Hippies, hitmen and hard knocks...
The cliche goes: "If you remember the 1960s, you weren't there". Well, Bradford artist Douglas Binder WAS there and remembers it all too well: "I hated it". We've been finding out about his life and ever-changing work and why he's come Full Circle!
Sleeping Nude by Douglas Binder
Speaking to Douglas Binder today in his studio at Dean Clough in Halifax, it's clear that he's no fan of the rose-tinted spectacle brigade who chirrup on about peace, love and how wonderful the 1960s were. Yes, he says, there was fun to be had - and plenty of it - but for this Bradford lad they were both make AND break times. Heading down to the bright lights of London to study art, it's true his name was 'made' during those heady days. He ended up friends with the Beatles, lauded as 'Britain's Master of Colour' and exhibiting (although coincidentally) alongside Salvador Dali. But, looking back, he has mixed feelings about what he calls a 'lost' period which left him broke (literally) and dying to get back to his first love - painting.
Douglas in his studio today
The reason Douglas is looking back over his life so far is 'Full Circle', a major retrospective of his work from over the past half-century at Dean Clough. And, as he unravels his story to us, the meaning behind its title becomes clearer and clearer. From his early days in Bradford to crazy times in 'Swinging London' and finally back home to West Yorkshire, it's obviously been a true journey of discovery for him as he tried to find out what he really wanted from life - and it seems it may have come as a suprise, even to him!
Way back in the early 1960s, Binder knew he wanted to be an artist, sure, but what kind of artist? As a 16-year-old studying commercial design at Bradford College, his first inspiration was staring him in the face when he came across fellow student David Hockney's work: "I remember them exactly. There were 15 of them around the walls. They were landscapes: hawthorn trees in fields, a bus going by, bus stops, that kind of thing. They were magical to me. I hadn't realised you could make paintings out of very ordinary things. From then on I wanted to be a painter!"
It wasn't as easy as that, though. Binder's way was blocked - and it's something he's still clearly bitter about today. He says he was 'admonished' by the then head of department at Bradford College for wanting to change from commercial design - what we'd probably call graphic design today - to painting: "I was told it would be over his dead body." But despite this obstacle, his heart was set on painting and so, along with four other students, he rented a house on Thornton Road, got the canvas and brushes out and began. Eventually, Binder's painting skills led him - not without further obstacles thrown in his way - to the Royal College of Art in London.
Binder: "Do what you believe in!"
This is perhaps where Douglas Binder's story really starts. He'd arrived in London just as it was becoming 'cool': the Beatles were at Abbey Road recording their psychedelic masterpieces, everybody (or so we're told today) was growing their hair and dabbling in various substances and altered states. It was THE place to be. Binder says it was during this time that his painting was increasingly sidelined. He got involved with events at the Roundhouse, a now-legendary venue where the likes of Pink Floyd played their early gigs complete with mind-boggling light shows which he had a hand in creating: "The Roundhouse experience was quite something. We covered the whole of the interior with white plastic and got 12 projectors installed all around, projecting onto the plastic. Then we got film and liquid projectors and a technician from Chicago or Los Angeles called Ray. He helped us to set it up. We got various bands interested...and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop! I think they'd done the theme to Doctor Who and I asked them if they'd care to do a piece for the concert. They did it for nothing."
Binder admits these were heady times - but he was never convinced by it: "I hated it, I must admit. It wasn't really what I wanted to do. We did meet lots of famous people and celebrities: all the Beatles, for example, the Monkees, Jimi Hendrix, lots and lots of people. We went round in a car we'd painted ourselves which was really quite something. It was a Buick and we used to tour London in that with [Ike and Tina Turner's hit song] River Deep, Mountain High playing as loud as we could. That's about the only good that came from it really."
In an old deserted factory in Chalk Farm, with famous photographer David Bailey living directly opposite, Douglas Binder and his partners-in-art Dudley Edwards and David Vaughan started getting noticed, perhaps more by accident than design. Their 'home' had virtually no furniture, and what was there was grotty, so Douglas took things literally into his own hands: "Not thinking very much about it really, I thought it'd be nice to colour one of the chairs, make it attractive. So I painted one. A guy from a local antiques shop came round and said, 'That's rather nice. I bet I could sell that'. And that's where it started. In another nine months we were exporting to [famous department store] Macy's in New York and that kind of thing. We sold to the Beatles. We did Paul McCartney's piano!"
Douglas Binder's relationship with The Beatles meant he gained an insight into the lives of the Fab Four that many could have only dreamed of - ironic really, as he wasn't even that much of a fan! He says a couple of moments stick in his memory as happy times: "We got invited around for dinner when they were writing the music for Sergeant Pepper. We went up to Paul McCartney's bathroom and they were writing and singing there and they asked if we'd wait downstairs, 'We'll only be an hour and then we'll come and have dinner'. I thought we couldn't really crowd them like this, so we went downstairs! We had dinner with them a couple of times. On the second occasion, we'd stayed rather late and were watching television. In those days everyone was taking drugs and we were no exception - nothing too heavy, just some smoking - and we were just watching a blank television with all the electrical spots coming on and bleeps and all that. Paul McCartney was thinking we were looking at the night sky. We all joined in and tried to see the same pictures."
