The Importance Of Being Nobby

‘If you start me up
If you start me up I’ll never stop, never stop, never, never, ever stop………….

Many of my paintings have a hidden story and the memory of producing them is often indelible, which is one reason why I find so much difficulty parting with them. This one was painted in 1974 when I was 18 years old, in the grounds of Thorpe Hall, Peterborough.

SLATER-Thorpe HallI was very unhappy with this painting and it has survived only because my grandmother prevented me from tearing it to shreds and throwing it in the bin. As far as I was concerned, it was a disaster. She, however, effectively stole it from me and it hung on the wall of her living room until she died in 2006.

It was produced as the answer to the landscape paper for my Art A level, the last of the three sections which that exam comprised. Accompanied by our Art teacher there were about half a dozen of us sitting in various positions around Thorpe Hall that day and I remember it was sunny, warm and quiet, an idyllic spot to paint ‘en plein air’ close to the heart of the city. Not for me though, I struggled from start to finish. It was one of those very frustrating painting days when I felt everything was going hopelessly wrong.

After about two and a half hours the tranquility and silence was broken by the fizzing sound of a drawing board flying through the air, and heads turned in unison to witness it nosedive and disappear into long grass about 30 feet away. Unlike a boomerang it didn’t come back. I felt exasperated and, like my painting, I then hurled myself off in the opposite direction. I didn’t nosedive into long grass, I just took a long hike. As far as I was concerned my A level landscape submission was worm food.

My art teacher during my time at Deacon’s School was Mr ER Clark. We called him ‘Sir’ to his face, otherwise he was ‘Nobby’. During my early years at the school he scared me to bits, as did many of the staff. When he was around no-one dared to speak and to have hair touching the collar or hands in pockets risked receipt of the death penalty. On one occasion I had to provide him with an essay, ’10 pages on Dürer, 10 words a line, for tomorrow morning’, for not having my tie done up correctly.

Early years were tough but as we grew older another side slowly revealed itself. Although he would always have a sharp bite he began to present a different character. He became someone we could converse with and there was a wicked humour at times too. When I was a sixth former I innocently asked him why he’d kept a treadle pottery wheel as there were 3 electrically powered wheels in the art room and suggested he should perhaps sell it as an antique. From nowhere words suddenly hit me like a machine gun, gaining in volume as they gained pace. In one breath and without punctuation he gave me the full barrage – ‘That wheel has been in this studio for 18 years I’ve been here for 18 years if that’s an antique then I’m an antique is that what you’re calling me Slater? An ANTIQUE????!!!!!!! Blown completely away by the shock, I floundered for words. I was rooted to the spot, my mouth agape. He turned on his heels and skipped away, leaving me wilting, while my comrades stood like Garfield puppets glued to the art room windows.

Later that year I submitted two articles which were printed in ‘The Deaconian’ publication. The first described a day in the life of a long suffering Art teacher, the second was a Top of the Pops styled Best Sellers List, using song titles which I felt reflected different members of staff. Next to Mr Clark I wrote Alice Cooper’s ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’.

Returning to that A level landscape day in June ’74, instead of the hairdryer treatment a voice of calm tracked me down, with a suggestion that tossing my board into the abyss should really not be my final creative act as a Deacon’s School Art Student. I was encouraged to reassess the situation and continue the assignment. Regardless of the resulting painting, it was the right thing to do and another lesson learned. Things don’t necessarily ever go the way you want, but it’s important never to give up. Perseverance is the key.

Nobby provided us with a huge catalogue of catchphrases spoken with a voice that resonated through his nose and when our Sixth form Art group left the school, not only did we present him with an engraved tankard as a goodbye gift, we also wrote 50 of his well worn ones on parchment in the finest calligraphy we could muster. Of my favourites, ‘Chatting!’, ‘Duck Egg Blue’, ‘It’s the old, old story’, ‘You can’t see the wood for the trees’, ‘Look for the green in the hair’, ‘Slater you’re making the breasts look like brass bowls’ and his particular and individual pronunciation of the colour ‘Tur-kwarze’ (Turquoise), will stay with me forever.

When I wasn’t accepted at my first choice college for my Foundation Art year my disappointment was overwhelming, however he spoke to me in harsh terms. ‘It isn’t the end of the world’, he said, ‘Get in at your second choice instead’. I did, at Loughborough, and from there I progressed to Coventry for a BA Hons course in Fine Art, where I met my future wife. He was right. It wasn’t the end of the world, it was only the start of it.

I kept in touch with him while at art school and would often pay him a visit when I was home. We continued to meet at intervals when I became a Lecturer myself and he visited several of my exhibitions, which included both solo and group shows. A few years ago he contacted me to say he no longer had need of his personal art materials and he passed them on to me. In the summer of 2005 I held a solo exhibition at the Blandscliff Gallery in Scarborough, the work produced using Nobby’s materials.

So what is the role of a teacher? When does it end? During my years at school I feared him but his teaching developed my practical skills as well as instilling discipline in my studio practise. Nobby never presented Art as being recreational or the ‘rest’ lesson. Although I was genuinely interested in the subject, it was he that got me going and for that I am eternally grateful.

After leaving school I maintained contact for 40 years and he became a friend, despite the fact I never used his preferred name. He would often repeat the line ‘Colin. Call me Roy’. I would always reply, ‘Okay……..Sir’. He was a constant source of reassurance, encouragement and constructive criticism. Above all, I knew I could trust his opinion and he would always tell me the truth. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be doing what I am today. It’s as simple as that.

Last summer I visited a different him in hospital. Today I attended his funeral. Tomorrow there will be a collection of angels seriously ticked off for talking in assembly.

Thanks for everything Nobby. I’m really going to miss you. You started me up, and now I’ve started, I won’t ever stop………………..


Edward Roy Clark
27.6.27 – 16.2.14