The Black Spot…


The radical artist John Latham was the enemy of my father, but also an accidental force in my life. I am the product of a utopian experiment in communal living. I was born in room-ten of a rundown mansion set in the Oxfordshire hills – the offspring of 1950s idealists disturbed by their experiences in the Second World War.

In the mid 60’s the commune was wilder than the one that I would grow up in. Loose groups of intellectuals and artists would drive down from London and convene in the fake-gothic mansion of Braziers Park for weekends of debate and experimentation. R D Laing and John Latham lead one such weekend and the events instigated by one of Latham’s ‘actions’ would cause the fledgling commune to split apart. The story of the ‘Black Spot’ shadowed my childhood and its events left my father as the key figure in a smaller and more conservative community.

Latham had asked the matriarch of the commune if he could make a ‘work’ using a book of philosophy that was in some way sacred to the founders of the commune. Not knowing what a ‘work’ meant, she agreed. The next morning the commune woke to find that the book had been stuck high up on a wall in the mansion’s grand Drawing-Room. Using Pollyfilla, the book had been attached near the ceiling and a big black spot sprayed over the wall and their precious book.

The commune split into two halves – a radical half that considered this an important work of art to be preserved at all costs, and a conservative half that demanded that Latham be run out of town. My father lead the group opposed to the subversive artist and my subsequent 18 years of childhood and adolescence in the commune was lived out against one its founding myths – The Black Spot.

40 years later and I find myself teaching in the Graduate Media Department at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL. It is only a number of years earlier that I have connected my fascination for the works of the artist John Latham with one of the myths of the commune’s genesis. Shortly after the artist’s death, I bring my tutor-group with me for my first visit to Latham’s ‘Flat-Time House’. In my telephoned preparations for the day the anecdote had slipped out and after our tour, the curator discloses that there is film in their collection that I might like to see. A screen is erected and a projector connected.

Although the commune still exists, my parents had died a decade previously and I have had little contact with the commune since. On the screen a silent, black and white film crackles into life. Shot by Latham during the weekend that the commune imploded, the super8 film shows the Drawing Room and a collection of people.  With my tutor-group around me, I see my first moving images of my long dead parents – shot by my father’s tormentor.  My young mother is holding a small baby – I am unclear if the bundle in her arms is my sister, my brother or me.

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