Ian Dury may well have been the only pop artist who became his own subject. On the walls of a new exhibition of his paintings, drawings and graphic design at the Royal College of Art in London, where Dury studied in the early ’60s, hang a handful of interesting self-portraits. For his true self-portrait, however, you have to search YouTube for the remarkable official videos for “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3”, where you will find the artist who invented himself in the medium that best suited him. Nevertheless the RCA show, called More Than Fair, is well worth a visit for the glimpse it provides of a young man who grew up amid the benign ferment of British art colleges half a century ago.
Dury went to Walthamstow School of Art in 1959, studied with Peter Blake, and won a place at the RCA in 1963. This was a time when popular culture was becoming an acceptable subject for fine artists, thanks to the work of Blake, Richard Hamilton and others, and Dury welcomed the opportunity to take on a range of subjects including Hollywood stars, Sonny Liston, celebrity industrialists (Lord and Lady Docker, famous for their Daimler with gold door handles) and the soft-porn nudes who take up just about half the show.
The influence of Blake — who remained a friend — is evident in the presentation of such works as “Flo Diddley” and “Miranda Aureole: The Nipple Princess”, and in the work he did for the Sunday Times Magazine and London Look. Here from the ST Mag (which continually bylined him “Ian Drury”) are spreads devoted to features on “The Immortals” (Bogart, Gable, Harlow, etc) in 1966 and “Lost Heroes” (James Dean) the following year. Rainbow stripes are bursting everywhere, sometimes accessorised with sequins. Titles are roughly stencilled. The energy is unmistakeable, even in the representatives of his commercial work, such as the cover of World Record Club’s “The Wonderful Vera” (Lynn) and the box for EMI’s reel-to-reel tape version of Sinatra Sings of Love.
This didn’t turn out to be the work Dury was put on earth to do, but he was pretty good at it. Curated by Jemima Dury (the artist’s daughter), Julian Balme and Kosmo Vinyl, the show was assembled from the family collection and loans from friends and former colleagues, including Terry Day, the drummer of Kilburn and the High Roads (who contributes a Dury-decorated bass drum head), Davey Payne, the Blockheads’ saxophonist, Andrew King, Dury’s music publisher, and Laurie Lewis, the dance photographer.
I wish I’d known about the exhibition in advance. Then I’d have lent them my own bit of Duryana: a copy of the first UK edition of A.B.Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business, published in 1967, for which MacGibbon and Kee commissioned the artist to provide a new cover (above). His ink portraits of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Nichols and Jackie McLean, the subjects of Spellman’s classic quartet of encounters with modern jazz musicians, are perfect, as is the stencilled typography.
The show opened this morning and closes on September 1. Admission is free. Details are here. A new book of Dury’s lyrics, titled Hello Sausages, edited by Jemima Dury and published by Bloomsbury, is on sale in the gallery at a tenner off the £25 price. All in all, it’s worth the trip.