most recently a sequence of drawings for a new maternity unit in Angers, in France, has given me a wonderful opportunity to identify with mothers and babies swimming about underwater. So motivation counts for a lot; but anyway drawing is an activity that just doesn't get boring.

Paula Rego
Being old has changed me very little. I still go to the studio every day except Sunday, because that is where I belong. The only thing that stops me going is if I am not well or if I am printmaking with the printers. I would much rather be younger, though, so I could have more time.

At the moment, I am waiting again for my work to change direction, which it does. You cannot force any change in the work; you have to go with it. You see new possibilities that are longing to achieve the unknown. You have to follow the footsteps that tread along the story.

Travelling by bus is good for the imagination, and you even have a few ideas on the way. The bus is full of people dressed in different styles, different nationalities. I like that very much. You hardly ever see the same person twice. I still cannot tell if the work is good or bad. I am grateful to sell any of it, to make money. I still cannot believe that it happens; I am as insecure as ever about my work, even after all these years.