I received an email from the Victoria Gallery & Museum alerting me to the fact that an exhibition of work by Adrian Henri was ending that day. Henri has a special place in my heart because I arrived in Liverpool just at the tail-end of that moment when Liverpool in the1960s was a focal point for popular culture. Henri was the leading figure of a multimedia scene in which art, music and writing were closely connected.
I remember fondly the performances – a heady mixture of poetry, jazz and acoustic guitar – by the Liverpool Scene, every Tuesday evening in the upstairs room at O’Connor’s Tavern on Leece Street. The band featured poets Adrian Henri, Mike Evans (who would write the Guardian’s obituary of Henri in 2000) and Mike Hart (who died, aged 76, last June) accompanied by guitarist Andy Roberts. For this reason the cover of the Liverpool Scene’s first album, The Amazing Adventures Of, a bit special for me, since it shows the regulars outside O’Connor’s Tavern with the landlord, Jimmy Moore (the guy in the braces).
The Liverpool poets, and particularly Henri, drew a lot of their inspiration from Liverpool itself, and sought to make their work relevant by reflecting experiences that their audience would identify with. The first exhibit in Adrian Henri: Poetry and Painting 1960-2000 at the Victoria Gallery was a perfect example of this aspect of his work.
Just two years before I arrived in Liverpool, Allen Ginsberg had visited the city, a sojourn vividly described by Bryan Biggs (currently directing the 300th anniversary celebrations at the Bluecoat Arts Centre) in these words:
He famously described the city as ‘at the present moment the centre of the consciousness of the human universe. They’re resurrecting the human form divine there – all those beautiful youths, with long, golden archangelic hair’. Henri recalls taking Ginsberg to the Cavern and other venues to taste Merseybeat first hand, drummers from local beat groups jamming with the Beat legend, who played Tibetan rhythms on a set of finger cymbals.
The Entry of Christ into Liverpool was both a painting and a poem. The exhibition featured a print of the 1964 painting alongside a limited edition print of the poem published as a poster by the ICA. Henri’s painting is an hommage to James Ensor’s 1888 painting, The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889, a forerunner of 20th-century Expressionism.
Henri must have seen Ensor’s painting of Christ entering contemporary Brussels in a Mardi Gras parade – with its melange of religion, politics and art, and its crowd of masks, faces and caricatures representing historical and allegorical figures, along with Ensor’s family and friends – and imagined how he might celebrate Liverpool’s vibrant culture in the same way.
James Ensor appears to the rear of Henri’s painting, playing the part of Christ. In front of him is Alfred Jarry, and forerunner of dada and Surrealism, riding a bicycle. In front of Jarry is the distinctive figure of his creation, Pere Ubu. Also present in the crowd are: Sam Walsh (painter), Pat Dawson (a friend of Henri’s wife, Joyce Henri), Mike Wenblatt (hairdresser and jazz musician), Roger McCough (poet), Arthur Dooley (sculptor), John Gorman (later member of Scaffold), Charlie Parker (jazz musician), Carol Mazanovitz (Henri’s lover and former girlfriend of Stuart Sutcliffe), Mike Evans (musician and poet) and his girlfriend Josie.
In front, from left to right, figures include: William Burroughs, Mark Rushton (a friend and student of Adrian Henri’s at Manchester Art College), Stanley Dobbin (a printmaker from Manchester), Phillip Jones Griffiths with camera (a school friend of Henri, later a celebrated photographer of the Vietnam war), Pete Brown (beat generation jazz-poet who later wrote lyrics for Cream), The Beatles, Charlie Mingus (jazz bassist, wearing a highly decorated robe), George Melly (jazz vocalist and writer) with his wife Diana, and Don McKinlay (Liverpool artist). None of these figures were painted from life. Instead, Henri painted a mental image he had of each person wearing particular clothes that he associated with them.
The Entry of Christ into Liverpool, the painting, was also a poem, similarly bursting with images of the signs and symbols, flags, banners and people of an unruly city. In the Victoria Gallery it is displayed in a long and slim limited edition published by the ICA, a bit of an artwork itself in varied, exclamatory fonts that presumably indicate the employment of a few sheets of letraset (which, dear children, was the cutting-edge word-processing technology of the day: sort of brass-rubbing in reverse). The Entry of Christ was one of the poems I heard Henri declaim upstairs in O’Connor’s fifty years ago. As Henri recalled in 1975:
At the time I wrote that poem I was just starting to do a regular music thing with The Liverpool Scene. I turned up one evening with this thing I’d been writing on and off for about five years. It grew out of notes for a painting for a start. I was doing a painting and collecting all kinds of information and a lot was just written on pieces of paper. There were things like the Guinness sign in Lime Street that went on and off one letter at a time. I found these bits of paper years later and started to work on it and it turned into a poem.
