Memories of Keith and Molly Routledge

Our Memories of Jim Isherwood
I first met Jim, and his mother Lily, in 1966 during one of his shows at Trinity College, Cambridge. My first impression was of a man whose softly spoken and self-effacing character was a refreshing change to the increasingly brash and fast-pace world of the sixties that we were all becoming increasingly caught up in. My wife joined me at Cambridge in 1967 and we both got to know them both very well over the next two years. I helped him to organise his shows at Cambridge in 1968/69 and still have copies of his publicity material entitled “The Paintings of J. Lawrence Isherwood 1955-1966”. This material quotes many complimentary reviews of his work dating back to that time and some of the controversy that followed him.
Jim‟s world was his painting and his mother; they seemed inseparable. We have many fond memories of them both. Jim always insisted that Lily was his inspiration and the ultimate judge of his work, and that, in his words, she was the „power‟ behind his paintings. Jim would sometimes fuss around Lily and she would tell him off, in her quiet but determined manner. Whilst she was not an obviously dominant force behind Jim, if he did something of which she disapproved, or met someone that she did not like, maybe even a potential customer, she would tell him so.
At that time, his shows had become an annual event when he would commandeer a student’s room at different colleges to show his paintings. However, it was no ordinary show. When you walked into the room, every conceivable space would be used to prop up pictures, many of them stacked against chairs or other items of furniture for people to browse through. All of the paintings were on hardboard and on the back of each one was a price, typically 80 guineas (always guineas), which he would explain was the gallery price. His asking price at the college shows was about one tenth of his declared gallery price. His mother, Lily, used to sit and occasionally pass comment on a particular painting. Jim was heavily guided by Lily. If she thought a painting was worth more that he was asking, then it had to be sold for more. There was one painting of Lily that he would not sell under any circumstances.
Jim was a passionate and prolific artist. His sole purpose in life was to paint and everything else he did was to that end. Sometimes a painting would take several days; sometimes it would take a few minutes. I remember him saying that however long it took depended on the „power‟ or passion that he felt at the time. He wanted to catch ‘the mood’ of his subject as he saw it and sometimes it would take several attempts before he was satisfied. This is one of the reasons why you see examples of similar paintings of the same subject. He liked to experiment and produced many paintings with „rain‟ and „atmospheric‟ effects. He also painted a lot of London scenes in blue, which were very popular, and in yellow because he knew that he could sell them.
Jim sometimes spoke about the recognition that other artists had achieved but which had somehow passed him by. Interestingly, he also recognised that he would not be
able to deal with the trappings of recognition if it ever came his way and that it would impose intolerable pressures on his way of life since it was this, and Lily‟s influence, that provided the „power‟ behind his paintings. In his words, he would probably ‘drink himself silly and end up in the gutter’.
This desire for recognition became more apparent whenever he talked about L. S. Lowry, who, I believe, he met at Art College. Jim felt that his own work was as good as, if not better than, Lowry‟s. As if to prove it, he painted a small number of paintings which he „signed‟ as L S Lowry. I have a couple of these paintings, one is titled „Man after Woman‟ in black and white and another, one of his favourites, has no title but shows four children holding hands and with the L.S.Lowry name at the bottom.
Jim had a mischievous side to him that became increasingly apparent when you got to know him well. His more outrageous pictures of celebrities and nudes were a diversion for him, a bit of fun at the expense of the establishment and some publicity for him. Jim would also cheekily make it known that he was looking for nude models because of his „fascination for painting skin‟. He liked to tell people of the good and famous who had bought his pictures. However, he also confided and showed me where, out of devilment, he had added inappropriate appendages to the figures in his ‘Rain Wigan Labour Exchange’ painting. He chuckled at the thought of some well-to-do people hanging a picture on their wall which was not all that it appeared. I now have that painting hanging on our wall. It reminds me not only of Jim the artist but of Jim the man behind the artist.
I remember him telling us of an incident that demonstrates the uniqueness of the man. When he was found guilty of a traffic offence in court and ordered to pay a fine by the judge, he explained that he did not have the money to pay the fine but offered a picture to the judge instead. The judge declined but one of the other legal representatives took up the offer and bought the picture to pay the fine. Who else would do that in court?
One enduring memory of Jim was his amazing generosity. At the end of each day of his show, he would insist that all of his helpers joined him and Lily at his favourite Chinese restaurant opposite Parkers Piece where he would treat us all to the best food and wine. He would be most upset if any of us insisted that we pay our way. However, after much persuasion, Molly and I eventually managed to convince him and Lily to have a meal with us at our flat. On arrival, they made themselves at home and Jim produced a bottle of whisky out of his jacket pocket. After a very entertaining meal and quite a few drinks, Lily managed to disgrace herself, much to Jim‟s embarrassment, but it all added up to a very enjoyable evening when they could at least relax outside of their normal on-the-road environment. We had a great evening and a sore head the following day.
Our final memory of Jim and Lily was seeing them drive away in their old battered van after the final show at Cambridge in 1969 before we moved away. We kept in touch for a few years and still have a letter from him dated December 1972 where it was clear that he was still feeling the loss of Mother Lily who died in 1971. However, soon after
that we lost contact. Our lives were moving in different directions as I become one of the „faceless ones‟, that he much derided, always in a hurry and driving around in posh cars.
At the end of the day, whatever lives we choose to lead, it was his passion for painting and the humility and generosity of the man that we will always remember through the paintings that still hang on our walls.
Keith and Molly Routledge