This book focuses on three young people who met at the Royal College of Art, London during the early 1960s. All were from working class backgrounds, and ambitious to find themselves both personally and creatively, through their work: Barrie Bates (b.1935), a student of graphic design, his friend David Hockney (b.1937), who studied painting, and Ann Quin (1936-1973), a writer working as the secretary of the Painting School, who became Bates’s occasional lover. Of the three Bates is the central figure here, effectively acting as the book’s raison d’être,. At the age of twenty-four, He left his native New Zealand in 1959 at the age of twenty-four, with a government bursary to study at the RCA. Little more than three years later he had reinvented himself as the artist, brand and work of art known as Billy Apple. It is this transformation that forms the heart of the book.
Bates was to prove a difficult and confrontational student, his arrogance shielding an inferiority complex that Byrt infers resulted from a combination of his displaced nationality, his working-class background and frustrated aspiration. Whilst Hockney was exploring his sexual identity in paintings playfully encoded with gay desire, Bates began to see himself not as a designer, but as an art director more suited to working in a fine art context. He asked to transfer to the painting course but was persuaded to remain in graphics with the proviso that he would be allowed full access to the college’s facilities. Hereafter, he ordered the fabrication of objects to his own specifications, creating works that often incorporated found text and appropriated photographic imagery. From this stemmed a lifetime’s work in which conceptual art and graphic design projects run in parallel.
Central in Byrt’s narrative is the two-month visit Bates and Hockney made to New York in summer 1961 – a stay illustrated in the book with several photographs of the pair during a day out at Coney Island. Hockney was able to sell some of his etchings to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and to make new prints at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. For him, the lure of the city’s gay scene was a prominent factor, whereas Bates was drawn to its jazz clubs. Crucially, he was also drawn to Madison Avenue advertising, then at a creative zenith. Armed with a letter of introduction, he gained a month-long internship with the famous graphic designer Herb Lubalin. The two friends returned to London visibly transformed, having both bleached their hair platinum blond, and adopted new attitudes to their work and self-presentation; Bates had become every inch the young American hipster with the vocabulary to match. Further inspiration arrived in London later that year with the painter Larry Rivers. Born in1923 to a working class Jewish family, Rivers was a native New Yorker with a fluid sexuality; he was also a professional jazz saxophonist, and a vaudevillian raconteur with connections to the milieu of Frank O’Hara et al. His painting riffed on both art history and contemporary life, enacting a stylistic bridge between Pop, Abstract Expressionism and traditional academic models of figuration. Byrt tells us that Bates, keenly developing his own self-mythology, was ‘electrified’ by a lecture Rivers gave at the RCA that year.
Ann Quin, who took her own life in 1973, is understandably the most elusive of Byrt’s trio. She had a history of mental illness and, like her volatile lover Bates, possessed a self-destructive streak. Passages from their letters reveal her anarchic spirit and position her as a sardonic observer of pretensions amongst their social circle. In yet another act of appropriation, Bates asked her to write his college dissertation for him (an imaginary dialogue between Van Gogh and Rivers). She produced this whilst also working on ‘Berg’ (1964), the novel for which she is now best known. Thematically it is as Byrt recounts: ‘reflections, doubles, mirrors and their images; [it is] about temporary identities and their effects on our sanity.’ This resonates with Byrt’s chosen subject of identity as well as his use of the mirror as metaphor, which is evidenced by his book’s title. This theme relates not only to ideas of selfhood, but also to the reflective interactions between mass culture and art that Bates and such artists as Pauline Boty and Richard Hamilton explored in the sixties. In all of this, the author questions the interactions between media imagery and personal reinvention, and their representations in contemporary art.
Byrt frames the story of his three characters within a wider historical context, featuring a large subsidiary cast that includes fellow RCA students Frank Bowling and Peter Phillips. There are also references to many important figures in culture and society whose ideas helped form both individual and collective identities in the 1960s, including James Baldwin, R.D. Laing, Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan. Although Byrt has produced an insightful and engaging addition to literature on the 1960s, at points he appears to overstate the importance of Bates’s early work. Byrt has known the artist for some years and notes that it has always proved difficult to get him to speak about ‘the full psychological complexities of Bates’s disappearance’. As such, one is struck by the idea that there is surely an underlying story here, concerning heritage and belonging – the fragility of which underlies Bates’s urge to create a tabula rasa all those years ago in order to start anew.
• ‘The Mirror Steamed Over: Love and Pop in London, 1962’, by Anthony Byrt, Auckland University Press.
• Review published in The Burlington Magazine, May 2021.