Michael Andrews: the most elusive figure in post-war British art

'Melanie and Me Swimming' (1978-9) by Michael Andrews at Tate Britain
'Melanie and Me Swimming' (1978-9) by Michael Andrews at Tate Britain

Michael Andrews’s daughter Melanie tells Alastair Sooke how her father became the most elusive of British art’s modern giants generation

"Poor old Dad,” says Melanie Andrews, referring to her father, Michael, the British painter who died in 1995. “He must have been absolutely freezing while teaching me to swim there.” 

We are discussing his most famous picture, Melanie and Me Swimming (1978-79), which hangs in the Tate. At once sweet and slightly threatening, it depicts Andrews treading water in a dark pool, while holding his daughter as she kicks and splashes about. 

“I must have been six years old,” says Melanie, now 46. “We used to go on holiday to Scotland every year, to stay on a friend’s estate in Perthshire. There was this wonderful hidden pool that we called the Black Pool because of the colour. It was very dark – you could barely see a foot underwater. And the water was always freezing, even in summer.” 

Andrews based the picture on a photograph taken by a friend. In the finished composition, the father’s evident concern for his daughter is remarkably touching. But there is also an undertow of something darker; the black water accentuating the pale vulnerability of the human figures. 

Michael Andrews Credit: Rex

“Dad was terrific – so patient and gentle,” says Melanie. “But there is a sense that if he were to let my hands go, I would be swimming away from him – like my entry into the world.” This, then, is a bittersweet painting about a parent holding on to a child, while recognising that, ultimately, he will be forced to let her go. 

A tender, melancholic riposte to David Hockney’s hedonistic pictures of swimming pools of the Sixties and Seventies, Melanie and Me Swimming is, for many people, the only work by Andrews that will be familiar. This is because Andrews, who is about to be given a substantial exhibition featuring 60 of his works at the Gagosian Gallery in London, is perhaps the most elusive figure in post-war British art. 

Invariably, he is linked with his contemporaries, the painters of the so-called School of London – Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff – many of whom were friends. But while the others established international reputations, and younger painters such as Peter Doig admit their debt to Andrews, he somehow remains the group’s forgotten man. 

Painters Lunch at Wheelers, including Michael Andrews (far right) Credit: The John Deakin Archive/Getty Images

In part, Andrews only had himself to blame. Shy and self-effacing, he was a notoriously slow worker, producing fewer than 250 paintings and watercolours by the time of his early death, from cancer, aged 66. During his lifetime, he had only seven one-man exhibitions. 

This explains why, in 1974, John Rothenstein, a former director of the Tate, began an essay on Andrews with the observation that “he was in danger of being taken for a rumour rather than a person”. 

To collectors, though, Andrews is an altogether more substantial prospect: last summer, a large landscape inspired by a trip Andrews took to the Australian Outback in 1983, sold at Sotheby’s for a record price of almost £1.3 million.

Andrews had a quiet upbringing in Norwich, where his parents were devout Methodists (his father worked as an insurance official at Norwich Union), before going to London to study at the Slade School of Art from 1949 to 1953. After graduating, he fell in with the bohemian crowd at The Colony Room, Muriel Belcher’s infamous private drinking club, with bilious green walls, in Soho. In 1959, Andrews painted a mural for the club. 

'The Colony Room I' (1962) by Michael Andrews at James Hyman Gallery Credit: Mike Bruce/Gagosian

Soon afterwards he began his series of collage-like “party” pictures, including The Deer Park (1962), inspired by the Norman Mailer novel of the same name, and which is now in the Tate. Complex, whirling, nocturnal scenes, they are filled with diverse figures interacting at social gatherings. 

By the Sixties, Andrews was enmeshed in London’s art scene. Freud, for instance, was a close friend: it was at a drinks party given by Freud that Andrews met his future wife, June Keeley, then a hostess at a nightclub. “Lucian used to come around to our house in Kensington quite a lot,” recalls Melanie, Andrews’s only child. 

“He’d spend Christmas Day with us and he always wanted to watch The Wizard of Oz. Year after year, we had to watch it, until it got to the point that I hated it. I still do.” 

Lucian Freud in 2010 Credit: STEPHAN AGOSTINI/AFP/Getty Images

In terms of his work, though, Andrews’s relationship with the School of London is less clear-cut. “In many ways, Andrews was very different from the other painters in the group,” says Richard Calvocoressi, curator of the Gagosian show. “They were studio-bound artists, painting portraits and claustrophobic interiors. But with Andrews, after a certain date, there are few portraits, and practically no self-portraits. He spent most of the Seventies and Eighties painting big, wide landscapes.” 

Many of these landscapes will appear in Gagosian’s show, which focuses on the second half of Andrews’s career, and is taking place more than 15 years after his posthumous 2001 retrospective at Tate Britain. 

There will be three canvases, for instance, from the “Lights” series, which Andrews began in 1969. Heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, this seven-part cycle features a gas balloon, representing the human ego, which drifts across various landscapes, in search of enlightenment. 

To create an appropriately “airy” atmosphere, Andrews abandoned oil paints and turned, instead, to acrylics, which he applied using a spray gun. This resulted in what Calvocoressi calls a new “neutral, style-less style”. 

After moving to a small village in Norfolk in 1977, Andrews produced a series of four “School” paintings featuring shoals of tropical fish, which he painted as a metaphor for collective human behaviour. Panoramic landscapes of deer-stalking in the Scottish Highlands followed, together with the Australian pictures. 

'Thames Painting: The Estuary' (1994-5) by Michael Andrews at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester Credit: www.bridgemanimages.com

In 1992, shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, Andrews moved back to London. His new flat in Battersea was near the Thames, which became the subject of his final, unfinished, series. 

By 1995, he was very sick – yet he still managed to complete one last major work, Thames Painting: The Estuary, a moving, monumental canvas more than 7ft tall, in which six shadowy figures are visible on the mudflats of the river’s shore. 

One appears to be a ferryman – an allusion, presumably, to Charon, who, in Greek mythology, ferried dead souls to the underworld across the River Styx. “It’s an amazing picture,” Calvocoressi says. “A great, primeval landscape, with this extraordinary effect as though the tide has washed over the canvas. To make it, he mixed solutions of turpentine and grit and poured them, from a bucket, on to the canvas, which he had placed on the floor. He then used a hairdryer to blow the liquid about, just like the wind blowing the tide. It’s as direct as that: unpainted, almost.” 

Calvocoressi pauses. “When he painted this picture, Andrews knew he was dying. In fact, he postponed treatment to finish it – and, three months later, he was dead. There’s no horizon in the painting, so you have this extraordinary sensation of looking down, and across, at the same time. We are engulfed by the thing.” And so was he.

Michael Andrews: Earth Air Water is at Gagosian, London W1 (020 7495 1500), from January 20

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