Sir Geoffrey Keynes

In 1975 I was delighted to have a sculpture accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. At 22 years old I was barely even a fledgling sculptor, more an enthusiast experimenting four or five nights a week in sculpture evening classes at Woolwich adult education institute. The sculpture accepted into the Summer show was an abstract directly carved in polystyrene, cast into zinc using a dry sand method with a propane furnace (a hole in the lawn of my back garden, lined with firebricks) to melt the metal. During the day I worked as a biochemistry technician at the Department of Neuropathology at the Institute of Psychiatry in Camberwell. My job entailed doing blood glucose analysis and amino acid column chromatography for the research team of Professor Peter Daniel.

Professor Daniel was so impressed that I had got into the Royal Academy he said he would get me a commission, one of many that made him my first patron. Weeks later he asked if I would make a head of William Harvey for the Harveian Society of London to celebrate Harvey’s 400th Anniversary. I had never made a portrait head before but was keen to have a go at it and Professor Daniel seemed to have immense confidence in my ability (although he hadn’t seen the abstract ‘Metalmorphosis’ in the RA!). I embarked on the head of Harvey. Most of the illustrations I used came from research in the Royal College of Physicians library and I remember struggling with the likeness, having no knowledge whatsoever of how to model a face.

Somehow the head was finished and I showed the clay to Professor Daniel. He seemed to be pleased with the result and immediately said I must take it to show Sir Geoffrey Keynes, the acknowledged expert on the iconography of William Harvey. A special Perspex travelling box was made to protect the fragile clay by the Institute of Psychiatry’s engineering department and I drove down to Brinkley, near Cambridge for the day to have the bust inspected by Sir Geoffrey Keynes. I had no idea what an eminent figure Sir Geoffrey was but the meeting became for me a door into a new world.

The first person to come out to greet me at Lammas House, after hearing the car on the gravel drive, I thought was Sir Geoffrey but turned out to be his son Stephen. He went to fetch Sir Geoffrey, a slim, distinguished looking man with a slight stoop of age (he must have been 88 then) and a keen, interested demeanour. After introductions we all went to my battered Renault 4 to view Harvey in his Perspex box in the back. When the likeness was duly inspected and authenticated by the Keynesian eye they invited me into the house for lunch and Harvey stayed in the car. I have little memory of that day, as it now seems merged with many other memories of Lammas House but Geoffrey and Stephen were extremely kind and welcoming. Geoffrey must have written to Professor Daniel because Prof was delighted with the result of the visit to Brinkley.

The details of the commission were agreed over coffee with the Harveian Society treasurer, Dr John Marks and Peter Daniel after dinner at the Athenaeum Club. Fifty were to be cast by me in a resin bronze limited edition and sold by the Harveian Society to members. I started to learn casting techniques at evening class to go into mass production in a borrowed attic in Dulwich, which became my first studio. I cast batches of ten at a time and there were many late nights inhaling resin fumes in my garret. I eventually cast an artist’s copy for Geoffrey, which he kept in his study. Two or three days after the Harvey inspection visit a paperback of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, edited by Geoffrey and inscribed to me in brown ink (a GLK trademark), arrived in the post. There was also a very nice letter asking me to come and spend a weekend at Brinkley.

As I kept no diary and my appointment book was only in my head in those days, I can’t recall when I spent that first weekend at Brinkley. What I do remember is that it was enormously enjoyable with Geoffrey giving me a guided tour of the house. Every available wall in the house was hung with pictures, drawings and prints or occupied by bookcases. Books were piled on chairs and tables in the two front rooms and there were bookcases in every room. The ground floor rooms seemed filled with the fragrance of wood fires and that slight heady mustiness of books. The first picture to make an impact on me was a most sumptuous Stanley Spencer on the staircase. It was an oil painting of a cockatoo in a back garden. I was a big fan of Spencer and Geoffrey told me it was one of what Spencer called his ‘pot-boiler’ pictures (as opposed to the visionary pictures). In the dining room was an Eric Gill stone carving of a Madonna and Child sitting on a specially made small oak table. The stone rested on a small square of carpet so that it could be turned around without damaging the wood beneath. In the hall was a long mysterious picture covered with a cloth. I saw it another weekend: Blake’s beautiful engraving of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims in procession (covered to protect it from the light). The bathroom was somewhat spartan but the bedroom, with an old fashion chamber pot under the bed, was very pleasant and the walls hung with paintings by Gwen Raverat.

