That God May Be Approached Through Beauty

(Last Updated On January 10, 2019)

Those title words were spoken by Kenneth Clark in the landmark BBC series Civilisation (1969). It was meant to refer to the principles of art during the Counter Reformation. I have heard them many times but, last summer, they had a special resonance as I watched and listened this time in the company of Graham Ovenden. Only a few trusted associates knew that Graham and I have become good friends, much to my own surprise. Like my late friend Poli before, it seems disingenuous to refer to him any longer in my usual detached professionalism as merely “Ovenden”. Graham says it is brave of me to admit my association with this currently notorious man. And if I had been a career politician, I may have seen fit to steer clear as a few of his fair-weather friends have done.

Graham at His Computer (Summer 2018)

My first sense of Graham’s vision, attitude and sincerity came a few years ago while reading the introduction to States of Grace which included a testimonial from one of his models:

One of the things that’s very important, I feel, is that the work is very honest. However erotic the pictures are, however they are provocative, they are honest pictures. We were there. We did those things. It’s not like someone’s faked it. I know that Graham’s an artist, and not to take anything away from him, of course, but the thing is, the people are there. So, it exists and you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist and sexuality doesn’t exist. So the honesty, I think, is really important and I think people are just stuffy and have a lot of fears about what’s okay and get confused about what’s okay … It was a very safe environment. -Model quote from the Introduction to States of Grace by Graham Ovenden, 1992.

The text did not say it in so many words, but the essential thing I gleaned from it was that Graham respected each model as a complete person. Sure, many of the images may be deemed erotic but one’s sexuality is only one integral component of every human being. And if these girls happen to be expressing a kind of sexuality, after a fashion, it would offend the dignity of their personhood to see only that one aspect and ignore the beautiful whole. This philosophy has strongly informed how I manage Pigtails in Paint which is why readers will always observe us upholding the legitimacy of the child nude while at the same time censuring those that would only look upon these girls as mere sex objects, brazenly and ignorantly flaunting their own sexual pathologies.

Graham Ovenden – Sophie (1970)

One of Graham’s many expressions of his friendship was gifting me this POP print of Sophie. This is a somewhat iconic image because it is the one that appears on the cover of States of Grace. The magenta and purple tinge one sees in many of the images in that book are the result of a special method called the Printing-Out Process (POP). Specially treated paper is overlaid with a negative and the sun’s energy is used to develop the image. This is one of many experimental processes invented by Graham earning him the nickname, “The Mad Alchemist of Bodmin”. Lamentably, this kind of paper is no longer available so those few images that were made using this kind of POP are quite rare.

The things that bind us go well beyond the mere reverence for the young girl—Graham’s having a strong spiritual resonance and mine a more scientific fascination. We are both Renaissance Men in the modern sense of the word with a mutual love of music (mostly Classical and Jazz), film, history, politics and art. I have opened my mind to his instruction about poetry, painting, printmaking, literature, engineering and the principles of design. I have often thought how some of our conversations resemble a Bill Moyers interview. Since he has never made a habit of watching television, I was delighted to enrich his world by introducing him to some of the finer documentaries produced in the past few decades.

Precious Volumes (2018)

And now for a tour of his home. A reflection of Graham’s interest in the arts, is his ardent collecting of rare books. He is not often satisfied with just any copy but prefers to own first editions of the highest quality. He has been fortunate to find things before their value is fully realized and they become overpriced. He has often lent parts of his collection to museums and libraries. Given the feast-or-famine lifestyle of artists, he sometimes had to sell off one of his valuable items to raise funds—always with regret. Many of these rare volumes are housed in this antique bookcase. Last year, Graham celebrated his 75th birthday. To commemorate, Brian Partridge produced the color version of ‘Domino’ you see on top as a birthday card.

