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A quiet revelation at Sadie Coles

The must-see show in London this week

Paul Anthony Harford, Untitled (mother asleep with masked child) (c.1999) © The Estate of Paul Anthony Harford. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo credit: Robert Glowacki

BY Louisa Buck
contemporary art correspondent

In Must See

The drawings of Paul Anthony Harford (1943-2016) are a quiet revelation. The English artist worked in isolation and never exhibited in his lifetime. His pencil and graphite drawings only came to light after his death, when his ex-wife and two sons submitted a bundle of surviving works to a local gallery in the English coastal town of Southend-on-Sea.

Now, Sadie Coles represents his estate and the art world is going to hear a lot more about this reclusive Englishman. Not that Harford would care—he had no interest in either showing or selling his work.

An educated man, who studied painting at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of art history, Harford was an outsider artist by choice, deliberately taking the most menial of cleaning jobs to give him the time and head-space to focus on his work.

Paul Anthony Harford, Untitled (artist at work) (c.2005) © The Estate of Paul Anthony Harford. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo credit: Robert Glowacki

Art for him was both a compulsion and a refuge throughout a troubled life during which he battled alcoholism and depression. His commitment and emotional intensity simmer through the obsessive imagery of his drawings.

The work on show at Sadie Coles HQ takes you through Harford’s solitary daily life: a woebegone figure riding on a bus, shaving or sitting on the edge of his bed in an attic room bent over a drawing board. Sometimes his face is cropped or hidden, but we know it’s him, smoking a roll-up cigarette in front of an electric heater, walking heavily down to the seafront or, more disquietingly, lying prone on the pavement of a seafront promenade with a crumpled plastic bag beside him.

Harford may have trained as a painter but the pencil was his medium. His meticulously-observed scenes are created in a wealth of tones and textures using just a pencil and graphite stick—but with extraordinary formal and technical skill.

Detail of Paul Anthony Harford, Untitled (cleaner with vulture wings) © The Estate of Paul Anthony Harford. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo credit: Robert Glowacki

Unexpected details, such as the stripes on a pair of pajamas or the fleshy folds of a patterned bedspread, are rendered with a forensic attention that snags the eye and sucks you in to these quiet, intimate scenes. Under the intensity of his scrutiny such seemingly simple acts as sitting in a chair become charged with an almost ritualistic significance. Like Stanley Spencer, an artist Harford greatly admired, the mundane takes on an almost visionary quality. 

I can’t think of any other artist who has managed to capture the melancholic atmosphere and surreal incongruities of the English coastal town more effectively (as well as Southend, he also spent years in Weymouth, Dorset). In one especially memorable untitled and undated self-portrait (probably made around 2003), Harford’s lugubrious face looms out of the foreground.

The drawing looks like a selfie, but with the painterly approach of a mid-period Lucian Freud. The background is of a typical English seaside promenade complete with palm trees, a striped pavilion selling deckchairs and strings of fairy lights. There is a giant display model of an ice cream cone perched on the pavement, while a double megaphone attached to a lamppost suggests the sounds of a certain kind of merry music.

Paul Anthony Harford, Untitled (self-portrait with ice cream cone) (c.2003) © Paul Anthony Harford, Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo credit: Robert Glowacki

Despite (or maybe because) of these jaunty details, the scene is bleak. The sky fills with gathering clouds, there’s a keen breeze whipping up the palm tree and the distant sea is a strip of unwelcoming gray. In a final grim touch, the back hatch of a hearse parked against the curb and containing a coffin is open. 

Clocks abound in the work, suggesting the sense of time passing and the feeling of claustrophobic stillness and ennui. Nowhere is this more evident than where Harford he observes his elderly mother at the end of her life. These drawings, made over hours while sitting beside her bed, record every line and wrinkle of her sleeping face and the surrounding bedclothes in unblinking but also tenderly observed detail.  

In both the man and the drawings there are many intriguing anomalies. Harford may have lived alone after the breakdown of his marriage in the 1970s but by all accounts, despite his reclusive nature, he enjoyed talking about art and took a keen interest in his surroundings and the people he encountered.

His drawings are lovingly rendered but also almost unbearably sad, especially the works depicting his mother. But they can be unexpectedly funny: the artist’s bare feet pop distractingly into the bottom of the frame of one of the drawings of his mother. The emotional ambivalence of the works, and their many contradictions, are what make these drawings all the more strange, hard to place and mesmerizing.

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