Back in London a month or two after that first weekend I started my first head from life with my good friend Ted Spargo sitting for me. He was researching his doctoral thesis in the Department of Neuropathology. It was a revelation to work from life and a great leap forward. The tutor at Woolwich, John Ravera who seemed dubious about the Harvey head (looking at it now there was a certain naiveté to it) was visibly impressed with my progress on Ted Spargo. The completed head was exhibited in the Society of Portrait Sculptors in 1976. It occurred to me that I should ask Geoffrey Keynes to sit for me because he had such a marvellous head for a sculpture. The next trip to Lammas House I did just that, he seemed pleased to be asked and agreed readily. It was an exciting opportunity and it became my second head from life.

A couple of weekend visits were allocated for the sittings which took place in the study, with Geoffrey dozing off regularly (I learnt to talk to my sitters after that to keep them animated). At the last sitting the face was just about complete but I still had the hair and ears to complete and bring the whole thing together. I went outside with Geoffrey to take a sequence of B&W photographs of him in downward natural light by the front door of Lammas House. Geoffrey had it all worked out and he rotated himself about 10 or 15 degrees each shot, always looking straight ahead while I stood still and took two sets of photos covering the 360 degrees of his head. They were marvellous pictures and were a great help in completing the work. Since then whenever I have needed to do the same with other sitters it has never been as easy: I have to move around the sitter with them trying to look at me! I finished the sculpture in my tiny flat under a naked light bulb, inscribing GLK on the neck as Geoffrey had requested. He was concerned that someone in the distant future wouldn’t know whom the bronze was portraying, unless his initials were somewhere to identify the sitter.

When the head was complete I showed the clay to Professor Daniel who immediately offered to cover the costs of casting two bronzes. He wanted to give a cast to The Royal College of Surgeons as well as The Royal College of Physicians. Both casts now live appropriately in the College libraries. Stephen Keynes then ordered a cast (3/4) for the family, now owned by Geoffrey’s grandson, Professor Simon Keynes at Trinity College, Cambridge. Professor Daniel then decided he wanted to give a cast to the National Portrait Gallery in memory of his father, which was accepted. I think that must be cast number 4/4. I kept the artist’s copy until February 1985 when K.Garth Huston MD of Los Angeles (a friend of Geoffrey’s) heard of it and wanted to buy the cast. I would have liked to have kept the bronze but needed the money and so I sold it to him. No plasters existed of the sculpture and the mould was destroyed.

Geoffrey was thrilled with the head, which he liked to call his ‘simulacrum’. I had reservations that the expression made him too gloomy, which he wasn’t at all in real life. This deficit was rectified one winter’s evening in early 1980. I was sitting in front of the fire with Geoffrey talking to Douglas Cleverdon, the publisher and his wife who were also staying that weekend. Having no part of the conversation I kept quiet and started modelling a small smiling head of Geoffrey using plasticene on a stick, a technique I learnt from Oscar Nemon. The animation of his face during the conversation with the Cleverdons gave me enough information to capture the expression. At the end of the evening Geoffrey looked at me and asked what I was doing. In reply I handed him the smiling head on the stick and he burst into delighted laughter when he saw what I had been up to.

People who saw the little head at Lammas House wanted one, so I ended up casting a bronze edition of twelve, posting a cast to whoever ordered from outside London. The edition sold out by February 1981 except for one artist’s copy (still not cast yet). The Keynes family had five of the casts, others going to two or three doctors. The Duke of Northumberland and Professor Charles Ryskamp, Director of the Pierpont Morgan Library who were both old friends of Geoffrey’s bought them too.

Weekends at Lammas House seem to me now a lyrical experience of a gentler, quintessentially English age. On my arrival the first thing Geoffrey always wanted to hear was of my doings and what sculpture I was immersed in, gently chuckling at any good news. Always there were books to talk about, or packages or boxes that Geoffrey would pull out of a draw containing works by Samuel Palmer, Bewick, Gill, Fuseli, Blake or photographs of Mallory with whom he climbed. One weekend I was staying Laurence Whistler, the poet and glass engraver was there too. Geoffrey’s collection of poetry first editions naturally captured his attention and one afternoon he spontaneously began reading to us from them. The three that I remember most because they made such a profound impression were Thomas Hardy’s the Convergence of the Twain, George Herbert’s Prayer (1) and Whistler’s own Bridge over the Usk. It was entrancing in that library full of extraordinary books, listening to Laurence Whistler’s beautiful, sensitive reading voice bringing alive the magic of that poetry.