The Corner with the Good Light (2018)

One of the things I find most remarkable about our friendship is how much we get along in closed quarters. Graham now lives in a one-bedroom flat in East Cornwall which is comfortable for one person, but not really two. I have always found the company of most people tiresome after only a short time, so being comfortable staying there is rather astounding. Whenever I stay with Graham, my cot lies just below this work station in a corner which gets good light from the south and east. I must be careful not to jostle things when I retire at night or rise the next morning.

Painting in Progress (2018)

Graham adores his painting and has been quite productive of late. I do feel a bit guilty that during my visits, he has to temporarily refrain from painting to make a little space for me. And yet, he does not seem to resent that fact and enjoys it all the more when he can return to his routine. The rough sketch you see above was just completed as a painting a couple of weeks ago.

Graham Ovenden – Jane (1976/2018) [oil on paper]

Graham’s Favorite Painting et al (2018)

This is a shot of the west wall. Every wall in the place is covered with fine collectibles with, unfortunately, many others mouldering away in storage because of this flat’s modest size. Graham’s favorite painting is the large one by MacGilvary reviewed earlier. Also, being an artist who wants to make the world a more beautiful place, he has had a long-time interest in fine design. We often take for granted the decor—both mundane and elegant—we find in our domestic spaces and forget that the forms they take today have a history. It is all too easy to make light of these things because they are not “fine art”, but Graham reminds us that it is a mistake to disregard the serious aesthetic and engineering efforts of past designers. You will note the presence of framed tiles on most of the walls from designers like Christopher Dresser, Augustus Pugin, Lewis F. Day and J.P. Seddon.

Unfinished Paintings Concealing Graham’s Phonograph Collection (2018)

Space is at a premium, so Graham has devised a system where his paintings can dry out as they undergo each stage of painting. Each painting takes several months to complete but the work is spread out over a number of canvasses that he works on concurrently. This layering of paint in stages creates a subtle effect which cannot be captured well in photographs or scans. Most remarkable is the effect of translucency observed in his landscapes and figures. As mentioned before, Graham is generous is giving prints or paintings to friends. The one shown below (also seen in the previous photo) was given to me and I regard as a sort of credential that I am indeed one of his dear friends.

Graham Ovenden – (Untitled) (2018)

There was some drama in the early days of our relationship which I would like to share, not only because of the human interest value but the circumstances make the fact of our current friendship all-the-more remarkable.

I never dreamed after examining States of Grace that I would ever have the privilege of meeting Graham. I did have a sense that we were kindred spirits, even though saying so certainly seems presumptuous. In 2012, I had begun working with Pip on this website and was actively doing research and trying to dig out facts that I found interesting and wanted to share with readers. I cannot now remember what the specifics were, but I had a conundrum: the only person who would know the answer to one particular question was Graham Ovenden. I had no idea how easy or difficult it would be to reach him and I was not even aware of his impending trial. Out of the blue, an artist’s agent wrote to me, giving me Graham’s home phone number! I was both exhilarated and petrified. Was it OK to just cold-call him? After all, he did not know me from Adam! Finally in November, I screwed up the courage and called. At the time, he was living in ‘The Garage’ of Barley Splatt in Bodmin. I was amazed how personable he was and certainly no one would accuse him of being a primadonna. We talked for 45 minutes during that first call! He was at a certain disadvantage because although he was well-known, he did not know the first thing about me. At the end of the conversation, he instructed me to do two things before calling him again: 1) I was to contact one of his best friends who lived in the U.S. so he could “size me up” and 2) I was to write him a letter sharing my personal details so he could get a better idea what I was about. This seemed a promising development; after all, I was a sincere and honest person myself and we had hit it off so well, but circumstances were conspiring against us.

