Following up on the assertion by Ken Robinson, the international cheerleader for creativity, that in the 21st-century we should create our life according to the talents that we find within ourselves and the interests that drive us, I wrote a short series of articles about what it is to be in our element, to reach that point, as Robinson puts it, where knowledge, imagination and self-discipline come together in the realisation of our creative potential. David Savage was the first to answer.
Beneath the pitched roofs of Rowden Farm’s workshops, a large mirror leans against one of the white-painted walls, reflecting the workspace that David Savage calls his own, and whose benches and tools have an air of restless order, as if waiting for work to resume. The mirror, David explains, is used to view works-in-progress indirectly, the reversed image making it easier to see through all the preconceptions that come from familiarity and so view the subject afresh. David talks in terms of catching the reflection unawares – just, in fact, as his tea-drinking double is surprised by the mirror now.
Beyond the familiar figure of this grandee of British furniture-making and behind the velveted authority of Yorkshire vowels and consonants the glass reveals an unexpected shadow of disappointment: “One of my great sadnesses is that I live in an age when our art is conceptual,” when the idea is The Thing, but which, once conceived, is no more than a thing to be manufactured. “It’s poor art; it’s poor to say that you can just conceive of an idea and then [delegate the making]. There’s something very special about making, but it’s denigrated by conceptual artists,” he maintains, “because these people are unskilled – they can’t actually do it themselves.”
It’s the judgement of someone who, in the late 1960s, saw at first hand the abstract face of mid-Atlantic expressionism – “big canvases, people slinging paint around” – and the wholesale abandonment of traditional skills by art colleges. “Landscapes were old hat,” he recalls, “we had ‘happenings’ instead; it was the beginning of the conceptual art world.”
In the middle of all this happening and expressing, David, a true contrarian, raised his hand to say, “’Scuse me, I don’t think that’s quite right!” Kicking against fashion, he went to study life drawing and painting at Oxford’s Ruskin School (“Brilliant place!”) where students were steeped for three years in the classical riches of the Ashmolean Museum - Greek marbles, drawings by Leonardo and Michelangelo – where their craft was taught methodically, like the grinding of Rubia’s dull root to bring out the vivid crimson of madder lake. “Before they’d let us draw a nude we were made to spend a whole bloody term drawing [body] casts,” leaning the discipline of observation that underpins drawing, and the medium’s vocabulary.
After Ruskin’s, he continued his studies at the Royal Academy Schools, “which was even more brilliant and even less fashionable,” David says. Even so, he found himself sharing a studio with, “a guy who spent his days making big canvases, each with a hole in a different place and all painted a very even gray.” When his work was shown at a private viewing, however, Sidney Hutchison – then the secretary of the Royal Academy and, according to his obituary, honest in a way rare today – threw a glass of red wine over the canvas saying, ‘I reprove that man’s painting!’
“I agreed with him,” David laughs; “I thought it was far better with the wine on!” Ah, but then the Royal Academy was a place, he recalls, “where people spent their lives struggling with ‘What is painting? What is it for, and why are we doing it?’” Ask David the same question today and he’ll tell you that what good painting, indeed what good art is for is moving people: “The job of an artist is to do something which resonates with the human soul, which does something to explain our existence, something to make us tingle about how we are as human beings. That is the function of art and artists...”
In the middle of all this happening and expressing, David, a true contrarian, raised his hand to say, “’Scuse me, I don’t think that’s quite right!”