Horace Panter is known to many as Sir Horace Gentleman; bass player and key member of Ska godfathers, the Specials. He also happens to be a very perceptive artist whose vibrant pop-inspired works reflect on the relationship between iconography and ideological propaganda.
Since the briefly-burning star of the Specials exploded and sent various members of the group off into different orbits, Horace has led a rich and varied artistic life. His career to date has encompassed many years of being in music, teaching Art to young people – he was even a white van driver at one point! Horace has now bitten the bullet and decided that it’s finally time to put his Artwork before the general public. He has his first major retrospective coming up at London’s Strand Gallery (from today until 3rd December), and his works are available from the HoracePanterArt webshop. Today Pargy talks to Horace Panter about his lifelong love of Art, the recent Specials Tour, life in Coventry and having much too much, too young!
Hello Horace and welcome to Pargy!
Before you joined The Specials, you obtained a degree in Fine Art 1975 at Coventry Lancaster Polytechnic, so you could say that the art came before the music. Many of Britain’s finest musicians from the 60’s to the 80’s came from an Art School background, was this something that you were really conscious of yourself at the time? Did you see studying Art as a springboard for your musical ambitions, or was Art your main motivation during this period?
I think I spent the majority of my time at art college with my head stuck firmly up my arse and I think that it’s only now, 30 years later, that I’ve been able to put my art education into its proper context. I felt I was carried along with trends and fashions. This was in the shadow of Art and Language, which had a strong base in Coventry at that time. You were looked down upon if you made art objects and painters were treated with the disdain reserved for single cell animals. I did, however, learn to play bass guitar.
Please explain to Pargy readers a bit more about the ideas behind your Artwork.
How much time have you got? The simplest way would be to do bullet points:
I’d love to know more about the materials that you use for your works – especially about the silk screen process?!
I work primarily in acrylics. I have a very limited attention span so waiting for paint to dry … I’ve recently started using the print reproduction/enlargement process as a process in itself, which, apparently, is the wrong way round! The silk screens: I put my blonde/silver wig on, say ‘gee’ a lot and let my trusted band of technicians get their hands dirty.
Where do you think that your fascination with iconography comes from, and what is the significance of icons in your work?
Icons have always been something I’ve been interested in. They are a perfect example of ‘practical art’ (you wanna travel from Moscow to Novgorod and not get attacked by wolves and bandits? – take this picture with you!). They represent a whole faith in an oblong of painted wood. Chock full of symbolism, with its own rules; kind of ‘anti-art’ in a way. Perspective, chiaroscuro, are just dumped for a different visual hierarchy. And some of them are really simple and some are real fussy. And you don’t have ‘famous icon painters’, because it’s not the ‘glory of man’ thing that they’re interested in. They’re the key to the majority of my work.
Did you have much involvement on any of the two-tone Artwork/ Sleeve designs during the ska days?
Yes, Jerry (Dammers) and I were both interested in the visual presentation of the group, especially how our records would look. The design of the 2-tone label was a collaborative process, but it was mainly Jerry’s designs.
You’ve recently come back from a UK and European Specials tour. How different is touring with The Specials today from when you were at the height of your fame. Do you feel like you can enjoy it all a bit more these days?!
I still get nervous before a performance, but I control it a lot better. It’s a very different approach this time round, despite the music being as near as dammit the same. The audiences are generally older and although very vocal and enthusiastic, there isn’t the undercurrent of violence that there was 30 years ago. Having said that, we are attracting lots of younger people, especially in Europe.
You quote on your website that two of your strongest Artistic Influences have been British Pop Artist Peter Blake and French Naive painter Henri Rousseau. These influences are clearly discernible in your work. What is it in their Art that particularly speaks to you?
There are certain similarities in the things I like and the things that influence Peter Blake. I found this out recently … he’s a big fan of Joseph Cornell apparently. He has a sense of humour in his work that I like too, ‘cocking a snook’ rather than being blatant. Marcel Duchamp World Tour and The Venuses day trip to Weymouth … hilarious! Rousseau has a wonderfully naive approach that I love. He either doesn’t know or doesn’t care … and it doesn’t matter.
Please tell Pargy a bit more about the years after The Specials split. What did Gentleman Horace get up to in general during this period?
After I left The Specials (way back then) I sulked for a month or two, then joined my wife in running her punk rock clothes shop. I ended up dyeing fabric and silk-screening material for t-shirts. Did that for a year or two, then went back into music, working with Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger from The Beat until 1991 in a band called ‘General Public’ (MTV darlings in USA). Then I did a PGCE. I worked for a team that taught excluded pupils and then moved to a Special Needs School where I was head of art until 2008, when I left to rejoin The Specials.
What was it do you think got you into the Art again?!
Art always played a big part in my life. Seeing the Joseph Cornell exhibition in New York in the 80’s had an enormous impact. Before then, I was enthralled by Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Mark Rothko – the sheer scale and physical presence of their work, but confronted with the little display cases of Cornell’s, I thought they were utterly beautiful. It was a Pauline experience. My years as an art teacher also had an effect, but a very subtle one. I had to ‘sell’ my subject to the children and that meant distilling or refining a lot of things I knew and seeing art through children’s eyes. It’s difficult to explain. From 2003 onwards, I was painting regularly.
What was the catalyst for you that got you thinking “right, I’m going to go for it” with regards to showing your Art for the first time? This is clearly a big decision for you, and no doubt involves a huge amount of work to get everything near completion and fully organised.
The reformation and subsequent success of The Specials has had a lot to do with it. I honestly thought I would retire as a school teacher, so I have this ‘new lease of life’. There is also the nagging thought ‘If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it’. It’s like this is my ‘solo album’!
Coventry has obviously been a big influence in your life. It doesn’t get the recognition it deserves artistically (you only have to go to the amazing Coventry cathedral to see some of the best British postwar Art on offer in the UK). Without trying to turn you into a Coventry Tourist Board representative, what is it about this place that you find particularly inspiring?
I jokingly refer to Coventry as the ‘European City of Low Self-Esteem’. The Cathedral has a special chapel dedicated to The Stalingrad Madonna, which I would consider to be a contemporary icon. The art college (now Coventry University) is apparently one of the best in the country (last year’s sculpture show was especially strong I thought) but for me, the best thing about living in Coventry is that it’s only 10 miles from Leamington Spa. To be fair, I don’t think The Specials could have come from any other city in Britain, but that’s another story!
On a final note, I know you probably get fed up with being asked this, but did you really feel that you had much too much too young with The Specials? And with HoracePanterArt being such a new and exciting chapter in your life, does it really matter now anyway?
Yes, The Specials trajectory was mercurial indeed, but we did an awful lot in what was just over two years in the spot light. Whether I like it or not, they were the two defining years of my life. Most of the stuff I’ve done since has had some type of reference to my musical career, including my career as an artist.
ROBOTS, SAINTS AND (EXTRA)ORDINARY PEOPLE
EXHIBITION BY HORACE PANTER AT THE STRAND GALLERY LONDON
22nd November – 3rd December 2011