Commonly known as Michael Wishart, with his sonorous monotone drawl, floridly handsome features and quiet erudition, he could have been taken for a rather urbane landowner, or perhaps a bookish squire. He was a son of the publisher Ernest Wishart (of Lawrence & Wishart), whose Marxist sympathies the boy did not inherit.
He was brought up at Pulborough in Sussex: The local prisoner-of-war camp introduced more physical passions to the fields of Pulborough in the form of a blond German boy named Harm; thereafter Wishart would openly acknowledge his bisexuality. He had an early entry into hedonism: at 12, he was an habitué of David Tennant’s Gargoyle Club in Soho. Wishart was educated at Bedales, and the Central School of Arts and Crafts.
Wishart met the painter Ann Dunn, daughter of the millionaire Sir James Dunn, whom he married in 12 July 1950. The event was celebrated with 200 bottles of Bollinger at a two-day, three-night party at Bacon’s studio. Much of Wishart’s subsequent life seemed to be spent in a search for profound sensation (a Catholic convert, he revelled in its ritual, as well as revering its tenets). His sense of adventure was tinged with doomy pessimism. He was, perhaps, out of time, caught between the pre-war aesthetes, the wartime Bohemians and the post-war pop generation, and influenced by all three. He was wilfully eccentric. He loved to make an entrance: surreal in country tweeds at Stephen Tennant’s funeral, or, as he described breathlessly in another postcard, “in full Bonnie Prince Charlie kilt a lot of ecru lace & half my grandmother’s pearls and rubies at a Masse de mariage at an exquisite chateau . . .” A gentle irony tempered Wishart’s fanciful rhetoric and tendency to namedrop, and made him essentially lovable, more especially when he was telling some unlikely anecdote with the driest of wits.
As an artist, Wishart applied himself fitfully to his calling. His 1956 exhibition at the Redfern received excellent reviews, and David Sylvester wrote in the Listener of “a sensibility that is at once shamelessly romantic and deeply sophisticated, and which endows the wide open spaces of the great outdoors with a sort of hothouse precocity. . . he is one of the select band of English romantic painters who are truly painters.”
He published his memoirs, High Diver in 1977. Following his death The Guardian published the following obituary:
Artist’s life in secret rooms: Obituary of Michael Wishart
MICHAEL WISHART, who has died aged 68, was perhaps the forgotten artist of his generation. A pupil of Cedric Morris, and early associated with those two giants of post-war British art, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, he never was able to live up to the prodigious success he enjoyed with his first and solo exhibition at the Archer Gallery at the age of 16.
Prone to loneliness and depression, as well as addictions to alcohol and opium, Wishart was afflicted with a dangerously self-destructive streak. Although he never doubted his own genius, his friends often worried that he had dissipated his fantastic talents: ‘One cannot help feeling, of course that your visual gifts and your literary gifts were not given for nothing,’ Graham Sutherland told him. But when on song Wishart produced some of the most magically lyrical paintings made in Britain since the war. ‘Pop is to painting what chewing gum is to gastronomy,’ he once declared, ‘and I prefer nourishment’; his many-sided art gave much to the discerning eye.Wishart was fascinated by genealogy, and his was particularly remarkable; on his father’s side he was descended from a branch of the warrior Guiscards of Normandy (where he often painted), who founded the kingdom of Sicily. Of more direct importance, one of his mother’s sisters, Kathleen Garman, was married to Jacob Epstein (and their daughter Kitty was married for a while to Lucian Freud), and another sister, Mary, was married to the poet Roy Campbell. His godfather, after he was received into the Roman Catholic church, was Graham Sutherland. Wishart’s father Ernest founded the publishing house Wishart & Co and later ran Laurence & Wishart, the only Marxist publishers in London.
Wishart was an only son, brought up at Pulborough in Sussex. As a child he would often disappear into the fields with a paintbox. At Bedales, where he escaped the sadism of a teacher at his local school – and where he was a contemporary of that ill-fated genius of the French horn, Denis Brain, whom he greatly admired – he excelled at diving and painting.
Wishart’s formal artistic training comprised one term at the Central School, attendance at the Anglo-French Arts Centre in St John’s Wood, a period under Cedric Morris at the East Anglian School and a spell at the Academie Julien in Paris.
After living for a while with his uncle, Roy Campbell, he moved in 1947 to Paris, where he shared a room with Lucian Freud. He was soon in the thick of Parisian artistic life, much of it centred on the ballet, and his friends there included Jean Cocteau, Christian Berard, and Boris Kochno.
Later he was to be the only person to paint Rudolph Nureyev from life. In Paris his patron Peter Watson also introduced him to Denham Fouts, and thus to opium, an addiction of which he was fortunately cured.
Through Francis Bacon, Wishart met the painter Anne Dunn, youngest daughter of Sir James Dunn, the industrialist and patron of the arts (he was painted by Sickert, Augustus John and Salvador Dali, among others) and Irene, Marchioness of Queensbury. They married in 1950, and the wedding reception was held in Bacon’s studio. The party lasted two days and three nights and the guests included almost the entire clientele of David Tennant’s Gargoyle Club and Muriel Belcher’s Colony Room. Two hundred bottles of Bollinger quickly ran out as the gatecrashers snowballed. With Anne Dunn, Wishart travelled to St Tropez, Venice – to stay with Peggy Guggenheim – Morocco, and to Paris where they settled in 1953, and where their son Francis (himself later a painter) was born. Wishart’s marriage ended in 1960, after which Anne Dunn married the painter Rodrigo Moynihan.
Following his divorce, and consumed with loneliness, Wishart drank ceaselessly and ended up in a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Paris (where perhaps, inevitably, his nurse turned out to have known Cocteau and Berard). ‘I do not recommend asylums to the sane,’ he remarked.
After his break with Anne Dunn, Wishart no longer tried to hide his bisexuality. Although he was attractive to, and was attracted by, a variety of women he remained open to all life’s pleasures and when at an exhibition at the Redfern Gallery he spotted ‘a youth of exceptional beauty’, the young Nicky Haslam, he formed a relationship that lasted for the next four years.
Wishart enjoyed fitful success as an artist during this period, and was taken up and exhibited first by Oliver Brown at the Leicester Gallery’s and by Rex Nan Kivel at the Redfern. David Sylvester, reviewing his 1956 exhibition there wrote of ‘a sensibility that is at once shamelessly romantic and deeply sophisticated, and which endows the wide open spaces of the great outdoors with a sort of hothouse precocity . . . he is one of the select band of English romantic painters who are truly romantic.’
This tribute, and praise from, among others, Bacon and Cecil Beaton, perhaps went to his head, and may have contributed to an excessively long barren patch. But his scintillating handling of paint and his confidence in the value of his own work erupted spectacularly into his comeback exhibition after 16 years – at the Parkin Gallery in 1985. An obsession with death and tragedy was offset there in the pictures he showed of beautifully coloured flowers and by monotypes of exquisite craftsmanship. The exhibition was headlined by one reviewer ‘Ballet of bad dreams’.
His company at this time was always charming. But alongside his positive and erudite side, one was always aware of his weaknesses – on occasions he had to be carried from one establishment to another, or he might be found asleep on the gallery floor or upright outside the front door.
Wishart’s memoirs, High Diver, published in 1977 are among the most unusual and readable of artists’ autobiographies. For unlike many painters, Wishart was widely read, and he took as the text for his book a poem by Cavafy:
I went into the secret rooms considered shameful even to name. But not shameful to me – because then what kind of poet, what kind of artist would I be?
His wonderfully descriptive eye and conversational tone was allied to a translucent prose, full of honesty. High Diver is full of gems, such as his description of Nancy Cunard’s legs, ‘so thin that it looked as though two threads of her knickers had come undone’.
In the last months of his life, the cancer from which Wishart suffered was exacerbated by a cruel and recurring depression and despair at the death of old friends, including Barbara Skelton and Caroline Blackwood. Anne Dunn, with whom he retained a close and loving relationship, visited him daily.
Several of his most recent paintings, based again on the subject of the seashore, were shown to effect in an exhibition earlier this year, at the Michael Parkin Gallery, of British artists who had attended the Academie Julien. But at the time of his death Wishart’s art still remains ripe for re-discovery.
Michael Parkin and James Beechey
Michael Wishart, artist, born June 12, 1928; died June 28, 1996