Reaching out to his American friend seemed to go well, but the fact that I was working on Pigtails was a point of concern and, unbeknownst to me, the friend actually advised Graham to cut off communication and not risk having a loose cannon about during his impending trial. Also unbeknownst to me, Graham did not receive my letter; at the time, Graham’s son had taken to intercepting his mail which included mine. So after a reasonable period when I called again, Graham had to tell me the bad news and yet, we still had an engaging hour-long conversation. Despite the problems, he could sense that I was “the real deal” and that some kind of relationship ought to be maintained. After a half dozen phone conversations, he informed me that we would have to cut off contact indefinitely because of his trial. I reluctantly complied but could at least show my appreciation by making sure his side of the story would appear on Pigtails. After that, I did not have direct contact with Graham for the next few months, but a few of his friends came out of the woodwork and graciously shared valuable inside information making the post ‘Fall from Grace?’ possible.

Entrance Hallway (2018)

Because of the stresses of the trial and Graham’s uncertain disposition, I had no idea if I would ever speak with him again. There was some solace in the fact that a few of his friends were able to stay in touch and provide updates (thus the 10 revisions of ‘Fall from Grace?’). I had not realized that I had made any impression on Graham and it certainly helped that he was pleased with Pigtails’ coverage of his case. One day, seemingly out of the nowhere, I received a letter from him saying his prison term was completed and that he had settled down in a small flat in East Cornwall. And thus the phone calls resumed. It became clear that there was a strong collaboration developing between Graham and me and it made sense that working out certain details would be easier when conducted in person and so in 2016, I paid my first visit despite my vision problems and having little experience with international travel.

The Garage Press Library et al (2018)

Graham had an excellent criminal defense team, but the deceptions and manipulations of the prosecution made a equitable trial impossible. However, his legal counsel did have the presence of mind to take two key actions: 1) Request that the police release documents pertaining to the Ovenden case and 2) File an appeal to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). Roughly analogous to the US Supreme Court, the CCRC can review cases and make a final ruling upholding the verdict, ordering a retrial or overruling the conviction and having the defendant’s record cleared. The fact that solicitors and QCs have taken this case pro bono shows how much confidence they have in the outcome. The police records are quite damning and show a clear conspiracy to frame Graham for misconduct. Given the scope of Graham’s reputation—and if everything goes as planned—a fair settlement is bound to be substantial. Graham has long wanted to have an outlet to tell his side of things on the internet and, thanks to Rainbow Digital Media, he recently established a personal website. Some of his time is spent examining the police records in detail and publishing their implications in the Afterword.

If it feels like I am taking the attacks on Graham somewhat personally, it is only because in spending time with this man, I realize we are alike both in our temperament and our aesthetic. Neither Graham nor I have it in our makeup to do the kinds of things he has been accused of and so there is always an implicit trust underlying our relationship. Some might ask if I am too close to the subject to be objective. It is conceivable of course but—and I have told him this—if Graham Ovenden is really the monster the police and media have made him out to be, then he would have to be the greatest confidence artist I have ever heard of! And incidentally, I might add that despite his limited fixed income as a pensioner, he makes £10 monthly donations to The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

This post has been a personal account focusing on the evolution of a new friendship but there are many details to ferret out about our future collaboration so my next post will be a kind of sequel explaining Garage Press (and Pigtails’ role in all this) and how serious collectors might get access to the finest reproductions of fine art and relevant historical documentation.

4 thoughts on “That God May Be Approached Through Beauty

  1. It was funny that at first I thought that “phonograph collection” was a typo for “photograph collection”. Then I realized that you meant phonograph record collection.

  2. Such an amazing story Ron. Many thanks to Graham to allow such an insight into his work and personal space. I eagerly await the next post about his work and your visit. Love the framed postcards in the last photograph.

    • I know this story is a bit self-indulgent, but it has so many twists and turns that I just felt and I had to share it. There are a lot of other interesting details that would have made the post too long so I will throw them into other posts as appropriate. For instance, Graham’s expertise was sought out by my late friend Poli Papapetrou and I was quite pleased to be able to relay some questions she had and get them back to her before her passing.
      Also, incidentally, any references in earlier posts to Stuart is really Graham. He has been generous in sharing his extensive collection and Pigtails reader will benefit from that. -Ron

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