A version of this appreciation appeared in the Guardian on 29 May 2008.
Throughout his life Roy challenged the assumptions of dominant art practice, both in his own work and in the studios of the art schools where he taught. Even for someone who had always confronted the conventions of fine art, when he moved to Eastern Spain in 1997, it was still a challenge for a northern European to paint a southern landscape without the clichés of an over-used style or the deliberate cleverness of postmodern idioms. Yet his final work has a clarity and an intensity of expression that opened up new ways of seeing the landscape of the Sierra Engarceran and the Maestrazgo where he settled.
Roy was a fine example of the British art school system that was, in the 1950s and 1960s, more interested in the individual than background and formal qualifications. He tested what might be possible in his professional life in a way which, I am sure, was linked to his passion for extreme sports: competitive cycling — perhaps reflecting his parents’ tandem holidays from London’s east end to their Shoeburyness caravan — then rock climbing and windsurfing, both death-defying activities only worth doing for him in the most challenging and extreme conditions. It seemed as if he was exploring his own limits right up to the very edge of what was possible.
Born in Hackney in 1933, the son of a timber bargeman and a specialist presser in the rag trade, he went to Highbury Grammar School. A member of the Communist party, he refused to do National Service and served time as a conscientious objector in Brixton prison. He studied at St Martin’s School of Art in London in the early 1950s, a contemporary of Frank Auerbach and John Minton, and was student of the year when he graduated. After a variety of odd jobs and a brief spell as a teacher following a training course in Sheffield in 1958, he became a visiting lecturer at St Martin’s, then eventually full time in 1973.
In 1982, faced by a sceptical art establishment, he instigated the first fine art part-time degree programme. The course, at St Martin’s, sought out students from an eclectic mix of backgrounds — was this the first art degree course advertised in the Caribbean Times? — and used thematic approaches, such as narrative (how stories are told and the way meanings are encapsulated in art works) or landscape (can a beautiful view ever be value-free?), and explored how art relates to the historical, social and theoretical contexts in which it is made. Bringing such an approach into and alongside studio teaching was still controversial at the time, as was the requirement of a year’s work within an organisation or community group. This description makes the course seem prescriptive and rigid. This was by no means the case. The course had a profound effect on a diverse range of mainly mature women students from very different backgrounds at a time (the relatively early days of feminism) when male chauvinism was still prevalent in the studio and women students were searching for an identity both inside and outside mainstream art practice. When the (by then) Central Saint Martin’s celebrated fine art course came to be reappraised in the early 1990s, the part-time course became the model for fine art as a whole. Roy’s final professional job was as its first course director.
Roy had a subtle and highly intelligent, even intellectual, approach to fine art, but he was never dogmatic or driven by ideology despite his firmly-held views. This did not mean that his work was dry and academic in the way that some ‘intellectual’ artists could be. Indeed his paintings and their construction were always beautiful and meticulously executed pushing the technique he used as far as it could go.
As a teacher Roy believed strongly that evaluating student work was not just a matter of subjectivity and style but could be assessed against objective criteria such as history and research (technical as well as theoretical), the use of primary and secondary sources and (self-) critical appraisal. His early experience of teaching foundation art students, many of whom would go on afterwards to take degrees in other subjects, made him acutely aware of developmental processes: how style and subject matter are difficult personal decisions and how easily the impressionable are hijacked by art-gurus and end up following a ‘school’. His pluralism was influenced too by the growing strength of the women’s movement and the slowly developing debates around psychoanalysis and multiculturalism. Thirty years ago such debates were almost entirely absent from the studio. Roy was instrumental in not only constantly drawing attention to these issues but encouraging students from different backgrounds and with different experiences to apply to art school.
Equally contentious at that time was any approach that questioned the prevailing view of art practice as ‘total immersion’, a hermetic way of working that could not admit of influences other than the formal properties of the practice itself. Roy believed passionately that students should think of their art in relation to the world in which they lived and should learn to make that work relevant or at least approachable to those who had little or no knowledge of formal practice. It seems to me indicative that, when he retired to the tiny hill village of Sierra Engarceran he was especially proud that one of his finest paintings hangs in the council chamber of the town hall. It seems to me telling that he should return to that fundamental discipline, painting and primarily landscape painting, towards the end of his life producing work that opened up new ways of seeing the world around him, perhaps even to those whose families had lived there for centuries.
I worked closely with Roy for many years and these issues were always live debates between us, informing our personal and professional lives: what to make, how to make it, how to assess and criticise it, how to make it relevant, how to reflect life as it is, even should be, lived. But however much he was a demanding colleague, Roy was an engaging friend as well as a captivating raconteur with a wry wit, holding audiences in thrall for long, comfortable evenings over food and wine. I remember him for this as much as, if not more than, his work.