Always there was some outdoor activity, helping Geoffrey to saw wood (his daily exercise), a walk down to the copse to see the Metasequoia tree or clearing deadwood there. In the summer there was croquet at which Geoffrey was ruthless in a matter of fact way and unbeatable, eighty-odd years of croquet had honed his game to perfection. He always insisted that I eat well (starving sculptor) and the four meals a day – always proper English tea and his cook Jean’s cake- meant I went home deliciously stuffed. Geoffrey was convinced I was a champion sausage eater because one suppertime I managed to eat more than he considered possible of the delicious Newmarket sausages that Jean had served up. They became a regular when she knew I was coming but Geoffrey was disappointed that I never beat my record of that first encounter. Geoffrey was fairly disapproving of alcohol but occasionally there would be a glass of sherry and a bottle of white wine if there were guests for Sunday lunch. However he did provide cider at most meals, which he claimed was non-alcoholic for some reason. It tasted like nectar drunk out of a silver reproduction beaker from the Metropolitan Museum given to Geoffrey by Charles Ryskamp. Some weekends when Jean was away Geoffrey called me to stay and we would cook and wash up together, the old and the young making rice pudding in a timeless kitchen.

I once asked Geoffrey who he would have liked to meet the most, “Blake” he said immediately, with a whimsical smile. In the breakfast room of Lammas house hung five or six original Blake drawings that became part of my artistic consciousness and influential to my drawing. There was the amazing Bowman and the Spirit of Inspiration, Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo, Sir Isaac Newton and Blake’s extraordinary version of the Laocoon. I found that I couldn’t be in the room without looking at them. Blake was almost completely unknown to me as a graphic artist when I first went to Lammas House. Geoffrey’s cumulative introduction to Blake was all the more powerful for being unaffected. Explaining the paramount role of the imagination in Blakes’s thought and use of symbolic language was heightened by gradually showing me his wonderful collection. Blake’s idea that the source of art was an individual’s imagination and that it could be cultivated and used as a tool became something of a time bomb for me. A year or so later I saw a catalogue of Blake’s watercolours for Dante (particularly Anteneus Setting Down Dante and Virgil) and the time bomb went off. I saw how the human figure could be manipulated but remain somehow natural and yet express something extraordinary. They opened my imagination to what could be possible: a freedom to make works purposefully that had poetry to them and a deeper, spiritual expression. Eventually I made a large visionary head of Blake in 1992 to repay my debt to him and to Geoffrey. In retrospect I see that the foundations of my artistic education were laid in that gentle atmosphere at Brinkley.

In the autumn of 1980 the major Spencer exhibition was on at the Royal Academy, Geoffrey didn’t lend the Cockatoo because he couldn’t bear to be parted from it but we arranged a trip to go and see the exhibition together. Either I drove him up to town or collected him from the Liverpool Street station, I forget which. With a wheelchair organised and waiting so that he wouldn’t tire, we spent a leisurely and thoroughly enjoyable afternoon looking at every picture in detail. One weekend Geoffrey took me over to have Sunday lunch with Lady Meynell. She was a sculpture fan (there was a marvellous F.E.McWilliam sculpture in the garden) and very kindly offered to write an introduction to Henry Moore so that I could visit his studios at Much Hadham and meet him. In due course I received a note from Lady Meynell with the go ahead to arrange my visit. I met Moore in his drawing room filled with sculpture and art books and he sent me off to enjoy wandering around the studios and garden. When I went back to the house to thank him for the visit, he shook my hand and said “Work hard and make sculpture, that’s the way. Good luck!”

Geoffrey and I had a running good humoured disagreement about the true nature of sculpture. Geoffrey always insisted that real sculpture was carved (from the Latin sculptura – a carving) and modelling and bronze casting were secondary. Naturally as a modeller/bronze caster my view was that they were equal, even in the ancient Greek world (though the bronzes haven’t survived as well as the marbles). Occasionally I would help Geoffrey out in his workshop when his hand became less steady with arthritis. He used to carve breadboards as presents for people, incising their initials on a piece of English oak and occasionally I would finish off a border for him – he always carved the initials himself. He wanted to make one for me and I cut the plank for him and we discussed the motif. Stephen Keynes let me have my letters to Geoffrey back to help with this memoir. In the package was the design for this breadboard that Geoffrey asked me to draw for him – a stone mason’s mallet and gouge (Keynesian true sculpture) and a drawing of my thumb, the modeller’s thumb (the Boonham heresy). The breadboard alas never got made, but the drawing evokes the dichotomy that we both enjoyed.

