FRED BARNFIELD – The Wednesbury blobber.
Born 1935 – 05/07/2013
Obviously I have searched and copied as much information about Fred from various sources, but on reading most of it for the first time, I found myself adding my own tuppence worth.
How could I not?
Fred Barnfield was a modern artist of the kind I never quite understood.
I didn’t get the crazy abstraction or the empty white canvas that he creased to make it ‘art’.
But I think ‘I got’ the man. (Well, I hope I did)
“Fred was born in 1935, and has lived and worked all his life in the Black Country.
Mostly in Tipton (Lost city) where his family roots lay and Wednesbury, were he was born and later lived right up to the sad day yesterday, when he died.
He was an artist, sculptor, writer and philosopher who has created quite a few styles.
The most famous of course is blobology and barcodes.
But there were lot more besides: knets, shadism, nirvanas, phonebirds, etc.
He was self taught and didn’t really start painting till later in life.
“Some people have referred him to ‘a late developer’, but I think it all developed in his mind pretty early on, it was probably the showmanship that didn’t develop till later.”
He started painting and drawing, in his mid 20’s and early 30’s to relax after a day’s work as an iron moulder in a foundry.
“Fred copied quite a lot of other artists work, but not (As we all know) because he had no imagination, but because he tried to learn their secrets. He also painted a lot of present day events and even incidents from his own life.”
He loved copying from art books, that he borrowed from libraries. He would paint quickly done oil studies on cardboard and drawings on paper.
“In fact, anything he thought would take his art, he painted on.”
He did many drawings of Michelangelo’s sculptures and charcoal sketches of Leonardo da Vinci’s portraits, using his own style.
Even tracing was a love of his, he would trace group portraits of Madonna’s and Child at speed with pen and ink and smudging it with a damp finger.
Maybe he was fantasising and imagining himself a great artist, when he signed his early works with the signature of ‘Djebel’, after a great French racehorse.
“Djebel, was a classic horse, owned by Marcel Boussac and survived the war by being hidden from the Nazi occupation in the south of France and who, after the war went on to sire a dynasty.”
Horse racing was Fred’s other lifelong passion, and with it came the mathematics of betting and probability and the unpredictability of finding winners and betting successfully.
He even designed a Stallion Breeding Chart, selling them ‘Mail Order’ using the name ‘Wilwyn’. “After another famous horse”
The Stallions Breeding Chart was simplicity itself. Over 400 present and recent past stallions were categorised in four sections according to the success.
“I was completely lost when I read this, what does it mean”?
Sprinters, 5f, 6f, Intermediate, 7f, – 9f, Mid Distance, 10f, – 12f, and Stayers, 13f, and over.
Then each section further classified in four categories of class and
best going requirement, e.g., soft, good and firm.
The idea being for the pedigrees of unraced newcomers to be assessed by means of their Sire and Maternal Sire; class; their best distances, and best going requirements.
“This was one very clever man, and of course, there is no exact formula for success at winning a bet. But I can see why so many people were fascinated with it.
It was basically a scientific view of the obvious: Put the best with the best and hope for the best!
It is said that he rarely talked about any of this, even to his family or friends, and that he hid behind a mask.
But as one who ‘dabbles’ in art myself, the art of not saying much is an artist’s way of observing life – hopefully unobserved.”
His first major artistic influence was Modigliani, following a visit to the Courtauld Collection in Woburn Square in London and seeing a nude by him.
“You can read the full story in: ‘Fred Barnfield – One of arts true outsiders.’ by Gavin Jones.
Also available on www.blobology.co.uk ”
A photo of a painting by Fred of Wednesbury’s Churches,
(signed and dated 1964) was recently found, with their twin spires on our historic hill. This is said to be his first real attempt at artistic creation.
The suggested spires are just about recognisable through a haze of blinding creamy light and very impressionistic in technique.
In 1968, Barnfield showed his first ever works in public in Lichfield Library.
This was an exhibition of crayon drawings of African Masks that he had copied out of an art book on African Art.
This was also the ‘only’ time he showed any of his works signed Djebel.
“It was also around this time that he had discovered the art of mathematical ‘value’ betting.”
His significant art works and series began with Handsworth 1973, although never shown in public, this was Barnfield’s first recognition as a real artist.
This painting, quite large at 5’x 6’, was on a discarded haulage canvas and was inspired by the race riot at Handsworth at the time
The semi abstracted scene consists of a group of people of all ages, with the same dual appearance in a sort of war with themselves and everyone and everything.
This painting was influenced by George Braque’s The Duet, (1937),
His first one-man exhibition of Paintings was at West Bromwich Library, 1973, and was to become central to his works as an artist.
By chance, Richard B Ludgate, the Chief Librarian was modernising the reading room at the time, replacing the old newspaper wallboards and furnishing it modern chairs and tables and magazine racks.
He wanted the walls to be filled with reproductions of great paintings on show and for loaning.
This was the Winter of 1973 and Richard Ludgate gave Barnfield his first one-man exhibition.
A newspaper article at the time described some of the paintings on show as: “Portraits done in a sparse realistic style on unframed canvas nailed to the wall”.
“The bare canvases were begged from a haulage contractor who had scrapped the lorry’s weather sheet, and the paintings were inspired by incidents in everyday life.”
