The two years that Greaves spent in Rome from 1952-4 were seminal for the development of his work. They may not have represented a break from the past but were certainly a great leap forward. Greaves had travelled to Italy for the first year of his Abbey Major scholarship clutching a folio of drawings that included studies for The Waiting Room and for other allegorical, angst-ridden pictures. These were soon replaced by works inspired by blue skies and sunshine, and the impact of good food and wine and beautiful frescos.
They were 'replaced' literally, for as Rome grew chilly, Greaves burned the drawings he had brought from London in the studio stove to keep warm. This would be the first of the many therapeutic bonfires of rejected works that have punctuated key moments in the artist's career.
The journey to Rome, via Paris, with his wife proved to be stressful for Greaves, but when he did finally arrive by train at Turin, gone midnight, and found a restaurant, he relaxed immediately and felt completely at home with Italy. They then travelled down the coast, inland through Perugia and Tuscany to Rome. After the privations of England, the food and wine made a big impression and appropriately one of Greaves's most powerful early works is a large charcoal drawing, Spaghetti Eaters (1953).
[La Romana (1953) in the painter's studio, Rome, 1953]
The visit to Italy was crucial to the painter's development, as Greaves would later recall:Painting has an almost magical quality. Sometimes it can be prophetic. It's risky and rather dangerous. It's a visual world, which can have a vivid parallel reality to your life. Like writers and poets and composers you can dissolve your ego into your own activity. There is a life in a painting, which transcends me or you. Italy changed my direction and approach.What especially impressed Greaves was the indivisibility of life and art. Art was not confined to museums and galleries. It was all around. Churches and civic buildings contained frescoes, there were mosaics on the floor and statues in the streets. He was especially struck by a visit to the Campo Santo in Pisa where the frescos were being restored and he was able to see, first hand, the pentimenti. This under-drawing, although rough, showed how even at a relatively late stage alterations were being made by the artist in response to the surface on which the fresco was being painted. He was excited by the immediacy of it all: 'When I heard that Giotto was a joker and deliberately dropped paint on apprentices below, I could imagine that, having been a sign-painter!had given him no sense of the works in their setting or their scale: 'At the Royal College I thought of painting as easel painting In Italy pictures filled whole walls: horses, dogs, figures were life size. The difference between size and scale affected me profoundly.' He also felt there to be a visual togetherness between people and place, a harmony brought about by the continuation of the past into the present. This was a quality Greaves recognised but did not himself feel in England, hence the fact that his scenes of people outdoors were almost exclusively painted in Italy.
Greaves's handling of paint was still thick, dusky and Courbet-like in the weight given to each form, but it was also increasingly straightforward and unmannered. His first Italian pictures show that he was building on what he had learnt from paintings such as The Waiting Room (1951) and Sheffield (1953), but also reveal that he was seeking to compose works in which he no longer overburdened the picture with incident as he had in The Temptation of St. Anthony (1950-1). His first large-scale Italian painting, Portovenere (1952), points the way with its bold simplification of form and flattening of space so that the lines of steps merge into the layers of brickwork of the distant church and the sky seems to possess the same materiality as the land. Then in Peasant Interior, Sicily (1953), a painting that can be read as a more sophisticated reprise of ideas first explored in The Waiting Room, Greaves depicts a humble room that is almost completely deprived of furniture and dominated by expanses of scumbled wall. There are two simple chairs, a simple table, a bowl and some plain clothing, but otherwise the room is empty. Perhaps, above all, what draws the eye is the left-hand section of the work, where a doorway is shown leading to a corridor. No people are shown and it is as though we ourselves are in the room, waiting expectantly for someone to arrive. But the existential overtones are less heavy than before - to live so simply might be a joy and not a burden, an aspiration, not a sentence. The painting also illustrates that the best of Greaves's early paintings, and indeed many of those that followed, have a stillness, a sense of quiet calm: life is simple, objects are distinct and the presentation is direct.
