Julia Bardsley, theatre artist, on a list in her father’s handwriting.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
JB I’ve chosen it because it’s banal in a way. It’s just a list with toothbrush and paste, dressing gown, razors – a packing list I think – although I can’t imagine my dad going on holiday. It’s not really the sort of life we led. But the reason why I’ve chosen it is because he had the most amazing handwriting and I find the movement of his writing and the image of his writing and mark making really beautiful even though in some sense it’s quite illegible.
GB Yes, it starts off quite legible and then he seems to lose patience. Is he still alive?
JB No, he died when I was fifteen. I had quite a difficult relationship with my dad. I’m one of six children and I was the third girl. I know he desperately wanted to have a boy. And it was my mum’s idea to have a really big family. I don’t think it was anything my dad really wanted. The fourth child was a boy and he totally adored him. Then there was another girl, another boy, and by the time he had six children he was a very heavy drinker. There’s something about that generation of men who were in the war. He had some very extreme war experiences and I think the brutalization of being forced to participate in that sort of violence really affected him. He also had an identical twin brother, which is an idea that crops up in my work, the idea of the double.
GB When did you find the list?
JB My dad was a working class boy from Lancashire who left school at 14. He was a really fantastic draughtsman. But the problem with coming from that working class background was that the idea of living life as an artist just wasn’t an option at all. Had he been born into another era, I think that’s what he would have done. The story goes that my mum met him when he was painting portraits on the end of Brighton Pier. I have some fantastic pencil drawings that he did. He moved into doing design for exhibition stands but those businesses didn’t do so well and he moved into running pubs and bars, so we moved around every two years. I had a really strange relationship with him because I didn’t really like him when he was alive. It’s only really been in the last ten years that I’ve watched home movies of him with us. The moving image is very different from a photograph. I noticed how fantastic he was with us as kids and how tenderly and beautifully he dealt with us. It seemed very authentic in a way. Then there are later films when he was clearly unwell and I could see him thinking, “What happened to my life, how did I arrive here?” His artistic and creative ambitions had been stifled. I suddenly understood how frustrating that must have been for him. My mum gave me a load of his drawings and paintings. This list was just in that pile of papers and his handwriting had always been something that I’d really loved. Then I used this print of the list and an image of him in a pinhole photograph I made as part of a project called Transacts. The image became my apology to him.
GB It’s interesting that it was the handwriting in particular that struck you. Is that because it’s so personal?
JB It’s so him. It’s so individual. I’m slightly envious of people with interesting handwriting. I’ve always been a frustrated visual artist because I don’t have those sorts of drawing skills – but for him it was so effortless. I have lots of types of handwriting depending on what thought processes I’m in but he had really consistent handwriting. We write with computers so much now. I love writing by hand but when I come to do it my hand does start to ache. I think the physical act of creating the shapes on the page has a different interaction with what I’m thinking. I did a project based on a Ted Hughes short story and he sent me a hand written letter. It was quite moving, knowing that he went to the trouble of holding the pen, making the choices of what to write with, the colour of the ink, the paper.
GB It’s interesting that drawings and scribbles can seem more meaningful than paintings that have taken months to work on sometimes.
JB I remember seeing some Joseph Beuys sketches at Christie’s. The scraps of paper were really great with all the different textures and the fact that they were so throwaway. But with this list, it’s the banality and the connection with my dad and a way understanding him that I appreciate. I feel sad for him.
GB I suppose the banality of the words brings home the movement of the hand more because you’re not reading sentences.
JB I’ve treated this list and made the print from it, which is in negative now. I don’t so much see it as words, more as an abstract texture. Although it’s interesting to think that it was a living person who wrote this at a particular moment in time. It’s hard to experience that knowledge, we know that it’s true, it happened but we don’t physically experience that. It’s just a knowledge.
GB Do you treasure the original list.
JB Not in an obsessive way. It’s somewhere in the attic with a load of stored things. I don’t really attach those sort of sentimentalities to things. With my own works I can easily throw things away if I have nowhere to store them.
GB Would you swap your father’s handwritten list for a Cy Twombly?
JB Oh yeah!
GB So what makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
JB There’s a kind of grungy thing going on for me, an aesthetic of complexity. I like my beauty not to be decorative. I like texture and abstraction and shape. That’s what this list is to me. Over time it’s become creased and smudged and stained. I think that the accruing of the marks of time and the traces of the way it has been handled are beautiful.
GB It seems somehow contradictory that you love all those things about your list and yet you’d throw it away or swap it for something else.
JB But I can find that beauty in lots of things.