Meeting Dr Richard Cork

Meeting Dr Richard Cork was something I was very curious to do after reading his biography provided by The Courtauld website. I was looking through The Courtauld’s art history summer school courses at the time. His is also a name that pops up everywhere in the art history section of the library at university and in the introductions to many books such as those found in the Tate shop. He is indeed an eminent man at the top of his field; Brian Sewell has called him an exogete recently. So although I was drawn to the period of art explored in Richard’s course (early 20th century art across Europe) I was equally keen to go on The Courtauld summer course in order to meet him and see what he was really like.

Despite Richard’s very impressive and formidable biography, he is a very approachable and friendly man; he is always laughing and making jokes. A girl from France on the course said he has a very English sense of humour. His laugh is just as distinctive.

He told me several stories about meeting or interviewing prominent artists, such as Picasso, Francis Bacon, and Duncan Grant. He remembers anticipating his interview with Francis Bacon would be one of the most challenging he would have to do. He remembers arriving with lots of prepared questions and being faced with the artist who promptly whisked him off to a bar to drink champagne. He was surprised they were not travelling to the place in private transport, but Bacon exclaimed he loved the tube. Bacon admitted that he only painted from 7.30am – 9.30am each day, after which he was no longer in a working state. Indeed, this gave him time to go and drink champagne, something that he would normally do as soon as his ‘working day’ was over. Richard remembers looking back on his shorthand notes the day after doing the interview and realizing that the material he had collected during the second half of the session was useless as it was just drunken scrawls. This was in the early 1970s, just before Bacon’s big show. Richard noted that the artist’s friend killed himself when on the toilet at the same time the show opened, and this was why Bacon went on to do a series of figures crouching or sitting (as though they could have been on the toilet) after this. Tragic.

Richard also said he had prepared a long list of questions for Duncan Grant too. He recalls enthusiastically asking Grant numerous questions and always getting the same answer. Eventually Grant (an old man by this point) stopped and said, “my dear fellow, I’m sorry but I just can’t remember a thing!” Richard admitted that although this was infuriating for a young art historian such as himself, the tea that Duncan provided was so nice that he left not feeling too hard done by.

Richard was also asked to interview Grayson Perry at the Cheltenham literary festival. He travelled with him to the festival. Grayson was very dressed up with lots of bells and necklaces, and had pierced nipples with bells through then – which he said Richard could feel free to ring as they drove along to their destination. The journey was filled with laughter and fun, which continued right onto the stage as Perry’s outrageous appearance made many well-to-do Cheltenham ladies exclaim “oh my!”

The best story is the time Richard met Picasso when he was painting portraits in Cannes during his gap year in 1965 (when Richard was eighteen years old). Roughly at this time Richard felt he wanted to be an artist, though looking back is relieved that he went to university to study art history instead because with hindsight he feels he didn’t have a ‘vision’ that would have successfully carried him through art school.

Richard was walking with his friend Tim (who went on to be the star of The Rocky Horror Show). Tim suddenly exclaimed, “man – its bloody Picasso!” Of course, at first Richard didn’t believe him, but now believes he owes the whole meeting to Tim. Although Picasso spoke no English, and Richard no French, there was a woman near (or at?) Picasso’s table who translated for them both. She always referred to Picasso as “The Mistro”. With this arrangement, Richard talked to Picasso about the painting ‘The Three Dancers’ (that had just been put on display). He also managed to get his signature (Picasso signed Richard’s own sketchbook).

Richard approached Picasso’s table for a second time that day, feeling he had to make the most of the opportunity. This time he offered to sketch The Mistro. When he had finished the lady translator said, “well, aren’t you going to show The Mistro?” So reluctantly he was forced to show Picasso the sketch. After Picasso had spoken a few words in French, the lady said “The Mistro says it is ok. Now he will sketch you”.  One can tell Richard is still absolutely delighted by this. He even brought in photographs of the portrait Picasso had done of him. Richard said Picasso completed it extraordinarily quickly and had never seen anything like it (he was also stunned by the intensity, size and blackness of Picasso’s eyes, claiming it felt as though Picasso was looking right into you with each stare). The portrait of Richard had a crazy, almost clown-like squiggly beard, and eyes lopsided and sliding down his nose. Not a likeness, yet it was captivating to see how such few lines could convey so much expression and energy. This sketch is unsigned, as Picasso refused to sign it saying that Richard had already got his signature.

It has been fascinating to hear Richard’s stories and an honour to be taught art history by him at The Courtauld summer course. I just wish I could hear more of his stories. He tells them in such an engaging way that each scene is vividly conjured up in an instance. It is amazing to think of the people he has met and the experiences he has been through. Let’s hope he writes a memoir.

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