Geoffrey was proud of his woodcarving abilities, in earlier years he carved gateposts with a fine degree of skill – an extension of his surgical abilities. One day we went to the workshop because Geoffrey wanted to pass on his stone carving tools to me as someone who would have use of them (and probably to encourage me to practice true sculpture!). I asked him if he had done any stone carving. He pointed up and I saw a stone sculpture, grey with dust, high up on a cupboard: he said that it was his only attempt and it had failed miserably because he had broken the arm off in carving. I clambered up on the bench to retrieve it from its lonely exile and dusted it off to find a delightful, chubby Sun Worshipper. It was practically finished except for the missing arm. I asked Geoffrey why he hadn’t glued the arm back on but he didn’t know it was possible. Was the arm still around? Geoffrey pulled opened a bench drawer and out came a sackcloth bundle in which was the arm (with a missing thumb) in mint condition. I offered to make the repair and took it home with me.

First I glued a new piece of limestone onto the severed thumb (it had been lost) and carved a simple thumb as best I could. I cleaned the figure up so that the colour would match the pristine arm, then I drilled and pinned the arm and shoulder, gluing them together with epoxy resin. The join was difficult to spot because the break was very clean although the thumb was a little obvious. However I took some photographs of the restored Worshipper in my back garden at Herne Hill and sent them to Geoffrey. He was delighted with the result and couldn’t wait to see it. As my car had engine trouble, Stephen took the sculpture back down to Brinkley but I would have loved to see Geoffrey’s expression when it arrived. It was only when he published one of my photographs of The Sun Worshipper in his autobiography, The Gates of Memory that I saw he had carved it c.1935. That arm had lain in a drawer for forty-five years! He was so proud of his one and only stone carving: it gave him great pleasure to show it off to visitors at Lammas House in the last two years of his life. Geoffrey wanted to pay me for the repair but I couldn’t accept it, especially having been given a decent set of stone carving chisels. Later he gave me his wood carving chisels as well, to give them a good home when he couldn’t hold them properly any more.

In 1981, the month before I was due to go to Paris to start a commission I had to make a bust of John McEnroe. It had to be done very fast and I worked furiously from photos in an uncharacteristically passionate and inspired manner. The man who commissioned it arranged for me to meet McEnroe in a hotel in Victoria for one sitting/photocall. McEnroe was in the country for the Wimbledon that he won his first Championship with an electrifying performance. When I met him I saw the bust was a reasonable likeness and only had to make a few adjustments. It was very interesting to see him brimming with nervous energy and it seemed apparent that he must win. Before the tournament began I sent him a postcard of the crown jewels with a crown labelled ‘Wimbledon’ to thank him for the sitting. I told Geoffrey of my passionate speed modelling of the bust. He followed McEnroe’s winning progress at Wimbledon with increasing admiration on a newly acquired TV set (a rare beast for Lammas House I think).

A letter from Geoffrey reached me in Paris inquiring the price of a cast of the McEnroe. I didn’t know who wanted to buy it but I wrote back with a price and photographs of the bust that I had printed up for him. Then another letter arrived explaining that Geoffrey wanted to buy it for himself. I replied offering to swap a plaster cast of the sculpture for a copy of an Andrew Marvell first edition (Miscellaneous Poems, 1681) of which he had three. This one he called his bath copy because it was imperfect and could be read in the bath. A piece had been torn out (and patch put in) from a page that had no text, the frontispiece was missing and it didn’t have an original binding. At one stage he had offered to sell it to me for £500 because I liked it so much. I returned to London for a couple of days on 29th July (watching the Royal marriage en route in a deserted Charles De Gaulle airport). I had to see some waxes in the foundry and I went up to visit Geoffrey for a day. He was full of excitement about McEnroe and admired him tremendously as an athlete. He thought it ideal that the fierce looking bust was executed in such a fury and he tried to impress on me that passion was the best approach to sculpture. We made our deal and I returned to Paris with the bath copy of Andrew Marvell’s poems. On my return in the autumn I delivered the plaster McEnroe to him.

