Words: Jeremy Miles
There we were at a swish art opening in London’s Cork Street eating pork pies from Barnsley and supping pints of Yorkshire Bitter. For the vol-au-vent and air-kissing circuit it was a seminal moment. Nearly 50 years after they first arrived in London the boys the art world once called the Bradford Mafia finally knew for certain they had made a difference.
"Great, isn’t it?" yelled David Oxtoby, rock ‘n’ roll painter extraordinaire and, at 70-years-of-age, still relishing the role of rebel-rouser in chief.With his crazy shirt, tattered jeans, tousled hair and craggy-faced smile Oxtoby surveyed the packed Redfern Gallery with a look of gently bemused satisfaction. Behind him was his magnificent principal contribution to the exhibition. A massive study of his one-time friend Jimi Hendrix, an explosion of shape and colour. "Not for sale," he told me. "I just keep re-working it. I started painting it about 20 years ago and last changed it a couple of months back."
To his right a familiar figure bobbed around taking pictures with his phone. Mike McCartney, brother of Paul and one-time member of The Scaffold, gave the trademark Macca thumbs-up as someone raised a glass of bitter. "Most efficacious in every case," remarked some wag. Mike is pictured below (left) with Dave and music publisher Dave Swift and PR boss Judy Totton.
Skiffle king Chas McDevitt, the man who all those years ago launched a thousand broom-sticks with the hit Freight Train, smiled happily. Over in the corner Oxtoby’s old college friend, fellow painter and one-time biker companion Michael Vaughan was holding forth on the joys of Pontefract cake while downstairs another of their number, John Loker, was talking art with a prospective buyer.
A fourth member of the Bradford gang had slipped in an out of the gallery a day or so earlier leaving a single large oil painting. It was called Hawthorne Blossom on the B1253, a title which aptly sums up the kind of thing that David Hockney – once famous for his studies of Californian swimming pools and available boys – chooses to paint these days. It is of course utterly stunning and predictably out of step with public taste. Once upon a time many years ago these men were penniless art students making their extraordinary first steps in a rapidly changing post-war world. Hockney was so poor he had to sleep in a shed. Now they are successful, collectable and, though they'd be loathe to admit it, thoroughly respectable.
There is however one vital person missing. Norman Stevens who arrived with them in London in the early 1960s died of cancer in 1988. He was just 51-years-old and had been a friend, mentor and guiding light.
Oxtoby, who first met Norman when they were 12-year-olds,says he was devastated by his death,
"Somehow you know that old people are going to die but I'd never thought about the death of friends. Norman was the first really close contemporary that I’d lost." This extraordinary show is a tribute Stevens and his work which is exhibited alongside that of Hockney, Oxtoby, Loker and Vaughan.
*The Norman Stevens Tribute Exhibition runs at the Redfern Gallery at 20 Cork Street, London W1S 3HL until September 25. Go to www.redferngallery.com for more information.