Geoff’s Story

 Wigan journalist Geoffrey Shryhane was Isherwood’s agent for a few months in 1973 and 1974. Here he tells of the trials and tribulations of a friendship with “Ishy.”
I first met Isherwood in the early 60s, soon after I began as a young reporter on the Observer. With my colleague Allan Rimmer, we bumped into the unkempt but ever-smiling artist at the bottom of Rowbottom Square, opposite Wigan Post Office. He told us that the Daily Mirror had printed a photo of Lowry in his workroom – and there on the wall was an Isherwood painting of “Woman with Black Cat.”
Over the years, I fell under Isherwood’s spell, liking the paintings that others rejected, or even worse, ignored.
isherwood-geoff-shryhane1Jim and his Mother Lily hadn’t a phone. So if I went to see them – always late in the afternoon – I sent a telegram… “See you at 5pm.” Knowing that they never got up before two or three in the afternoon. Mother and son made me welcome…Jim saying he was jiggered and Lily lamenting the fact that her back prevented her doing the housework. The truth is that the place hadn’t seen mop, duster or polish for many a long year. The house reeked of oil paint and turpentine. It was a smell I liked. I’d look at newly painted works of art as Jim poured drink after drink. The three of us had a taste for gin, and when my glass was but half empty, Lily would encourage: “Give Geoffrey another gin, Jim.” I often left 151 sozzled, rocking as I waited for the bus into town. Later I learned that I was one of just a handful of people to be so welcomed.
I bought several paintings – usually for £2 or £3. He gave me small oils, but never one from the front room. Many hundreds of paintings had been dedicated to Mother Lily and all had a circled “L” on the reverse. Jim Isherwood wouldn’t part with any of these works – even if people offered big prices such as £20 or £30.
In 1971, Lily, at 81, became ill and was admitted to Wigan Infirmary. Morning noon and night, Jim rang me to say the doctors were not doing enough and he, unlike all those around him, simply couldn’t and wouldn’t face the fact that his beloved mother – his Madonna – was dying. When she died, Jim had her coffin placed on his Wigan Mining and Technical College scarf and her body was surrounded by the works of art devoted to her and her alone. He asked me to photograph the scene – I told him gently that I couldn’t. So he bought Polaroid film and took many photos of Lily at rest. He was utterly and totally bereft. He said his life was finished. There was no hope.
Slowly he took up his brushes again and to ease his pain, he drank more and more in an attempt to make life tolerable.
In 1974, following a film made about his life and broadcast on BBC TV, I wrote a long article on his life and work for the Wigan Observer. I was looking around to make a bit of extra cash and suggested that I hold an exhibition and sale of his work. He laughed out loud and said the words that would forever ring in my mind: “I can’t sell them, so why should you?” If I sold any, he said, he would give me half. And again he said: “But you won’t sell any.”
As I prepared for the exhibition at premises on Library Street, Isherwood rang to say that his psychiatrist friend was having him admitted to Billinge Hospital to “dry out.”
“Will you run me up” he said. The next morning (August 2) , I went to 151…knocked then banged on the door until the artist appeared in his pyjamas. He dressed and before we left, he drank half a tumbler of whisky and about half a dozen pills.
Jim took to hospital life where he was cared for and was the centre of attention. That stay lasted until mid March of the following year, during which time, I held three exhibitions of his work – two in Wigan and one in Chorley.
At the first show, I managed to get the paintings on the Granada TV northern news, and coupled with the fact that their story mentioned the artist was in hospital, the first show over three days was an amazing success, with around 200 paintings being snapped up. So many were sold that Isherwood left hospital, gave me more paintings, and returned to the seclusion of the painting room he had set up in a room off the ward. He was more than pleased with the success, and I visited the man I thought was my true friend twice a week. He made me his agent.
As usual, I arranged to see him in hospital – it would be late February or early March. I arrived on the dot of 6pm to be confronted by a side of Isherwood I had never seen before. He was furious. Ranting and raving. Said I’d kept him waiting. He was out of control and had he attacked me I wouldn’t have been surprised. Stunned, I left and I heard him slam the door. Shocked, dismayed, hurt. I was all of these things. But should I have seen it coming? In the weeks before, he had written to me saying that he too was “good at getting publicity and that he knew people in television.” I read the letters and now see the various undercurrents.
The story moves to March 12 when I received a phone call from a reporter on the Wigan Post and Chronicle. She told me that Isherwood had left hospital, gone to stay at the Scarisbrick Hotel in Southport. He had contacted the paper to tell her he had sacked me as his agent because I’d taken too much commission – 50 per cent instead of 33 per cent. In my view, the bottom line was that as he had recovered, he resented the fact that I had been able to sell paintings where he had always failed. Money didn’t come into it at all.isherwood-with-geoff-shryhane2
I was to meet Isherwood one more time. I had produced  a limited edition print of his Lancashire Mine, and arranged that one be a presented to Joe Gormley, the NUM president, the local MP Alan Fitch and the Mayor, Councillor Bob Lyons. Isherwood turned up late, and talked to me as if nothing had happened.
On that day, I resolved, as a matter of principle,  never to speak to the artist again . And I didn’t. Over a year later, Isherwood rang me at the office.
“Ishy here, Geoff” he said in a mild and persuasive voice and I simply told him I wanted nothing to do with him ever again. “My principles are not  for sale to you  or anybody else” told him, putting down the phone.
The day after he died in 1989, Isherwood’s grandson Clive arrived at my home and said the family wanted me to write his uncle’s obituary for the papers, and this I did gladly, and thus began my friendship with Gordon and Molly Isherwood, the artist’s brother and sister-in-law, and Clive and his wife Marguerite and their two now grown-up children Ruth and Christopher.
Molly has many stories to tell. Her brother-in-law, she says, could charm the birds from the trees, or be a devil. He told her: “I have this vicious steak in me and it’s got to come out.”
But when Isherwood died, I didn’t, as I promised myself I would, dance on his grave.
In death all was forgiven.