Kent artist Billy Childish is a law unto himself. Chris Price was given an exclusive first look at the homecoming show of a cult figure.
With a cheeky smile made all the more prominent by his moustache and tilted beret, Billy Childish appears youthful and carefree as he prepares his exhibition.
The painter, poet and musician is sitting in a room with dozens of canvases leaning face against the wall, waiting to be hung for his hometown show at Chatham’s Historic Dockyard.
It feels like this exhibition should mean more to Billy than he lets on. This collection of paintings, Frozen Estuary and Other Paintings of the Divine Ordinary, is going on show 36 years after he began work at the Dockyard as a stonemason. Both Billy’s grandfathers worked at the Dockyard, one after being an Able Seaman in the Navy. His maternal grandfather was a storeman and his great-grandfather a shipwright and carpenter at the Dockyard, and his father before him, too.
Having left school with no qualifications, in the few months Billy managed in the job in 1976 and 1977 he made hundreds of single line drawings, which eventually got him a place at St Martin’s School of Art in London. It was a coup for Billy, having been refused interviews at art college on grounds of his lack of qualifications – he was later diagnosed with dyslexia, aged 28.
After he was expelled in 1981, he met a young Tracey Emin, and the two dated for about four years. After an amicable split, they fell out for a while over Billy’s attitude to the art world and he seemed set for a lonely existence as a cult artist, producing as many paintings, poems and records as he could to make.
That all changed in 2010 when his paintings went on show at London’s ICA and New York’s White Columns gallery. Overnight he became internationally renowned and his return to the Historic Dockyard at the No1 Smithery gallery became top priority for the attraction, wanting to show off its local boy come good. He also patched things up with Emin, currently Kent’s art darling with her own hometown solo exhibition at Margate’s Turner Contemporary that launched last week. They have been back in touch for two or three years.
It is a real-life tale of persistence and redemption, but all the hype is lost on Billy.
“Commercial success has no relevance to me,” said Billy in his Medway accent. “I do things that I think are good and I think people who aim for commercial success are selling their soul. The best thing is to do your work properly and believe in it, then if commercial success follows, great.
“I didn’t expect to be commercially successful as an artist and some people told me I wouldn’t be in my lifetime and then two years ago that changed. Previously I was surprised I didn’t sell paintings, and now I am surprised that I do.”
The pictures already on the wall in the gallery are filled with icy blue skies and stony-faced figures, painted from photographs of north Kent oyster fisherman taken during the big freeze of the Thames Estuary in 1947.
The theme for the exhibition grew around a painting Billy had already made of Chatham with ships frozen in the big freeze of the 1890s. Medway often features heavily in Billy’s work and, despite his success, the Chatham-born artist has never strayed far from the Medway.
“I think it’s because I have never been interested in parties or social climbing,” he said. “I have been to parties and I have done some social climbing, but I have never been interested in it.”
That in part, he says, is the reason why he won’t go to see Tracey Emin’s exhibition at the Turner. Normally sitting still in his seat, he shifts uneasily for a moment when her exhibition is brought up. She invited him to the launch but he declined so he could prepare his Historic Dockyard exhibition. He says he might head to her private party on Saturday evening, if he gets time.
“A lot of these exhibitions are social networking and a social scene,” said Billy, 52.
“A lot of people are interested in those things – it motivates them in life and those are the things that have always bored me. I have never been a party person and I have never wanted to hang out with artists or musicians. I have seen one of Tracey’s shows before and it wouldn’t be very different.”
As well as his new paintings, this exhibition will also show a selection of Billy’s recorded and written work, including his fifth novel The Stonemason, released last year, and his Drawings From the Tea Huts of Hell, made during his time as a stonemason at the Dockyard.
Billy has published more than 40 volumes of poetry, made more than 100 albums of garage rock and punk blues in various bands, written five novels and produced hundreds of paintings. “I get bored with doing one thing and it is amusement for me,” said Billy.
“It is making life interesting. I am doing what I fancy to do. There is no product placement. I do not guess what people might want. I know what I prefer and then if other people like it, that’s handy.
“Although I made a great many records and have been an influence on other people, we never made money as a group because we never made anything commercial. I never made any money from art until my overnight success two years ago.
“The legacy would be that I was an inspiration for people who feel they cannot do something that they can. They say you gauge the success of a group on whether people say ‘I saw your band and you made me form a group’ and I have met people who have said ‘I paint pictures because I have seen you paint pictures’. If you can inspire people to not be timid that is a great thing. That would be my mantra – to inspire people not to be timid.”
Billy Childish: Frozen Estuary and other Paintings of the Divine Ordinary runs at No1 Smithery: The Gallery at Chatham’s Historic Dockyard until Sunday, September 30. Historic Dockyard admission – which lasts 12 months – £16.50, concessions £14, children £11, families £45. Call 01634 823800.