During the seven years that I knew Geoffrey we had a regular correspondence: his letters in the brown ink (‘dried blood’ he called it) with the usual interrogatory request for my next visit always made it a red-letter day*. His handwriting at 90 was characteristic in a beautifully clipped calligraphic way. As he got even older and his hand less sure from arthritis, there were more and more corrections until the letters were notated like music but still legible. I think he became quite frustrated by the lack of clarity so he took up two finger typing letters. There were almost the same quantity of errors in them, but typing ones: it was always most charming and the meaning always clear. He just about mastered the typewriter being his nature to do his best in everything. Conversations were rarely trivial and silences comfortable, sometimes we would remain quiet in the summer after tea on the terrace, peacefully gazing at the trees across the croquet lawn in a kind of mild rapture. Before his 95th birthday in March 1982 Geoffrey grew a beard after a long lifetime of moustache wearing. It suited him enormously and made him look like a retired seadog captain from a Joseph Conrad novel.

In June we were both invited independently to the Sir Thomas Browne Tercentenary celebration in Norwich. Geoffrey was of course the Guest of Honour and I had been commissioned to make a bronze medal of Sir Thomas Browne for the occasion. Geoffrey was extremely keen to go and was trying to find a way to do it (Sir T. was a great favourite with him). He decided to accept the invitation if I would drive him in his Rover to Norwich for the day, which I did. We looked at the exhibition, listened to the lecture and at lunch he wanted us to sit together so I could help him but we got separated. I protested but it was ignored and Geoffrey sat in the honoured place with me at the bottom of the table. Afterwards Geoffrey said he had difficulty during the meal trying to be understood above the hubbub and the day tired him out completely. I drove him back to Lammas House and he slept all the way back in the car. When we arrived he said he was too exhausted to have a guest for the rest of the weekend. I drove back to London that night and it was the last I saw of Geoffrey. Two weeks later Stephen rang me to say he had died peacefully in the night. I was very sad and for many months after missed him tremendously. In memory of Geoffrey I incorporated the small smiling head into a figurine, sitting in his study chair listening and smiling at my arrival ‘report’, surrounded by books (one with the required identifying initials GLK). On the side I modelled a small relief figure based on Blake’s drawing of The Journey of Life (in the BM). I liked the reference to the poet’s ‘course amongst the stars’ that accompanied it in Geoffrey’s Dover edition of the drawings.

One day in the library Geoffrey, sitting at his portable typewriter turned to me and said “Don’t laugh but I want to say something to you”. I said I wouldn’t and he then astounded me by saying “I see God in you”. It was a bold but slightly self-conscious statement on his part, I didn’t know what to make of it and Geoffrey didn’t explain. Later on I came to realise that a man in his 90’s with such a vast experience of life was perhaps granted vision to see past the material world. Reading my letters to him now I see how youthful and enthusiastic I was and perhaps he saw God in that. It seems to me a gift of the gods that Geoffrey befriended me. He had natural affinity and genuine interest in people especially those who were young and creative. What I brought to the friendship I can only guess: perhaps a sincere inquisitiveness and obvious enjoyment of the people and art that I came in contact with through him. Geoffrey’s affectionate kindness and friendship made such a difference to me at an age when something more was needed apart from enthusiasm. The age gap was irrelevant to Geoffrey and to me. However I found it difficult to drop the ‘Sir’ having been brought up to wait respectfully until a senior person asked you to use their Christian name. Geoffrey never said anything so in the end I had to drop the Sir because it became too unnatural – we had become good friends.

Written at the request or Honor Clerk, NPG C20 Curator, 2000

*I am ashamed to say that his letters to me don’t exist any more, though I kept them for a long time. They disappeared in a huge cathartic bonfire (I had monastic intentions) when sculptures, drawings, letters, photographs and records from my early years went up in smoke. It was a grand folly and one of the few things I truly regret, but it was no reflection on Geoffrey or his memory for which I have always had the greatest possible affection. Later on, due to dire financial need, I was forced to sell off all my treasured books, mainly sculpture but including all the ones Geoffrey gave to me inscribed. I have spent the last ten years trying to find replacement copies but Geoffrey’s remain irreplaceable and my heart sinks to think of them.