I particularly like the opening and closing stanzas of this rambling, uneven poem. As it begins, I imagine I’m walking once again through Liverpool 8, past Mount Street where Henri onced lived, and down Leece Street to the bombed-out church. It’s all there, the life of a varied city, evoked in all its jostling, colliding wildness:
city morning. dandelion seeds blowing from waste ground.
smell of overgrown privet hedges. children’s voices
in the distance. sounds from the river.
round the corner into Myrtle St. Saturday morning shoppers
headscarves. shopping baskets. dogs.
down the hill
the sound of trumpets
cheering and shouting in the distance
ice cream vans
flags breaking out over buildings
black and red green and yellow
Union Jacks Red Ensigns
LONG LIVE SOCIALISM
stretched against the blue sky
over St. George’s hall
Now the procession
THE MARCHING DRUMS
hideous masked Breughel faces of old ladies in the crowd
yellow masks of girls in curlers and headscarves
smelling of factories
MASKS MASKS MASKS
red masks purple masks pink masks
crushing surging carrying me along
down the hill past the Philharmonic The Labour Exchange
excited feet crushing the geraniums in St. Luke’s Gardens
placards banners posters
KEEP BRITAIN WHITE
END THE WAR IN VIETNAM
GOD BLESS OUR POPE
Billboards hoardings drawings on pavements
words painted on the road
STOP GO HALT
the sounds of pipes and drums down the street
little girls in yellow and orange dresses paper flowers
LOYAL SONS OF KING WILLIAMS LODGE BOOTLE
MASKS more MASKS crowding in off buses
standing on walls climbing fences
familiar faces among the crowd
faces of my friends the shades of Pierre Bonnard and
Jarry cycling carefully through the crowd.
In the poem’s final stanza, Henri makes his way slowly homewards, back up the hill:
thin sickle moon
pale blue sky
flecked with bright orange clouds
streamers newspapers discarded paper hats
blown slowly back up the hill by the evening wind
dustmen with big brooms sweeping the gutters
last of the crowds waiting at bus stops
giggling schoolgirls quiet businessmen
empty chip-papers drifting round my feet.
Read the complete text here. Listen to Adtian Henri recite the poem in the YouTube video at the end of this post.
Years later, Adrian Henri would make a similar painting to The Entry of Christ. As in the earlier work, The Day of the Dead (1998, not in exhibition) would situate an event from another time and place in Liverpool, and populate it with Henri’s friends and artists and writers of cultural significance – most notably Malcolm Lowry (the white suited, pipe-smoking figure on the far left), the alcoholic author of Under the Volcano who grew up in Birkenhead. The novel is almost entirely set on the Mexican Day of the Dead. In the painting, among the figures in the crowd are: William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Frida Kahlo, Ed Kienholz and Henri’s Liverpool painter friend, Sam Walsh.
The grandson of a seaman from Mauritius who settled in Birkenhead, Adrian Henri was born in1932. He came to prominence as a poet alongside Roger McGough and Brian Patten in the groundbreaking 1967 Penguin anthology The Mersey Sound. He had trained as an artist at King’s College, Newcastle under Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton. Like his poems, his visual works in the 1960s drew on popular icons, consumer products and cityscapes – irreverent, humorous, political, surrealistic and anchored in contemporary urban culture.
The exhibition at the Victoria Gallery was curated by the art historian Catherine Marcangeli, Adrian Henri’s partner in the last fifteen years of his life.
Better-known as poet and performer in the 1960s and 70s, Henri remained a prolific artist until his death in 2000, exhibiting nationally and internationally. Throughout his career, the same subjects – including birds, cuts of meat and flowers – were often explored in both painting and poetry; from the 1980s.
There were two examples at the Victoria Gallery of Henri’s large and vivid flower paintings, executed in acrylic. Giverny II, from 1988, was inspired by his visit to Monet’s garden. Interviewed for the exhibition Paintings 1953-1998 at the Walker Art Gallery, Henri said:
It was interesting the way the garden was planted. It was planned both vertically and horizontally so that the plants were layered upwards. Alleys that you could go down were flanked by head-high plantings that flowered at different heights. Somehow this had the effect of flattening out the whole thing. In certain parts of the garden there was almost no feeling of perspective. It was all tipped up against you and even when you could see things at the front the whole thing was flattened out.
Brian Patten once said of Henri: ‘The poet in him wrote poems containing images that the painter in him wanted to paint, and the painter in him painted images that the poet wanted to write.’
This was a fine, but tantalisingly truncated exhibition that left me wishing for more, but happy to have seen these glimpses from a poet, painter and performer who never left his hometown, and upon whom was conferred the freedom of that city on the night before his death.