“Things may come and things may go but the art school dance goes on forever” is the title of a song by Beat poet Pete Brown which gave John Froy the title of his second autobiographical memoir. The Art School Dance focuses on his years at the University of Reading and Falmouth School of Art in the 1970s and is related with verve, honesty, humour and an attention to detail that makes it a riveting read.
It recounts how Froy, a former Hornsey resident who now lives in Reading, opted for the art school path despite not having taken the subject at school and being colour-blind. He had what was sometimes the advantage of art being in the family, including his parents who met at the Slade. After separating when John was five, his father had a successful teaching career, culminating in being Professor of Fine Art at Reading, while his mother’s life was blighted by depression and addictions.
The book opens with a blissful interlude in Italy with his first love, later lost to a college friend. The sadness of this is subtly conveyed, as are his feelings towards his mother, even when he is also struggling with the “black dog”. The narrative is enlivened by his enthusiasms for bird-watching, the guitar and the countryside and by glimpses into the shortcomings of cheap accommodation and unskilled jobs, including a stint in Harrods wine cellars where workers kept a fine vintage on the go.
But the core of the book is his engagement with art and learning about it. The Art Department at Reading was known at that time for the lack of contact between teachers and students and a bias towards abstraction. One close friend, who favoured figuration, was a recipient of much “flak”. Terry Frost, then a teacher, commented that her etchings would be nice to show her mother.
“Her least favourite visiting lecturer from London suggested during a tutorial, while brandishing a screwdriver, that what she really needed was a good screw,” writes Froy. He left in the second year and moved to Falmouth where he found a supportive network of tutors.
However, the delight of the book is not in applauding successes but in describing how difficult they are to achieve and how easy it is to be overwhelmed. Froy found a saviour in his Complementary Studies teacher, the artist and writer Lionel Miskin, who encouraged his writing and to whom the book is dedicated.
The photograph used for the cover shows Froy during his finals, in 1977, with a painting on the easel that he counts as his highest art achievement – Swanpool Street Interior 3, which won a Stowell’s Trophy commendation in 1975-6. Froy recounts how the green stripe described by Carel Weight as clinching the picture by being “bold and daring” was a happy accident. He was trying to make a shadow by mixing blue into the yellow ochre used for wood and couldn’t know what the result was, given that “as Peter Cook might have put it: my optical cones are deficient in the red-green area”.
Although this is a very personal memoir and his family circumstances hardly typical, Froy’s accounts of relationships, sexual encounters, newly formed bands, hitchhiking and happenings make this an evocative tale of the times.