[Peter Branfield, Michael Andrews, Heinz Inlander and Derrick Greaves,
British School, Rome, 1953]
The painter Derek Hill was one mentor. When it was time to travel to Rome for his second year at the British School, Hill offered Greaves a lift by car to Rome. The journey included a week's stop off in Paris where Hill had a portrait commission. Paris was freezing, the hotel room was cold and it was hard to sleep with inadequate blankets. Greaves had left what little he had with his wife in England, so he couldn't even get warm with good meals. This was a melancholy time. Greaves wandered the streets and sought warmth in the museums. Once more, arrival in Italy brought renewed vigour. Through Hill, Greaves was introduced to a new social circle. Hill seemed to know everyone and he would invite the great and the good, from Anthony Blunt to Martha Graham, to the British School for dinner. In Rome, Greaves received new stimuli and made new friendships including one with the leading Italian social realist, Renato Guttuso, whose influence overlaid what he had learnt at the Royal College of Art. As Berger recognised, the result was that Greaves's work revealed a fruitful coexistence of British and Italian qualities: 'Their subject matter, their light and colour, are all Italian, their understatement and bound-in passions are very English ... Greaves is no longer promising: he is, whether recognised or not, a European artist.scale of Guttuso's paintings must have reinforced Greaves's existing interest in painting big, whilst the use of heightened colour surely encouraged his move away from a muted palette and relatively tonal approach, but the emotive, expressionist dimension of Guttuso's work repelled him. Nonetheless, their friendship is encapsulated by a party Greaves held for Guttuso and his wife on the occasion of the Italian's 1955 visit to London. The guests included George Fullard, Edward Middleditch, Leslie Duxbury and Alfred Daniels.
Greaves's own background also paralleled that of many of the Italian artists celebrated by Berger. In an essay entitled 'Italian Artists of La Colonnaand elsewhere, Berger made much of the artist having a practical function: as mentioned, Greaves had spent some time as an apprentice sign writer before entering the Royal College of Art. The artists of 'La Colonna' were also regular writers on art, and this is echoed by the contributions made by Greaves as a broadcaster and writer.
The impact of Guttuso's work on Greaves was transmitted principally via the Englishman's visits to Italy rather than the example of what he saw in exhibitions in England. It is perhaps clearest in the Mediterranean motifs presented by Greaves, such as images of leisure and work. The dry surfaces of paintings such as Anticoli Corrado, Italy (1954), Children on Steps (1956) and Sicilian Peasants Resting (1956) echo an omnipresent feature of British painting of the 1940s. However, in contrast to the nacreous surfaces of Ben Nicholson or the luminosity achieved by John Piper, Greaves's surfaces often resemble the tempera of a medieval Italian mural painting. In colour, texture and subject matter, Greaves's The Cart (c.1953) also reflects his admiration for paintings on the sides of the Italian carts used by the agricultural workers. Greaves saw such carts when he visited Guttuso's birthplace, Bagharia in Sicily, and recognised their influence on Guttuso in both their colour and presentation of narrative.
Although based at the British School in Rome, during January and February 1953 Greaves visited Venice, a stay that led to some of his most significant early paintings. Greaves was struck by the melancholy silvery light of winter as it bounced off the water of the largely deserted canals. Venice in the Rain (1953) presents a precarious gondola ride along a choppy canal, whilst in Venice (1953), the two halves of the panoramic format are perfectly in balance, the composition tightened up by the frieze-like background of the façades of the palaces alongside the canal. But, above all, it is the stones of Venice that dominate and the four people on a gondola are merely a small harmonious detail.
Greaves also drew the Piazza San Marco from the Campanile, and this provided the source for a large painting that he began in Rome and completed in London. While still unfinished in his studio in Rome, Domes of Venice (1953-4) attracted a pertinent criticism from the painter Pavel Tchelitev, who declared 'you work too much from nature', an assertion with which Greaves himself would soon concur.
Greaves also learnt much from the British visitors and students in Rome, among them Peter Lanyon, Tom Monnington and Michael Andrews. Admiring Lanyon's toughness, directness and courage, Greaves nevertheless argued with him over his response to landscape. On a walk in the Abruzzi mountains Lanyon discerned heads in dry river beds, whilst Greaves saw nothing but rocks and tree roots. The prose of Greaves's matter-of-fact approach clashed with the poetry of Lanyon's more metaphoric response. Monnington, meanwhile, admired a new painting by Greaves in his studio at the British School, praising its use of the golden section, where a rectangle is divided into two unequal but proportionate parts. It was an unconscious sense of proportions on Greaves's part, so Monnington drew diagrams to explain what he meant. This lesson would lead Greaves to re-evaluate this aspect of picture-making and to this day has had a profound impact on the structuring of his compositions. Greaves would also travel with Monnington to see the Signiorellis at Orvieto Cathedral and Piero della Francesco's Flagellation in Urbino. Meanwhile, Greaves found Michael Andrews to be a charming companion, but realised that for Andrews London held greater delights than Rome.
