Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Not Just Any Old Rubbish on Level Four

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Not Just Any Old Rubbish on Level Four

Article excerpt

Byline: By David Whetstone

Newcastle-born artist Phyllida Barlow tells David Whetstone about her new Baltic show and her illustrious connections.

An artist could be forgiven for quaking at the sight of Baltic's level four. You could build an aircraft in this vast space or stage an Olympic gymnastics event.

But Phyllida Barlow is not easily ruffled. Exuding calmness and capability, she rose to the challenge by creating a landscape of the imagination using stuff they don't sell in art shops.

Concrete, cheap timber, tarpaulins, bitumen and splattered paint constitute Peninsula, a series of structures which, at the very least, fill the place.

Her late father-in-law would have approved. Mervyn Peake was the artist and writer of the Gormenghast trilogy, the tale of Titus Groan, heir to a huge and crumbling castle.

Phyllida, married to his son Fabian, suggests that Peake's work "is not fantasy. It's actually rooted in quite rigorous observation of the everyday. Those books were written during and just after the war so metaphorically they correspond to that historical period."

Although he suffered a nervous breakdown and was invalided out of the Army in 1942, Peake later visited Belsen concentration camp to do illustrations for a magazine ( an experience which he found harrowing. Titus Groan, book one of the trilogy, came out in 1946.

It was due to the war that Phyllida was born in Newcastle in 1944. Her father, Dr Erasmus Barlow, worked in London as part of a wartime unit studying trauma and head injuries but was posted to Tyneside. "The trouble was, by the time wounded soldiers were getting back from the front line, they were usually two or three months into their injuries," explains Phyllida.

"They needed to get to patients sooner than that so they moved the unit up to Newcastle where they could study people who had been injured in the mines."

The Barlows left the North-East in 1947 so Phyllida has no memories of it. But she says her father befriended the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who, in one brief episode of an extraordinary life, was working as a lab assistant at Newcastle's RVI.

"He came to tea every Sunday and ate all the butter and jam, paying no heed to wartime circumstances. …

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