As Pigtails in Paint celebrates its 12th anniversary, one understandably reflects on milestones. The biggest in my life and to many others is the passing on December 9th last year of my friend, Graham Ovenden. The funeral was on January 27th and attended by about 30 people. This post also commemorates February 11th which would have been his 80th birthday.
The Approach: Probably like many others, I often assume that people with a certain notoriety will be unapproachable, either because they adopt the attitude of a prima donna or their entourage works to insulate them from their rabid fans. I was impressed with the scope of Graham’s work and upon working on Pigtails, realized that he held key information that would help us break open the “Cult of the Girl Child”. I had no idea how to proceed and was shocked when a close associate simply gave me his phone number. I was nervous and postponed calling him wondering if it was OK to just cold call him. It turned out great and that cold call led to a 45-minute conversation. It turns out Graham had a good sense of a person’s authenticity and he knew I was “the real McCoy” even though he did not “know me from Adam”.
Bad Timing: We had three great conversations before he expressed concern over our continued communication. He was just about to face trial and his friends advised him that including a new person in his life was too great a risk so he asked if I would stop contacting him any more until after the trial. I was disappointed, of course, but respected his wishes. I found out later that one of his American friends familiar with Pigtails strenuously discouraged contact and the perceived harm to his reputation. This friend has since reversed his opinion and we have actually had some productive dealings which led to the expansion of the PIgtails Library.
A Real Friend: It is common knowledge that the trials did not go well and Graham had to serve prison time. Fortunately, I had been in contact with a few of his friends and they were good enough to keep me apprised of his situation. A short while after his release, I was startled to find a letter from the UK in my mailbox. It included contact information so we could continue our association and I knew that he was just as cognizant of our chemistry as I was. I am eternally grateful for the efforts of Robin Hanbury-Tenison, a long-time loyal friend of Graham’s, for reconnecting us.
Soul Mate: From my perspective, Graham and I had a great rapport and I was later delighted that he recognized it as well and, in his frank manner, told me so. Our conversations were great and we emailed back and forth but I felt he was hinting that I should visit him in person. I am not fond of travel, but I realized that we could cover a lot more ground by spending some time in person. I planned and made my first visit in the summer of 2016.
Lucky Timing: I had never travelled outside the US except under the auspices of the US Army in my youth. I had heard that one should arrive at the airport at least 3 hours in advance of one’s flight. I did so and toiled through the process and patiently waited at the designated gate for my flight. I was so early that I had not realized my flight was switched to another gate and was surprised to hear my name over the intercom. I was redirected to the correct gate but I had gotten there too late and they gave away my seat. The airline scrambled to get me on another flight to the UK. The good luck was that I got a direct flight and so I ended up at my destination at roughly the same time as originally expected; I simply had to wait a few more hours for my replacement flight. I did not have a cell phone at the time so I had no convenient way to inform Graham of the change. When I arrived in country and took the train to Liskeard, Cornwall, it turned out that I was on the train just after the one they expected me on! Graham and a good friend of his, Jack, were still there waiting for me!
Living in a Museum: As far as I was concerned, I was staying in a museum. Graham was an avid collector and fit what he could into that small flat. The visit was overwhelming and I did my best to take notes and Graham was gracious enough to scan interesting items that could sometime appear on Pigtails. I tell people that if Graham had lived in Las Vegas, I would have visited him there. I was not that interested in the place, but I have to say I fell in love with Cornwall and his friends were delightful. They were understandably suspicious of this new friend of Graham’s but they too realized that I was the real deal.
Paying It Forward: One of the artists I learned about who really impressed me during the visit was Brian Partridge. I made a point of featuring him on this site early on. Brian and Graham had a long collaborative relationship and they lost touch during Graham’s incarceration. All he had on Brian was his mailing address. I took it upon myself to write to him and let him know how to get in touch again. I was delighted by the outcome because I got to see a lot more of Brian’s work and spoke with him on the phone a couple of times. As a token of appreciation, Graham sent me an annotated copy of the Garage Press publication of Brain’s work. It’s kind of like having an original manuscript.
Friendship Credentials: Graham was known for giving his friends gifts and, in a funny way, if one wants to show proof of their friendship with Graham, they need simply show the artifacts they were given, often including originals of his own artwork. I can boast two original portraits and a number of photographic prints. Graham bestowed me a special honor by signing a print of Sophie (a famous image from the cover of States of Grace). He told me he never signed photographs or prints and so it seems I have a unique item.
Reaching Out: Graham had an ambivalent relationship with technology. On the one hand, he experimented extensively with digital image manipulation such as the image appearing on this page, but he also resisted more convenient forms of communication such as Skype. He said he didn’t want to use such forms of communication to protect his friends but I suspect he didn’t want to cope with the steep learning curve. Because of this, I assumed he wasn’t interested in having a website to share his work and give his side of things. It turns out that I was mistaken and I am glad to have done him the service of connecting him with a website host who was also a fan of his. Fortunately, he also lived in the UK and could visit Graham in person to help him with any technical problems. This is why his personal and publishing (Garage Press) websites exist today.
Fly on the Wall: I was always kind of envious of journalists who got to speak with interesting personalities. I wish I had the presence of mind to bring an audio recorder during my visits because in retrospect, I realized we had a few fascinating conversations on a multitude of subjects that may have been of interest to others. We talked extensively about philosophy, history, politics and the arts. Graham educated me on Blues and Jazz and we shared a love of Classical music. Graham had an extensive phonograph collection and in my last couple of hours with him before my return home, we listened to Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Graham had the foresight to recognize the decline in his health and reached out to The British Library who happily accepted the donation. There are quite a few rare items in there including an interview with a woman who knew Lewis Carroll personally as a child.
Final Exhibition: Many times, Graham donated parts of his collect to exhibit in museums. With a lot of help from Jack—to whom he bequeathed this collection—he got to have one final show held in his home town of Liskeard displaying his Victorian and Edwardian photographs last October. It was well-attended and featured renowned photographers like Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Julia Margaret Cameron, Joseph Gale, George Ruff, Francis Bedford, Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hines.
Virtues and Vices: Of course whatever we may think of his work, Graham was also a man and had his foibles. He was a great collector and we can thank him for bringing all these interesting items together. However, he was kind of a pack rat and could not refrain from purchasing one more first edition even if the purchase worked against his interests. Collectors should be glad to know that a lot of interesting volumes will be appearing on the market sometime in the near future. I don’t envy Jack the task of cataloging and finding buyers for these items (Jack is a bookseller). This habit even had a little to do with his estrangement with his family; he even confessed one day that he was not really built to be a family man. However, his younger sister and brother remained supportive of him and are the executors of his estate. Since Graham was an invalid the entire time I knew him, he was always grateful when I went into town to get takeout food (the English call it takeaway). One of the items he always wanted was duck and if I was going to the Chinese place, I would always bring him some.
Graham Ovenden taught me so much in the time I got to know him but I know that was just the tip of the iceberg. I was fortunate to meet a few of his friends and I can understand why they were so loyal to him. He was a prolific painter and I came to understand that occupying himself with that work was instrumental in maintaining his sanity during the most trying times. I felt kind of guilty during my three visits because having my little space in the flat made painting impractical most of the time. Whenever I returned home, he would paint a flurry of new works. I could go on and on with anecdotes and I only knew him a short time. These will undoubtedly come out in due course as PIgtails publishes more posts and in responses to readers’ comments.
REST IN PEACE, MY FRIEND. -Ron