06 December 2015

Journals of an Artist

Keith Vaughan penned the final lines into his personal diary during the moments while he was dying from the overdose by which he took his own life.

I am transcribing the journals of this lesser known British artist and although I haven't yet reached the date of his suicide, I know it is coming.

Some years ago I joined the web site Zooniverse. The idea of browsing through photos triggered by motion sensitive cameras in the African savannah sounded appealing. Soon I was identifying a gnu from just a fleeting glimpse of fetlock! But I tired of that and moved on to images from deep space, helping with a project to differentiate between various types of distant galaxy. (No scientific experience necessary - just careful observation.)

Email reminders of my membership prompted me to look again at the site and I was surprised to see there are now dozens of research projects to choose from. For a while I dabbled in New York City property deeds, then the log books of Victorian whalers. Then I spied a listing for the personal letters and journals of artists held at The Tate Gallery in London.

There are thousands of scanned images of handwritten pages covering the early and mid twentieth century. In simple terms you read the writing and type what you read. The reality is more complicated. While a few lay down neat rows of copperplate script, many send their nib flying wildly over the page, scratching and looping as fast as their own thoughts. Deciphering handwriting is like a puzzle, and I like puzzles.

During my thirty years working in a bank I was exposed to a huge range of handwriting styles, both of customers and colleagues. I am also an avid family historian and I have researched thousands of handwritten census pages. All of this helps. When you see many pages in the same hand, trends start to show in the style and seemingly impenetrable scribbles unravel themselves. If not I return to it after transcribing the rest of the page and suddenly, with the benefit of context, the word leaps out at me.
After tackling the diaries of half a dozen artists I hit upon those of Keith Vaughan. He painted the male nude in numerous settings, progressing to an abstract style and always carrying a degree of shock. It didn't surprise me to learn that he lived a tortured life trying to make sense of his sexuality. His diaries are full of his deepest darkest thoughts yet at times they are humorous and poignant.
I freely admit I am reaching outside my comfort zone with his subject matter but have been drawn in by his candour. Not much is known about the man except through his diaries and, reading them, I feel something of a voyeur. In the 1940s he was an enthusiastic young painter but according to his private writing, grew jaded and clearly frustrated, living a difficult life in a less tolerant age. Artists are often gifted in more than one field so it is unsurprising that he writes very well and with a wide vocabulary.

In 1975 he was diagnosed with bowel cancer and his emotional reaction, and subsequent forced changes of lifestyle, make grim yet fascinating reading. I continue to transcribe several pages a day, voluntarily, and I am not sure whether I am doing it because I like the challenge of deciphering, or because I want to reach the end.