Italy led to a change in light and in colour. In Woman Under an Olive Tree (c.1953) there is a robustness to the woman, whose powerful body is matched by the roundness of the wine bottle she clasps and contrasts with the spiky angularity of the olive tree: a humble equivalent of one of Graham Sutherland's greatest portraits, Portrait of Somerset Maugham (1949), which was similarly inspired by the Mediterranean sun. This formal contrast between the tree and the woman would subsequently contribute to the power of one of Greaves's most significant diptychs, In The Garden (1971). Another recurrent theme, from the 1950s onwards, was dogs and their scruffy presence is evident in some of Greaves's most powerful Italian pictures, such as the Arts Council's Dog (1955) and Men and Dogs in a Landscape (1953).
Appropriately, it was the strength of Greaves's paintings of Italy that contributed to the decision to include him in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 1956, where he showed four of his Italian paintings. This was the only occasion when the four 'Kitchen-Sink' painters exhibited together outside Britain and was the crowning moment for the Beaux Arts Quartet, although it was one that Greaves once again missed, since by then he had returned to England and the British Council did not have the funds to send the artists to Venice.
Greaves recalls that Lilian Somerville, Director of the Fine Arts Department of the British Council, paid a visit to the studio that he shared with George Fullard with a distinguished group that included the eminent art critic, Herbert Read. So dusty was the studio from all the sculptor's bags of plaster that Fullard would swill it down each evening and when Herbert Read took off his hat, Greaves did not feel that it was out of deference. When asked about one of Greaves's paintings, Read declared it to be a good exhibition picture, damning it with faint praise. It would be the two men's only encounter.
As with the precedent of the recent Heffer Gallery show of the four Kitchen-Sink painters, the idea of a coherent group was undermined by the selection and installation of the pictures as well as by the catalogue. The artists were simply referred to as 'Four Young Painters' and the selection of pictures by Herbert Read highlighted each artist's differences through the choice of subject matter by which each artist was represented. It demonstrated that the Quartet were moving away from the prosaic English subjects and settings that had first gained them acclaim, in Greaves's case towards the sun, light and colour of the Mediterranean. Greaves was represented by four sunny outdoor scenes made in Italy. In Sicilian Subject (1954-5), an epic scale, extended horizontal format and emphasis on the front plane results in a clear and colourful image that recalls a wall painting. Making apparent its allegiances to Italian social realism, it presented a Mediterranean motif, employed a range of sunny yellows and included a cart, typical of the farmers of Guttuso's Sicilian homeland.
The installation of these paintings allowed each artist his own wall space whilst collectively their work provided a visual counterpart to Ivon Hitchens, the more senior painter with whom they shared the British Pavilion. Particularly dramatic was the contrast between the hot reds and yellows of Greaves's Italian paintings and the fresh blues and greens of Hitchens's English landscapes in the gallery beyond. The accompanying catalogue text by J.P. Hodin followed Lessore's precedent by declaring that 'although they exhibit in one and the same London gallery, they have neither produced a manifesto nor formed a group'. It then proceeded to discuss the work of each artist separately, reject simple classification and question the presumed realism: 'the frontiers between the objective and the subjective are fluid and it is convenient rather than strictly accurate to call these artists realists'.
Meanwhile, in a review of the Biennale, Alan Bowness addressed the inclusion of these four British painters, seeking to extract them from the term social realist: The term 'social realist' has been wisely dropped - it might be used for Greaves, but can only damage the others, whose interests, I should have thought, are far removed from the political. One must remember that these painters belong to the same generation as the novelists and poets of the Wain-Amis-Gunn-Larkin group, and they share many of the same preoccupations. Jack Smith seems to possess the writer's brand of humanism to the full; Bratby has done some real Lucky Jim paintings; and Middleditch is the poet among the painters.Appropriately, too, it was an Italian painting, Domes of Venice (1953-4), which would be the first major museum purchase of a painting by Greaves, being acquired in 1955 by the Tate Gallery.
This, then, was the highpoint for social realism in general and the Kitchen-Sink painters in particular. When the prizes were announced for the John Moore's Liverpool Exhibition in 1957, it was little surprise that the winners were almost entirely figurative painters, that they were predominantly exhibitors of the Beaux Arts Gallery, and that they included Bratby, Smith and Greaves.