JOHN DOUGILL 1934 – 2015
I first met John when I was a student in the Painting School of the Royal College of Art where he was a tutor. The most striking first impression was of John’s imposing physical stature. I soon learned, however, that there was nothing imposing about John’s personality. John didn’t do imposition. Rather, he was one of the most modest and unassuming of individuals, a tutor who believed in the dialogical approach to teaching where he sought to identify ways of helping students best realize their intentions as opposed to imposing direction or viewpoint.
John taught at the Royal College of Art for 21 years and also worked at Central St Martins School of Art from 1960 -1999 where, remarkably, he taught simultaneously at all levels from Foundation through BA to Postgraduate Studies. He was a much loved tutor and taught generations of artists who went on to make important contributions to both teaching and the wider art world. Importantly, he was also External Examiner or Sensor at the Bergen School of Architecture in Norway for 13 years. Teaching was clearly important for John and, in his own words, he wrote:
I have always found the act and circumstances of teaching to be rewarding, and would probably have wanted to teach even if there had been no need to make a living. Most artists who work in this way will know about the good things in teaching, but will also know about the difficulties of finding a separate and concentrated time for their own practice. When I first started there were many artist/ teachers who developed antennae that kept them and their students in the currency of contemporary art, but I tended to either have the awkward students, or was able to devise mostly group projects that had a rather more social or political basis to them.
John was a supportive and encouraging teacher and although he was never assigned to me, he often commented on my work in passing. Many years later, when we became colleagues at the RCA, we would occasionally have joint responsibility for tutees. This was the period when I came to know John well and grew to truly appreciate his many qualities. John was one of the most genuinely tolerant and compassionate people I have met. He was a well-read man with wide-ranging interests, I can think of Primo Levi, W G Sebald, Garcia Marquez, Lorca, Borges, Italo Calvino, Seamus Heaney, Ovid, Greek Myths and the Classics to give but a small flavour of his reading. He wore his learning lightly and disclosed his erudition judiciously, never unnecessarily. He had a keen sense of social justice and his work reflected a concern for the environment, pollution, and the future of our shared planet.
At a time when far too few women taught in Art Schools, John was the kind of male tutor female students gravitated toward. I believe this was, in part, because he was a wonderful listener. Crucially, a critical listener who would ponder what was being said, critically reflect then offer his considered observations. I understand this approach to teaching as an ethical one and John’s listening was at the very core of the exchange.
Unsurprisingly, many students maintained contact with John and with Vanessa and the wonderful building in Bermondsey Street became a special place where people would gather. This building required much arduous modification and renovation when they first moved in and this allowed them to create bespoke contiguous work and living spaces. It is a house, a home, dedicated to art, music, literature, good conversation, fun and conviviality. Many interesting people have stayed or passed through and this is testimony to John and Vanessa’s generosity, love of stimulating company and seemingly limitless capacity for friendship, old and new. And, if you were very lucky you might have heard John play Jazz on the piano!
John was in many ways the antithesis of the ego-driven contemporary British artist. He purposefully sidestepped the clamour for attention and pursued his painting with different ends in sight. I recall when in 1997 we offered him his first ever one-person exhibition at Gasworks that we had to prevail on Vanessa to persuade him to accept the invitation. John has a dedicated following among other painters and went on to have two highly successful one person shows at Studio 1.1. Additionally, he exhibited works in over 30 national and international group exhibitions.
In some recent notes he wrote:
‘I think I would prefer to make work that is memorable in some way, rather than fit any particular current cannon of art, if there is such a thing.’
This reveals both John’s modesty and also a quiet confidence in his own practice. Because he was a good listener, he was also an attentive observer. He would patiently nurture an image and bring it forth through the slow accrual of layers of pigment, time, thought and reflection.
John’s vision was not a rapacious one, rather, it was a benign, cooperative one that quietly celebrated the small epiphanies of the everyday. In the best of his works we see an eye, a consciousness, enter into perfect calibration with the world where a persuasive symmetry is established between a sensibility and this world. John grew up in Liverpool with the shore of the Mersey at the end of his garden. As a child, he witnessed the bombing of the docks and recalled gathering warm shrapnel the morning after air raids. Formative impressions of watching ships pass by and an abiding fascination with skies and water persisted as subjects. He was mesmerized by water in all its manifestations and built up an impressive research archive of images and scientific articles that reflected a prescient and long-standing interest in environmental politics, e.g., John attended the first CND Aldermaston march.
John’s work brings to mind the French poet, Francis Ponge, like Ponge, John worked with the world of everyday things. He affected subtle transformations, akin to the poet’s, where lucid evocations of the phenomenal world are subtly commuted into the realm of the noumenal, the ineffable, and ultimately dwell somewhere beyond description.
Another writer wrote of Ponge and I believe it applies equally to John:
To transmute commonplace objects by a process of replacing inattention with contemplation was Ponge’s way of heeding Ezra Pound’s edict: ‘Make it new’.
John made the commonplace new and through his work we saw the familiar as if for the first time. In his paintings it is no less than John’s humanity that comes shining through and we are the fortunate beneficiaries of this body of work.
I want to pay tribute here to Vanessa who organized John’s last weeks, days and hours in an exemplary way. It was a deep honour Vanessa to share some of those last hours with John, you and other friends.
NEW ORGAN UNFURLS
I have long adhered to the notion that for everyone who enters our lives in a significant way, a new organ unfurls within us, in this fashion they become incorporated, form a constituent part of our selves and help shape our identities. John was one such person.
Doubtless, he will be fondly remembered and I feel sure that a small part of him will live on in each of us.