Despite some happy memories of those supposedly halcyon days, Binder was already getting restless even amid all the 'Fab' stuff going on in Swinging London: "I wanted to get back to painting." His restlessness wasn't helped by the fact that he'd begun to see a darker side to the bright psychedelic colours and the peace and love slogans. "At the Roundhouse we got mixed up with pop promotions and that kind of thing and, again, I hated it all. It got very risque, almost dangerous, at one time. There were some concessions, you know like hot dog concessions, which the Greek families and the East End families were vying for and fighting over. Some serious stuff. We're talking about machine guns propped up in the corner. One of them, we were told, was a hitman. Like a lot of them he was immaculate in his presentation. He changed his shirt three times a day, immaculate fingernails, blond hair, blue eyes. All the cliches you could muster! We never found out if it was true or not..."
Hitmen and hippies?! It was time for Douglas Binder to get out and rediscover what he was wanting to do with his life and his art. Looking back, he says that the image of the 1960s we're presented with these days isn't how he saw it: "I never thought that what I was living through was the real thing. I always knew it was an illusion. I could always sit on the fence and think, 'I'm enjoying this but I'm not being silly, I know it's not true.' My partners tended to go along with the idea that some of it might be, consequently we all split up. I hated it, quite honestly. There were some good times...but I wasn't painting and I wanted to get back to painting. It was basically three years I'd lost from doing what I really wanted to do. It became a trap."
Three thousand pounds in debt, newly-married with a baby and struggling to make ends meet, Douglas Binder's sixties trip was ending with a bump - but at least he'd avoided the 'trap' and was doing what he wanted. As always, though, it wasn't easy: "I had to find tubes of paint I'd used years before, cut them at the end and squeeze out what was left onto saucers and then put water in them. I had dishes of very weak watercolour paint and I didn't even have any brushes! I used an old toothbrush and I produced some toothbrush splatter paintings which, believe it or not, the Arts Council bought! So it worked out rather well, but we were very poorly off...It was a poor period, a miserable period. It was some while before I got on my feet again."
Starting teaching to pay the bills, Binder says his painting style started mutating - not for the last time. His work became 'more comic-style', influenced by comics like the Beano and the Dandy, no less. These were, again more by accident than design, put on show along with an exhibition of jewellery by Salvador Dali. Lots of graphic designers clearly liked what he was doing and when his work was shown in the US, "everything sold" - wildly so. This was, in fact, his breakthrough moment in many ways - selling as far afield as Chicago and San Francisco as well as back home in London.
Clearly never one to stay still for too long, Douglas says that once again he wasn't entirely happy with his work. All change!: "I'm never satisfied. I thought I was enjoying it to a degree, but it wasn't the painting I wanted to do. I wanted to do more with the paint, enjoy the paint...so I decided to change what I was doing a little bit. My agent said to me: 'The last work you sent me was rather messy'." They soon parted ways and, laughing, he ruefully admits: "I don't think I sold again for another thirty years. I learned my lesson there..."
Binder: "Be yourself..."
By this time, Douglas Binder was - though he might not have realised it - heading back where he started, both geographically and in the way he worked. He was teaching in London, but also teaching on the printmaking course at Bradford College. Eventually, after living on a boat on the Thames for a while, he bought a cottage back here in Thornton where he lives to this day. His style changed again, this time towards abstract work. He's destroyed virtually all of his paintings from this time, and his comment here is very telling: "I was dissatisfied. I wanted to get back to oil painting which I'd originally done when I was 16. So I started oil painting on canvas again." Full Circle, indeed!
These days, Binder spends much of his time in his studio at Dean Clough in Halifax. Not only is he working on his own paintings, for which he's obviously found a revitalised interest, and running life drawing sessions but he's also the curator of the galleries which he founded and which are housed in this massive 19th Century mill complex owned by Sir Earnest Hall. This, again, has given him renewed energy for painting and painters - especially from the North: "My joy's been finding Northern work. I've really enjoyed giving it room to breathe and a nice environment to show itself off in. That's always been my thrill, as well as discovering artists." And as far as his own work is concerned, Douglas admits that change is still the key: "Every painting I attempt is a new proposition. What I like is the idea that I can make a few variations of the same thing that's placed in front of me...There's no way of knowing how long a painting will take, it depends where it takes me and what it can offer me. It has to offer me something otherwise there's no point in doing it. That's the excitement of it, the new challenge and the possibility of changing the colours, the atmosphere, the proportions...Everything!"
What would Douglas Binder's message be to those who might be just starting out? Well, he has some pretty good advice which - after hearing about the ups and downs, dead-ends and detours of his own life - certainly has the ring of hard-earned truth: "At last, it's taken 40-odd years to do what I've taught other people to do and it's the old cliche: be yourself. Don't work to someone else's agenda. You've got to do what you believe in yourself, even though it could be unfashionable or different, it might not even work out sometimes. But if that's what you really want to do then that's what you have to do, otherwise you're not doing anything else!"
All pictures on this page are © Douglas Binder and are used with permission.
last updated: 22/04/2008 at 14:46