Mick Rooney RA: The domestic and the sublime

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Charlbury’s resident Royal Academician on his memories of Ian Drury, the painting of ukuleles - and making custard for a young Louis Theroux.

Situated on the edge of the ancient Wychwood forest, the village of Charlbury feels like a fitting home for an artist who - in his latest works – depicts the domestic and the mysterious, the commonplace and the sublime.

Mick Rooney’s paintings beguile the beholder into secret places. Figures arise from some undercurrent of the subconscious, intertwined with meaningful flotsam, or move through dreamily-lit forests. Interior spaces are interrupted by fish, birds, toys, strange creatures. There’s a very English visionary genius to them, and I’m keen to meet their creator.

Mick meets me near Charlbury’s train station, and we head to that least otherworldly of British institutions: the pub. ‘Hope you don’t mind,’ he says. ‘But I’ve got my pint waiting…’

Mick is a Royal Academician (there are no more than eighty RAs at any one time, and just over 30 of them are painters) and so I take the opportunity to ask after the Summer Exhibition - for purely academic reasons, of course, and absolutely not because I’m attached to anybody who has recently submitted their work.

Currently in its 249th year, the Summer Exhibition is in fact ‘the largest open submission exhibition in the world,’ and so attracts thousands of entries every year from artists hoping to be displayed along the Royal Academicians. After the first round of judging, a ‘shortlist’ of 4,000 physical artworks are delivered to the Academy for the next round.

Before the idea of weighing the merits of four thousand works in a shortlist stage overwhelms me with secondhand anxiety, we’re off to Mick’s. It’s obvious that Mick is well-settled in Charlbury. ‘There’s my hairdresser,’ he points out cheerfully. ‘She takes care of what I’ve got left.’

Once home, he puts the kettle on. We settle at the table where he often sits and paints with gouache while listening to the radio (he works with oils in another room). ‘Bit by bit, it’s been coming along. I’ve lived in lots of places over the years, but it feels like home, now.

‘It feels like my little enclave - quite nice, really - at which one feels one’s arrived at, and one’s ambitions don’t really anymore go beyond that,’ Mick reflects. ‘It’s surprising to me, too - when you go through the decades you don’t know where you’ll stand.’ So it’s a place of comfort - and creation.

After a spell of recovery from an illness, where things ‘got out of kilter,’ he feels that some of his work ‘has become quite other, in a sense. Lost all sense of the earthly, really, in many ways.’

The remark puts me in mind of William Blake, who industriously produced works of visionary genius from his London dwellings. But where Blake’s works were often bombastic and revelatory - all soaring angels and demonic beasts and bearded gods - Mick’s recent images seem to me more peaceful, their enchantments subtler, situated in some restful interzone between world and dream.

I tell Mick of my difficulty in describing this work, and ramblingly ask what his method is, where the source lies. I’m basically asking the question detested by creatives everywhere: where do your ideas come from?

‘What’s happening is…whatever the allocation in the brain, over years and years, has produced,’ he says. ‘Girls, nightmares and kitchens. Things that can’t be controlled. The impossible, really.’

But he’s already moving in a new direction. ‘All I can say is that, over this year and a half, I’ve gone from figures and interiors - which are beginning to have these invasions of strange animals manifesting - to my interest in the Creation, and pattern-making.’

He shows me a Edenic scene he’s been working on. ‘I will take a piece of paper and put leaves and figures and snakes, animal heads and eyes. It pleases me. It’s gone away from the idea of a physical, architectural space. I expect I’m hankering over those days in the late sixties where one changed from a narrative painter into an abstract painter, because that was de rigueur. Don’t forget I was brought up on Stanley Spencer traditions.’

Like any respectable magician, Mick has plenty of stories. He met Stanley Spencer before Spencer’s death in 1959. My favourite story of Mick’s, however, is when he turns up, slightly inebriated, at travel writer Paul Theroux’s door, and is asked to make up Bird’s Custard for a young Louis Theroux.

‘I’d drunk a great deal of wine and was emboldened to knock at the door of the Therouxs. [Paul] asked me if I knew anything about making custard. The two boys were there - maybe six years old - and their eyes went wide at this smooth, creamy mixture.’

Mick and Paul - now living in Hawaii - have since kept up a ‘fairly regular correspondence.’ Meanwhile, the audacious Louis - now arguably England’s best known documentary maker - is turning his sights on President Donald Trump. (It’s tempting to draw a shaky link between the bright-yellow imitation custard Mick once served up and Trump’s cranial confection).

Other names emerge in the course of our conversation. ‘Dear old Ian Drury was at college with me. Always wanted to be famous. Did a wonderful series of illustrations for Queen Magazine (*now known as Harpers Bazaar). Then he became The Blockheads. I would have loved it but I was by then ensconced in a four-storey house in Hastings, paying a mortgage, and so I only heard from afar.

‘Very latterly, when he was more or less invited to the Academy, he wasn’t very well. I judged a prize with him. He took ill at the dinner and my friend Gus Cummins physically carried him downstairs.’

Ian Drury was just one of Mick’s contemporaries, and he has an anecdote about most.

‘We were a generation,’ he says. ‘There’s always a sensation within a generation that they can’t put one over on you, whether they end up doing this or that.’ He’s full of admiration for his friends and associates: ‘Peter Blake is always Peter, has kept his Peter Blake-ness perfectly poised over the years.’

Those who came after the Pop Art boom, the (in)famous Brit Art generation (Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst et al) became experts at courting publicity, often to lucrative effect. Mick claims his lot are generally ‘too exhausted’ for the cutting edge, but he’s been throwing his efforts into a charitable project:

‘Some RAs take a very public stance. This is very interesting to me. A friend of mine runs a Hepatitis C trust and puts money made through art towards solving the disease. And so I’ve got involved in something…I had an idea. It’s always dangerous to have ideas…’

And so Mick shows me a room piled with ukuleles. Ukuleles that will, in the course of time, be painted by his artist friends and sold in support of the Hepatitis C trust. It seems the germ of it came when Mick’s neighbour, Tony, made a ukulele that Mick painted and displayed in a glass case in last year’s RA Summer Show.

There’s little to see as of yet, but I have a brief, psychedelic vision of strutting ukuleles, transformed into uncanny objects by the artistic attentions of Britain’s finest.

In the meantime, one has to be content with Mick’s new exhibition at the Fosse Gallery in Stow on the Wold (6th - 26th March). Do stop by and allow yourselves a glimpse into Mick’s world. You might find the experience transformative.

Mick Rooney RA Forests of the Night and Other Tales
Fosse Gallery, Stow on the Wold, 6th – 26th March 2017