Adrian Henri saw himself as a painter first and a poet second.
Adrian Henri saw himself as a painter first and a poet second. his partner of 15 years tells Laura Davis
IF IT is hard to believe that it’s been more than 12 years since Adrian Henri died it is because he seems ever present. A part of him breathes again when someone speaks aloud his poetry or enjoys one of his paintings.
It is easy to imagine him leaning back in the empty chair that accompanies Roger McGough and Brian Pattern on stage during poetry readings – a tribute to their lost colleague and good pal.
And there are regular events and exhibitions of his work put together every year in his memory by his partner of 15 years, Catherine Marcangeli.
From this weekend, 90 paintings from his estate will be shown at the Corke Gallery in Aigburth, linking his poetry to his art.
“He always regarded himself as a painter and that the poetry came afterwards,” says Marcangeli, a French art academic.
“He always felt it was a bit odd that people thought of him as a poet when he did paint consistently.
“I try and organise something around his birthday each year to carry on with his memory and with his work, because that was the thing that was most important to him.”
Art and poetry ran in tandem in Henri’s life and were equally important to him despite his career as a poet eclipsing that as an artist in the public eye.
Born in Birkenhead in 1932, he studied Fine Art at King’s College, Newcastle, where he trained under the influential British artists Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore.
He settled in Liverpool as an art teacher in 1957 – 10 years before the publication of The Mersey Sound, the groundbreaking anthology of poetry by Henri, McGough and Patten.
As well as giving readings and performing eccentric art “happenings”, he was a member of the poetry-rock band Liverpool Scene – championed by Heswall-born DJ John Peel on his late-night Perfumed Garden show on the pirate station Radio London. They released four LPs and, in 1969, they toured America, where they opened for Led Zeppelin.
A number of pictures of New York that Henri created during this tour are included in the Corke Gallery show as well as others made from a visit he made with Marcangeli to the same city in the 90s to see the Thanksgiving Day parade.
“He was what you’d call a notebook poet,”she says.
“He carried one everywhere and when he was on the road or on holiday he would make notes on anything really – the landscape or an image that struck him or the beginnings of a poem or a couple of lines.
“He was constantly scribbling and those bits of observations would find their way into poems or paintings.
“When he’d been away for several days running he would be dying to get back to the studio to pick up the brush again.”
Henri’s studio was in the Bridewell, a former police lock-up on Prescot Street, on the outskirts of Liverpool City Centre, still used by artists today.
“In those days there was no hot water so washing the brushes at the end of the day was a bit of a chore not to say a torture,” recalls Marcangeli.
“It was a nice space, there was quite a bit of light and a chimney so the first thing he did was light the fire and have a cup of coffee and then look at the paintings.
“He’d look and look and look and pick up the brush and carry on.”
Henri, also a Liverpool Daily Post critic, drew inspiration for his painting from his own life as he did for his poetry. Themes included popular culture, landscape, his travels and of course his home city, including Liverpool FC.
Some subjects featured more in his writing than in his art, however.
“The theme of love is much more present in poetry than in painting even though sometimes it would find a manifestation in representations of the landscape,” says Marcangeli.
“Sometimes he’d get a bit stuck with the muse of painting and would sit down and write poems and sometimes the poetry wasn’t going so great and he would go and paint instead.
“He considered himself quite lucky that he could work in both media.”
On occasion, he would include words from his poems in his art, such as in a painting of the graveyard behind the Bronte’s parsonage in Haworth, where Henri spent a residency.
“At the time of the Bronte sisters, Haworth had the highest mortality rate outside London and they realised this was because the whole village drank from the well and the well ran through the graveyard – it was almost like the graveyard was feeding itself through poisoning the population,” says Marcangeli.
“Adrian did a series of paintings showing the cemetery and he also wrote a poem about the idea of the sarcophagus, which he found out means ‘a stone that eats’.”
This work will be shown at the Corke Gallery, where poetry will be displayed alongside the paintings just in time to mark his birthday on April 10.
“The nice thing is that every time I do something like this, people get quite excited about it,” says Marcangeli.
“It’s nice to think you’re not a lone voice saying ‘don’t forget Adrian’.”
Henri died in December 2000 after a long illness, shortly after a major retrospective of his work was held at the Walker Art Gallery – where he had been a John Moores Painting Prize finalist nine times, coming second in 1972.
“I wouldn’t keep organising exhibitions if he was a c--p artist. I’m doing it because I believe it’s good work,” says Marcangeli.
“But it’s quite schizophrenic sometimes because I’m an academic but I also have this emotional bind with it. I’m constantly oscillating between tears and serious academic frowns. It’s quite an odd situation to be in.”
Later this month, Marcangeli will join McGough and Patten for one of the highlights of Liverpool’s new In Other Words literature festival.
“It’s quite nice also because it’s in St George’s Hall and Adrian loved that place,” she says.
“Often when they perform together they leave an extra chair on the stage for Adrian so it’s quite odd to think that I’m going to be sitting in his place.”
Adrian Henri: Poetry and Painting 1960-2000 is at the Corke Gallery, Aigburth, from April 6-28. The Beat Goes On With Roger McGough & Brian Patten is at St George’s Hall on April 26. Further details on Henri’s art at www.adrianhenri.com