The Black Spot


John Latham was the enemy of my father, but also an accidental force in my life and my art.

I am the product of a utopian experiment in communal living. I was born in room-ten of a mansion set in the Oxfordshire hills – the offspring of idealists disturbed by their experiences in the Second World War.

In the early 1960’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 commune to split apart, would create a myth that shadowed my childhood and would leave my father as the key figure in a smaller and more conservative community.

Latham 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 the book stuck high on a wall with Pollyfilla, in the mansion’s grand Drawing Room. Near the ceiling a black spot had been 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 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. It is only a number of years earlier that I have connected my fascination for the works of the artist John Latham with the myth 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 projector connected.

Although the commune still exists, my parents 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.