Paul Whittle writes about Jeff Nuttall’s time in Leeds, described by Michael Horowitz as “a catalyst, perpetrator and champion of rebellion and experiment in the arts and society.”
Jeff Nuttall arrived in Leeds at the dawn of the 1970s, already well known as an artist, musician, publisher, and teacher, an established poet featured in Penguin’s Modern Poets series in 1968, and author of Bomb Culture in the same year. Born in Clitheroe, Lancashire in 1933, and brought up in Herefordshire, after graduating from art college he completed his National Service in the Royal Army Education Corps before becoming involved in the late 1950s London jazz scene and the early activities of CND, joining the Aldermaston marches. He worked as a secondary school art teacher and simultaneously pursued a career in the artistic and literary avant-garde. As a pioneer of ‘happenings’ and performance art, co-founder of the People Show experimental theatre company, an admirer of William Burroughs – who collaborated on Nuttall’s self-published periodical My Own Mag – and prolific contributor to underground magazines, he became a notable (counter-)cultural figure in 1960s London.
Nuttall had been a lecturer at Bradford School of Art immediately prior to taking up his post at Leeds, where he joined the staff of the Fine Art Department at the recently-founded Polytechnic during a particularly fertile time for the arts. The UK’s art education system had undergone radical changes in the 1960s, with contemporary artists employed to re-define teaching methods and practise; the introduction of the Basic Design Course at the highly-regarded College of Art put Leeds at the forefront of this shift. When that institution was merged with the Polytechnic to create a Fine Art Department, under the leadership of Willy Tirr, Leeds quickly built on its existing reputation for artistic experimentation. This often took challenging or controversial forms, in which Nuttall played a prominent role, urging the pushing of boundaries. Like his contemporary, poet Martin Bell, Nuttall was brought in as an author and practising artist to enhance the creative atmosphere and provide a genuine cultural presence, as much as to undertake formal teaching duties. With an irreverent attitude toward authority, he shared with Bell a fondness for conducting spontaneous seminars in pubs close to the Polytechnic and University – usually the Cobourg, Eldon or Fenton.
Encouraged or directly inspired by Nuttall’s mantra that “the only thing forbidden was to be dull,” the artworks and ‘happenings’ conceived in the Fine Art studios of the brutalist H Block building could be confrontational, even extreme, including blood, broken glass and body parts. This trend culminated in a notorious 1977 performance by students Derek Wain and Peter Parkin, ‘Violence in Society,’ which came to the attention of the Daily Express, whose outraged article was entitled “The Fine Art of Killing Budgies.” However the output of Leeds students had more than shock value; the Department was invited to produce an exhibition at the prestigious Institute for Contemporary Arts in London in May 1972, ‘Students at Leeds.’ A Fine Art student of a later generation at Leeds, Chris Hall, describes this show as “an accolade that was unprecedented for an English regional art school at the time and one that has never been repeated since.” The essence of the Department, as defined by the presence of Nuttall and other pioneering artist-tutors, was complete creative freedom. In James Charnley’s history of the era, Creative License: from Leeds College of Art to Leeds Polytechnic 1963-1973, published in 2014, he recounts that “what was known was that there were to be no limits. Leeds was possibly the most liberated place in England to be a student.”
Charnley credits Nuttall as having “defined the ethos of the Fine Art Department in the early 1970s. He was impossible to ignore, a larger-than-life presence, generous, provocative and perceptive, often all at the same time.” There are abundant examples in the testimonies of former students to his encouragement, enthusiasm and influence; amongst those who credit him with giving vital impetus to their future career is singer Marc Almond who, despite lacking the necessary qualifications, gained a place at Leeds Polytechnic on Nuttall’s recommendation. In an interview with Neil Cooper in 2011, Almond praised his mentor: “Jeff was an amazing inspiration to me… without him I would never have got in,” concluding “I owe him a lot.”
Jeff Nuttall left Leeds in 1981 to take up a post as Head of Fine Art at Liverpool Polytechnic. He was active in a range of cultural activities whilst based in Yorkshire; in addition to serving as Chairman of the National Society of Poetry in 1975-76, and becoming poetry critic for The Guardian in 1978, Nuttall continued to publish throughout his time in the city. His books ranged from novels such as Snipe’s Spinster (1975) to the autobiographical Performance Art (1979), which contained his memoir of the People Show, and he offered a characteristically oblique valedictory poem in ‘Goodbye to Leeds (Hate)’, published in 1987:
From Hunslett [sic] clear to Chapel Allerton,
Tony Earnshaw’s balding pate to Norman Hunter’s kneecaps,
Bones of back-to-back punishment,
Time-clock severity, Armley gallows (drop on the last chime).
Nuttall’s later career saw further publications and exhibitions at venues including Halifax’s Dean Clough and London’s Angela Flowers Gallery – he also reached a wider public in diverse screen-acting roles, including ITV’s Minder and Inspector Morse, the James Bond film The World is not Enough and 1991’s Robin Hood (as Friar Tuck). He died in 2004, aged 70, in Abergavenny, where he had been living, on his way back from the pub after playing a jazz concert with his band. With such wide-ranging interests, he was always reluctant to be categorised; the poet Michael Horovitz paid tribute to Jeff Nuttall in his obituary as “a catalyst, perpetrator and champion of rebellion and experiment in the arts and society.”
There is currently a retrospective exhibition, Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground, concentrating on his counter-cultural connections in the 1960s, at the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library, which runs until March 2017.