BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

13 November 2014

BBC Homepage

Local BBC Sites

Neighbouring Sites

Related BBC Sites


Contact Us

Visual Arts

You are in: Kent > Entertainment > Visual Arts > Billy Childish

Billy Childish

Billy Childish

Kent's Billy Childish is an artistic rebel - he hates modern conceptual art, he doesn't like the art establishment and they don't care much for him either.

He's a controversial visionary revered by "those in the know" - the White Stripes' Jack White was spotted on 'Top of the Pops' with Billy's name scrawled on his arm.

Kylie Minogue released a CD named after one of his poems, called 'Impossible Princess', whilst artist Tracy Emin featured his name on her tent 'Everyone I Have Ever Slept With'.

Billy Childish Factfile

Born William Charlie Hamper, Chatham, 1959.

His father left home when he was aged 7.

In 1979 he worked for four weeks at Oakwood mental hospital as a ward porter.

He was expelled from St Martins School of art in 1981 for writing what was described as "The worst type of toilet wall humour".

He was diagnosed dyslexic at 28.

He has won two commendations in the national poetry prize.

He taught Tracy Emin to paint and cook.

He has published 30 collections of poetry and two novels.

He has made about 100 independent LP records and painted over 2,000 paintings.

He believes that life is a spiritual journey.

He lived on the dole for 15 years.

He is a member of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

He is an ex-alcoholic.

He believes in reincarnation and the law of Karma.

He was not allowed to sing in the school choir because he was bone deaf.

His favourite artist is Vincent van Gogh and like him.

Billy has trodden his own highly individual artistic path, rejecting the contemporary London Brit Art establishment and staying firmly rooted in Chatham where he's lived and worked all of his life.

Local roots

Kent and its people have had a huge influence on Billy's art. Today he lives just a short walk from the River Medway, an inspiration for many of his paintings.

"The local area is a really big thing in my work. It's grounded in the fact that I live here and was born here," says Billy.

School of life

Billy's early art education was highly unconventional, just like the man himself.

After leaving secondary school at the age of 16, Billy wanted to go to art college, but was rejected because of his lack of qualifications.
But Billy wasn't going to let a small thing like that stop him from becoming a painter.

He worked for a time as an apprentice stonemason in the Chatham dockyards, carving stones.

"I was always painting at home. I was already drawing and of course I took my sketch book into work, just drawing the tea huts and the people I was working with," he recalls.

During his lunch and tea breaks Childish was busy creating his entry to Art School in a huge collection of 600 drawings.

He secured his place at St Martin's School of Art on what was called the "genius clause", though the local council insisted he go to the local Medway College of Art. But with his propensity to be disobedient, it was not long before Billy in trouble for having "an attitude of total rejection".

He applied again to St Martin's College the following year, and was accepted again. However he disliked the fashionable abstract art and dropped out after a few weeks.

After a couple of years unemployment, he was pressurised by the DHSS to get off the dole so he applied to St Martin's again and was accepted for a third time. But it wasn't third time lucky because relations with the school soon broke down and he was finally expelled in 1981.

Billy Childish

Billy went back home to Chatham where he spent the next 15 years on the dole, fine-tuning his art.

"It suited me fine and I became an expert," he says looking back.

DIY punk attitude

It was 1977, and punk rock exploded on the streets - Childish was drawn to it and saw all the major punk bands, swearing never to work again.

He produced a series of punk fanzines including 'Bostick Haze' and 'Chatham's Burning', and changed his name from William Hamper to Billy Childish.

Excited and charged up by the do-it-yourself aesthetic of punk, Childish emerged as a renaissance musician, poet and painter.

Billy joined Kent punk band, the Pop Rivets, loving the energy and raw edges of this new musical revolution. But when punk turned into New Romanticism, "the worst form of music ever", he formed a rock'n'roll band, The Milk Shakes.

This was followed by more experiments with bands like Thee Mighty Caesars, Thee Headcoats and, most recently, The Buff Medways, who drew heavily on their Kentish roots.

"Everything we do is inextricably linked into the local scene," says Billy. "The Buff Medways are named after a chicken called the Buff Medway that we were helping a friend get reinstated. It was this extinct chicken that died out in the 1940s."

Copyright Billy Childish, courtesy of the aquarium L-13.

Copyright Billy Childish.

Billy also drew on his local roots for the band's album 'The Medway Wheelers', named after a cycling club that his mother belonged to in her youth.

Over the years Billy has released about 100 or so records, many inspired by Kent people and places.

Home made art

'Home made music', 'home made art' and 'home made culture' are at the heart of what Billy does.

For him, most contemporary art is a "cul de sac of idiocy". Billy sees himself as a bit of an outsider, reinforced by living in Kent, away from the pretentious London gallery and Brit art circuit.

In the 1980s Billy worked from his small rented house in Rochester, with paintings hanging up all around its walls.

Copyright Billy Childish, courtesy of the aquarium L-13.

Copyright Billy Childish.

He befriended a fashion student at Medway College of Art and Design called Tracy Emin, and together they ran Hangman Books.
Although they have now parted company and are no longer on amicable terms, Childish claims to have been a big influence on Emin's work.

"Her early work was very influenced by my painting and her later work by my writing," says Billy.

Another of Billy's contributions to the art world was as co-founder of the re-modernist art group, "The Stuckists" in 1999.

Stuckism had a very strong punk ethic - it wanted to speak the populist language of the man in the street, and often employed catchy slogans and humour in its paintings.

Although The Stuckists and Childish parted company in 2001, he still supports many of their ideals.

Innocence and experience

Billy's attitude to life has also been heavily coloured by his upbringing in Kent. He remembers the mental abuse which he and his brother suffered at the hands of his father, who left home when Billy was 7-years-old.

"He never spoke to me or said a kind word to me. He'd bang me and my brother's heads together … from when I was about two, so I was quite pleased when he left home," he recalls.

Worse was to come. During a family holiday at Seasalter, Billy was sexually abused by a family friend over several days.

"When you're abused, it colours lots of your life," says Billy. "I had to go through 15 years of alcoholism, many Buddhist retreats, 40 collections of poems, 7 novels and thousands of pictures to get it out my system a bit."

Copyright Billy Childish, courtesy of the aquarium L-13.

Copyright Billy Childish.

His experiences of sexual abuse inspired Billy to write two songs, "Paedophile" and "Every Bit of Me".

Mind games

There are few artists who tread such an individual path as Childish, and it's perhaps no surprise that his favourite painter is the archetypal outsider, Vincent Van Gogh.

In true punk spirit Billy claims that "everything I do is a game".
Billy is an iconoclast and a modern day 'back to basics', painting-in-oils artist.

Kent has been an important influence in shaping Billy Childish as a person and as a painter, poet and punk musician. Childish remains the embodiment of how an artist can be a product of the place where he was born and bred.

Billy Childish is a true local hero whose creativity never stops and whose life and art are inextricably intertwined. Long may he reign!

last updated: 01/12/2008 at 14:48
created: 01/12/2008

You are in: Kent > Entertainment > Visual Arts > Billy Childish



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy