Notes on my father | Celia Irvin


Until 1970, my father worked at home – his studio was there; and for that reason the smell of paint – of oil paint - has always been to me quite an emotional thing. I clearly was allowed in that studio because we, my sister Priscilla Hashmi and I have recently found paintings that I did there, maybe trying to copy him. 


Bert's paint pots
He moved into a studio in Stepney around 1970 and painted there until he died. There, he was very resistant to us entering - anyone really.  He just very much wanted it to be his own space. He wasn’t precious about the paintings at all. But it was almost as if he needed to keep himself focused and didn't want distractions. 
He was quite chaotic as a personality - very generous and big and dynamic; when he was in the studio he needed calm and focus - he was methodical. And I think the only way he could achieve that was to be completely on his own and I understood that – even then.


Turner was a hero to him. There was a huge photograph - 6’ x 3’  - of Ruskin’s engraving of Turner, in profile with the top hat and tail coat. It leant against a wall where he painted. I grew up knowing that Turner had a huge influence on him. When he started to do those big paintings – which the Stepney studio allowed him to do – they were very Turneresque.


 Silhouette, said to be of J. M. W. Turner, c. 1840s, Attributed to John Ruskin (1819 - 1900)


Around the late 1960s, early 1970s, with his great artist friends Peter Sedgley and Bridget Riley, they cottoned on to the fact that Turner had the same birthday as Shakespeare but the media never did acknowledge it.  It was always ‘Shakespeare’s birthday’. So they decided to start doing birthday parties for Turner. At all sorts of venues. Latterly it was at the Chelsea Arts Club, where it is still held every year, but they also did pubs and other places. In those early days, they strapped the photograph on to a car top to take it with them.  (Now a smaller version of the photo is pinned to the wall at the Chelsea Arts Club.)  Basil Beattie, who was also one of the founding members, is now the guest of honour.




It was around the time that he got the studio at Stepney that he began to make massive paintings, not something he’d done before. I have a feeling that the 70s watercolours as well as the very small oils he made then began as a way of rehearsing the larger paintings. The watercolours were much admired in Berlin where they were shown and were, I seem to remember, exhibited in Los Angeles too. Of course, a selection was shown recently at the RA.


Bert's working shirt in his studio


The watercolours he made in the 80s were probably more influenced by the print work he did with Advanced Graphics in the 80s. He loved making prints. He was obliged to be methodical.




He loved cities – was a real urbanite. When I was young, he used to read to me a lot. Dickens. He seemed drawn to nineteenth and early twentieth century fiction. It is important to remember that both his parents died when he was quite young. He was 18 when his mother died – at a time when he had gone to fight in the war.


He was always an avid reader – and carried on reading right up until the day he died. I remember that when he went to America, he brought back lots of books that weren’t available here because they were political or controversial.


We haven’t sorted out his library but I have seen that there are books on Buddhism there. He was very much into the Beatles and the hippie generation, probably influenced by his students at Goldsmiths College of Art, – which inspired an interest in such things.




I have become my father’s archivist, together with my sister Priscilla. It provokes a real mix of feelings and emotions and there are times when I think I don’t want this job. but then I think Most of the time it’s the best job in the world because above all else, I just want to feel that Bert would be proud.


Bert in Studio,  Joe Hage  

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