Much has been made of The Mersey Sound poetry anthology in Liverpool this year.
Fifty years after the best-selling book was published, it has been the focus of a three-month, city-wide celebration featuring exhibitions, readings and concerts.And while this might sound like overkill for a volume of poems, when it first hit the streets in May 1967, just a few days before Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, its appearance signalled one of those moments when the art of Liverpool became the art of the world.
The Mersey Sound is now primarily remembered for bringing the pop-influenced poetry of Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten to a wider audience, but this underplays what it stood for. Because although these three figures came to be seen as ‘the Liverpool poets’, the book represented the flowering of a much wider bohemian art scene focused on the bedsits, pubs, and Georgian terraces of Liverpool 8.
From at least the late 1950s, this multicultural district on the edge of the city centre – radiating out from Upper Parliament Street, strung along the grand boulevard of Princes Avenue, and tucked in and around Hope Street and the university – attracted painters, sculptors, playwrights, actors, misfits and assorted hangers-on as well as a multitude of poets.
With its self-supporting network of readings, happenings, performances and exhibitions, and the proximity of the art school in which many of its artists earned a living, it became a celebrated scene in its own right, distinct from (though not detached from) the Mersey Beat music explosion.
As a multi-disciplinary tangle of creative endeavours including the poetry-flavoured pop music of The Scaffold (number one in the charts with Lily the Pink in 1968) and the proto-performance art that took place in Hope Hall (now the Everyman Theatre), it can be tricky to tease out individual artistic strands and give them their due. However, now an exhibition at the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead focuses on five of the painters who put down roots in Liverpool during this period and who captured the scene’s spirit as they developed their own individual practices.
Called The Dinner Party, the exhibition is built around Sam Walsh’s painting of the same name, a work that features a group of friends and associates drinking, smoking and talking the night away. Painted in 1980, its line-up of artists, poets, bar owners, musicians, friends and family members includes the five painters featured in the show: Sam Walsh himself, along with Arthur Ballard, Maurice Cockrill, Adrian Henri and Don McKinlay.
With Walsh’s painting forming a roped-off centrepiece, the exhibition deftly allows each artist to be generously represented while also telling the story of the scene and, by extension, Liverpool 8’s role as a centre of self-reflective yet globally connected creativity.
Not only is it a wonderful two-room showcase for the five artists, but it also explains the wider city context and, by giving voice to friends and collectors whose memories line the walls, it reflects on the nature of all creative scenes.
What is it that triggers those mysterious energies that suddenly break-through in a certain time and place, and that seem to grow, multiply and feed into and out of each other before dissipating? This exhibition doesn’t explicitly answer that question, but by following five artists who were all interested in each other’s work as well as their own, and who were friends with a much wider circle of creative individuals, it does get to the heart of this scene.
Although Walsh’s The Dinner Party painting serves as the exhibition’s fulcrum, it is Adrian Henri who emerges as the key figure of the five. As one of the Liverpool poets included in The Mersey Sound, as well as a fine painter, performer, collector and theoretician – often referred to as a ‘total artist’ – he was a ringleader of sorts, communicating with other artists and poets, particularly in America, and spreading the Liverpool word.
Stylistically, the dominant look is a pop-tinged realism emerging from a murkier, painterly 1950s palette. Arthur Ballard was the oldest of the five, a tutor at the College of Art who taught John Lennon in his day, and the only one who really seems to have dealt in abstraction to any great extent. The others serve up a variety of portraits, urban scenes, and images that celebrate friendships and loves, a collection of paintings that spring from personal passions and shared social experiences.
The exhibition is structured around five strands that deal with different aspects of the Liverpool painters’ work. From the importance of the College of Art and the nearby pubs and performance venues to the politics of the 1970s and 1980s and the impact of the city’s economic decline, the show divines themes and connections without ever imposing ideas onto work that refuses to fit.
There’s also a deeply poignant mood as the decades pass and, one by one, the artists begin to head in new directions, both artistically and geographically. It is noted that although Sam Walsh’s The Dinner Party can be viewed as a celebration of the scene, by 1980 when it was painted, it was more of a dream vision, a recollection of characters and good times gone by.
The truth is that by the turn of the 1980s, the scene was losing its momentum and these people’s time together was coming to an end. Walsh died before the new decade was out, and most of the others moved beyond the city. Only Henri remained to experience, document and interpret the disasters that befell large chunks of Liverpool 8 during the 1980s, a district that would soon become known nationally by another name: Toxteth.
And that’s what happens with cultural scenes of all kinds. Almost by definition, they can only flourish for a limited period of time before their moment is over, the dynamics shift and passions and interests move on. One minute they are being written about in the Sunday papers – and there’s plenty of printed ephemera here to show that Liverpool 8’s sound and spirit didn’t go unnoticed – but the next minute, another narrative takes hold and the once celebrated creative community takes its leave of the national consciousness.
If all that remains of your free thinking, free loving, freewheeling scene is the best-selling poetry anthology of all time, then in truth, you haven’t done too badly at all. But as The Dinner Party reminds us, the artefacts that stick in the mainstream memory are not the only things worthy of our time.
By Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
The Dinner Party can be seen at the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead until September 3, 2017. For more information, visit here.