I wanted your soft verges but you gave me the hard shoulder
Back in the 1960s, Penguin Modern Poets brought out a poetry collection called ‘The Mersey Sound’. Its cover design soon became a classic and a generation were introduced to the poetry of Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. Beat poetry had combined with Pop Music and Liverpool was the place to be. The driving force behind this explosion of artists, poets and musicians was the writer, painter and teacher, Adrian Henri (1932-2000). ‘
He first came to prominence with the Liverpool Scene, a poetry band that toured the country, released 4 LPs but unlike Liverpool’s well-known Pop Groups of the 1960s had little commercial success. It was however as a poet and painter that he was to become well known. Influenced by the newly emerging Pop Art scene both here and in America, the ‘Mersey Sound’ proved to be a major best seller and brought him public recognition.
While other artists headed south to pursue their careers in London, Henri stayed in Liverpool and as an art school lecturer and as President of Liverpool Academy of Arts was a well-known and inspirational figure in the city. Alan Byrne, OCA tutor, was a friend of Henri’s in his Liverpool days and as a committee member of the Chelsea Arts Club has helped to put together a small exhibition of his art and poetry.
In the entrance hall Alan has created a wall of memories, messages, poems and photographs with contributions by the two surviving Mersey Sound poets Roger McGough and Brian Patten. The informal style of display was inspired by the memory of Brian as a sixteen year old selling him “four poems for tuppence” as they stood waiting in a bus shelter.
Elsewhere on the stairs, there are Pop art inspired paintings from the sixties with Flags, Targets and Advertising, showing his identification with the emerging Pop Art Scene. Original drawings and prints are shown beside more modern giclee reproductions. His subject matter includes drawings of Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s surreal creation and perhaps the alter ego of Henri himself, let loose in the street of Liverpool. James Ensor , another influential figure for Henri is the inspiration for his best known work ‘The Entry of Christ into Liverpool 1964 (Homage to James Ensor)’ and looming above the heads of the drinkers and snooker players can be seen large paintings of skeletons and masked figures, scenes of mayhem and disorder among the modern day more sedate revellers of the Arts Club. For the general public to see more of Henri’s work and assess his contribution to British Art, a major retrospective now needs to be organised. Here is an opportunity for Tate Britain to live up to its name and to start showing the work and revive the reputations of seemingly neglected and deserving British artists.
As Henri wrote in his poem ‘Song for a Beautiful Girl Petrol Pump Attendant on the Motorway” –
‘I wanted your soft verges,
But you gave me the hard shoulder’