Like the sad little cameo of the boy whose dog had just been run over.
Another was of a man worn out by the sheer hard physical work in the Black Country.
Also a Mother and Child portrait, resembling one of Raphael and Modigliani.
The very economical style was influenced by Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope, whose technique Barnfield studied in great detail at Wolverhampton Art Gallery.
A charcoal portrait of a Sleeping Woman, done in Leonardo’s mode was added to the exhibition and signed prints distributed.
And Fred’s ‘Women of Wednesbury’ in 1974, is an unashamedly ‘spin off’ of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907.
” You got to love Fred”
Fred’s first one-man exhibition at a major Art Gallery was at Wednesbury Art Gallery in 1974.
It turned into something of a surprise for Tony Tibbles, the curator: Not what he expected from an artist from the Black Country.
Especially following a touring exhibition of prints from the Art’s Council, by the best of Britain’s contemporary artists.
“But Fred didn’t think much of them; so much so, that he reworked a completely new show in the two weeks proceeding, to grasp the opportunity and to be as modern and universal as possible, as soon as possible.”
The centrepiece was his large painting of Women of Wednesbury, surrounded by a massive exhibition of experimental geometric Portrait Variations.
Picasso’s and Braque’s Cubist influence was everywhere.
The works had only just about dried out. There were oil paintings on various smallish sizes of card, all sketch like triangular portraits in colourful shapes.
As to who were the women he painted, obviously from Wednesbury, but who?
It’s doubtful if any recognised themselves, that’s if any bothered to see the exhibition.
But Fred has never been interested in being popular.
He once said: “I call myself a drag artist – I’ve got to drag people into my exhibitions. I had only 14 visitors to one exhibition and two of them were myself’.
After the IRA bombed the Tavern in the town on the evening of November 21 1974 killing 21 innocent people and injuring over two hundred.
Fred started his painting ‘Tavern in the Town’.
For a canvas he used a discarded butchers shop blind, which measured about 6’ x 8’.
The painting was rejected by Birmingham Art Gallery. But in early 1975, Tavern in the Town was put on display at the site itself for a two week period.
It was nailed to the security boards, while rebuilding was going on.
It was later put on show at Wednesbury Art Gallery for a month.
But Fred had mixed feelings after about the painting. Thinking of such a tragedy and he himself using that tragedy to draw attention to himself as an artist must have made up his mind.
He finally folded-up the work and dumped it in a bin on a country road.
Nothing has ever been heard of it since.
While painting the Ocker Hill Cooling Towers, Fred was apprehended by the police on the canal side, who had been tipped off he may be from the I.R.A. and looking the place over.
The police took some convincing to believe anyone would want to draw and paint Ocker Hill’s Cooling Towers.
Wednesbury Museum & Art Gallery in 1976 had a mixed exhibition of paintings by local artists, and this was where Fred picked-up his ‘Blobber’ nickname.
He had 3 painting on show that caused considerable comment in the press.
A mystery Sandwell painter accused him of being a ‘Blobber’ and couldn’t paint to save his life. He just laughed.
He had hit the headlines with his painting The Tavern in the Town and being dubbed ‘The Blobber’.
But as I said above, he was more than just an artist:
In 1996 he wrote a short story called Joe Tomorrow.
This was about a man living his life backwards after being found dead in Brunswick Park.
“I have a romantic thought that the film: Benjamin Button was from Fred’s short story? You never know.”
On 1st June 2003, as part of ‘Weekend Break’, a live art event in West Bromwich, Fred contributed an unscripted interview by Caroline Jupp and Sam Brown to the Library of Unwritten Books. He spoke from memory of the genesis and the story of Joe Tomorrow. The full text of this interview can be found on www.unwritten.org.uk (book 217)
Another short story called ‘Joe 2’ in 1996, about a mystic/holy man, once seen in two places at the same time.
In 1996 he began a series of letters to the press, hard hitting and satirical and humorous.
And also Audio recordings, ” The surprise of hearing oneself talk is almost as surprising as seeing oneself as others see us.”
‘Raymond the First’ in 1998 was a Shakespearian satirical comedy on modern Wednesbury. Depicting local Councillor Ray Partridge as King Raymond I and Fred as his fool.
In September of 2000, Fred was surprised and delighted to be invited by the BBC to arrange a Quick Fix One Day Exhibition with examples of his multi-style works for a TV News Feature spot.
The chosen venue was of course again unusual, this time it was Biff Bodene’s hairdressing salon in Wednesbury’s High Street.
Dave Moseley (The Wednesbury Geezer) wrote the following poem about Barnfield Entitled
‘What’s in a name’
Barnfield, Barnfield, a well known name, a name that carries a bit of fame,
From Tipton, Wednesbury and Darlaston too, I’ve heard that name on many a day, Barnfield was here, is what they would say.
I’ve seen that name here, I’ve seen it there, I’ve seen that name Barnfield everywhere.
I’ve seen it written, “I’ve beat Barnfield to it”, But you are wrong, Barnfield’s already done it.
Even on market day, shoppers without fear, They have said, “Barnfield was here”,
I salute Barnfield, I give that man praise, I wonder to me he would his glass raise.
As I sit here, my heart full of cheer, I begin to wonder, is Barnfield here!
What an extraordinary man: Fred Barnfield!