The Rich Sardine Lives in His Own Tin
by Les Coleman
A tribute to
John Lyle's intermittent journal Surrealist Transformaction (Transformaction, Sidmouth, Devon) ran for ten issues from October 1967 to October 1979, the first coinciding with The Enchanted Domain exhibition at Exeter City Art Gallery. From early on, Tony Earnshaw was a regular contributor, providing short stories, drawings and discursive polemics, while his first aphorisms appeared under the title Earnshaw's Brainspells. In issue No. 4, 1971, a drawing of Tony's was reproduced, which I fell in love with on sight. The idea still makes me smile. Simply, the drawing is a modified version of the title page taken from a very widely-known, recognised and respected series known as Teach Yourself books, but instead of saying something like Teach Yourself Esperanto, it said Teach Yourself Ignorance by A. Earnshaw.
The books' subjects ranged from algebra to Zulu and every imaginable field of study in between. On one occasion, I discovered and bought for Tony a copy of Teach Yourself Jazz, knowing his interest in jazz. What a wonderful contradiction, given that most jazz depends on improvisation and spontaneity of response. Alas, the book never did inspire Tony to pick up the saxophone.
In 1978, I decided to publish a set of black and white postcards of drawings and writings made by friends of mine. Glen Baxter, Tony Blundell, Ivor Cutler, Patrick Hughes, Marcel Mariën were all to be included, and of course Tony Earnshaw. I wrote to Tony outlining my plan to publish his Teach Yourself Ignorance as a postcard and to ask him if he was in agreement. No money was involved, apart from me picking up the printers' bill. Contributing artists were to be paid in postcards, the story of art for most of us at the time. Tony agreed and in due course the first DisCards, my imprint, were printed. Tony was delighted to receive his cards, as his enthusiastic response shows:
The cards were printed in the spring of 1979. At the time, Tony and his wife, Gail, were living in Chapel Allerton, near Chapeltown, the red-light district of Leeds and the heart of Yorkshire-Ripper country. Tony was lecturing in the Art Department at Leeds Polytechnic and working on drawings and aphorisms for Flick Knives & Forks (Transformaction, 1982; Zillah Bell Contemporary Art, Thirsk, 2000). "The rich sardine lives in his own tin" was how he inscribed my copy of his book. Earlier in life, Tony had worked as a lathe operator and crane driver. When he was not having to lift things, he would use the cabin as a studio and work on his "daft watercolours".
Over the following months I began distributing the cards in a small way through my own personal efforts. Angela Flowers Gallery, Compendium Bookshop, Coracle Press, Forbidden Planet, I.C.A., Paperchase, The Postcard Gallery, Bernard Stone Bookshop, all took them. Then one day in October 1979 a letter addressed to DisCards arrived through my letterbox. On opening it, I discovered it was from Park Nelson and Doyle Devonshire Solicitors, acting on behalf of Hodder & Stoughton Holdings Ltd. On reading the letter it quickly became apparent that, in their clients' opinion, Tony's postcard had deliberately transgressed the boundaries of acceptable publishing and, furthermore, represented a breach of copyright:
Our clients have had drawn to their attention, and are very disturbed by, a postcard which is produced by you and is currently on public sale. The postcard is a replica of the old style Teach Yourself series title page; it contains a replica of the E.U.P. in print [sic], the old Teach Yourself logo, and even the old Teach Yourself title page border. Use of these without permission, which has not been given, constitutes a clear breach of our clients' copyright in them.
Quite apart from that infringement, it is to be noted that the card contains the title
Teach Yourself Ignorance
and our clients take the very greatest exception to this, constituting as it does a defamatory assertion and innuendo that the Teach Yourself series does not improve on ignorance, and is therefore worthless, and constitutes a fraud practised on the public. The totality of the postcard quite clearly holds up our clients' very respected series to public ridicule, odium and contempt.
Further on, the letter requested that DisCards make a full and unqualified apology, to be in a form agreed by them, undertake to discontinue publication and surrender all existing stocks of the postcard for destruction. All this was to be implemented within seven days. I was told at the time by the art director of The Women's Press that Hodder & Stoughton (she had previously been employed by them) was a den of born-again Christians and Festival of Light devotees. In contrast, Tony and I had independently set up camp under the atheist flag. His drawing Wallpaper for a Nunnery (1970) is a repeat pattern of Christs on the cross. In my own The Devil's Work (1993), a Bible uses the Devil's tail to act as a bookmark.
Despite the solicitors' threatening letter, I did nothing. I toyed with the idea of contacting Artlaw, an organisation set up to help artists fight for their legal rights. But again I did nothing. And then several weeks later, someone suggested I contact a lawyer friend, Nick Morris, and seek his advice. Nick felt the whole issue was "absurd", but was amused enough by it to write a letter on my behalf. To quote:
Whilst we note that your clients take great exception to the title Teach Yourself Ignorance, we do not agree that the words contained defamatory material or raise a defamatory innuendo. Indeed, the very words state in unequivocal terms entirely the opposite to the title in your clients' own series. The totality of the postcard quite frankly is clearly intended for purposes of mild amusement and we cannot accept that the words indicate your clients' products to be worthless or that their whole business constitutes a fraud practised on the public.
Later, the letter states that the few stocks that still existed would not be distributed publicly, i.e. that point within the law when something is deemed to be published. This meant that the stocks survived and, although I should not have, I continued to distribute them. A second and final letter was received from their solicitors, stating that their clients accepted the assurances contained in Nick's letter and the matter was closed.
In the early 1990's I was invited to make a contribution to Brought To Book (Penguin Books, London, 1994). I decided that the correspondence regarding Tony's post-card along with a repro-duction would make a perfect submission, being an anecdote born of books. I sent copies to the editors, Messrs Breakwell and Hammond, card-carrying members of the Royal Society of English Surrealism and supposed supporters of Earnshaw, who promptly turned it down on the grounds that it was "too contentious". What a pair of faint-hearted academics. More recently, I encouraged the editors at Redstone Press to include the Teach Yourself Ignorance postcard in The Redstone Diary of the Absurd (Redstone Press, London, 1997). It passed the absurdity test and got in. "Up the rebels!", I hear Tony mutter from his anarchist's armchair.
To muddle things up in an organised way was a long-established Earnshaw strategy. In the mid-1960's, Tony delighted in successfully sending a series of letters to friends using the man from the Gillette razorblade packet to make stamps. His collection of combs, Lost Property (1979), retrieved from the streets of Leeds, was conceived as an elaborate joke about Conceptual Art with its propensity for documentation. He endlessly 're-discovered' bought and found objects in his many boxed assemblages. A small carved elephant, painted black with a white trunk and viewed through smoked glass, became The Blind Elephant (1978). A thermometer measures the temperature to the ticking of a concealed clock as The Faithful Servant (1997). Even Earnshaw was not exempt from his own mischievous games in his restless desire to show us that nothing is sacred and that everything is potential material.
The poetics of Tony's imagination help to liberate us from the routines of daily life. But at the same time, his daydreaming remained rooted on terra firma, at times engaging in a scathing commentary about the social injustices he perceived within the English class system. Towards the end of his life, he often included angels in his drawings. To what degree these represented portents of approaching death, or were just ghoulish winged figures, I found difficult to disentangle. Whatever, they appeared more monstrous than angelic. But then everything about Tony was imbued with impish perversity and abrasive black humour. It was these qualities that made him into the unconventional person and remarkable artist he was. I count myself among the lucky ones to have known Tony Earnshaw. Goodbye, dear friend.
LES COLEMAN, March 2002
Published in Manticor